Aaron Sorkin talks ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and disavowing the white savior role
Interior. Restaurant at a Beverly Hills hotel, early March. Music spritzing luxuriously in the background. A publicist finishes her breakfast. In walks a frazzled middle-aged theater critic. Publicist retrieves him. The two exchange pleasantries, then dive into the reason for this interview: Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which has become one of the biggest hits of the Broadway season. (Note: The production, directed by Bartlett Sher, will go on to receive nine Tony nominations, though the script by Sorkin will be overlooked in the best play category, a sign perhaps of just how politically volatile it was for him to undertake this adaptation.)
Just as Critic glances at his watch, Sorkin, Oscar-winning screenwriter (“The Social Network”) and Emmy-winning TV writer (“The West Wing”), darts into the room. Preppy, bespectacled and wearing a worried smile, he resembles every brainy undergraduate’s favorite American studies professor. He apologizes for being a few seconds late, explaining that he had been waiting at the other end of the restaurant. Publicist makes herself scarce while Sorkin, hearing that the theater critic strained his back, recommends a Beverly Hills surgeon, if it should come to that. Critic turns white. Sorkin orders tea, Critic pleads for more coffee. Voice recorder and iPhone Voice Memos are checked and neurotically rechecked. Critic shifts his posture, winces. Sorkin leans forward, ready to play ball.
(Close-up on Critic, whose flailing conversational manner, edited here out of necessity, is paradoxically alarming and disarming.)
Critic: There was so much controversy surrounding this production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” before it had even reached the stage. You had to deal with Harper Lee’s controlling estate and the legal turmoil that ensued. You had to deal with the criticism of a white man adapting a classic by a female author that deals with racially charged material. What was the bigger challenge, grappling with the art of adaptation or gearing up for these battles?
(Close-up on Sorkin, whose intent look should suggest a weekend tennis player getting used to the weird spin of his opponent’s shots.)
Sorkin: It wasn’t so much the art of adaptation. It was playwriting. My first draft wasn’t any good at all. I was just concerned with how not to ruin “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I took all the scenes you needed to tell the story and stood them up and had people talk to each other. It was like a greatest hits album performed by a cover band. The best thing you could say about it was that it was harmless — which is probably the worst thing you could say about “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Critic: How did you free yourself to make the work your own?
Sorkin: I sat down and talked to [“Mockingbird” producer] Scott Rudin about it. He gave me a note that changed everything. He said, “Look, Atticus can’t be Atticus from the beginning of the play to the end. He has to become Atticus.” And to do that, I just had to look at the whole thing in a whole different way.
(Critic, ruminating about the character while Sorkin speaks, recalls how vastly different Jeff Daniels’ Atticus is from Gregory Peck’s in the film. If he’s a hero, he’s a shambling, fallible, tentative hero, whose faith in the essential goodness of his neighbors blinds him to the intransigent racial hatred lodged in their hearts.)
Sorkin: Atticus is Atticus from the beginning of the book till the end of the book. He’s Atticus from the beginning of the movie until the end of the movie. And that’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist of the book or movie. Scout is. She’s the one who changes. Her flaw, which a protagonist has to have, is that she’s young. She loses some of her innocence. But in the play, I wanted Atticus to be the central protagonist, which means he needed a flaw, which means he has to be this and become that. So I wrestled with that. As far as racial issues, all I had to do is not pretend that I was writing the play 50 or 60 years ago. I had to not attempt a Harper Lee impersonation.
Critic: Did you take a close look at existing adaptations?
Sorkin: Here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t read the Christopher Sergel adaptation. I didn’t read [Lee’s controversially published early draft of “Mockingbird”] “Go Set a Watchman,” because I had a hunch that people would say I tried to put some of that Atticus into this Atticus. I wanted to be able to hook up a polygraph and say that I didn’t read “Go Set a Watchman.” And since Christopher Sergel and I were both adapting the same book, there was a reasonable chance I would write a scene similar to what he had written and I wanted to be able to say the same thing about his adaptation. The movie — well, it was too late. I had seen it 100 times already, but I didn’t watch it again because I didn’t want to be overly influenced.
Critic: Headlines were made earlier this year when theater companies that had plans to produce Sergel’s “Mockingbird” were threatened with legal action if they went forward. The rights of the Broadway version were being protected. Scott Rudin came up with a compromise that offered those companies the option of presenting your adaptation. Are you comfortable with how this played out?
Sorkin: When I was in high school, I was very active in the local community theater and high school drama club. I was the guy whose job it was to get the rights for whatever show it was we were doing. I have a place in my heart for community theater and schools doing plays. I hope a lot of them do “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but those rights aren’t available yet. As for the Broadway production, there are investors that are royalty participants. Scott has a fiduciary obligation to protect those people. We came up with what we thought was a pretty good solution, and hopefully everybody will be happy with it.
Critic: The literary world of “Mockingbird” is so specific: Alabama, in the 1930s. Have you ever set anything in this milieu before?
Sorkin: This was my first time writing about the Jim Crow South.
Critic: Did you, a nice Jewish boy who grew up in Scarsdale, feel like an outsider?
Sorkin: I felt like there was a big assist coming from Harper Lee. She takes you into that world so beautifully in the novel that it gets into your bloodstream.
Critic: But was the language foreign?
Sorkin: Let me take a circuitous route to answer your question. The making of “Porgy and Bess” is a fantastic story. George Gershwin for years was carrying around a dog-eared copy of the novel [“Porgy”] by DuBose Heyward, who wrote it in a Catfish Row brogue. George Gershwin wondered why this was appealing to him, and then he realized, “Oh, they’re speaking in jazz.” So Harper Lee and I couldn’t be more different. But I noticed she was writing in a style I recognized — long musical sentences, very little punctuation. I would say a sentence of hers out loud, a line of dialogue. And then I would add a word or three words at the end. And then I’d change a couple of words in the middle. And before long it was my language with her music. I was very comfortable with it because it felt a lot like how I write.
Critic: I remember being a little confused walking into the Shubert Theatre to review the play. The marquee touted both Harper Lee’s novel and a new play by Aaron Sorkin. Sort of a double reality.
Sorkin: Probably something people understand better when they leave the theater than when they walk in. I’m very proud to be sharing a marquee with Harper Lee.
Critic: When I interviewed Tony Kushner last year, I asked how he responds to those who find it objectionable that he’s writing a new screenplay for “West Side Story.” He reminded me that the team that originally created the musical was a bunch of white Jewish guys, and that though half the characters are Puerto Rican, the other half are white. He also said that he’d be getting input from actors and other members of the company who would be extending his cultural knowledge.
Sorkin: Well, first, let me say the idea that Tony Kushner can’t adapt “West Side Story” because he’s not from Puerto Rico is patently nuts.
Critic: But did you similarly rely on actors to fill in gaps in your own experience?
Sorkin: I spent a lot of time in a sub-basement rehearsal room with the cast, so there were all kinds of opportunity for feedback. It’s not so much an actor coming to you and saying I have a problem with this. It doesn’t really work that way. It’s more [director] Bart Sher and Scott [Rudin] and I looking at what we’re seeing, huddling up. I then go back to my hotel room, do some work and hopefully it gets better.
Critic: I was wondering about the character of Calpurnia, the African American maid who works for Atticus. She’s much more empowered in your version. I assumed the actress playing the role, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who was so great in the last Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” was part of the evolution.
Sorkin: LaTanya and I did have a number of conversations, because this is a new Calpurnia. As I said, I couldn’t pretend that I was writing the play in 1960. I had to be writing it now. In a novel about racial tensions in the Jim Crow South, there are only two significant African American characters, Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, the defendant [in the rape trial]. Neither of whom has anything to say on the matter. Calpurnia is mostly concerned with whether Scout is going to wear overalls or a dress to school, and Tom pleads for his life. Given the new focus on the questions I wanted Atticus to wrestle with, Calpurnia was a logical antagonist. LaTanya, who is very brilliant, and I would talk for a while. The same with Gbenga Akinnagbe, who plays Tom. But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t using the African American actors as experts in blackness. They are there as professional actors to do a job, and that is their value in the room.
Critic: How does the dynamic between Atticus and Calpurnia inform your vision of the play?
Sorkin: I realized something about my favorite scene in the movie and in the book. It was my father’s favorite scene, a lot of people’s favorite scene. At the end of the trial, Atticus is putting his stuff back in his briefcase. The courtroom has cleared out except for the people in what they call “the colored section.” Everyone has stood up silently. Reverend Sykes says to Scout, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” I would always choke up at that scene. While working on the play, I decided to ask myself why that’s my favorite scene. Good movie scene, for sure. But I didn’t like the answer to my question, because those people in the colored section, they’re not burning the courthouse down. They’re not out in the streets rioting. They’re not chanting, “No justice, no peace.” They’re standing docile, silent. In movie terms, they’re literally extras. In gratitude to the white savior. That really is a white savior moment. And it’s a liberal fantasy that marginalized people will recognize me. That I’m one of the good ones. Not only isn’t it a moment I wanted to have in the play but I turned it upside down. Calpurnia’s passive-aggressive run starts when Atticus says “you’re welcome” under his breath after he didn’t get a sufficient reaction from Calpurnia when he said he was going to be defending Tom Robinson. So instead of getting the gratitude he expects, he gets called on it by Calpurnia.
Critic: Did the estate object to any of these changes?
Sorkin: When we talk about the estate, we’re talking about one person, a woman named Tonja Carter, who is the executor. She got a very early copy of the script, and one of the things that concerned her was the newly aggressive role that Calpurnia plays. She was concerned that a typical black maid in the South wouldn’t talk to her employer in this way, as though there’s such a thing as a typical black maid. She said Calpurnia isn’t a civil rights activist, things like that. Those were off the table in terms of what I was willing to talk about.
The things that ended up changing as a result of the lawsuit were nothing really. At one point Atticus said “goddamnit” and she didn’t want Atticus to take the Lord’s name in vain. I was OK with that. After the trial, which he loses, I had him having a drink and she didn’t want that. Her position was clear and it’s the position of the book — that Atticus is carved out of marble and shouldn’t be touched. Frankly, I don’t think having a drink after you’ve lost a trial or saying “goddamnit” really tarnishes the marble that much. She did. The third note was when Atticus finds out that Tom has been moved to the local jail and that word has gotten out that Bob Ewell and his gang are going there to lynch him. I had Atticus opening up a hall closet, taking out a shotgun and thinking for a second before putting it back. Calpurnia says that he better take it, but he doesn’t. Tonja Carter said Atticus would never have a rifle in the house. I have a problem with people talking about what a fictional character would or wouldn’t ever do. Anyway, changing those things was the price I had to pay for admission to do the play.
Critic: Doesn’t sound like it was anything too compromising.
Sorkin: If she had said I had to return Tom Robinson and Calpurnia to what they are in the book, it would have been different.
(Zoom out as Critic asks how our divisive political environment has affected the cultural reception of this new “Mockingbird.” Sorkin, squinting at the hazy question, says he could write a 5,000 word essay on the subject. Amid the faint clatter of restaurant noise, he suggests taking a look at the comments section on the far-right Breitbart website as a way of understanding the ideological fury in America. Zoom in as he talks about how gratifying it is to stand in the back of the Shubert and see three different generations of diverse theatergoers opening themselves up to a new version of this quintessential American story.)
Critic: (Perspiring yet persistent) There was a small social media earthquake after an interview you did before the production opened in which you announced that Atticus was the protagonist of your adaptation. Many were upset because “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a classic written by a woman and Scout is undeniably the central consciousness of the book.
Sorkin: I’m not on social media, so I didn’t experience that earthquake. What I have experience of is an epidemic of people having a big reaction before they’ve seen something. Never has Scout had such a large role in what’s going on. Never has she had so much to say or been such a part of the entire story, which is organized around something that doesn’t exist in the book. Scout is trying to sort out the loose ends of what happened to Bob Ewell the night he died. She’s coming to grips with the truth.
Critic: I should add that a few of those people who were initially up in arms praised the show on Facebook after seeing it.
Sorkin: Great to be able to change someone’s mind. I know a lot of people were concerned when they heard that adults were cast as the kids. It began as a practical necessity. Kids just weren’t going to be able to play these parts. Scout, Jem and Dill have more language than they’ve ever had. We cast the right actors in Celia [Keenan-Bolger], Will [Pullen] and Gideon [Glick]. I owe them my life. Celia does some kind of magic trick, some little adjustment with her posture and her voice that gets her back and forth between the girl Scout was and the woman she became. It’s beautiful to see.
(Publicist gives the signal that time is nearly up. Critic panics. So many non-“Mockingbird” questions he’d like to ask. He tosses one out wildly.)
Critic: You’ve dealt with the president as a dramatic character on “The West Wing.” I can’t help wondering what you make of Donald Trump’s character.
Sorkin: I understand his character as not being complicated at all. Ordinarily with an antihero there are layers. Donald Trump has no layers. You would never have that character even in the craziest of White House worlds, and it’s not because he is unbelievable. It’s that the viewer has to feel that it’s the world we understand. We couldn’t understand a world in which people would elect that guy as president. And that’s how I’d bring it back to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s why with Atticus I was so eager to write this guy who doesn’t believe that his friends and neighbors are going to allow their bigotry to extend as far as sending an innocent man to jail. I think a lot of us on both sides, those who voted for Trump and those who voted for Hillary Clinton, were saying after 2016, “I have no idea who my friends and neighbors are.” I wanted to put Atticus through that.
Critic: One last question: If you were to write a sequel to “The Social Network,” what’s the new Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook story?
Sorkin: It would be how Mark and company were unable to anticipate that this thing could become a platform for bad actors. And then having discovered that, not doing anything about it. It would be about how Facebook helped damage democracy.
Critic: I hope you write that film. Thank you for the interview.
(The two get up from their seats, Critic rather gingerly.)
Sorkin: Take care of that back. And if you need to follow up with anything, I’m better on email.
Critic: Me too. Must be nice to have a smash on Broadway.
Sorkin: No, it’s terrible. I hate it! (Grinning) It’s one of the best times I’ve ever had in show business.
(Fade to black.)
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