After a particularly virtuosic stretch of dialogue during the Telluride Film Festival premiere of "Steve Jobs" in September, an audience member cried out, as if at a rock concert, "Sorkin!"
That a screenwriter, traditionally the most trod upon, anonymous player in the film business, got catcalled like a pop star at the prestigious industry event speaks volumes about the singular career of Aaron Sorkin, the writer of the highly anticipated new film. Sorkin, who had been nervously pacing in the lobby outside the theater moments before, heard the voice and was moved by it — screen dialogue is how he prefers to speak to other people.
"I've often felt like I would be best off if I were in a room by myself and I would write some pages and slip them under the door and somebody would slip back a tray of food," Sorkin said, during a recent interview. "If people could know me for what I write and not this — what we're doing now — I would be better off."
"Steve Jobs," which Sorkin adapted loosely from Walter Isaacson's biography of the Apple co-founder and which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, reveals a man who soars in his profession and struggles in his relationships, a paradigm not unfamiliar to Sorkin. The movie has familiar Sorkinisms — rapid, brainy dialogue, a ticking clock, behind-the-scenes maneuverings — but is the writer's most structurally daring film script.
Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") and starring Michael Fassbender as Jobs, the movie uses three key product launches in Jobs' career as a clothesline upon which to hang his messy human connections, including those with Apple marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), company co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and, most crucially, Jobs' eldest daughter, Lisa, who is played at three ages by three different actresses.
Long before its release, the movie has stirred up controversy and name-calling. Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, tried to block the film's production, and Apple CEO Tim Cook described its makers as "opportunistic" in a recent appearance on "The Late Show." Sorkin said he feels he has made a movie that is empathetic to the technology groundbreaker, and he relates personally to some of Jobs' failings.
"As a writer, you can't judge the character," Sorkin said, of his view of Jobs. "You have to be able to find something about them that you can identify with, that's like you. I think Steve believed deep down that he was flawed and damaged, unworthy of being loved or liked. But he was able to make these products that were not only successful and groundbreaking, but people loved them." (Sorkin himself is an iPhone user).
Sorkin's signature characters are smart, often-arrogant fast talkers who are driven to excellence, like Jesse Eisenberg's brazen Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," Brad Pitt's edgy baseball General Manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball," the idealized liberal White House staffers in the "The West Wing" and the sermonizing journalists in HBO's "The Newsroom."
Sorkin's own quick tongue occasionally gets him into trouble, as when he took umbrage at Cook's "opportunistic" comment. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, Sorkin fired back, "If you've got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour, you've got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic."
Asked about the inflammatory comment days later, Sorkin said he regretted it. "After sleeping on it, what I failed to remember at the time I said what I said is that Steve Jobs was a very close friend of Tim Cook and he died and of course he's going to be protective," Sorkin said.
But he added: "I still think it was wrong to judge the movie without seeing it. I don't think we're opportunistic… I hope he accepts my apology."
Though he writes about people who have all the answers, Sorkin himself often displays a bemused curiosity. "Sinless Benedict?" he asked, examining a health conscious L.A. restaurant menu. "It just feels like if you order off of any other part of the menu, you're dirty." Tanned, with his hair neatly combed for a photo shoot, he wondered, "It's not too Mitt Romney, is it? You know, too perfect?"
The 54-year-old writer, who had a well-publicized drug problem in his 30s, said he leads a quieter life today, including sacrosanct family dinners with his 14-year-old daughter and ex-wife, who live less than a mile away from him in the Hollywood Hills. His guilty pleasures today are cigarettes, cheeseburgers and the '70s pop rock duo Loggins and Messina. "My tastes in most things like food and music stopped maturing the moment I graduated from college," he said.
Despite having won an Academy Award for writing the definitive movie about Facebook, he doesn't use social media, feeling it encourages cruelty and the creation of phony, perfect online personae.
"First of all, I don't think I could clear my throat in 140 characters," Sorkin said, explaining why he's not on Twitter. "If you have an hour once a week on television when you're asking for the audience's attention, or if you have a movie out every couple of years, the least you can do the other six days a week is shut up."
Born in New York, the son of an intellectual property attorney and a public school teacher, with two siblings who grew up to be attorneys, Sorkin developed his love of clever, rapid-fire dialogue around his childhood dinner table.
"Everyone in my family is smarter than I am," Sorkin said. "At our dinner table anyone who used one word when they could have used 10 just wasn't trying hard enough. There were arguments that I just liked to listen to. I really like the sound of smart people talking. I'm always writing about people who are smarter than I am and kind of phonetically re-creating the sound of smart people. I always assume the audience is smarter than I am too."
Sorkin gives the audience credit for being able to pick up a story midstream in "Steve Jobs," which he wrote while on hiatus from "The Newsroom." He interviewed key figures in Jobs' life, including some who hadn't participated in Isaacson's book, like Lisa Brennan-Jobs and John Sculley. The unusual structure was inspired by a story that Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Macintosh team played in the film by Michael Stuhlbarg, told Sorkin about how at the 1984 Mac launch they couldn't get the computer to say hello.
Sorkin assumed Sony, the studio that originally planned to make "Steve Jobs" before the film landed at its current home, Universal, would balk at his unconventional plan for the script.
"I felt like what the studio was expecting was a biopic," Sorkin said. "We're going to want to see a little boy and his father looking in the window of an electronics shop. We're going to want to see him say to Woz, 'Hey, let's work out of my garage.' That kind of thing. This very play-like structure that rewards patience wouldn't be something that would be appealing as a commercial prospect."
Sony's then-studio chief Amy Pascal embraced Sorkin's idea, but the deal fell apart over budget and other disputes that came to light in a series of emails made public when the studio was hacked last year. It was quickly set up at Universal.
The Sony hack — and the decision of news outlets to publish those emails — is one topic that fires up Sorkin like one of his impassioned TV characters.
"I couldn't believe journalists would help out extortionists and publish all that private stuff," Sorkin said. "I'm passionate about it because I think we're choking ourselves to death on gossip. We're being fed a lot of entertainment based on somebody else falling down. That's not something we should enjoy or teach our children to enjoy."
Among the widely published emails was one in which Sorkin advocated for a name star to play Jobs, and indicated that Fassbender was not famous enough. Asked about his cast today, Sorkin said, "My goal is always to be the least talented person on a movie. On 'Steve Jobs,' mission accomplished."
Screenwriters are often banished from casting and pre-production decisions, but Sorkin participated in auditions Boyle held for the film, the director said.
"He loved reading the part of Jobs," Boyle said. "There's a bit of an actor in him. He's got a reputation that he's a bit Jobsian, end-to-end control. He's not like that at all. He'll do anything for you."
"One of the technical problems of doing films about these types of people is, how do you represent how clever they are?" Boyle said. "Do you constantly show them doing algorithms? No, you do it through language. The elegance, the speed of thought — it's exhilarating. It has an energy and a dynamism. You get the sense of the restlessness of [Jobs'] mind through Sorkin's language."
Sorkin remains on very good terms with Pascal, now a producer at Sony who will make his next script, "Molly's Game," an adaptation of Molly Bloom's 2014 memoir about a high-stakes underground poker game. He just turned in a 201-page script for "Molly's Game," which he said focuses on Bloom's heroic decision to protect the privacy of the public figures in her poker game, despite pressure from prosecutors.
"She was unwilling to spill any of it, even though it meant she might have to go to jail and even though it meant she would be broke and in debt," Sorkin said. "In this day and age, to me that's John Wayne."
He's also in talks to write a Lucille Ball biopic starring Cate Blanchett, though he said the deal has not closed.
Sorkin said he struggles with feelings of unease in almost all situations but one — when he's with his daughter, Roxy.
"I was brought up believing that there's something fundamentally wrong with me, that I'm not a good guy, that I'm in trouble," Sorkin said. "A big disappointment of adulthood is that just knowing the answer of why that happened doesn't turn a big switch inside you and make you feel different. So as a result, I live with a lot of anxiety.
"I always feel like I'm doing something wrong, like I'm not where I'm supposed to be, except for any time I'm with my daughter, everything feels right. I feel like I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. Whether we're doing homework together or whether she's just asleep under the same roof, the rest of it goes away.... I'm just able to make a better version of me on paper than the one that exists."