1/20/11

Aaron Sorkin Q&A at the BFI

Tonight (Jan 20) I went to see Aaron Sorkin speaking at the BFI about his screenplay for The Social Network. The film screened before Sorkin came on stage to be interviewed by Francine Stock and take questions from the audience. I scribbled some very rough notes from the 45 minute presentation, which went something like this:

The screenplay was based on 14pp book proposal. Random House wanted to release the movie and book and the same time so producer Scott Rudin hired Sorkin to write the script before the book had been finished – 'simultaneous development' was the term. Sorkin based his screenplay on three sources: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's original blogs (the 'Erica Albright' character is a real person but with the name changed); legal documents from the lawsuits which Sorkin went through with two lawyers; and interviews conducted on the basis of strict anonymity. Sorkin noted that the fact that they knew that Zuckerberg was drinking beer and which brand on the night he coded Facemash – there were were only four other people present at the time – indicates the accuracy of their sources.

Sorkin enjoyed the contradictions of two lawsuits and three conflicting versions of the truth because he likes courtroom drama and Rashomon. He researched facts and invented the characters' motivations. He was interested in the world of clever, angry young men who view women as either prizes or enemies, describing the protagonists' psyche as 'middle school.'

Talked a lot about the first scene of the movie. Sorkin loved that it's a scene you have to 'lean in to listen to... If you don't land the audience with the first scene there's no point in writing the scenes that follow.' Sorkin wanted to treat the audience as being as intelligent as the filmmakers, and not talk down to them. His pairing with director David Fincher was 'counter-intuitive' as Fincher is visual and Sorkin writes 'people talking in rooms' but Fincher understood that this film was a 'story told through language' and the multiple takes of scenes were so the actors could talk faster and 'casualise' the dialogue. Sorkin credited Sony and Fincher with understanding this dense first scene. Fincher filmed Sorkin's 'scenes of typing as if they were bank robberies.'

First draft was the shooting script. Fincher came on board on the condition that the script wasn't 'noted to death.' The real-life Eduardo Saverin went to ground during production and could not be contacted by anyone because his legal settlement was on condition of non-disclosure. Sorkin guessed that Saverin was paid hundreds of millions plus stock and would have lost it all if he broke the agreement. Eduardo did see the finished film at a specially arranged private screening at Sony's NY preview theater. Sorkin joked that when Eduardo emerged from the screening you probably could have performed surgery on him without anaesthetic.

The Winklevoss twins have seen the movie many times. (Laughter from the audience.) Zuckerberg closed the Facebook office for the day and bought out a theater so all the staff could see the movie; Sorkin credited Zuckerberg with being 'a good sport' about it.

Sorkin's research assistant is a UCLA computer researcher and helped him with the tech speak. Sorkin said hacking scenes and intern-off are two scenes he doesn't understand it all: he wrote it based on notes and many other people checked it. 'I had no idea what I was writing.'

In the early stages of development producer Scott Rudin made 'an aggressive attempt' to get Zuckerberg to participate but Zuckerberg declined. Sorkin was relieved when Zuckerberg passed because he didn't want the movie to be 'a Facebook production' or 'an infomercial.' 'Once you meet a person it's difficult to be anything but nice to them.' Sorkin was not out to 'get' Zuckerberg; he portrayed him as an antihero and identified with the fictionalised character as an outsider.

Sorkin said that although nothing ever goes right in showbiz, this project did. Scott Rudin is a great producer because he's nice to people. He gave Sorkin no instructions except to 'write the movie you want to write.' Sorkin did months of research, thinking. He drives around when he doesn't have an idea. Finally hooked on the idea of Zuckerberg's blog post as the start of the movie, flicking back and forth between the character's desire for revenge and the glamorous party to which he would never gain admittance. Wrote first 18-20pp scene in a day or two and sent the pages to Rudin; Rudin said you've got it. Finished the screenplay on a Wednesday (160pp odd, he and Fincher timed it with a stopwatch to reassure Sony that it would come in at two hours); sent it to Sony on a Thursday who then forwarded it to the only director they wanted, which was Fincher.

Sorkin said writing is always a compromise between the author's personal view and fidelity to the characters. He also said he was very aware that he was writing about young people who were already suing each other. Joked that 'if your moral compass is broken there's always Sony's legal department,' which went over every inch of the screenplay. Sorkin said that had he written anything that was both untrue and defamatory 'then Zuckerberg would own Sony by now.'

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Sorkin has already spoken about writing the film. Earlier I wrote about the movie and about Sorkin's early TV series Sports Night.

4 comments:

Stephen Stratford said...

That's really valuable reporting, so thanks. It's great stuff that I can use when advising fiction writers on their first drafts. Aaron Sorkin may be a film writer but "If you don't land the audience with the first scene there's no point in writing the scenes that follow" is gold. Obvious, but possibly carries more weight from him than from me.

Chad Taylor said...

You're welcome - it was one of those evenings you have to pass on.

The trouble with writing that first scene is that you might not find it until draft three or five or even ten. It's the jack knife: the pivot. Everything leads up to it and everything follows from it. But if you try and produce it cold, you'll produce a cliché. You have to write the story, then kind of fold it in half...

Googley said...

Wow, you lucky thang being in the same space as Sorkin! He’s on to it. If a book or film doesn’t grab me within 60 seconds, I’m outta there. I just can’t read or watch it, and simply won’t. I LOVED The Social Network. The Winklevii (aka the singular Armie Hammer) were too cute. Mebbe that’s why the real twins saw it multiple times! Thanks for sharin', Chad.

Chad Taylor said...

Hi Googley - I was way in the back row so barely in the same space, but yes - it was great to hear him talk. And the movie holds up after multiple viewings - TV writing is the new movie writing, I think.