Alas, 20 minutes could not cover it all with Hollywood’s most bankable and marketable writer. This was perhaps the fastest interview of my life.
The writer behind the new movie “Steve Jobs” was available on Wednesday morning at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Dallas, and I am only sorry it was not longer.
Mac Engel: I know this is your first interview here at the hotel so it’s my challenge to ask you something you have not been asked.
Aaron Sorkin: Knock yourself out.
ME: When you sat down to put such a big life into a two-hour window, how did you decide to center the film around product launches?
AS: The first thing to do was make the decision not to put this man’s life into a two-hour window. I thought there was no chance I could do it justice. Before I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I didn’t want to do and that was to write a bio pic’; a cradle-to-grave story where you land on the characters’ greatest hits along the way. Sort of a dramatization of a Wikipedia page.
(Biographer) Walter (Isaacson) had done such a great job and such a comprehensive job, as you pointed out, he was given total access by Steve. (The book) wasn’t authorized, it was requested. And in fact the first time that Steve and Laurene Jobs went to Walter, Walter turned them down. And said it’s too early; let’s wait 10 to 15 years until you’ve retired from Apple.
But Walter didn’t understand at the time the extent of the diagnoses (of Jobs’ terminal illness). They came back and explained it to him and Walter said OK. Steve opened the vault, called all of his friends and gave him all of his time, including time on his death bed. That is a comprehensive look at a man’s life. That was not something that could be accomplished in a two-hour movie, or something that I wanted to do. I thought that was best left to journalism – a sort of, just-the-facts ma’am approach. But that doesn’t mean I knew what I did want to do.
While doing research, which involved speaking to all of the people Walter spoke to and certainly everyone who appears as a character in the movie, with the obvious exception of Steve who had passed away. And then a few dozen others who don’t.
I ran across a piece of not terribly important information at all, which was during rehearsals for the 1984 launch of the Mac they could not get the Mac to say ‘Hello.’ And it was really important to Steve that the Mac say ‘Hello,’ for a host of reasons.
That got me sort of thinking about back stage before the product launches. I have playwright’s mentality – I kind of fake my way through movies and television. And I like claustrophobic spaces. I like condensed periods of time, especially when there is a ticking clock. I like being behind the scenes, in this case these beautiful palaces in San Francisco, the San Francisco Opera House, and at Flint Auditorium in Cupertino. And I thought, I’ve been doing all of this research, I have been discovering all of this friction between Steve and (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak), and Steve and Joanna Hoffman and Steve and John Sculley, and most particularly Steve and his eldest daughter, Lisa.
Lisa, by the way, did not participate in Walter’s book because her father was alive at the time. She did not want to go on the record. She was willing to talk to me. John Sculley same thing. He had not spoken to much of anyone since he left Apple, and it just hit him like a torpedo. He kind of went into hiding in Florida, but came out to speak to me. And I thought, ‘What if I select the most interesting points of friction and dramatize them?’ The entire movie is three scenes, and each scene takes place in real time. And each scene takes place backstage in the moments leading up to a product launch. While they are trying to get a computer to say hello in the first act, Steve also has to do deal with these other things that are coming at him, some of them are personal and some of them are professional. And some of them very personal, by Lisa.
If I could just keep that up for two more acts than this might be a Steve Jobs movie we have not seen before.
ME: Did you ever have the chance to meet him?
AS: No, I never met him. I spoke to him on the phone three times. He called me out of the blue three times, obviously nothing having to do with this. He called me once just to compliment me on an episode of “The West Wing” he had seen the night before. It was amazing. The next time he called it was to invite me to tour the Pixar facility in the hope that I would write a Pixar movie. The third time was for my help on his Stanford commencement speech.
ME: Was he a social misfit?
AS: On the phone, no. He was affable and a terribly nice guy. Just the gesture to begin with that he was calling a stranger to say, ‘Hey, I liked what you did,’ was pretty nice.
ME: That had to blow you away.
AS: It really did. I could only tell him back, ‘I wrote it on a Mac.’ That episode on a Mac.
ME: Is all of the technology he envisioned and created good for our society?
AS: (long pause) I’m glad you asked. I think I have been misunderstood on this subject a couple of times. There is a fictional version of me that lives on the Internet, and that is a technophobe who does not like these new fangled gadgets. Technological advancements we have made have been great. I get a lot of use out of technology. Everything I have written I have written on a Mac, and I have an iPhone in my pocket. I don’t listen to music on my phone – I listen to it on my iPod because I really like that clicking wheel.
Like anything, it’s user sensitive. And so I find these things, and I am not the first person to say this, things that were supposed to bring us closer to together have done just the opposite. Particularly about social media – I have a 14-year-old daughter, and she and her friends are all over Instagram. I find they are curating their own lives. They are putting up a photograph of themselves at a party with the cool kids. They will post a photograph of themselves looking too grown up for my taste. They will post a witty quip. They are sending their reprentative out to meet people. They are sending out their dating profile to meet people, instead of honest to God contact.
They text with each other at night in this silly middle school abbreviation language, now that includes emojis. What’s the big deal about that? The big deal is a whole generation is growing up with a much more muted sense of empathy.
I thought Louis CK put it really well when he was on an appearance with David Letterman before he went off the air, and he has kids roughly around the same age as my kids. He said, when you are a kid, Louis CK, when we were kids you were on the playground you are going to test out what it feels like to mean. Just like you are going to say the word f--- for the first time. Just to see what it feels like. You might even say it in front of your parents to see if you can get away with that. But on a playground you are going to mean to a kid – you are going to say you are ugly, you are stupid or you’re bad at sports, or whatever. And you are going to be able to see what it just did to that kid. You are going to see their eyes well up and the shame and the horror and the pain that you just caused them. And it’s going to make you feel terrible; it’s going to make you feel worse than you just made them feel and you are not going to do it again.
If you are doing it from behind an Internet handle from the privacy of your own room, you are not going to gain that sense of empathy. I believe that nothing has made us nationally dumber or meaner than the anonymity of the Internet – this thing that was supposed to do exactly the opposite. It is not the fault of the technology, it is the fault of the users.
ME: Any comparisons or parallels between Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg?
AS: Yes, other than I have a vision and I don’t care that you can see it and I’ll get you to see it, something I can identify with. I’ll come up with an idea for a movie that is vivid and it works. But I’m not very good at pitching. I’m not very good at getting you to understand what is in my head.
ME: Are you a bad salesman of your own product?
AS: Yeah. I just finished writing a screenplay, so we are in the process of finding the right director, casting and the whole pre-production process. I keep reminding the producers and the studio that a year ago when I talked to them about this, they were not interested at all. They were humoring me. They wanted to be in business with me. I have a good track record. They are not going to laugh me out of the room. And they bought the pitch as a courtesy.
ME: Without being arrogant, because you are Aaron Sorkin?
AS: I don’t want to put it that way, but yeah. They did it as a courtesy because I had just done two successful movies with them – “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” and “Steve Jobs” was well on its way to being the third. It was a courtesy. Every time I pitched this story it sounded terrible. It sounded like a movie of the week – very light, very thin and very silly. It’s not what I had in mind at all. I simply stopped pitching the movie and just started writing it. I thought if I could get it on paper this will be the best version of me here. Now – read it and everybody got it.
Back to your question – the tie-in being that a lot of people didn’t get what Mark was doing, and a lot of people didn’t get why Steve was the way he was; why it was important to him that a rectangle have rounded corners. Why it was important to him that the computers say hello. And it was because Steve wanted to create an emotional connection between the owner and the product. He didn’t just want it to be useful, he wanted us to life this stuff.
To like holding it, to looking at it, to having it on our desk. There was a cultive personality around it – you remember the ‘I’m a Mac, I’m a PC’ ads? That was all about which one of these two guys that you want to be.
ME: Was Steve an incompatible guy; there is humor in the movie about that that the Mac is compatible with nothing. Was that Steve?
AS: What it was a reflection of, or what I was saying in the movie, my hypothesis, was the end to end control was the result of his unusual adoption history. I was concerned when I was writing the movie, I didn’t want to write a movie that said, ‘If you are a adopted count on being messed up. You have PTSD and you just don’t know it. A grenade is going to go off and you are going to go wild.’ That’s not the case at all.
ME: The Aaron Sorkin script is unique; as a creative guy, do you aspire to write differently. Like, U2 made the album ‘Pop’ which doesn’t sound like the ‘Joshua Tree.’ Do you aspire to go in a different direction ever from what we all know?
AS: Whether it’s a drawback or not, there is not much I can do about it. I write the way I write. I don’t know how any other way. I know exactly what you are saying. I do wish sometimes that .. how do I say this just right? I wish that my writing style could get out of the way of what I had written. I think that they are locked together.
I think that some people, first of all, my writing style is not everyone’s cup of tea. So there’s that. But of course that is to be expected. You are not going to get a unanimous response to anything. To some people it’s seen as grandstanding, as kind of show-offy a little bit, and that might be true.
I can’t remember who said it, ‘They write for the same reason anybody does anything – to get girls.’
ME: And it never works.
AS: Right, and it never works. I’m afraid not. This is as close as I can come to catching a winning pass in the Super Bowl, is writing a good scene.
ME: You are OK when people say, ‘An Aaron Sorkin script is – sharp, cutting, bang, bang, bang’ that they are the same?
AS: I am more than OK with it. I am pleased that over the years I have developed my own voice. I think that writers get better as they get older and I look forward to that voice maturing. There are other writers who are heroes of mine, like David Mamet. He too has a very recognizable writing style. Even if I am riding on the back of the bus, if I am on the same bus as David Mamet I couldn’t be happier.
ME: Would Steve Jobs have liked this movie?
AS: I have been asked that question a number of times, and I honestly think that, and I hope that this does not infuriate Mrs. Jobs or Steve’s children, I honestly think this – if the movie were about someone else he would like it. If he saw this movie and it’s about him, how could you possibly like a movie about yourself that is a painting and not a photograph? But the same movie about Bill Gates? I think that he would have appreciated the think-differentness of it.
ME: The standard journalism question they teach you in journalism school that I never ask is, ‘Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want to add?’
AS: Gee .. first of all, I want to tell you that I enjoyed the interview very much and, no, I can’t think of anything.