Aaron Sorkin finds tragedy in the creation of Facebook and makes The Social Network an era-defining film.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Aaron Sorkin is as potato chip-addictive an interviewee as he is a writer. Yet when asked if he is like Mark Zuckerberg, the socially tin-eared but brilliant Facebook founder he portrays in his script for the new David Fincher-directed pic The Social Network, he bristles uncharacteristically just a bit. What could the award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and West Wing creator have in common with a 26 year-old computer programming billionaire?
More than you think, which might be one of the reasons Sorkin’s script – taut even at 162 pages – could be one of the best of 2010.
Sorkin admits he had a painful sense of intellectual inferiority early in life that was eased when he found the power of his obsessively smart, fast-forward writing style. The Zuckerberg of Network, which is based both on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires and Sorkin’s own extensive research, is a computer coder with a nearly Asperger’s-like case of social impotence that drives him to create an addictive online social platform where people control how they present themselves to others and he, as creator, is finally king of the school.
Sorkin points out that the key difference between his depiction of Zuckerberg and himself is that Zuckerberg’s insecurities turned into anger while Sorkin’s became script pages. Indeed Sorkin’s Zuckerberg is a tragic character empowered largely by an implied vengefulness, but whatever the fuel, the result is a creative outpouring – a vision that speaks to millions.
Even Sorkin would admit that if his dialogue were computer code, it would create a giant, habit-forming, global computer program.
In an in-depth interview with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, he spoke about his controversial depiction of Zuckerberg – played with a maniacal monotone by Jesse Eisenberg – his own similarities to the tragic hero at the center of The Social Network, and why Facebook had nothing to do with what grabbed him about this story.
I’m curious how you, who’s somewhat of a Luddite…
Photo: © 2010 Columbia Pictures
Jesse Eisenberg and Joseph Mazzello in The Social Network.
That’s not inaccurate…
What attracted you to this initially?
What attracted me to it had nothing to do with Facebook. The invention itself is as modern as it gets, but the story is as old as storytelling; the themes of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, class and power. This is story that Aeschylus would have written or Shakespeare or Paddy Chayefsky. Luckily for me, none of those guys were available, so I got to do it.
They didn’t call in Aeschylus for a punch up?
They were gonna call in Aeschylus for a polish, but I swore I could do it myself, so they called him off.
He’s greedy too. You’ve said in the past that story is hard and what you love is dialogue. To what extent did this whole Facebook thing and these characters provide you with the structure on which to embellish the theme and work your magic with the dialogue?
You still have to find Waldo in there somewhere. Here’s how it started: I got a 14-page book proposal that Ben Mezrich had written for his publisher for a book he was going to call The Accidental Billionaires. The publisher was simultaneously shopping it around for a film sale. That’s how it wound up in my hands. I was reading it and somewhere on page three I said yes. It was the fastest I said yes to anything.
But Ben hadn’t written the book yet, and I assumed that Sony was going to want me to wait for Ben to write the book, and I would start a year from now. They wanted me to start right away. Ben and I were kind of doing our research at the same time, sort of along parallel lines.
Was he sending you pages as he went?
No. Two or three times we’d get together. I’d go to Boston, or we’d meet in New York and kind of compare notes and share information, but I didn’t see the book until he was done with it. By the time I saw the book, I was probably 80 percent done with the screenplay.
There’s a lot of available research, and I also did a lot of first person research with a number of the people that were involved in the story. I can’t go too deeply into that because most of the people did it on the condition of anonymity, but what I found was that two lawsuits were brought against Facebook at the roughly same time, that the defendant, plaintiffs, witnesses all came into a deposition room and swore under oath, and three different versions of the story were told. Instead of choosing one and deciding that’s the truest one or choosing one and deciding that’s the juiciest one, I decided to dramatize the idea that there were three different versions of the story being told. That’s how I came up with the structure of the deposition room [which Sorkin uses as a narrative frame from which to tell the story in chronological sequence].
Maybe this is a weird thing to say about a social networking movie, but is this kind of an All the President’s Men for our times?
I’m not going to compare my screenplay to one of the best screenplays ever written, but there are a lot of similarities to All the President’s Men. I would say the big difference between the screenplays is that All the President’s Men was written by William Goldman and The Social Network was written by me.
There is a bit of a scandal with the central character in this film. A lot is being written about it, including a huge piece in The New Yorker. How do you characterize your depiction of Mark Zuckerberg?
I would say for the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie, he is an anti-hero and for the final five minutes, he’s a tragic hero. In order to be a tragic hero you have to have paid a price, and you have to feel remorse. Both of those things are true at the end of the movie. What we see is a very brilliant guy, a terribly complicated guy, but also a guy who is very angry because he lives with his nose pressed up against the window of social life. As a result, he did something extraordinary – he reinvented social life so that he and other people could reinvent themselves.
I read that you felt somewhat inconsequential as a conversationalist early on in life and that writing sort of gave you a voice that mattered. Do you have any corollary feelings with his character in terms of the way he reframed the situation for himself?
I think what you’re referring to is that growing up, I was surrounded with friends and family, by people, that were smarter than I was. I’m not quite sure why they had me around – I think I was the mascot or something – but I really loved the sound of smart argument.
In my house growing up, anyone that used one word when they could have used 10 just wasn’t trying.
I also was taken by my parents to see plays, and often, I was too young to understand what was going on onstage, but I loved the sound of dialogue. It sounded like music to me, and I wanted to be able to imitate that. So as a writer now, I tend to write people who are smarter than I am, smoother than I am, and in most tangible ways, better than I am. There is a corollary with what goes on in social networking. When someone does a status update, posts something on someone’s wall, they’re not talking, they’re not being conversational – they’ve done a rewrite and a polish, and they’re putting forward the version of themselves that they want you to see.
They’re putting forward the shooting draft.
And there is that other aspect of Zuckerberg not being so socially confident…
Yeah, it was important to me in writing Mark that I locate the parts of myself that I felt were like him. I also, as with a lot of people, have felt and do feel socially awkward and nervous in a lot of situations, not smooth. But the difference is, and I want to be clear, I’ve never met or spoken to Mark Zuckerberg…
So I’m talking about the character of Mark Zuckerberg in the movie. These are things that made [the Mark character] deeply angry, and those are things that never made me angry, they just gave me a way to write.
How much time did you spend on this script?
You know, this movie went so smoothly. From the day that I got that 14-page book proposal to the day I delivered the script to Sony was a year. It was May when I delivered it, the following October we were shooting it, and this October 1, it hits theaters.
And that initial draft was 161 pages?
One hundred and sixty-two pages. So it was the shooting script. No pages were cut. The first thing David Fincher did when he came to the studio was say, “This script isn’t long.” The first time I worked with David, he came to my house with a stopwatch and said, “I want you to read out loud every scene at the pace you heard it when you were writing it.” And he would time each scene. He’d say, “Okay, the first scene with Mark and Erica, five minutes, seven seconds.” And when we got into rehearsal, when Jesse and Rooney [Mara, who plays the object of Zuckerberg’s affections] were running through that scene, if it wasn’t 5:07, if it was 5:43, he’d say, “No, this scene plays at 5:07.” That’s how a 162-page screenplay is an hour and 57 minute movie.
You must have said, “Hallelujah!”
I did. There was any number of things David did to which I said, “Hallelujah!”
Yes, but this is your famous Aaron Sorkin-ness finding a perfect home.
Yes, for better or for worse.
Do you think the world is better for Mark Zuckerberg and his creation?
I have a strong opinion on that, but I’m not going to give it to you now because I wouldn’t want people going into the theater with my opinion in their head, comparing their experience with what I think. If you ask that question on October 2, I’ll be happy to answer.
You don’t stay up late to write anymore. You write in the morning now. Has that had any discernable effect on your tone? You talk about the music of writing. Has your voice changed now that you’re a morning writer?
I don’t think so. I was worried that it was going to. There seems to be something romantic and bohemian and edgy about staying up all night and writing, and I was worried that once I stopped doing that it would homogenize my writing somehow. It turned out the time of day had nothing to do with it.
So that’s largely a fantasy of that image of the struggling artist, living in the wee hours?
So go to sleep and get up and write some good stuff?
Yeah. A writer will generally have a sweet spot when they have energy and the ideas are all in the right place. Listen, the thinking doesn’t stop. When I go to bed at night, my mind is still racing, I’m thinking a lot about what it is I’m going to write tomorrow. If I don’t know what I’m going to write tomorrow, I have a lot of anxiety about it. If I do know, I’m very excited about it. But it’s when I get up in the morning that I have the most energy, and that’s usually when most of writing gets done, but it doesn’t just happen in the morning. I write in the afternoon and the evening, I’m just not writing at 1 a.m. anymore.
Nearly every screenwriting teacher and how-to book warns against overuse of dialogue, yet some of our most gifted screenwriters specialize and indulge in dialogue. Do you think it’s just that the rule should be, “Don’t write dialogue unless you’re really good at it?” Is there something false about that rule?
That rule is completely false. It’s espoused by people who don’t write dialogue very well. There are thousands of ways to tell a story. Some people do it more visually than others. I’m a guy that writes about people talking in rooms. Some people, like Harold Pinter, are minimalist when it comes to dialogue, but they write brilliant dialogue, just a different kind. This business of jettisoning dialogue – I feel like that’s something a B-action star would say.