Anatomy of a Contender: 'The Social Network'

10:13 PM PST 12/07/2010 by Christy Grosz
Columbia TriStar
Jesse Eisenberg survived a lengthy audition process with director David Fincher to nab the lead role of Mark Zuckerberg.

David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin and Scott Rudin share how their movie got made — and why every last second mattered.

It was one of the longest scripts in recent Hollywood history — and it could have brought The Social Network screeching to a halt before it ever reached the screen.

After The West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin agreed to adapt The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich’s account of the creation of Facebook and its mercurial anti-hero, Mark Zuckerberg, there was just one hitch: His 162-page screenplay.

Sony Pictures asked that it be cut down to at most 135 pages, still 25 or 30 longer than the average. But director David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fight Club) didn’t think this was necessary.

“Part of it is instinct,” he says. “The studio was very skeptical that the movie would time out at two hours. They said, ‘How long do you think the movie is?’ I said, ‘Two hours and three minutes, two hours and five minutes.’ They said, ‘It’s 162 pages.’ I said, ‘It’s really about how quickly those 162 pages go by.’ ”

Such conflict would have led most studios and their helmers to part ways; but it’s an indication of just how much the two sides trusted each other that they agreed to go ahead.

To prove his point that the screenplay wasn’t too long, Fincher asked Sorkin to read it out loud.

“He came to my house with a stopwatch, and he told me, ‘I’m going to time every scene,’ ” Sorkin recalls. “That first scene, he’d stop the watch (and say), ‘OK, five minutes and seven seconds.’ ”

At the end of the meeting, Sorkin and Fincher were satisfied that their film, budgeted at $40 million-plus, would clock in at a rapid-fire two hours.

Getting the screenplaywritten was just one of the many challenges involved in making Social Network, the most talked-about film of the year. It’s a drama that involved competing writers with very different versions of the Facebook story, two sets of producers who inadvertently found themselves working on the same project, a shoot with a director who would ask for 50 or more takes for some setups and legal issues that could have led to a lawsuit by Facebook
but never did.

A year before Sorkin embarked on his script, the project began with a 14-page book proposal by Mezrich that was leaked online in 2008. He quickly took the proposal to producer Dana Brunetti, who is partnered with Kevin Spacey in Trigger Street Prods.

Brunetti’s relationship with Mezrich dated to when the producer optioned the author’s 2003 book Bringing Down the House, which Sony released in 2008 as 21. Brunetti purchased the Facebook proposal, helping Mezrich find access to some of the people he needed to complete his research — most notably Harvard graduate Eduardo Saverin, a former partner of Zuckerberg whose lawsuit against him was a critical element in the proposal.

“My attraction to it wasn’t Facebook,” Brunetti says. “It was a classic, human story. It could have been about the making of the automobile or the television. It still would have been just as good.”

Brunetti also brought in producer Michael De Luca, with whom he had worked on 21 and who has a first-look deal with Sony. Together, they presented their idea to the Sony executives they had worked with on 21, Doug Belgrad and Elizabeth Cantillon.

“They agreed there were the seeds of a good movie,” De Luca says.

So did their boss, Amy Pascal. Only, quite coincidentally, Pascal also had been pitched a similar idea by a very different producer: Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men, The Hours).

Unbeknownst to De Luca and Brunetti, Rudin had been interested in Harvard — Zuckerberg’s alma mater — for some time, initially thinking he might produce a movie about the university’s former president, Lawrence Summers.

“When this material started to surface, I thought, ‘Oh, all the stuff that interested me about the ecology of Harvard is [here],’ ” Rudin says.

The three producers agreed to team up — an unusual move but one De Luca and Brunetti embraced, given Rudin’s experience. Rudin then approached Sorkin to write.

While this was happening, Rudin was embarking on his own dance with Facebook. What followed was a number of meetings between him and Facebook corporate communications executive Elliot Schrage about whether Facebook would cooperate. At the same time, Rudin tried to enlist the aid of journalist David Kirkpatrick, who was writing his own version of the story, with Facebook’s help, that would eventually be published as The Facebook Effect.

The different sides have their own versions of how they failed to reach an agreement. Essentially, Kirkpatrick realized he would not get Facebook’s support in writing his book if he worked on the film; Facebook, in turn, regarded Mezrich’s account as fictional and would not cooperate if the film used the name Facebook in its story.

Rudin was never able to meet with Zuckerberg. But the Schrage encounters helped.

“Some things the Facebook executives said were very helpful, some things weren’t very helpful,” he says. “Nothing they said about the movie affected it at all.”

Enough public-record material existed for Rudin and Sorkin to be comfortable with the accuracy of their research, but both admit they felt obliged to take extra care in developing a film about young people who are still alive.

“You feel a special responsibility, knowing what a loud sound a Hollywood movie makes,” Sorkin says.

Despite Zuckerberg’s anti-hero role in the film, Sorkin identified with him as a complicated character whose entrepreneurial dreams and youth isolate him from the rest of the world.

“I found things that I felt were like me,” Sorkin says. “I’m shy, like he is. I feel awkward in social situations. I’ve felt like an outsider.

“When I watch Entourage,” he adds, “I think, ‘It would be great to be in that world.’ And not only am I in that world, I play myself sometimes on Entourage! I still think I’m an outsider looking in.”

It was shortly before Sorkin completed his first draft in July 2009 that Rudin and Pascal placed an urgent conference call to Fincher about directing.

“They said, ‘If you don’t direct it, then Sorkin’s going to direct it, so you have to make up your mind right away,” Fincher says with a laugh. “I read it, and I e-mailed Sorkin and said, ‘I’m going to ask you put your directing career on hold for one more movie. Just one more.’ ”

After Fincher agreed to sign on, all the pieces were in place.

“It was a dream team,” De Luca says. “We were all elated after we got the first draft.”

With that draft in hand, Fincher sat down with Sorkin to discuss the intricacies of the script.

“I look at my job first and foremost as an interpreter,” Fincher says. “You have these amazing voices, and my job was to differentiate between them and wrestle with the class ideas that we were trying to illustrate.”

In late-summer 2009, Fincher began a rigorous process to compile his ensemble cast.

The director started having individual actors read with Sorkin, using dialogue from the writer’s previous works such as The West Wing and his stage play The Farnsworth Invention. Fincher reviewed the tapes of each audition, slowly narrowing the field to a handful of candidates whose auditions got longer and longer.

“These weren’t five-minute auditions,” Sorkin says. “These were 60- or even 90-minute work sessions that David would have with the actors.”

Those sessions resulted in a formidable cast of twentysomethings: Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, Andrew Garfield as Saverin and Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker.

Shooting began in Boston on Oct. 19, 2009, with a schedule designed to accommodate Fincher’s many takes.

“He’s waiting for the mistake that’s so natural and human,” says another of the film’s producers, Fincher collaborator Cean Chaffin. “And that doesn’t happen in the first 10 takes.”

Throughout the roughly 68-day shoot, Fincher kept referring back to that stopwatch.

“When we got to rehearsal, if the actors were doing a scene at five minutes and 45 seconds, he’d give them a bunch of notes and end by saying, ‘Oh, and this scene is five minutes and seven seconds, and that’s where you’ve got to get it,’ ” Sorkin says.

Fincher chose to shoot the deposition-room sequences — in which Zuckerberg is four years older and looks back on his Internet creation — after shooting the earlier Harvard days.

“It gave me the opportunity to purge myself of all the frustration my character has built up from creating this thing and having it threatened,” Eisenberg says.

The smooth shoot was followed by an equally untroubled postproduction process.

“We loved the first cut as much as we loved Aaron’s first draft,” De Luca notes of Fincher’s initial rendering, which came in at two hours and six minutes — six minutes shorter than the final film.

But the challenge of dealing with Facebook remained. Sony legal executives had decided early in the game that the movie didn’t need to obtain life rights to the characters involved — they were public figures, after all, and the movie was based on an existing book — but it was never quite clear how Facebook would respond to the finished film.

“Mark Zuckerberg did a shrewd thing and continued to try to find ways to upstage the movie,” Rudin says, referring to the revelation of the CEO’s Sept. 22 $100 million donation to the New Jersey school system — nine days before the film’s theatrical release — and subsequent appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Shrewd, but perhaps not shrewd enough: It hasn’t prevented the film from earning more than $180 million at the worldwide box office — though Zuckerberg claims not to care.

“We build products that 500 million people see,” he told Mashable.com in October. “If 5 million people see a movie, it doesn’t really matter that much.”           

THE DRAMA OF BUSINESS: Captains of industry cash in at the box office

  1. Trading Places (1983) $90.4M
  2. The Secret of My Success (1987) $67M
  3. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) $52.4M
  4. Wall Street (1987) $43.8M
  5. The Insider (1999) $29.1M
  6.  Other People’s Money (1991) $25.7M
  7.  Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988)  $19.7M
  8.  Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) $10.7M
  9.  Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) $4.1M
  10.  Startup.com (2001) $1.3M
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