Laurene Powell Jobs pressured Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale and every studio in Hollywood to not make the movie. David Fincher wouldn't budge off his $10 million fee. Now, THR talks to the creative team — Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin, Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet and more — behind the most anticipated, controversial biopic in years.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On Sept. 28, 2011, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton left his Culver City office and made the four-and-a half-mile trek to Century City, ready to open his wallet.
Lynton, along with producer Mark Gordon (Saving Private Ryan), was being given a unique opportunity to read one of the most anticipated manuscripts in publishing history: Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs.
The brilliant but mercurial founder of Apple Inc. was on his deathbed — he would die days later, on Oct. 5 — and Simon & Schuster was rushing the book into stores, which meant the publisher did not want it read widely in advance of its Oct. 24 release: Secrecy was crucial to giving Steve Jobs the type of splash that would propel it to sales of more than 379,000 copies during its first week alone. And so Lynton and Gordon closeted themselves for hours in separate offices at ICM Partners, Isaacson's agency, and waded through the 656-page tome.
By day's end, both men were confident this was a movie — enough that Lynton called his colleague Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures, to ensure her buy-in before the studio commenced negotiations with Isaacson's respective film and book agents, Ron Bernstein and Amanda "Binky" Urban. The result was a rich deal for the former Time magazine editor: $1 million upfront, plus $2 million once the picture was made, a fitting sum for a potential best-seller but mind-boggling for a project that hardly had the word "blockbuster" scrawled in its margins.
That pact, struck within days, turned out to be the easiest part of bringing Steve Jobs to the screen. Over the following four years, the picture would draw then lose such major names as David Fincher, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale before settling on director Danny Boyle and star Michael Fassbender; it would become entangled in a gargantuan email hack that put Sony Pictures at the heart of a global firestorm; it would lead to the near-rupture of Pascal's decadeslong friendship with one of Steve Jobs' producers, Scott Rudin; and it would inspire accusations of opportunism from none other than Apple CEO Tim Cook. "Fasten two seat belts," Pascal warned in a prescient early email. "Its [sic] gonna be more than bumpy."
While Apple has maintained a distance from the film — which acknowledges Jobs' brilliance while painting an unflattering portrait of his personal relationships — Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, 51, actively tried to obstruct it. "They haven't helped," says Boyle of her and Cook. "There's been some tough moments. I'm not going to go into them."
Says another of the picture's key players, "Since the very beginning, Laurene Jobs has been trying to kill this movie, OK?" (Laurene's character does not figure in the film, while Jobs' daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, from another relationship, plays a prominent part.) "Laurene Jobs called Leo DiCaprio and said, 'Don't do it.' Laurene Jobs called Christian Bale and said, 'Don't [do it].' "
Reps for Bale and DiCaprio were unable to verify that, and Laurene Jobs did not return calls. A Sony executive confirms, however, that: "She reached out; she had a strong desire not to have the movie made. But we said, 'We're going to move forward.' My understanding is, she did call one or two of the actors." Another source says that Laurene lobbied each major studio in an attempt to kill the project.
Jobs and wife Laurene in New York in 2005.
Cook also engaged in a brief duel with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, saying he thought the recent spate of Jobs movies (including a much-maligned 2013 film starring Ashton Kutcher and a documentary by Alex Gibney) was "opportunistic." Sorkin then snapped back, telling THR that "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." (He later walked back his statement.)
Early in October, Cook also addressed Apple employees and told them to remember "what [Jobs] was really like."
In the end, the Sorkin-Cook spat may matter less than the fallout from last year's Sony hack, which resulted in a trove of information being plastered on the web, giving a unique insight into the making of the movie but also shifting the narrative in ways its creators might not appreciate. The hack has enraged two leading participants, Sorkin and Seth Rogen, who plays Jobs' erstwhile colleague Steve Wozniak.
"Honest to God, my No. 1 emotion during that whole thing had nothing to do with the content of the emails or the people who sent them," says Sorkin over a late-September tea at London's Corinthia Hotel. "I was furious at the press for printing them, at the press for aiding and abetting terrorism so gleefully, at a country so gorged on gossip that they didn't understand that extortionists had threatened to kill the families of accountants and assistants and electricians and painters and carpenters if Seth Rogen released his movie." (The hack purportedly was an attempt to halt Rogen's North Korea satire The Interview.)
Boyle (left) and Sorkin on the set of 'Steve Jobs.' Says Boyle: "Sorkin has a reputation as being a stickler for punctuation. And that probably comes from desperately trying to reassert the rhythm he’s written. [But] he was wonderful in rehearsals."
"They created a dumping ground for all this material and alerted the press every time there was a dump there," adds Sorkin. "And like dogs to vomit, the press would go there and do their bidding for them. [The press was] running the last leg of a marathon for — and I say this without hyperbole or exaggeration — honest-to-God terrorists."
Rogen says he was "at times worried" for himself but more concerned about his emails than his personal safety: "There was a moment where I had to think: 'If every email you've ever written came out now, what would people find and what would people think?' " While he on occasion would "scan through the articles [about the hack]," he largely ignored them.
The actor was lucky to emerge unscathed in the emails relating to Steve Jobs. That was not the case with Rudin and Pascal, whose relationship was stretched taut and may have snapped during the making of the movie, which Sony eventually lost to Universal Pictures and which opens Oct. 9. (Neither Rudin nor Pascal would comment.)
"You've behaved abominably," the producer emailed Pascal toward the end of their dealings on Steve Jobs, "and it will be a very, very long time before I forget what you did to this movie and what you've put all of us through."
Steve Jobs began its movie run when Gordon got a call from manager and producer Guymon Casady (later one of the picture's producers) alerting him that the rights to the book were available. After buying it, Gordon, Pascal and Casady drew up a list of writers and directors who might tackle the project, with Sorkin and Fincher at the top. The studio chief then contacted Rudin and Sorkin, with whom she had worked on 2010's The Social Network.
The writer had never met Jobs, but they had spoken by phone. "First time, he called me because there was an episode of The West Wing that he particularly liked and he called to say so out of the blue," Sorkin recalls. "The second time, he wanted me to come and tour Pixar in the hope that I would write a Pixar film. And the third time, he asked for my help on a Stanford commencement speech." (Sorkin obliged, free of charge.)
A deal was closed that would pay the writer $5 million, of which $1 million was deferred. (He later would agree to slash his fee.) After extensive research, he decided to tell the story in three acts, each one following Jobs backstage during a presentation at a different point in his career. Sorkin developed that approach after meeting with Jobs' daughter Lisa, now 37 and a writer — who had not cooperated on the Isaacson book — as well as others who knew him; Laurene refused to take part. "We met three or four times for several hours," he says of Lisa, whom Jobs would only acknowledge several years after her birth. "And through these meetings, I began to identify points of friction between some of these people and Steve."
He also spoke to Wozniak, now 65 and still an Apple employee and shareholder. "Woz was eager to show that he has no ego at all about this but is unable to not be angry about Steve taking credit for things that Steve didn't deserve," adds Sorkin. "Joanna Hoffman [a longtime Jobs colleague, played by Kate Winslet] was incredibly helpful, and I knew right away she would be a character in the movie. [Former Apple CEO] John Sculley hadn't spoken to Walter Isaacson, hadn't really spoken to anybody since he left Apple. [But] he had recently gotten remarried to a wonderful woman [who] has made it her job to correct the record and resuscitate her husband, who really took a beating as the man who fired Steve Jobs. I spent a lot of time with them."
Sorkin and Rudin now approached Fincher, who had had a fruitful (if sometimes rocky) collaboration with them on Social Network.
"I was nervous," says Fassbender (left, with Boyle) on the set of 'Steve Jobs.' "I was very nervous. It was going to be a big challenge, the volume of words alone. I was like, 'I don’t look anything like him.' And Danny was like, 'That’s not what we’re going for. I’m looking for someone who can capture an essence.' "
But Fincher came with baggage. He had a visceral loathing of Pascal, according to two sources friendly with both, and they had clashed over his liberal spending on both Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Pascal was hesitant to hire him, and in any case was afraid to distract him from another high priority, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Cleopatra.
Fincher wanted to make Steve Jobs but wouldn't budge on his fee, asking for a full-freight salary in the $10 million zone — awfully rich, as far as Pascal and Rudin were concerned. Sorkin tried to intervene, and in emails sent in March 2014, he pleaded with his colleagues to close the deal. "I'll cut my fee down to scale and throw in two more Sony movies for free," he offered. But Rudin was as dubious as Pascal. "You don't think $40m to shoot three scenes is enough?" he emailed. "Do YOU want every control given to him, including the entire marketing campaign? This is the director who refused to put the girl with the dragon tattoo in the ads for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Sources say Fincher's need to control marketing was as important as issues over pay. He had received $5 million for Social Network and Sony expected he would take the same now. But he would not cut his price tag and wanted a $45 million budget, millions more than Pascal was ready to spend.
Sorkin looks back on Fincher's exit with a tinge of regret. Leaning forward in his chair, animated, he explains: "I pushed on both sides. To Sony, I was saying: 'Please pay him whatever he wants; it'll be worth it.' To David, I was saying — because one of the sticking points was David wanted control over marketing — 'David, you didn't have control over marketing on The Social Network, but every inch of that marketing was you.' "
With Fincher gone, the picture was in limbo.
From left: Jobs, Sculley and Wozniak unveiled the new Apple computer in San Francisco in 1984.
Danny Boyle was in London when Rudin sent him the script (188 pages, far longer than the usual 110 to 130 pages). A working-class man whose talent had taken him to the highest reaches of British theater and film, the now 58-year-old was still riding the wave of 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, a global phenomenon that had armored him for two subsequent box-office disappointments, 127 Hours and Trance.
He had met Rudin after a performance of his 2011 stage production of Frankenstein but knew little about Steve Jobs or the film's history. Still, he was mesmerized by how the story shifted from 1984, when Jobs launched the Macintosh; to 1988, with the introduction of NeXT; and on to the debut of the iMac in 1998. Even more, he was struck by its exploration of Jobs' relationship with Lisa.
"I was moved beyond belief by the script, in a way that really surprised me," says Boyle, as we meet for lunch in London. "You're in the world of this mythological presence with this terrible reputation, and you move inexorably toward this father-and-daughter story — and of course I've got two daughters, now [ages] 30 and 24. Oh, I was torn up."
He called Rudin. "He probably thought, 'Oh, he'll not want to step into Fincher's shoes,' " says the director. "But I read it, and that was it. I said, 'I'm in.' And he said, 'Are you serious?' I could hear in his voice, thinking, 'It can't be this easy, can it?' And I was like, 'Oh, I'm as serious as I can get.' "
Boyle flew to New York to meet with the writer and producer in the latter's modest midtown offices, and together they sat with Boyle's producing partner, Christian Colson, and "just read the whole script," says Boyle. "And then we talked about what was important to us and what I was going to do with it."
They also discussed casting. Before Boyle's arrival, Rogen had been chosen to play Wozniak.
"I read with Aaron," says Rogen, who knew he'd be taking a risk by venturing out of his comedic wheelhouse. "He read [the role of] Steve Jobs. I remember walking out, thinking, 'If that's all that comes from this, I'm a big fan.' We read all the scenes. He read quickly; he knows his own cadence very well. It made the rhythms very natural."
Daniels as Sculley.
Later, Winslet would join the cast after hearing about the movie from her makeup artist: "She said, 'God, the script is really so fantastic.' She described the nature of the film and how it's constructed in three acts. And I finally said, 'What's the girl's part?' "
Sorkin and Rudin also brought in their Newsroom star, Jeff Daniels, as Sculley, whom Daniels met when rehearsals got underway early in 2015. "He cherished the relationship," says Daniels of the executive's bond with Jobs. "And when it ended badly, and they never reconciled, and Steve passed away, that's still with John. There's a pain there. Because he cherished the relationship so much."
Greater than the challenge of casting these supporting roles, of course, was the matter of landing a Jobs. DiCaprio had expressed interest way back when Lynton and Gordon went to ICM, and when the actor read and approved the script, Pascal began a long, slow waltz that never turned into a fandango. For months, DiCaprio maintained his enthusiasm without closing a deal. At one point — after Boyle had approached other actors — DiCaprio's manager, Rick Yorn, came back to say the star still was interested; but a blinking amber light never turned green, and in fall 2014, the producers approached Bale, hugely in demand following his turn in The Dark Knight and his Oscar for The Fighter. When Boyle met with him, they had "a very, very good conversation," recalls the director — only for Bale to change his mind, too. "He couldn't really see [how to play the part]," says Boyle.
By late October 2014, the movie still was a long way from getting made. Ideas for other stars flitted across the radar — Tom Cruise was one — but nobody was locked in. There was no Steve Jobs, and therefore there could be no Steve Jobs.
In New Zealand, where he was shooting The Light Between Oceans — adapted from M.L. Stedman's best-selling novel about a couple that moves to an isolated lighthouse where their lives are interrupted by a baby girl who washes up in a lifeboat — Fassbender was oblivious to the drama going on in Los Angeles and New York. He was exhausted — he had gone from one film to another. "I wanted to sort of take some time off, to be honest," says the 38-year-old actor.
Then he learned Rudin and Boyle were interested in having him play Jobs. He knew little about the icon. "I'm not a very techie person," he says. "I use all the Apple products, but I had no real insight into him." Still, the script was strong and the character compelling, and he decided to say yes, ditching his intended hiatus.
Disagreements among the players stretched and strained now, more than ever before. Some supported Fassbender, others questioned his viability. Gordon emailed Pascal to voice doubts (though he says he later changed his mind). "It's not about whether he is a star — it's about if he is the right guy," he wrote. "He's a wonderful actor, but I am just not sure he is Jobs."
Sorkin also wrote an email questioning the casting of Fassbender, though he says that he, too, came to revise that opinion. "At the time I wrote the email, I was the one person in the world unfamiliar with Michael Fassbender's work," he says today. "I hadn't seen 12 Years a Slave. Hadn't seen Inglourious Basterds. Hadn't seen Shame. Hadn't seen X-Men. I just managed to miss every single Michael Fassbender movie. So I said to Francine Maisler, our casting director, 'Send me all the Fassbender movies.' And as soon as I watched them, I was leading the Michael Fassbender parade."
Later, when the Sony hack revealed Sorkin's objections, he wrote Fassbender, contritely. "I said, 'Dear Michael: I fear that you've had to read that I didn't want you to play this part,' " he recalls. " 'Please understand, when I wrote that email, I was not yet familiar with your work, but having watched the movies, I need no more convincing you are going to be fantastic in this part. Please know that you have 100 percent of my confidence and I'm here for anything you need.' " Fassbender responded: " 'Thanks, I appreciate that,' " says Sorkin. "It was kind of a curt email. I could tell he was being polite. He was being professional. But he'd been stung, and I was going to be punished."
With Fassbender, Rudin and Boyle were eager to move forward. But Pascal hesitated — possibly under pressure from Lynton, who made no bones about his qualms regarding the casting. Pascal loved the script, adored its boldness and originality, knew it was because of projects like this that she had entered the business in the first place. And yet she could not bring herself to say yes, even though the picture's budget now was far lower than it would have been with Fincher, hovering around $35 million ($2 million more than most reports have stated).
After a decade and a half at Sony, in which she had been floundering at the box office and heavily dependent on movies derided as "chick flicks," Pascal had changed course and surged forward with one of the most remarkable runs of any executive. But recently that run had petered out, and now critics were nipping at her ankles — the media, agents, disgruntled producers and, above all, activist Sony investor Daniel Loeb — for a slew of flops, including Will Smith's After Earth and Channing Tatum's White House Down.
She had been prepared to move forward with Steve Jobs — even if it meant putting up with Fincher — as long as DiCaprio or Bale would star. But now Rudin and Boyle were proposing an intense drama with a German-Irish actor who had never carried a Hollywood film. And so she worried, and fretted, and her anxieties made their way into the dozens of emails that zipped across the country between her and the far-more-certain Rudin.
If only the cost could be brought down a few million more, she urged. But Boyle was determined to shoot in San Francisco: Even though the movie's three acts all took place indoors, he argued that the atmosphere would permeate his cast and add something immeasurable to his film.
Pascal believed Steve Jobs could be the Citizen Kane of its day, but still she couldn't bring herself to greenlight it. Instead she reached out to other financiers who might shoulder some of the cost, including Megan Ellison, the young producer who had joined forces with her on Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle.
Rogen as Apple co-creator Wozniak
Like DiCaprio, Ellison wavered and eventually passed, either because she did not believe in the movie's commercial prospects with Fassbender, or — as some of those associated with the film believe — because of pressure from Apple and Laurene Jobs. Her father, Oracle Corp.'s Larry Ellison, had been friendly with Jobs, after all. (Through a rep, Megan Ellison declined comment.)
There was no other money forthcoming and no way to bring the cost of the picture down to the $25 million Pascal would have liked. And so, in a sudden moment of abandonment, she agreed to put the picture in turnaround, allowing Rudin to find another studio that would finance it. Perhaps she expected him to come back at a lower budget; perhaps she was just tired. Either way, it was a decision she would almost instantly regret.
After meetings with other studios (including Paramount and Fox), Rudin agreed to set it up at Universal under Donna Langley and proceeded to move ahead with the actual shoot. "We felt from the beginning that with the iconic subject matter and caliber of artists assembled for this project, it was a great fit for our slate," says Langley in a statement. "The film was made with the utmost integrity, and we are enormously proud of it." Sony retained no investment in the film, and sources say it did not even take the type of profit participation that is standard when a movie is placed in turnaround.
Apple continued to cause trouble for the production, refusing to license its famous 1984 commercial (a clip within the movie is via fair use law), and one source says Disney — on whose board Jobs once sat — would not license a clip from its ABC TV division.
As soon as she learned about the Universal deal, Pascal had a change of heart. She begged Rudin to bring it back, but it was too late. The movie would be Langley's from now on.
"This feels terrible," she emailed Rudin at one point, and "Why are u punishing me" at another, before resigning herself to her loss.
"What happened is entirely my fault," she wrote days after the picture officially landed at Universal, and months before she was fired amid fallout from the hack. "It is no ones [sic] job but mine to see the forest through the trees and block out temporary noise from the inside as well as the outside[.] We use numbers as an excuse not to make a movie to the outside world not between us. This is the second time in my career I let past performance of the current state of things corrupt my thinking and feeling about a movie. I have made other kinds of mistakes but not like this."
Nine months later, in early September, the movie would premiere to warm reviews and then have a glitzy, red-carpet splash at the New York Film Festival in early October, with all the stars, along with Sorkin and Boyle, and the added glamour of Fassbender's girlfriend, Alicia Vikander. Reviews were largely positive and the picture earned a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. "Racing in high gear from start to finish," wrote THR chief critic Todd McCarthy, "Danny Boyle's electric direction temperamentally complements Sorkin's highly theatrical three-act study."
Four years after Steve Jobs had been a glint in Sony's eye, it was now a triumph for Universal.
Why Steve Jobs' Reclusive Widow Is Missing From Steve Jobs
Laurene Powell Jobs is the fourth-richest woman in the U.S. She was his wife for 20 years. So why can't she be seen in the movie — or anywhere — and why is she trying to derail it?
By Andy Lewis
There were a lot of women in Steve Jobs' life — first love Chrisann Brennan; their daughter, Lisa; his consigliere at Apple, Joanna Hoffman — but the most important woman can't be found on the screen. Indeed, Laurene Powell Jobs, 51, his wife of 20 years, is so reclusive that she didn't even show up at the Longines Masters equestrian event in Los Angeles in early October to watch daughter Eve, 18, win a trophy. (She and Jobs also have two other children: Reed, 23, and Erin, 20.) The only public appearances she makes are in support of her charitable works — and with a fortune worth $18.9 billion, she gives a lot to charity. But even her philanthropy is shrouded in secrecy. Her main charitable organization, the Emerson Collective, is set up as an LLC, so it doesn't have to report to the public.
"She's a very private person," says Peter Seligmann, who heads Conservation International, where Laurene serves on the board. That privacy was penetrated in January when a paparazzo in the Cayman Islands snapped pictures of her on a yacht with former Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty (the couple have been dating for two years). And though she doesn't appear in Steve Jobs, her attempts to derail the movie (calling actors to dissuade them from playing her husband) have raised her profile in ways she can't be thrilled about.