Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says he won’t spill the dirt on super-celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire in the movie he’s writing and plans to direct, Molly’s Game.
The film centers on the real-life Molly Bloom and her involvement in a high-stakes poker game that ultimately led to her arrest. It’s based on her memoir of the same name.
“Molly’s Game was a true story about a remarkable young woman named Molly Bloom,” said Sorkin (Steve Jobs, The Social Network). “She was this close to going to the Olympics, she was ranked third in North America in women’s moguls. She was a fantastic student, on her way to Harvard Law School. Her life was going to lay out perfectly. She was going to graduate from Harvard Law School with an Olympic medal. It wasn’t going to hurt that she is extremely attractive as well, with a wonderful personality, and just a freak accident in qualifying for the Olympics, just something you couldn’t believe, kept her out of those Salt Lake City games. And she came here to L.A.”
Bloom, he said, “ended up running for 12 years the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game, a game where there were movie stars, hedge fund managers, big name athletes, Saudi princes and millions of dollars were changing hands in the course of a night. She became known as the biggest gamerunner in the world.”
Sorkin, who took part in THR’s ongoing Hollywood Masters interview series, held at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, said he would follow Bloom’s book and not identify the celebrities who attended her game.
“I have gone to great lengths to obscure the identities of those people, because I don’t want the movie to be about gossip,” he said. “I wouldn’t want it to [be], under any circumstances, but in this particular case, the reason why she is a movie hero, the reason why she’s worth writing about in the first place, is that by the end of the whole thing — even if it meant saving her life, guaranteeing her own freedom, she wouldn’t have to go to jail for four years, even if it meant the restoration of all the money the government took away from her— she would not name a single [person], she wouldn’t tell a story. She could have. She wrote a book for which she could have gotten a $2 million advance. She got a $35,000 advance instead.”
Sorkin, who is also currently adapting Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for Broadway, revealed a line from the end of his movie.
“She quotes Winston Churchill,” he noted, “who said, ‘Success is defined by being able to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’ ”
Highlights of the interview follow:
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You went to Syracuse University and then tried to make it as an actor. Were you a good actor?
AARON SORKIN: No.
SORKIN: I don’t know. I don’t have a great instrument. I don’t have the kind of ungodly control over my voice and body that great actors have. And I’ve worked with enough great actors to know that I’m not one. As a matter of fact, the moment really solidified for me, in the middle of writing A Few Good Men — in the middle of writing my first play — and by the way, it just never occurred to me to come to Los Angeles to begin my career as a writer.
SORKIN: I watched movies, I watched television as much as anybody else, but I only ever thought about playwriting. It just never occurred to me that you’re probably better off coming to L.A. There are just more opportunities here. Certainly, it’s not easy by any means, but maybe you can get a job as a PA, as an intern, getting coffee for somebody, maybe you can write a spec script that’ll get some attention. There are actually writing jobs here. There are not writing jobs in New York. There certainly weren’t then. There are now, there are some shows that shoot in New York, but that never occurred to me. The thing that I was going to do to get my foot in the door, while I was writing A Few Good Men, was — I didn’t have stars in my eyes. I was writing this play, and I thought if I can get it really good, then my acting friends and I will rent out a basement theater with 79 seats somewhere downtown, and we’ll put this on, and then I’ll do the next thing. The career that I’m enjoying now was just not in my universe of thought.
SORKIN: My dream was to be able to pay my bills by writing, to be a professional writer. It ended there. The rest of this I still can’t get over. I was in the middle of writing A Few Good Men, and in New York, there are a number of one-act play competitions, where you write a one-act play, you submit it, they get about 1,000 submissions. If yours is one of the four or six or eight that they pick, they get some very good actors and a good director to do it, and the second-string critics will come out and review you. And I wrote one and it was picked, and the director asked me to be in it. It was four characters, and the director asked me to be in it, to play one of the parts. And Nathan Lane was playing the other lead, and I was on stage one night with Nathan and two other actors who are great, it was right in the middle of the play, and I was thinking to myself, God, these guys are good. Wouldn’t it be great if the whole cast was?
SORKIN: And, you know, I replaced myself.
GALLOWAY: You left the production?
SORKIN: I didn’t leave the production. There would be several more productions, and I didn’t repeat my performance in those others. It’s not like I walked off stage or quit or anything.
GALLOWAY: That’s brave. The “creation myth” is that you are house-sitting, and you stumble across an IBM Selectric, a typewriter. Is that how you began writing?
SORKIN: It is. I was 21, maybe I was 22. It was shortly after I graduated from college, moved to New York, got a number of survival jobs. I bartended in Broadway theaters, I dressed up as a moose and handed out leaflets, as you mentioned. I drove a limousine, I delivered singing telegrams. I did all the kinds of things you’re going to do, because it’s unlikely that you’re going to graduate and instantly be hired to do what you dream about doing. And I would only urge you — and I know this is a lot easier said than done — but I would only urge you to get on the bottom rung of a ladder you want to climb, and not the middle of a ladder you don’t care about.
GALLOWAY: Good advice.
SORKIN: Or even the second rung of a ladder you don’t care about. Get on the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, and that really hard work you’re doing for no money is not going to seem quite so hard. You’re going to have a hard time paying your bills, it’s going to be a hard life, everything is going to be hard, but there’s going to be something fun about it. Your soul is going to feel good. You’re going to like yourself. And work hard and you’ll get to the second rung, the third, the fourth, and fifth.
GALLOWAY: So your play gets made.
SORKIN: A Few Good Men. It was my first play. I was living with my ex-girlfriend — and I don’t mean that she’s my ex-girlfriend now; I mean she was my ex-girlfriend then, who was dating my best friend.
GALLOWAY: Oh, ouch.
SORKIN: This was a studio apartment like the size of this stage. For $200 a month, she let me sleep on a futon.
GALLOWAY: While they were in the other — ?
SORKIN: [LAUGHS] No, she would spend the night.
GALLOWAY: What happened when he came over?
SORKIN: I would get the hell out of there, or sometimes the three of us went out for a beer. That part was amicable. You’re all going be surprised by —
GALLOWAY: — by relationships.
SORKIN: — by the things that are suddenly fine choices to do. But there was one particular weekend when she was out of town, because she was playing Strawberry Shortcake in the traveling Strawberry Shortcake musical. And it was a Friday night in New York — you know exactly what kind of Friday night I’m talking about. It feels like everyone in the world has been invited to a party that you haven’t been invited to.
GALLOWAY: Oh, God.
SORKIN: I think it was probably even raining. And a friend of mine, who I had gone to high school with — he’d come to New York to begin his career as a journalist — had with him his grandfather’s semi-automatic … typewriter. It was barely an electric typewriter. Semi-automatic means electric keys with a manual return.
GALLOWAY: There was such a perfect actor’s pause between semi-automatic and typewriter.
SORKIN: Oh, God, sorry. [LAUGHTER] He asked me to hang on to it for the weekend, because he was going out of town. He didn’t want to schlep it with him. I was going to be staying in on this Friday night, like I said, there was nothing else for me to do. I don’t think I had $3 in my pocket. And nothing in this very tiny apartment was working. The television wasn’t working; the stereo wasn’t working. The only thing I could do to entertain myself, to pass time, was to put a piece of paper in this typewriter and start typing. It was the first time in my life that I had ever written for pleasure, that I had ever written for any reason other than a chore to be gotten through for a school assignment. And it was the first time in my life I had ever written dialogue, and I loved it.
SORKIN: I felt a confidence with it that I’d never felt with acting, and I had been a cocky actor in college. But it was to me, it was like picking up a musical instrument, it was like if I had spent all those years in school studying music theory, listening to music, learning about music, and had never picked up a musical instrument before, and only to discover that when I did — of course, this would never happen with a musical instrument — only to discover that when I did, I could play. And I wasn’t very good yet, but there was no question in my mind, I understood the violin and how this works, and that if I just keep playing it all night, by morning I’ll be able to play for people. And that’s exactly what happened. I wrote all night long. asked two friends to come over, who were actors. You know, there are no computers yet. I’m still now at this point two years away from buying the first Macintosh.
GALLOWAY: How appropriate that it was an Apple.
SORKIN: Yeah. Everything I’ve ever written, I’ve written on a Mac, by the way. That did nothing to mollify Mrs. Jobs.
GALLOWAY: Mrs. Jobs was not happy.
SORKIN: No, she wasn’t.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever met her?
SORKIN: No, no. We spoke on the phone once. But Mrs. Jobs wasn’t happy with Walter Isaacson’s book, and I’m not sure that she ever read the screenplay, and I doubt she saw the movie. But she wasn’t happy with any of that. Anyway, that’s the origin story.
GALLOWAY: So let’s watch a clip from the thing that really put you on the map in Hollywood, A Few Good Men.
SORKIN: Sure. This is the first movie I ever wrote. And it feels like my high school yearbook picture to me, looking at that.
GALLOWAY: What was the hardest part about writing that?
SORKIN: The plot. My parents took me to see plays, starting from when I was very little. Oftentimes, I was too young to understand. I don’t know what my parents were thinking — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf when I was eight years old, that kind of thing. So lots of times I didn’t understand what was going on, but I just loved the sound of dialogue. It sounded like music to me. Great actors and actresses, words crashing into each other, and I wanted to imitate that sound. But my Achilles heel is [plot]. Left to my own devices, I could write 20, 30, 40 pages of kind of neat-sounding dialogue that doesn’t add up to anything, which by the way is what I discovered on that morning, Saturday morning after the Friday night of the semi-automatic typewriter, when I asked my friends to come over. They were incredibly supportive and said, you know, “Wow, this is really good. What’s happening?” And I didn’t know. I just kept writing. So it was like very good finger painting, is what it was. I need, and I think everyone does [a plot]. It just comes easier to some people than it does to me. What I need is a very strong intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it. If I have those things nailed down, and if those two things are compelling, the intention — he wants the money, he wants the girl, he wants to get to Philadelphia, or she, and the obstacle is formidable — I’ll be in pretty good shape. If it’s not, then I’m going to be in a lot of pain. So that was the hardest part of it.
GALLOWAY: This is an extraordinarily well-crafted scene [the confrontation between Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise]. How long did it take to get there, and what mistakes did you make along the way?
SORKIN: It took a long time. It took several years to write the play. Draft after draft after draft after draft, and then once I wrote the screenplay — like I said, not only had I never written a screenplay before, I had never read a screenplay before. I didn’t even know what one looked like. Everyone is saying, “How are you going to open it up?” and asking questions that I wasn’t really prepared to answer, didn’t have the experience or the confidence that I have today. What I didn’t have was the ability to say, “I’m not going to open it up,” or “Since when did that become a rule of drama?” I wasn’t as confident in my own voice. What I was, and this was the case with the first few things that I wrote, what would constantly be on my mind is: what does whoever is waiting for it want? What does Rob Reiner want, who was the director of this? What does the studio want? What are they looking for? Because I have to write that. And I would spend months doing that. A deadline was either looming or I’d already passed the deadline. And so all I had left was, you’re just going to have to write what you write, you know, the way you write, that’s all you can do, and give it to them and then wait for the impending “What in the world is this? It doesn’t even seem like a professional wrote it” — which I always thought was coming. So it wasn’t confidence that allowed me to find my own voice. It was a lack of any options. All I had was my own voice. I was unable to imitate the way other people wrote, just like with Sports Night, that first show, I was just unable to imitate a solid sitcom. With The West Wing, I was unable to imitate a solid drama, and with my movies, I’m unable to imitate other movies.
GALLOWAY: William Goldman was a mentor to you.
SORKIN: Bill Goldman is a two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride. I’ve named a small fraction of the movies that he’s written. Misery. Many of his movies, like The Princess Bride, are based on his own novels. He’s a great screenwriter, he’s an even better novelist. But the thing that he is best at is non-fiction, and I would recommend to anyone, whether you were interested in screenwriting or interested in being a chef, to read a book called Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. It is such an entertaining read, and you’ll really learn a lot. Nothing about it is anachronistic, except for the numbers. You know, when he talks about a star demanding as much as $1 million for a movie or that kind of thing.
GALLOWAY: That’s a great book.
SORKIN: He says, and I believe this to be true, that the first 15 pages of any screenplay are the most important, and the final 15 minutes of any movie are the most important. And what he means by that is that the first hurdle a screenplay has to pass is somebody has to want to make it into a movie. Somebody — it’s the only time — because you write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed. It’s a different experience. And this is the only time that this thing that I’ve written that’s meant to be performed has to pass a certain test by somebody reading it. So if you can hook them in those first 15 pages —
GALLOWAY: Journalism has the same problem. People are always talking about what’s the lead, but the ending often determines your lead.
SORKIN: Being concerned less about the lead than about the ending, I think, is a symptom of journalistic integrity that we’re starting to see fade.
GALLOWAY: Oh, no question. We’re dealing in the world of social media, we’re dealing in the world of Gawker, Vulture. I’m wrestling with whether to write something —
SORKIN: Well — this just may come from too many hours and years invested in writing oftentimes about a more romantic and idealistic world than the one we live in — I think you should not be chasing Gawker and Vulture down into the sewer.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow. Fair enough. What advice did Goldman give you?
SORKIN: He gave me a lot of great advice, and oftentimes it would be in the form of this. I would come over to his house. He lives at the Carlyle Hotel in New York. I’d come over to his apartment, and we would wrestle with something for a few hours. And when I would kind of get in the zone, if you will, which is to say feeling very strongly that I was right about something, about a certain story point. I would forget that I was talking to someone with two Academy Awards, who was decades ahead of me in terms of experience, who has served as a mentor to great people, someone who even well before I met him was a hero of mine. And I would argue with him, toe to toe, and he would say, “Well, it really sounds like you know what you want, so go do it.”
GALLOWAY: But did he give you any guiding principles?
SORKIN: Yes. Too many really to boil down to anything. But one of them was, and we alluded to this at the beginning, the moment when someone has to read your screenplay, the moment in between writing it and it being a movie. He said, “Screenplays don’t have to read like an instruction manual for a refrigerator. You can write them as a pleasurable read.” That screenplay format book that you’ve got at home, throw it out. Just write it, and let it be a good read. Try to give the reader a sense of the excitement of the movie.
GALLOWAY: Which is a difference from those screenplays written in the ’40s or even much later. They’re more wordy in the stage directions.
SORKIN: I don’t write a lot of description. Some people do, because they don’t write a lot of dialogue, so a lot of it’s going to be in the description. And Goldman doesn’t write a lot of description either, but what he does do — and this would drive [Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director] George Roy Hill out of his mind. Bill would write “Exterior, lake, it’s the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen, setting on the most magnificent lake in the world.” And George Roy Hill would say, “Bill, what the f— do you —” [LAUGHTER] “Where is this lake?”
GALLOWAY: How do you write? Do you lock yourself up? What’s your process?
SORKIN: Well, I need to be alone. I can’t write if anyone’s around. There are two parts of the writing. The typing is one thing, but there’s a lot leading up to that. The faking. It’s the bang-your-head-against the wall —
GALLOWAY: I heard you literally did that: you broke your nose.
SORKIN: I broke my nose writing.
GALLOWAY: That’s really quite an achievement.
SORKIN: I’m very physical. When I’m writing, I’m playing all the parts, I’m saying the lines out loud, and if I get excited about something, which doesn’t happen very often when I’m writing, but it’s the greatest feeling when it does, I’ll be out of the chair and walking around, and if I’m at home, I’ll find myself two blocks from my house. I don’t even know how I got there. If I’m at the office, I’m halfway across the Warner Bros. lot.
GALLOWAY: You write in two places?
SORKIN: I have an office at home, I have an office at Warner Bros.
GALLOWAY: Do you get up at the same time each day and start writing then? Do you write at night?
SORKIN: If I’m able to write, I write. Like I said, a lot of it is the faking. I don’t want to go exploring at the keyboard. I want to know what the scene is about, the intention and obstacle.
GALLOWAY: But I think you said that you don’t necessarily know where you’ll go. When you wrote the opening of Social Network, which is really one of the most original openings, with just the rat tat tat between Zuckerberg and his girlfriend —
SORKIN: I seldom have known how something was going to end when I started writing it. I think it’s happened a couple of times. There have probably been a few episodes of television that I’ve written where I knew what the ending was, but hadn’t figured out other parts. But I can’t wait to know what the ending is. I’ve spent so much time not writing at this point, whether it’s a research process, or just walking around in circles, banging your head against the wall and thinking process. When I know what the first 10, 15, 20 pages are now, and there’s gas in the tank, I’ve got it now, now I want to sit and write. I don’t want to wait and figure out what the end of the movie is. I want to write those pages and get to it. The difference between being on page two and page zero is just all the difference in the world to me. You know, having started the actual writing just feels really good. So I want to sit down, I want to write it and hear something that… all of what I’m saying right now, by the way, is stuff that Bill taught me, because he said that that energy will make its way on to the page. That ultimately, you want to be so prepared to write this scene, that you are able to write it in the amount of time it takes to type it.
GALLOWAY: You’ve said that writer’s block is your default position. How do you get over that?
SORKIN: I take six or eight showers a day.
GALLOWAY: That’s a lot.
SORKIN: Yeah, and I’m not a germophobe. It has nothing to do with that. I have a shower at home, I have a shower at the office. It’s a do over. It’s a reset. If it’s not going well, if I can’t think of anything, I get in the shower, I take a shower, I put on different clothes, and try again. On a really bad day, I’ll be incredibly clean.
GALLOWAY: At one point, you moved from film to television. Writer Akiva Goldsman was at your place, and looked at a poster for American President, and said, “Well, why don’t you basically use your outtakes for this?” Let’s watch a clip from West Wing.
SORKIN: The clip that had been suggested to me was a speech, and I’m always happier when it’s a scene, rather than a speech.
GALLOWAY: Oh, that’s interesting, because you are famous for some of the speeches.
Do you like them less?
SORKIN: No, I like them the same. Here’s what I don’t like. Because it’s network television, broadcast standards and practices, one of the things you can’t say on television is “goddamn.” You can’t take the Lord’s name in vain. And just rhythmically, and for other reasons too, the line should be, “Put together an American military response scenario that doesn’t make me think we’re docking somebody’s goddamn allowance. “Somebody’s damn allowance, there is just a hitch in that that’s wrong, and I could not come up with a two-syllable invective at all, so that’s why I’m bothered by the scene.
GALLOWAY: Where did the idea come from?
SORKIN: It was a question I had: what is the virtue of a proportional response? That’s a question that I had asked in the movie The American President, and it comes and goes and it’s never really answered, so I just wanted to explore it a little bit more right here.
GALLOWAY: You wrote 87-88 scripts, basically the entire first four years.
GALLOWAY: Do you regret leaving the show?
SORKIN: Leaving was very difficult. I loved the show, and I particularly loved everyone I worked with on the show. The cast and crew and I were very, very close. We were very proud of what we were doing and we were also riding high on the hog. We had won the Emmy for best drama all four of those years. I felt like for four years I had the best job in show business. So leaving was a very difficult thing, but I think it was the right thing. I don’t regret it. I can’t tell you whether the quality of the show declined or not, because I have never seen an episode of The West Wing from seasons five, six, or seven.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
SORKIN: Tommy Schlamme and I, the other executive producer, principal director of the show, and my closest collaborator, we had for several months been talking about, should this be our last season? Not the show’s last season, our last season. And the moment came and we said, “OK, we’re ready to kind of pull the trigger on this.” Press people, NBC, Warner Brothers, our own publicists were standing by. They drafted a press statement. It went out, and maybe an hour later, Larry David called me. Now, Larry David had left Seinfeld a couple seasons before it ended, and Larry David said, “Listen, whatever you do, you can’t ever watch the show again, because either it’s going to be great and you’re going to be miserable, or it’s going to be less than great, and you’re going to be miserable. Either way, you’re going to be miserable.” And I thought, well, it’s Larry, he’s professionally miserable.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGHS] Right.
SORKIN: It was the end of season four, season five was beginning in the fall. I asked them to send over a copy, a half inch tape, that’s how we watched things then. This is 2003 now. And I asked them to send over a tape of what would be episode 501, season five, episode one. And I put it in my VCR, which, again, was how we watched things, and I don’t think 15 or 20 seconds went by before I — this is not an exaggeration — I go to the TV and slammed it off. It was like watching somebody make out with my girlfriend.
I don’t know if it was good or not good, but I could not handle Donna saying words that I didn’t write, Josh saying words that I didn’t write.
GALLOWAY: But you did come back as an actor, at the very end.
SORKIN: Well, that was an accident. I was an extra, and what happened was they were shooting. I can’t tell you exactly what it was, again, because I don’t really know what was going on. But it was clearly the inauguration of the next president. I assumed that this was the series finale. Three years had gone by, this was season seven, and they had taken over a big section of the parking lot at Warner Brothers to build bleachers and whatnot and put a podium there. And I had heard that it was the last day for a bunch of people on the crew, so I went over there just to say goodbye and congratulations to some of the people on the crew, and everyone started shouting, “You have to get in this shot, you should be in this shot, in the stands behind the president.” So they put a coat and tie on me and I sat there.
GALLOWAY: You had a very difficult personal experience at one point while making the series.
GALLOWAY: You were arrested in Burbank Airport. I’m not saying anything that’s secret.
SORKIN: No. This coming May, I’ll have 15 years clean from cocaine.
SORKIN: Thanks. So I lost my 30s to drug addiction, and I was a pretty high functioning addict. I mean, I worked during this time, I was incredibly lucky. I had what they call a “high bottom,” which means that I didn’t hurt anyone or myself, I didn’t lose my family or my job or my home, things that are much more typical of someone who is doing what I was doing. Things that are almost guaranteed to happen to you if you get in as much trouble as I was in. And yes, I had just turned in the last script of the second season, and to celebrate, was off to Las Vegas, with an eight ball of crack cocaine, and was arrested at Burbank Airport.
GALLOWAY: You speak extraordinarily well about it in a commencement speech you gave for Syracuse University.
SORKIN: Oh, thanks.
GALLOWAY: What I wonder is how that changed your writing. How either the experience of going through that or the experience of giving it up has changed you as a writer.
SORKIN: When I was snorting cocaine, I thought that that was the only way that I could write, and I never started writing before the sun went down. I’d write through the night, and cocaine makes you feel like you’re the most entertaining person in the world. You are so clever, so fast, so passionate, so emotional.
GALLOWAY: You are very entertaining. Every time we speak, I always come away with stuff to think about.
SORKIN: And I thought I wasn’t going to be able to write without coke. I want to be careful that I don’t say anything that makes any of this sound good, because the real problem with drugs is that they work, right? If you’re trying to self-medicate, it’s going to work, right up until the moment it destroys your life completely. Or let me put it a different way. It’s going to work the first time, and then you’re going to spend God knows how many years trying to — it’s called chasing the high, looking for that experience that you had the first time. So I’ll just say this. Let me just put this simply. Even if it turned out that I was a terrible writer without cocaine, I wouldn’t care that much. I’d be bummed, but I wouldn’t want to go back to what I was doing. But, of course, that is not the case. I live normal hours, I have a daughter, and I take being her father very seriously. I don’t live a life where I’m lying all the time. I don’t live a life where I’m afraid of being caught all the time. I am relatively healthy. I take, you know, the normal six to eight showers a day.
GALLOWAY: Yes. [LAUGHS]
SORKIN: So psychologically, obviously, everything is fine.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGHS] It’s interesting, you know, John Cleese had a lot of therapy, and some people said, “Your work isn’t so good.” He said, “Yes, but I’m a lot happier.”
GALLOWAY: But actually, your work I think has got better.
SORKIN: I think so too.
GALLOWAY: You said that you weren’t happy with the writing of The Newsroom.
SORKIN: There was, I think, a misunderstanding with regard to the apology. It was a couple of years ago, it was reported on heavily. I was doing this kind of thing, but at the Tribeca Film Festival. And it was reported as if I was apologizing for the quality of The Newsroom, which I wasn’t. I couldn’t be happier with the quality of The Newsroom. What I was apologizing for, it was a kind of tongue-in-cheek way to say the following: that there were a lot of people, particularly in the media, who resented The Newsroom because they felt that I was trying to show the professionals how it’s done. If you’re not familiar with The Newsroom, the show was set in the very recent past, two years ago, 18 months ago, that kind of thing. And the news events that we saw were real: Boston Marathon bombing; the whole series begins with the BP oil well explosion in the Gulf; and they felt that I had done this, that I had used real news events so that I could leverage hindsight into heroism, that I could make my characters smarter than real reporters, and again, show the pros how it was done, and that was the farthest thing from my mind. I set the show in the recent past so that I wouldn’t have to make up fictional news, so that it really felt like the world that we were living in. And when I would sit down to write the show, I wasn’t thinking, yeah, here’s where they screwed it up, let me have my guys do it. I couldn’t possibly tell a professional reporter what to do or how to do it better. So what I did was apologize for that misunderstanding, as if it were — the context that I put it in was as if it were a first date, where at the beginning of the date, I said something that I meant one way and it was easy to interpret it another way, and I feel like we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, so let’s start again. And the banner the next morning was, “Sorkin apologizes for The Newsroom,” as if I was saying, “I’ve inflicted a bad television show on you, let me pay your HBO bill this month.”
GALLOWAY: Who is your greatest influence as a writer?
SORKIN: I’m heavily influenced by almost everyone, so much so that when I’m in the middle of writing something, I don’t want to see something else. I don’t go to the movies when I’m in the middle of writing something, because I’ll go and I’ll think, oh, that’s so good, and it’s not at all what I’m doing. I should be doing that, instead of what I’m doing.
GALLOWAY: I think people are surprised, given that you have such a strong voice of your own, that you’re still very porous.
GALLOWAY: What is that? Is it a lack of confidence?
SORKIN: Yes, it’s — which I have. I am on either of both ends— and I think most writers are — on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to that. I can be supremely confident in what I’m doing, or not at all confident in what I’m doing. I am at my best, I mean as a writer, I’m writing my best when I’m supremely confident in what I’m doing. With The Newsroom, I was not confident in what I was doing. I knew that there was something wrong every week, and I couldn’t figure it out. It was like walking around with a pebble in my shoe, and I was never comfortable in my —
GALLOWAY: Did you figure it out?
SORKIN: No. No. Here’s what I know — and I feel like I can identify a little bit with Hillary Clinton right now— you will not figure it out by listening to the many voices who are telling or giving you notes, whether it’s voices in the press or [whoever]. You can have a couple of people around you who’ve been around you for a long time, and hopefully one of them is the director, and talk it out with them, or sometimes you can write your way out of it. You know, I wrote The West Wing for four years, 88 episodes of that, and I would get in a slump of three, four, five episodes in a row, where just to put it in sports terms, I was swinging the bat and just fouling the ball off, that I couldn’t get all of it. But you can write your way out of that. And with The Newsroom, I was never quite able to. There would be an episode that had some great scenes in it, but again, to use a sports metaphor, I could never put together a complete game. And the reason why I mentioned Hillary Clinton is that I’ll turn on the news in the morning or read the paper, and I will see 19 different opinions of what she’s doing wrong, not policy-wise, but what she’s doing wrong simply when she opens her mouth and speaks. And this poor woman must by now be thinking, wait, when you walk, do you put your right foot there or your left? She must be so conscious of everything.
GALLOWAY: Have you met her?
SORKIN: Oh, she strikes me as very nice. [LAUGHTER] No, no, no, very nice, very smart. We’ve met twice, and it was not much more than a handshake.
GALLOWAY: Social Network may be your best work. For someone who talks about his problems with plot, the structure of it is so original, in every way, not just that opening. The deposition is a hub for all these other things. Let’s watch a clip.
GALLOWAY: I love the way this is intercut with the deposition, which is extraordinarily difficult and clever, and allows us to enter different people’s points of view. I also love the cleverness of disguising the ending of the scene by actually having two endings. You’ve got the clash with Zuckerberg, but then you add clash with Eduardo.
SORKIN: I like courtrooms in any form they take. A deposition room, a lawyer prepping, anything like that. You’ll see it in [the upcoming] Molly’s Game. Because the intention and the obstacle and the stakes are so clear, could not be clearer. There are two sides. The jury stands in for the audience. There is a built in excuse for all the exposition. You know, when you’re telling a story, there is a certain difficulty in finding a character who knows as little as the audience does, so there’s a reason to explain something. Well, the jury knows as little as the audience does, so there’s all that. And what I had with The Social Network was a situation where there were two lawsuits that had been brought against Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, and whole bunch of people came into the deposition room, sworn to tell the truth, and everybody told a different version of the story. And I thought, well, I’m going to show that. Let the audience decide, did Mark steal Facebook, did Mark screw over his friend, that kind of thing. I don’t need to answer those questions. And if I do everything right, if the soufflé rises the way it’s supposed to, then it’s a courtroom drama and an origin story. I say a courtroom drama; it never gets into a courtroom.
SORKIN: But same rules as a courtroom drama. What we’ll also have is, without saying so, a story about the most antisocial guy in the world creating the world’s most successful socializing platform.
GALLOWAY: A Few Good Men is great, classic writing. But this, to me, goes beyond that, precisely because you never do put it in the courtroom.
GALLOWAY: You know the Terence Rattigan play The Winslow Boy?
GALLOWAY: The great climactic scene at the end of the first act is the confrontation between the barrister and the main witness, whom he’s there to defend. The whole thing works because it’s a courtroom drama, but we’re never in the courtroom. That’s one of the things I love about this.
SORKIN: I love, really love, just a big fan of courtroom dramas, and you can do courtroom dramas a lot of different ways, other than a straight-ahead “All rise” courtroom drama.
GALLOWAY: So working with David Fincher, a happy experience or not?
SORKIN: Happiest experience. David Fincher and Scott Rudin are very, very good at what they do. I believe that Scott Rudin is the best producer of plays and movies alive. I think he gives a lot of the dead producers a run for their money. But he is a demanding person, an exacting person. He may not speak to you the way you’d like to be spoken to. He’s a tough, tough man. So is David. David is a truly phenomenal artist, with no affect, no pretention at all, but with a great eye, and uncompromising. At the beginning of the process of making a movie, the first battle you’re going to have is over the budget, right? The director is going to sit down with, it’s called a line producer, and they’re going to figure out as close as they can what the budget of the movie is going to be, by going through scene by scene, I’m going to need 100 extras here, I’m going to need a helicopter there, I need this kind of camera for this, this I don’t-you know, I want to shoot on the exact location. I don’t want to shoot in Pasadena, pretending it’s this place, that kind of thing. And they’ll come up with a budget for the movie, and the studio is doing the exact same thing with their in-house line producer. Those two numbers are going to be far apart, and there is a negotiation to find your way in the middle, unless you’re David Fincher, OK, who comes in and says $41 million. And the studio will say $30 million, and he’ll say, no, $41 million, and the studio is, like, $35 million. And he said listen, you think I’m negotiating with you. I’m telling you, the price of this movie is $41 million. That’s what it costs to make this movie. I don’t want to make the $40.5 million version of the movie. Now, some people might think you’re being a jerk. Find your way, figure out a way to make the movie you want to make for what’s somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that David is being a jerk. I absolutely loved working with him. An average screenplay is about 120 pages long. My screenplays have higher page counts because there’s more dialogue and less action and just, by the rules of screenplay format, dialogue takes up more room on the page and less time on the screen than action, which takes up more room on the page-I’m sorry, which takes up less room on the page and more time on the screen. So the average screenplay is about 120 pages. A Few Good Men was about 140 pages. The Social Network was 178 pages, and the studio said, OK, the first thing you’ve got to do is figure out a way to cut 30 pages from this. And David said, I don’t think so. I think this is a two hour movie, and he came over to my house with his iPhone set on stopwatch mode, and he said, “I want you to read the entire script out loud for me, at the pace you heard it in your head when you were writing it, and I’m going to write down the timing of each scene.” So that opening scene that you’ve been very complimentary about, with Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara. If I read it and it was seven minutes and 22 seconds, then in rehearsal, and David demanded part of what was baked into the budget was rehearsal time, and part of what wasn’t baked into the budget, I remember David saying to them, “Well, I can cut $125,000 out of your budget right away, because we’re not doing any test screenings.” That’s the kind of thing. And I just thought David, Scott, these are the bullies I want to be with. You know, they’re great when they’re on your team. And anyway, in rehearsal, Jesse and Rooney would rehearse the scene, David would say great, and he would give them a couple of notes, and always end with, “But this scene is seven minutes and 22 seconds long, and you’re doing it at seven minutes and 40 seconds. So I don’t care how, but you’re going to have to talk faster somewhere, because I promise you, this scene plays best at seven minutes and 22 seconds.”
GALLOWAY: Let’s talk about Steve Jobs. His wife was against this.
SORKIN: Part of the story of the making of this movie was that Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene, tried to stop the making of this movie. She was very unhappy with Walter Isaacson’s biography, upon which it was made, and she didn’t want this movie made. And she called Leo DiCaprio and said please don’t do this movie. She called Christian Bale and said please don’t do this movie. She called Michael Fassbender and said please don’t do this movie. When Sony had to put the movie in turnaround, which means they were putting it up for sale, a studio can come along, and if you just pay our development costs so far, the cost of optioning the book and paying me, basically, were the costs, you can have the movie. She called the head of Fox and said please don’t do this movie. She called the head of Paramount and said please don’t do this movie. And it was a very scary 24 hours, where after all this time and a screenplay we were incredibly excited about, it was a very different, very original and challenging screenplay, and everything were in place, it was a very scary 24 hours where it really seemed like this thing, which had been a green light from the moment the screenplay was delivered, was suddenly not going to happen, because Mrs. Jobs was making it so.
GALLOWAY: Harold Bloom wrote that great creators don’t imitate, but react against something. Who have you reacted against artistically?
SORKIN: I’m not sure that I have. My first television series, for instance, was Sports Night, which was considered a very unusual half hour. It wasn’t quite a sitcom, there weren’t three jokes a page. Even the look of it was different. There were moments of tension and drama and things that you would find in an hour-long show, instead of a half-hour. It was just different from all the other stuff out there. I did not write that as a reaction to what I was seeing. I didn’t write it as this multi-camera sitcom, laugh track thing, with the goofy neighbor who says, “I can’t take it anymore, so I’m going to write something else.” I didn’t. All I did was write the way I write. All I did was this. I had written, lightning struck, and I made my Broadway playwriting debut at a very young age, with A Few Good Men, and Hollywood came calling, and “We want you to turn this into a movie.” I did that, I did another movie after that, they were both successful. And when I went into ABC with my agents and all their executives, I wasn’t somebody who was desperate to sell a television series. They were eager to have me write one.
SORKIN: I did have this germ of an idea, but it wasn’t like I have this idea I’m so passionate about and I must set it up here, or, “I need my break somehow. I’m a struggling writer, I need to get into show business.” What I’m trying to say is that, because I wasn’t trying to please them so much, to figure out what they want and then give it to them, instead I was writing the way I write. I wasn’t asking for a show of hands, trying to guess what it is people want, that kind of thing. It came out a little different, and that show, not many people watched it, but the ones who did, most especially the critics, liked it very much.
SORKIN: You know, the show was on Tuesday nights, on ABC, at nine o’clock. And Wednesday morning, you get to work very early when you’re working a film or television. I’d come into my office at around 6:00 a.m. There’s a number that you can dial and there is a recording that gives you the ratings for the night before. And I’d call this number, and there were some Wednesday mornings where I thought they were just going to read me a list of names. You know, Ed in St. Paul watched it, he had a couple of friends over, that kind of thing. And I have to tell you, it didn’t bother me. The show ran for two seasons. I know a lot of time has gone by since A Few Good Men. I just don’t feel like it has. I don’t feel like a lot of time has gone by since I was the vice president of the drama club, doing that. I am still as excited and giddy. It hasn’t gotten old for me.
GALLOWAY: You’ve just finished a new screenplay, Molly’s Game. What’s it about?
SORKIN: Molly’s Game was a true story about a remarkable young woman named Molly Bloom. She was this close to going to the Olympics, she was ranked third in North America in women’s moguls. She was a fantastic student, on her way to Harvard Law School. Her life was going to lay out perfectly. She was going to graduate from Harvard Law School, with an Olympic medal. It wasn’t going to hurt that she is extremely attractive as well, with a wonderful personality, and just a freak accident in qualifying for the Olympics, just something you couldn’t believe, kept her out of those Salt Lake City games. And she came here to L.A. What I just described is the first two minutes of the movie. She came here to L.A. just to kind of shake off that thing that had happened, and maybe just be young in warm weather for a little while before she would go to law school. She ended up running for 12 years the world’s most exclusive high stakes poker game, a game where there were movie stars, hedge fund managers, big name athletes, Saudi princes, and millions of dollars were changing hands in the course of a night. She became known as the biggest game runner in the world. And in writing this, a number of people in the game are bold face names, they’re people who you would know. You can Google this and see the sort of tabloid version of the story, but there’s a much better story under the tabloid version of the story. And I have gone to great lengths to obscure the identities of those people, because I don’t want the movie to be about gossip. I wouldn’t want it to under any circumstances, but in this particular case, the reason why she is a movie hero, the reason why she’s worth writing about in the first place, is that by the end of the whole thing, even if it meant saving her life, guaranteeing her own freedom, she wouldn’t have to go to jail for four years, even if it meant the restoration of all the money the government took away from her, she would not name a single [person], she wouldn’t tell a story. She could have. She wrote a book for which she could have gotten a $2 million advance — “If you’ll just give us a story about Leo, come on, please.” And she said, “I’ll tell you that Leo played, because it’s already come out in the deposition, but that’s all you get.” She got a $35,000 advance instead of $2 million. She sold about seven copies of the book. My point is that she also had a consumer-driven reason to do the wrong thing. But my original point was, the reason why I brought it up, was I was going to spoil a line in the movie. We were talking about failure, and she says at the end of the movie that — she quotes Winston Churchill, who said, “Success is defined by being able to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”