“For me, growing up, writing was just a chore to be gotten through for a school assignment,” says Aaron Sorkin — the writer of A Few Good Men, Malice, The American President, Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, The Newsroom, Steve Jobs and 2017’s Molly’s Game, an adaptation of the memoir of Molly Bloom, a former Olympic-level skier who ran bicoastal poker games that landed her in the sights of the FBI and the Russian mob — as we sit down in his dimly lit and awards-filled office on the Warner Bros. lot to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “It wasn’t until college, really — the very end of my senior year — that I tried writing for pleasure.”
Not long after, Sorkin, who is now 56, moved to New York, where he resided on a futon in his ex-girlfriend’s studio apartment and worked “survival jobs” while trying to make it as an actor. One rainy Friday night, a friend entrusted Sorkin with his grandfather’s semi-automatic typewriter for the weekend while he went out of town, and Sorkin, all alone and with nothing better to do, found himself sitting in front of it. “I stayed up all night writing and writing and writing,” he recalls, “and I feel like that night never ended.”
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Sorkin, born and raised in Manhattan, was the child of a lawyer and a teacher who took him, from an early age, to the theater. Much of what he saw went over his head, but he couldn’t get enough of it. “I loved the sound of dialogue,” Sorkin explains. “It sounded like music to me.” He initially thought that his association with dialogue would be delivering it as an actor, but, after his typewriter epiphany, Sorkin realized he might have better luck as a writer. A one-act play that he wrote and entered into a festival landed him an agent, and a conversation with his sister inspired A Few Good Men, his first produced play (1989) and screenplay (1992), which — with fiery dialogue like that in the now-iconic “You can’t handle the truth” exchange — catapulted him to fame.
The film version of A Few Good Men, as well as 1993’s Malice and 1995’s The American President — all for Rob Reiner‘s Castle Rock production company (Reiner directed the first and third pics) — established Sorkin as one of the top practitioners of his profession, but he soon found himself at his lowest point. “I was introduced to cocaine and quickly became a cocaine addict,” he acknowledges. “A high-functioning addict.” Sorkin went to rehab in 1995, which got him back on his feet for a while. “To be honest with you, I don’t have many memories — fond or otherwise — of those years that you’re talking about because I was high all the time.” Sorkin had another relapse in 1999, but has remained clean ever since.
In the late ’90s, Sorkin met TV producer John Wells (ER) for what he thought was a social lunch, but quickly realized was a pitch meeting. “Even though I had never thought about television,” Sorkin recalls, he pitched an idea that had been suggested to him the night before by another writer, Akiva Goldsman: adapting The American President into a drama series. Wells responded enthusiastically and asked for a pilot, and Sorkin, who is not particularly interested in politics himself, “walked out of there in a daze.” Sorkin turned in a pilot for The West Wing, but, he recalls, “NBC didn’t want to do it at first. The management there at the time looked at it and said, ‘Washington shows don’t work. Shows about politics don’t work.'” In the meantime, he started on ABC’s Sports Night (1998-2000), which made it on to the air just ahead of The West Wing (1999-2006).
Through those network shows, Sorkin’s work reached massive audiences every week, and he became famous for his fast-paced dialogue, long speeches and walk-and-talks. The West Wing became one of the best-reviewed and most-watched shows in TV history, winning a record-tying four Emmys (2000-2003) and helping to usher in the platinum age of TV. But the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which happened in the middle of The West Wing‘s run, may have made audiences somewhat more cynical and therefore less receptive to Sorkin’s subsequent TV efforts. Thanks to that and the rise of the internet, his next shows — NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007) and HBO’s The Newsroom (2012-2014) — encountered as many trolling critics as fawning admirers. Of the latter, Sorkin says, “There was a sense that I was leveraging hindsight into heroism, that I was trying to show the pros how it was supposed to be done — that kind of thing. That was the last thing on my mind, was doing that. I set the show in the recent past because I didn’t want to have to invent ‘fake news’ stories.”
Coincidentally or not, Sorkin began returning to film scripts around this time. He was widely lauded for 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, 2010’s The Social Network, 2011’s Moneyball and 2015’s Steve Jobs; indeed, Sorkin won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for Social Network (on which he was set to make his directorial debut before David Fincher agreed to take the job) and was nominated for it the following year for Moneyball, and he won the best screenplay Golden Globe for Social Network and Steve Jobs. Through it all, though, he faced criticism, in some circles, for the way in which he writes female characters — criticism he says he heard, but with which he disagrees. “I’m aware that there are people who have issue with some of the female characters that I have written,” Sorkin says. “I take issue with their issue. But, listen, once I write something and put it on a screen, put it on a stage, put it in your living room, I don’t get to have anything more to say about it.” He adds, “At that point, it’s a painting hanging on a wall, and anybody gets to say anything about it that they want.”
Sorkin may not be able to change the way people feel about films that already have been made, but did he decide to write — and make his directorial debut with — this year’s Molly’s Game, his first film with a female protagonist, in response to those criticisms? “[That had] absolutely nothing to do with why I wanted to write Molly’s Game,” he emphasizes, adding, “I wrote it not thinking at all that I would direct it.” It was only at the urging of Amy Pascal, with whom he collaborated on The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs when she was running Sony — and with whom he became embroiled in the 2014 Sony hack, when, as he puts it, “a large chunk of the media colluded with terrorists” — that he made the project his directorial debut. “The worst thing that can happen,” Sorkin says, “is if you let [criticism] affect the writing, if you find yourself writing to try to persuade people, to convince them that they’re wrong about you being a bad writer.” Instead, he decided to write Molly’s Game because he saw in Molly Bloom’s story something similar to what he saw in Mark Zuckerberg‘s. “To me, the second-best thing in the world is a story that nobody’s heard,” says Sorkin. “And the best thing in the world is a story that everybody thinks they’ve heard.”