Aaron Sorkin on Directing 'Molly's Game' and Staging a Star-Studded Poker Room (Q&A)

Courtesy of STXfilms
"When you're writing, you spend a lot of days not writing," says Sorkin (with Jessica Chastain). "At least when you're directing, at the end of the day you've done a day's work, and that's satisfying."

The celebrated screenwriter, who makes his directorial debut with an adaptation of Molly Bloom's 2014 memoir, explains why he chose not to "dish" on any of the famous names (from Leo DiCaprio to Ben Affleck) involved.

Aaron Sorkin, the prolific and critically acclaimed screenwriter (A Few Good Men, Moneyball, The Social Network) and showrunner (The West Wing, The Newsroom), needs no introduction. But now meet Aaron Sorkin the director. With his latest project, Molly's Game, the Emmy and Oscar winner is behind the camera for the first time. The estimated $30 million STX film, starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, is based on the tell-all book by Molly Bloom, a former competitive skier who ran high-stakes, star-filled poker games in L.A. and New York that eventually placed her at the center of an FBI investigation. Sorkin's screenplay expands Bloom's story beyond the memoir, but he also chose not to use the real names of the A-list actors (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck) chronicled in her book, instead combining them into one composite character called Player X.

Ahead of its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival (Molly's Game hits theaters Nov. 22), Sorkin, 56, spoke to THR about making his directorial debut and what advice he'd give another newbie director.

How did you decide to write this script?

I was sent [Bloom's] book by a lawyer I know socially. I thought it was a really fun story, but I really wanted to meet the writer of the book. I thought she was a good writer and really witty. Once I met her and started hearing the real story — what wasn't in the book — I became fascinated with her and the reasons why she left a lot of stuff out of the book. That first meeting was an hour long, but I just started getting ideas. Ideas for the opening scene, to make the book a character in the movie and to make the reason why certain things weren't in the book part of the story in the movie. I found her to be a unique movie heroine that I'd never seen before. There was an opportunity to write about the things I like to write about. The romantic and idealistic quality of doing the right thing appeared to me in an area where you wouldn't really find those things: underground poker games. It all seemed unusual and like a terrific story.

Why direct now?

I’ve known for over two years that I was going to need a succinct, brief answer to that question. I still don’t have one. I’m not done wanting to work with great directors. I’ve worked with some of the best and I’ve loved it. And I didn’t write this with the intention of directing. I had a very clear vision for what I wanted it to be, whether I was right or wrong. I knew it was going to be difficult to communicate some of the things that were in my head to another person. I was at a restaurant with [producers] Mark Gordon and Amy Pascal, and we had a list of possible directors and we were going through that list, when we got the end Mark said, “but we think you direct it.” I grabbed at the chance.

How did you decide to cast Jessica Chastain as Molly?

I had meetings with probably everyone you could think of. Jessica is an actress I’ve really admired for a long time. I thought in addition to having these superior skills, I thought she came to it with brains and humor and gravitas that she wasn’t going to have to push very hard. The other thing was she and Idris had six scenes together that each of them are seven to nine pages long. There was minimal rehearsal time on this movie because of the budget and their schedules.

How minimal?

None. There were no days of rehearsal. I’m all about rehearsal so that was pretty scary for me. What I did about a month before shooting started is I began virtual rehearsal with Jessica and Idris over Skype or email. We would talk through each scene, each beat in each scene. None of that would have mattered if the two of them hadn’t arrived prepared. On the first day, they did it like they had done it 100 times before.

Did you ever debate using the actors' names?

I was never going to do that. One of the first things I said to Molly at our first meeting was that I'm not going to dish on any of these guys. I wouldn't have wanted to under any circumstances, but in a movie where the hero is the hero because she doesn't dish on anybody, you can't either as the filmmaker. I kept bopping around as to how I was going to handle that visually. When these guys came in, was I going to pixelate their faces? There was a time where I thought, "OK, we'll never really see their faces. We'll just see hands and chips and cards, or they'll always be in shadow." But I didn't like that, either. It was around then that I thought maybe there should be an experienced director doing this. Then I landed on Player X, this one player who wouldn't have a name and who would do everything plotwise that I needed that character to do.

Is it true that Tobey Maguire, who is named in Bloom's book, wanted to be in the film?

I think Tobey was joking around when he was telling people that he wanted to be in the movie.

Michael Cera plays Player X, a charming actor who first befriends Molly but later causes her trouble. Why him?

Because he's such a sweet guy, with those apple cheeks, and he's always playing the nice guy that he would be perfect to play this guy.

What did you find you were best at as a director?

Morale. I like being the cheerleader and that kind of thing. Whether the crew liked it, you’d have to ask them.

What were you worst at?

I'll tell you one thing: I don’t have great eyesight and I wear two different sets of prescription glasses, one for reading and writing and the other one for everything else. We were shooting a scene where we meet the Playboy playmates who are super smart. When we meet the third one, she’s got a crayon and placemat and she’s writing something in Farsi. The camera needed to find it, and I kept saying that it was out of focus. Everybody was looking through the lens, they were taking the camera apart and dusting the lens. I was saying that it was out of focus all night and I was demoralizing everybody. I was not doing a good job as the morale head that night. And it wasn’t until I got home that I realized I was wearing the wrong glasses.

What advice would you give to a screenwriter who wants to direct a feature?

I would tell them you're going to need a lot of physical energy. Start eating right and exercising months before shooting begins. I would talk to them about morale because I think morale is important. And I would tell them about the "suicide cut." That's the first time you see the movie assembled together, and you think, "My God, did I do anything right?" But if you're lucky enough to work with the editors that I worked with, you start to want to live again. And I would say to do everything you can to ensure that you are the least talented person on this movie.

Has Molly seen the finished film?

She hasn't. I didn't think she would want to see it for the first time with other people, especially with her family. I offered to set up a screening room for her, so she could watch it by herself. But she wants to see it for the first time with an audience, like it's a real movie, and with her family. I'm bringing Molly and her family to Toronto. It's not easy because — as it says in the movie — she's not allowed to go to Canada [because of her felony conviction associated with the poker games]. We have hired a lawyer in Toronto to work with their equivalent of the state department and immigration to get her a 48-hour pass. The interesting thing is, for some crazy reason, she won't know if they're allowing her to go until she gets into customs at the airport in Canada. She and her family are going to fly to Toronto, and who knows what's going to happen when she steps up to the booth.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.