Inside Aaron Sorkin's Writing Process
"The difference between Page 2 and Page Nothing is the difference between life and death," says the "Social Network" scribe.
There are index cards everywhere in Aaron Sorkin’s office. Index cards for scenes from films going back to 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War.
The writer of The West Wing and The Social Network likes to use those cards, tacked to a large corkboard, to keep track of key elements. Social Network’s pivotal scenes are still up there, with notes that read, “Mark and Erica in bar,” “Mark walks back to dormitory” and “Mark begins drinking, blogging, hacking.”
Reticent to take the cards down even after a project ends, he quips that he keeps them “just in case I need to go back and do a rewrite.”
Sorkin has used index cards for a long time, though not quite from that first night decades ago when he knew he was meant to write.
Shortly after earning a bachelor’s degree in theater from Syracuse in 1983, Sorkin, an aspiring actor, was crashing in an ex-girlfriend’s postage-stamp-sized apartment and working multiple part-time jobs — including handing out leaflets dressed as a moose. With all of his friends away, a broken TV and not a dime to go out, he was stuck.
“It was one of those Friday nights where it feels like everybody’s been invited to a party and you haven’t,” Sorkin says.
Instead, he turned to the typewriter a journalist friend had entrusted him with, inserted a piece of paper and began pecking out a play — about a struggling actor working with a touring children’s theater — that mirrored his life.
“That was the very first time I wrote for pleasure, for any reason other than a chore,” he says.
The session lasted till dawn and put Sorkin on a path to becoming one of Hollywood’s most esteemed writers. His unique style has been present throughout.
“Part of what makes Sorkin is not just the tonnage of words but the fact that you’re watching a person navigate the jungle of their self-doubt, the jungle of their thought process,” Social Network director David Fincher says.
Navigating that jungle became the driving force behind Sorkin’s 162-page script for the film about the founding of Facebook.
“We started at 100 miles an hour in the middle of a conversation, and that makes the audience have to run to catch up,” Sorkin says of the film’s talky opening sequence. “The worst crime you can commit with an audience is telling them something they already know. We were always running ahead.”
For Social Network, Sorkin was on set every day. “I’m not writing something that’s meant to be read; I’m writing something that’s meant to be performed,” he says. “Just having written a screenplay is no more satisfying to me than if a songwriter handed out pieces of sheet music.”
Despite the accolades earned since his play A Few Good Men was brought to the big screen in 1992, Sorkin admits: “Writing never comes easy. The difference between Page 2 and Page Nothing is the difference between life and death.”
Sorkin is in that life-and-death stage as he works on his latest screenplay: an adaptation of The Politician, by Andrew Young (an aide to former presidential candidate John Edwards), which Sorkin optioned in July and plans to make his directorial debut.
“I’ll take anything that gets me started,” he says. “Sometimes it’s finding a particular moment, remembering that you want to begin your story as close to the end as possible. If there’s a structure that seems pretty cool,I think about that.”
He also thinks about that night he first thought to become a writer.
“When I was writing dialogue, I felt a confidence that I’d never felt as an actor — and I was a pretty cocky actor,” Sorkin says. “Honestly, I feel like that night has never ended. It’s still that night, and I’ve just kept on going.”