Jessica Chastain, Martin Sheen and Barking Dog Turn Up to Honor Aaron Sorkin at AFI Fest Closing

Aaron Sorkin, Jessica Chastain and Martin Sheen - Molly's Game Closing Night Gala - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

Just a few years ago, Aaron Sorkin found himself at his New York City apartment with his father on the morning that the Academy Award nominations were revealed. A film he had written was among the hopefuls, but it was not to be. Sorkin's father helped ease the sting by asking his son this question: How many people in the world do you think woke up this morning even with a reasonable expectation that they might get an Oscar nomination?

"That's when I discovered that for most people, it's an honor just to be nominated. In my family, it's an honor just to be overlooked," Sorkin said from the podium Thursday night in front of a packed house at the TCL Chinese Theatre, host of AFI Fest's closing-night presentation of Sorkin's directorial debut Molly's Game. "You can imagine how they and I feel about getting recognized like this from a group of people like this."

No need to imagine. Sorkin delivered a genuinely gracious speech (he thanked collaborators, producers, partners and even PAs) as part of the closing festivities for the event (presented by Audi and Vizio) that included a tribute featuring two bold-faced names and a seated Q&A with Variety film critic Peter Debruge.

First up in the tribute was Sorkin's Molly — star Jessica Chastain, outfitted in a glittering Elie Saab and a Piaget necklace worth $1 million — who admitted that it was a difficult task to find the right words to honor "our industry's greatest wordsmith." But Chastain has never backed away from a challenge involving putting together a few characters. (For reference, check Twitter.) 

"We can agree that he's had a profound impact on our culture and he has set the bar higher for language as a vehicle for truth and social commentary. Aaron is far more than the sum of his words. Aaron Sorkin is a noun, but he's also a verb and he's certainly an adjective," said the actress and producer. "The only thing that I would change about my experience of working with Aaron Sorkin is that I wish he had directed sooner."

Chastain then asked the audience to ponder a question: "Think of all the movies Aaron Sorkin would've made by now." Just as she finished delivering that statement, a dog barked from the section directly in front of her. "Hello, dog," she laughed. "I can't wait to see what other magic he has up his sleeve as he continues to share not just his vernacular but also now his vision," she added about Sorkin — not the dog.

Following Chastain was a surprise guest in The West Wing star Martin Sheen. Just as he started his speech, the dog barked again, causing the actor to almost giggle at the surprise. Sheen then got serious, recalling how he first met Sorkin in 1994 while working on the Rob Reiner-directed The American President. "I was dazzled by his energy, talent, focus, and the way he engaged everyone on the set," he said. "One quickly learned that it was rare indeed that any suggestion from any source was ever better than what Aaron had already put on the page. Words are like musical notes for Aaron who, like a skilled composer, carefully constructs each word note with the rhythm and timing required to reach an emotional crescendo. As he himself has often said, 'My scripts are not meant to be read, they are meant to be performed.' As an actor, you have only to follow your instinct, trust his score and you are home free. If not, you're out at first."

Speaking of outs, there were a few early exits from the theater, due to timing on the night. After Sheen came Sorkin, followed by the Sorkin-Debruge discussion, and by the time the screening started it was after 9:30 p.m. (By the time the film finished, it was nearly midnight.) Sorkin made a joke about it during the sit-down chat by saying the best thing he could do was just to stop talking and start the movie.

But the entirety of his words made it all worth the wait, per usual. 

After admitting that he was overwhelmed by the honor, Sorkin thanked both Sheen and Chastain. "Working with [Sheen] for four years, I had the best job in show business," he commented, before taking a tongue-in-cheek jab at how many times Sheen has been arrested for his activism. "Martin, you are an extraordinary actor, you're an even better man, but you are the worst criminal in the history of jurisprudence." Then it was Chastain's turn to be praised: "I don't know what I did in a past life to be so lucky in this one that I got to work with Jessica Chastain on this movie. I must've cured something very serious," said Sorkin.

Though no one mentioned how Sorkin and his Molly's Game team turned up to replace Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World as AFI Fest's originally scheduled closing-night film, the Oscar-winning writer did reference Hollywood's current climate with a respectful aside. (Scott is currently doing reshoots to replace Kevin Spacey's part after multiple men came forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment.) "I have been doing this for 25 years," he said. "I have only ever worked with serious professionals who respected their jobs and respected each other. I am very grateful for that, too."

In his closing remarks, Sorkin seemed most grateful for the fact that he gets to live out his dream, one that has gotten much bigger than he could've ever imagined. 

"All I ever wanted to be was a professional writer. All I ever wanted was to be able to pay my bills by writing," he said. "The idea of an evening like this would have been [like] me thinking I was going to win the Preakness — not as a jockey, as the horse. That's how far out of my imagination this was. I don't take this for granted."