Aaron Sorkin’s History Distortion Field

The “Steve Jobs” screenwriter schools a reporter on the difference between biopic and artistic portrait.

Aaron Sorkin (Kevin Scanlon/The New York Times/Redux)

I had a difficult time watching the movie Steve Jobs.

It could not have been otherwise. The Jobs story is not an abstraction to me. It’s a big part of my professional life, with some threads extending to friendships in my personal life. Most of all, I knew Jobs. Yes, the movie oozes with craft and talent. But, as with some others, I couldn’t connect Michael Fassbender’s portrayal with the person I knew.

All Hollywood depictions of real life involve some liberties, and every such cinematic portrayal establishes its own footing in terms of accuracy, though the ground rules are rarely defined. There’s no Genius annotation while you’re in the Cineplex. And very few people will take to the Internets to seek out fact-checks.

What are the boundaries a screenwriter or playwright must adhere to when depicting a real-life situation? What details are okay to tamper with? Which are not? What, if anything, does an artist rendering a real-life figure owe to his or her subject? Can fabrications bring us closer to the truth than facts?

Watching Steve Jobs, those questions became vital to me. So I pushed hard for an interview with Sorkin to try to get some answers. During our phone conversation, Sorkin was able to explain the vagaries of acceptable fabrication and even the signals he sent to the audience indicating that the Steve Jobs of his movie is not to be seen as a perfect analog to the flesh-and-blood figure that some of us knew. In doing so, he revealed a lot about his creative process. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Steven Levy: I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve spent a considerable part of my career writing about Steve Jobs.

Aaron Sorkin: Well, I know that we quote you in the movie.

Yes, but you dropped my name!

Dropping your name could have only been our legal department’s note. Now I’m curious why they would’ve asked me to do that.

One more casualty in Hollywood’s boulevard of broken dreams.

OK, let’s get started. When you take on a project about an actual person how much are you constructing a story, and to what degree do you have concern for the verisimilitude? How important is it to make the Steve Jobs in the movie, the real Steve Jobs?

Let me try to answer that. If I were doing a biopic, an actual biopic —

What do you consider a biopic?

A biopic would be a cradle-to-grave story. It would be something much closer to a Wikipedia page dramatized. Do you remember the movie from a few years ago, The Queen, with Helen Mirren? That wasn’t the biopic about Queen Elizabeth. She was at the center of the movie, but it’s about six days in Queen Elizabeth’s life. Similarly, by the same writer coincidentally, Peter Morgan, the movie Frost/Nixon is not a biography of Richard Nixon. We get a window into a part of Richard Nixon, but it’s specifically about those interviews with him.

So when approaching this, even though the source material was a comprehensive biography, a piece of journalism from a very well-credentialed journalist, I didn’t think the best movie I could write would simply take, in chronological order, the greatest hits of Steve Jobs’ life, from when he was a boy, to when he and Woz said, “Hey, let’s start a company in my parents’ garage!” through to his diagnosis. So before I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I didn’t want to do and that was write a biopic.

Was the choice you did make — a three-act structure built around three product launches — done mainly in service of telling a story for the movie, or did you feel it was the best way to get at Steve Jobs?

Both, really. I wanted to do a new take on Steve Jobs, since a biography is available in a number of forms, whether it was Walter’s book, Alex Gibney’s documentary. . . any number of articles written by you and any number of other journalists. I didn’t want to do something strictly journalistic because that’s not what I’m good at and that’s not why you would come to me.

So while I was trying to think of what I did want to do, I spent a lot of time talking to people who had been very close to Steve: all of the people who are represented by characters in the movie, except of course Steve, and several dozen others. And points of friction began to reveal themselves that I thought were interesting. Points of friction between Steve and Woz, between Steve and Chrisann Brennan, between Steve and John Sculley. And to me, most interestingly, most emotionally, between Steve and his eldest daughter, Lisa. So I started thinking about how can I dramatize these points of friction.

And I am most comfortable as a playwright really, which is what I know. I’m sort of faking my way through movies and television. As a playwright I like claustrophobic spaces, I like condensed periods of time, especially if there is a ticking clock. And I like being behind the scenes, in this case literally behind the scenes.

So after stumbling across a fairly benign piece of information — which was that during rehearsals for the launch for the Mac in ’84, they couldn’t get it to say hello and scrambled around trying to fix that — that’s when I got the idea. I need to look for an intention and an obstacle. What if I make that the intention and obstacle of the first act? And begin hanging the stuff that really interests me, these points of friction in Steve’s life? I start hanging them, like on a clothesline, throughout the first act, and I would have to do the same thing in the second and the third. Obviously Steve did not have confrontations with the same five people 40 minutes before every product launch that he did. That’s plainly a writer’s conflict. But the content of those confrontations is real.

Director Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin on set.

Let’s take a specific example of history and fabrication. In the first act, you have Steve’s obsession with the 1983 Time Magazine story about him. You’re right to zero in on that — he was complaining about that when I interviewed him for Rolling Stone before the Macintosh launch, and he was complaining about it 20 years later.

That’s right.

But you took it a step farther. In your screenplay, someone at Apple ordered boxes of the magazine and was going to place one on every seat in the shareholder’s meeting until someone figured out it would make Steve crazy. In real life, that didn’t happen.

Right. That’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t mind making up. Here is what’s true, here is the important truth. As a matter of happy coincidence, Walter Isaacson, who was at Time Magazine in 1983 when all this happened, was able to tell me that Steve was never in the conversation for Man of the Year. Steve had always blamed Dan Kottke for spilling the beans in that article about Steve having to take a paternity test and that whole situation with Lisa and believed that was the reason why he didn’t get the cover. But, as Walter pointed out, it had nothing to do with Kottke — if you look at the cover, it’s a sculpture of a man at a desk with a computer, and that sculpture would have had to have been commissioned months and months in advance. In fact, the sculptor himself is a well known guy whose name I forget.

So that information is something that I want to use. I want to use it to introduce the paternity issue, I want to use it because it’s going to pay off in the third act both when Joanna [Hoffman] is giving a demonstration of his reality distortion field... And the final payoff is that Lisa, who now has Internet access at school, has read it — has read about her father denying that he’s not her father.

So I never worried that what the audience was going to go away with was there were cartons and cartons of Time Magazine backstage at this event. It didn’t seem to be important that the audience gets that right or wrong, that it was a fact of history. It has no negative effect on anyone’s life. You can’t say, who was the idiot who put those cartons of Time Magazine backstage? But that [represented] something truer and I felt this was an interesting way to dramatize it.

So that’s a minor point. But in the third act you have an omission that I do think changes the way people would think of Steve. You don’t mention in your movie that Steve by then has his own family — three other children. And Lisa, in fact, is living with the family before she went to school.

Sorry, you’re only half right. I don’t mention Laurene, and the other kids, but I very much mention that Lisa has been living with Steve by then. When they’re arguing Steve says, “You came to me when you were thirteen, hysterical, begging me to let you live with me.”

But again, mentioning that Steve has a family… to what end would I do that? Simply because it’s a fact that the audience should know? That’s biopic stuff. If there was a reason to mention it, if it was now part of the story, then there’d be a reason to mention it. But it does not at this moment have anything to do [with the story], at this moment being the 40 minutes into that the third act… it doesn’t have anything to do with Steve’s relationship with Woz, Andy [Hertzfeld], Joanna, John Scully, Chrissann, or Lisa. It’s just a fact.

Another fact that’s not mentioned? Pixar. Pixar is never mentioned but it’s a very big deal. It changed the movie business. It was a huge success for him. It just doesn’t have anything to do with the story that we’re telling. Just like there were many things in Queen Elizabeth’s life that are important facts that didn’t have anything to do with the story that was being told in The Queen. Or just like there were many things going on in the life of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that don’t have anything to do with what was going on in All The President’s Men. These and this are not biopics.

This isn’t The Steve Jobs Story. And it was never intended to give you all the facts about Steve’s life. And your first clue to that — because I want to make sure that the audience wasn’t mistaking it for anything else — is that we made no attempt to have the actor in any way do a physical impersonation of Steve Jobs. He doesn’t look like Steve Jobs, we didn’t ask him to speak like Steve Jobs. There is a joke about “insanely great” but I didn’t write in any of the Jobs-isms. It’s just not that movie.

That’s in addition to every interview I’ve done in the last month, telling anyone who stands still long enough to listen to me that it’s not a biopic, that it’s something else.

I think there’s a key difference between what you do and I do. You say that you omitted the information about his family because you were being true to your story. In a way, you were constructing a story that tries to solve this character who is your Steve Jobs. But to me, despite covering Steve for over 30 years and getting to know him as a person, he was always enigmatic to a certain degree. Even many people who knew him very, very well couldn’t explain parts of him. Walter’s book leaves the mystery unsolved because — and every nonfiction writer knows this — real life is messy. But in a movie you have to bring things to a conclusion and by doing that maybe solve a problem that can’t be solved.

I disagree. I mostly in this movie ask questions that aren’t answered. Is it binary — can you be a genius and decent at the same time? What did Steve do? Those questions go unanswered. It’s interesting because in the final scene with Lisa on the rooftop when Steve tells her that Lisa, the computer, was named after her, she says, “Why did you say it wasn’t all these years?” And Steve’s line is, “I honestly don’t know.” I told Michael Fassbender, the actor, in rehearsal that that line, “I honestly don’t know,” is the most honest thing Steve says in this entire movie. So I would say to you that I did not come up with answers, I just thought interesting questions.

The box office was very poor in this first weekend of general release. Your reaction?

Here’s what I’ll say. First of all, I think this is why I reacted the way I did to Tim Cook calling the movie opportunistic. There is no one who signed on to do this movie who thought that anybody was going to make any money. The last thing this was, was opportunistic. Please. We made this as truly a labor of love. We made it because we wanted to.

Second, two weeks ago we opened in limited release, and had the largest per-screen average of the year and came close to having the largest per-screen average of all time. We did that for a week and our second week we went to 60 screens, stayed incredibly strong, much stronger than any one expected us to. And Friday, we opened on 2,500 screens, and remained very, very strong in cities, in urban centers. [But] no one else went to see the movie.

The mystery to me is why there is a difference on this movie between cities and everything else. This isn’t a blue/red movie. It has no politics in it. So I can’t think of why that’s happening. Box office performance is what you focus on, the Monday after a Friday that a film has opened. I hope that conversation will soon be done with and we can get back to all the arguments we’ve been having about the movie.

I knew you weren’t going for a wide commercial audience when the characters got in a disagreement between the relative virtues of the Motorola 6809 chip and the 68000 chip.

Yeah. That doesn’t really scream summer blockbuster, does it?

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Stills from Steve Jobs courtesy Universal Studios.

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