Profile

Family man and Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin made Steve Jobs’ daughter the crux of his forthcoming film about Apple’s co-founder. By Paola Totaro.

Aaron Sorkin on writing Jobs

Aaron Sorkin with his daughter Roxy.
Credit: Dave Allocca/Starpix

It’s 10am on a chilly Saturday morning and Claridge’s, smack bang in the most expensive, blue bit of the London Monopoly board, is buzzing with seamless efficiency.

Favoured by dignitaries and royalty for more than a century, the hotel and its staff – from the top-hatted doormen to the army of Alfred Dunhill-trained butlers – are usually gloriously inured to the celebrity of its guests. This morning, however, the beautiful young thing at the check-in desk simply couldn’t hide her enthusiasm: “Aaron Sorkin? Oooh, lift to the first floor, suite on the right. I just adooored West Wing!”

The fact that a screenwriter – usually the most anonymous of characters in the Hollywood film and TV juggernaut – should spark a swoon in London’s most VIP-laden hotel says much about Sorkin and his increasingly remarkable career.

His latest work, the screenplay for Danny Boyle’s film Steve Jobs, with Michael Fassbender in the title role, is about to open in the British capital and Sorkin is as much part of the pre-release onslaught as the movie’s stars.

Deeply tanned, handsome in a square-jawed, old-fashioned way, and dressed in preppy cashmere jumper, collared shirt and knife-pressed chinos, Sorkin looks at least a decade younger than his 54 years. He smiles widely and often, teeth preternaturally straight and white. In many ways, he looks and sounds more like a leading man from central casting – and commands similar seven-figure contracts by all reports.

And yet mixed in with this aura of success, Sorkin also exudes a palpable sense of self-doubt. We’ve barely begun chatting when he volunteers that he finds it embarrassing to talk about the things he writes and just wishes his works could be allowed to speak for themselves.

“It’s true to say that there is still a part of me that would rather be locked in a room somewhere by myself, writing script pages, slipping them under the door and having someone slip food back rather than what we are doing here now with me being the actual me,” he says, sitting back into the suite’s armchair.

“I’m not as polished as the characters I write; I’m not as smart as the characters I write. I have human faults and my characters have character faults: characters and people are different. Having said that, obviously I wouldn’t miss out on this life for anything in the world and especially having become a father, I wouldn’t want to be alone in that room. I want to be raising my daughter…”

The issue of fathers and daughters is one that clearly occupied his mind in this latest work. He has a 14-year-old girl whom he adores – “She’s creative, strong, brave and so much better put together than I was at her age” – and while he and his wife are separated, they’ve forged an amicable relationship and routinely share family dinners.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, denied paternity of his daughter, Lisa, now 37, for many years. He was intolerably cruel at times and their often painful, complex relationship forms the film’s emotional core.

Loosely based on Walter Isaacson’s biography, Sorkin has written what feels more like a three-act stage play than a movie. His story is set in a behind-the-scenes look at the launch of three iconic Apple products and examines Jobs’ often-spiky relationships with key people in his life, including co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen), Apple marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Daughter Lisa is played by three different actresses, as a child, tween and then young adult.

Without spoiling the film, it is fair to say that this is no hagiography, and if it’s a linear, chronological biopic you’re after, forget it. Jobs’ wife has already gone public saying she hates it, as have several of his friends.

Reviewers describe the film as “Sorkinesque” and it is certainly chock-full of the rapid-fire repartee that characterised both The West Wing and The Newsroom. Throughout, the writer is a palpable presence, the very thing that bothers him most.

Adamant that he doesn’t want viewers to see the actors as a delivery system for his words – “this is not a ventriloquist’s act” – you sense that deep down Sorkin also knows and likes that this is a measure of his big, big success as a writer.

He says that when he is about to embark on writing a real character, such as Jobs or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, which won him an Oscar for best writing, it is imperative that he finds something within their psychological make-up that allows him to connect personally. Jobs’ obsessive perfectionism, illustrated in the film by his demand that designers give his rectangular products rounded corners, struck a chord with Sorkin. In an early scene, Jobs glows with joy when he points to the first Mac and says it resembles a friendly face with the disk slot being a goofy grin; at the end he admits “I’m poorly made”, unlike his products.

“You ask me how I relate to that?” says Sorkin and then pauses for so long that I wonder if he will continue. “…The reason I’m trying to be careful is that I just don’t want this to sound like I’m lying on a couch and paying you $75 an hour.

“But here is what I think: Steve felt himself to be sort of irreversibly damaged, unworthy of being liked or loved, which was of course untrue. He felt that about himself and that is not uncommon.

“But he had the brilliance to be able to create things that could be loved and that people had an emotional attachment to, and those creations became a substitute for what the rest of us experience. I can relate to creating something that people like or don’t like, and that their like or dislike of it reflects on me.”

Like Jobs, Sorkin admits to being driven by the desire to get it absolutely right – but that he has a far greater need to be liked than Jobs did. “[I feel] I must be a bad person if I have written this thing they don’t like. Because of that, your identity does get wrapped up in it. And because of that, I use the metaphor of Jobs’ rectangle with rounded corners … If you are not able to understand why I want rounded corners or if you think that that’s wasted money or a silly thing, then I can understand Steve just wanting to cut you at the knees to get past that obstacle to just do it.”

Sorkin’s own perfectionism has been well documented. During filming for The West Wing, for example, he was known to keep actors waiting at the 11th hour as he polished the minutiae of dialogue, oblivious to intense shooting schedules and their anxiety about time to learn new lines.

It’s also a no-brainer to note that most of Sorkin’s best-known protagonists have been highly intelligent, eloquent, uber achievers with a gift for language, from The Social Network’s Zuckerberg to the army of White House apparatchiks in The West Wing, Brad Pitt’s smart-mouthed depiction of the Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in Moneyball and those unforgettable journalistic diatribes in The Newsroom.

Ultimately, however, Sorkin says the biggest obstacle to writing the Jobs character was the often-cruel way he treated Lisa as a child and a teenager.

“It was Lisa herself who showed me the light: I spent a lot of time meeting with her. She lives in New York and is an essayist. She is remarkable: as Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, Andy Hertzfeld, says, there is no reason why she shouldn’t be robbing banks with the Symbionese Liberation Army. There is no reason in the world why she should be nice. But she is.”

Sorkin says he was struck by Lisa’s innate optimism – that she appeared, somehow, not to have been damaged by her father’s behaviour. No matter how unflattering the stories about her dad were, she always managed to “turn the story like a little prism”: “She would say she could see the way he loved her and initially I would feel bad, because a child shouldn’t have to do detective work to figure out how their parent or father really does love them.”

 

The son of a school teacher and an intellectual property lawyer, Sorkin was born and raised in New York, and both his brother and sister also grew up to become lawyers. He insists, without a skerrick of false humility, that “everyone in my family is smarter than I am” and family debate was his muse.

“In our family, anyone who used one word when they could use 10 wasn’t trying hard enough. I really, really, enjoyed arguments. When my sister graduated, she went into the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and it’s there that I got the idea for the play and the movie A Few Good Men. My father’s a lawyer, my brother’s a lawyer, my mother’s a school teacher – we’re a family of talkers,” he laughs.

Exposed to theatre at a young age, Sorkin says his parents probably took him to many plays before he was quite old enough “or bright enough” to understand them. He was nine when he saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for example, and while he was unable to follow the story, he clearly remembers falling in love with the dialogue.

“I didn’t understand what was going on but I loved the sound of these great actors and actresses with words crashing into each other and this to me, well, it sounded like music.

“I wanted to imitate that sound and what I discovered, especially when I started learning music, was that anyone who is speaking for the sake of performance – whether it is an actor on a stage, a preacher on a pulpit, a candidate on a stump – all the rules of music apply. You have to use rhythm, tone, tempo.

“And much in the same way in a line of dialogue – if you drop a word and substitute a two-syllable word for a one-syllable word, that will very often dampen the impact of the line, ruin a joke, that kind of thing. Actors know that.

“This is all a long and roundabout way of saying that what words sound like is as important to me, if not more important to me, as what they mean.”

 

Across the room, Sorkin’s minders are windmilling their arms in increasingly frantic wrap-it-up gestures, just as I ask him about his thoughts on current American politics. The subject makes him visibly light up.

“Let me answer this one, let me finish,” he says to his assistant.

“Even in America, where our politics can get pretty crazy, we have never quite seen anything like what is going on right now. We are all assuming, ‘Okay, this is just silly season, this will all blow over and things will get serious when they need to get serious.’

“But I kind of think that they need to get serious right now … It is very easy to get distracted by the Trump of it all, to say, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe the horrible thing he just said.’ And you don’t need to be a professional comedian to find or make jokes in what is going on. And that’s not just with Trump but, frankly, with all of them.”

As his voice rises with increasing fury, I can imagine him, back around the table with his parents, their friends and siblings in the full flight of discussion.

“And once in four years there is an opportunity for us all to get together, from no matter what side of the aisle we are on, and we could hear from experts, we could hear a real debate. And every four years something silly, something stupid, comes along and distracts us from that. Well, this time, it’s Trump. But if you took Trump out of the field, there would be someone else who’d be the craziest person in the field. To say it is a pity is an understatement.”

And then, with a big, deep breath, he agrees it’s a wrap.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2015 as "Writing Jobs". Subscribe here.

Paola Totaro
is an Australian journalist based in London and founding editor of place.trust.org, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s new website covering land rights around the world.

Continue reading your one free article this week