Aaron Sorkin: “The screenwriters write about people cooler than us” | Aaron Sorkin

A60-year-old Aaron Sorkin is that rare screenwriter who qualifies as a household name. Starting out in theater in the 1980s, the former actor burst into film with the hit 1992 adaptation of his play some good men. His later credits include silver ball, Steve Jobs and The social network, for which he won an Oscar. He also wrote four TV shows, including Emmy-hoovering The west wingand has made three films, including, last year, Be the Ricardos. He’s back in theaters with a new version of Harper Lee Kill a mockingbirdwhich ran on Broadway in 2018 and, after a two-year Covid-enforced delay, is set to open in London.

You adapted Kill a mockingbird before the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. Were you tempted to tinker with it afterwards?
I didn’t, because I think it’s just as relevant as it was at the beginning of the play. He already takes care of these things. I changed a word. In the book, Tom Robinson is shot 17 times by prison guards. I found that hard to believe, so I had it fired five times. Now, after everything that happened, I no longer feel like 17 is too high a number and I changed it.

Martin Sheen, Richard Schiff and Rob Lowe in The West Wing (1999-2006). Photography: Rex Features

Did you have to think twice about the character Bob Ewell using the N-word?
We are trying to dramatize the cruelty and severity of racism in the 1930s. To change that word to make it more palatable to an audience today would be both wrong and unnecessary. People can handle it. While writing Bob Ewell, I was aided by one of the most horrible websites of all time: Breitbart. If you go to the comments section of almost any article, you’ll see Bob Ewell level racism – not in 1937, but today. So almost every line that comes out of Bob Ewell’s mouth was written by a Breitbart commentator.

This is a classic book and a beloved film. Did you hesitate before you started?
When I was first asked, I thought it was a suicide mission. What could I do but make it less than it was? But I said yes because I love acting. My first draft was terrible because I tried to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and gently transfer it onto stage. It was like a greatest hits album from a cover band. I started all over again. You have to fall in love with the source material and try to make it your own.

How quickly do you know if a project will work?
I don’t know instantly. Someone sat me down once over lunch and told me that two close friends of Mark Zuckerberg sued him for hundreds of millions of dollars. I got to see dueling depositions and a story [The Social Network] get out of that. More often, though, I’ll say yes and then, “Oh my God, I have no idea what the movie is!”

For example?
Steve Jobs. I wouldn’t write a biopic because it’s hard to shake the familiar cradle-to-grave format. Someone told me that just before the launch of the original big Macintosh, there was this thing that didn’t work and Steve Jobs was going crazy, forcing people to fix it. I think, OK, don’t write a biography. All you need is three scenes that take place before a product launch. That’s what I always try to do: you secretly write a play, but it will fool people into thinking you’re writing a movie.

The social network came out in 2010. Is a sequel should focus on something other than Mark Zuckerberg?
I think so. I spoke with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. When she says to me, “Aaron, this is what an insurgency looks like when you have 130 billion dollars”, I’m interested. I highly doubt that I or anyone else will write a sequel to The social network, but I will say there is a story there.

Michael Fassbender and Makenzie Moss in Steve Jobs (2015)
Michael Fassbender and Makenzie Moss in Steve Jobs (2015). Photography: Duhamel/REX Shutterstock

From The west wing for Steve Jobs, you are fascinated by hypercompetent and hyperarticulated people. Why?
The writers write about people who are cooler than us, stronger and better fighters… I write about people who are smarter than me. I think it suits my style of writing, which is romantic and idealistic. I’m very impressed by playwrights, be it Pinter or Mamet, who write characters who have great difficulty communicating, but I don’t have that club in my bag.

Playwrights’ license to remix the timeline and make up scenes in stories based on real life can be controversial. What are your self-imposed rules?
This is going to sound like something a peddler might say, but I’m not trying to peddle anybody. There is a difference between a photograph and a painting. There is a difference between art and journalism. And sometimes precision gets in the way of the truth.

There were stories on Twitter about the “inauthentic” casting of Javier Bardem in Be the Ricardos. How do you handle controversy?
In terms of accuracy in the throw, this is absolute nonsense. We know the difference between being humiliating and not being humiliating. We know the difference between, say, blackface and someone who’s Spanish playing someone who’s Cuban. How do you deal with noise? You don’t. I don’t chat with people online. In fact, I have no social network. You must ignore it.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010)
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010). Photo: Everett/Rex

You recently defended Succession star Jeremy Strong when he was mocked for his intensity in a New Yorker profile. This kind of commitment was once celebrated rather than ridiculed…
What’s weird to me is that people weigh in on anything and everything that has nothing to do with their own lives. I knew what was happening upset Jeremy. Since I had lent my voice to the article, and I think I contributed to the perception that it was crazy, I thought I should try to clarify a few things. But yeah, there was a time when the things that Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis did were celebrated.

Which of your projects are you most critical of, looking back?
I never wrote anything that I didn’t wish I could pick up and write again. The press room This is the show that gave me the most problems. I had a dream cast, an all-star team behind the camera, and huge support from HBO — and it should have been a home run every week. I would write really good scenes, but I would have a hard time putting together an entire episode. We did a lot of work that I was proud of, but I never felt comfortable in my chair.

Where does an idealist look for encouraging signs in American politics?
It’s much easier to find terrifying rather than encouraging signs right now. But people turn 18 every day. Maybe it’s the cavalry.

What do you admire on television?
There are several of them. i can’t stop watching The crown. Succession. Enough people have begged me to watch Bojack Rider I’ve tried it, and I think it’s a work of genius.

Do you have a new project at the moment?
For the first time in a long time, no. I don’t know what I’m going to do next. As a writer, when you don’t have an idea, you don’t say to yourself, “Well, you’ve been here before and it still works.” It is impossible to imagine never To have an idea.

Your the last two films were released on streaming platforms. Do you think there’s still room in theaters for thoughtful mid-budget films, like silver ball and Charlie Wilson’s War?
You mean [a film that’s] do not Spider Mando not Batman? Will people still go back to the cinema for one of my films? Look, it’s not just my writing that’s idealistic and optimistic. I may be these things myself. I am very grateful for the streaming. It has allowed us all to keep a job during the pandemic. But I just have to believe that we’re all loving the audience experience so much that we’re going to go back to the movies. So I’m not selling this stock yet.