Sorkin on the Steve Jobs biopic

November 16th, 2012 by

From Business Insider:

Aaron Sorkin, the writer of West Wing, The Social Network, The Newsroom, and many others, revealed his plan for his Steve Jobs biopic today.

Speaking at The Daily Beast’s “Hero” conference he said he would structure the film around three 30 minute scenes all set right before three major product launches. The products: The Mac, NeXT, and the iPod.

The scenes will be shot in “real time,” which we think means it’s just going to be 30 minutes worth of time.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone would acknowledge Aaron Sorkin’s talent at writing dialogue. There is even a Twitter feed [@sorkinese] that tweets daily quotes of Sorkin penned dialogue.

But that skill set should not obscure the fact: Sorkin knows story structure, too. I wrote on this here about The Social Network:

But perhaps the single most creative choice Sorkin made about this story was its narrative framework. To spotlight the value of that decision, consider this issue that confronted him: How to tell the story not only of a complicated anti-hero such as Zuckerberg, but also the origins and phenomenal growth of Facebook? From this interview Sorkin did with Written By magazine, we learn how Sorkin solved the problem:

There’s a lot of available research, and I also did a lot of first person research with a number of the people that were involved in the story. I can’t go too deeply into that because most of the people did it on the condition of anonymity, but what I found was that two lawsuits were brought against Facebook at the roughly same time, that the defendant, plaintiffs, witnesses all came into a deposition room and swore under oath, and three different versions of the story were told. Instead of choosing one and deciding that’s the truest one or choosing one and deciding that’s the juiciest one, I decided to dramatize the idea that there were three different versions of the story being told. That’s how I came up with the structure of the deposition room [which Sorkin uses as a narrative frame from which to tell the story in chronological sequence].

Sorkin used the “structure of the deposition room” to allow him to cut from two different legal settings in the present to critical narrative moments in Zuckerberg’s past. Furthermore this allowed him to use the exposition offered in those legal depositions to transition the story in and out of the past, and help construct that Plotline into a coherent whole. In other words:

* Plotline: Zuckerberg and Facebook (Past)

* Subplot: Zuckerberg vs. the Winklevoss twins (Present)

* Subplot: Zuckerberg vs. Eduardo Saverin (Present)

There you have Sorkin’s “three different versions of the story.” It’s reminiscent of other notable narrative frameworks in movies such as Citizen Kane (the reporter interviewing multiple characters in Charles Foster Kane’s past in an attempt to learn the truth about the story’s Protagonist) and Rashomon (multiple versions of the same events, each with their own perspective).

So yes, Sorkin is great with dialogue. But in the case of The Social Network, we must not forget the crucial creative decision he made that enabled him to tell a complex saga in a coherent way — the story’s narrative framework.

Now here is Sorkin faced with how to write a movie about Steve Jobs. He comes up with this idea: Three thirty minute scenes. Tied to the product launch of three notable devices. Told in real time. That is a fascinating possibility.

Look at the products in terms of three-act structure:

Act One: Mac, a hugely successful product.

Act Two: NeXT, a hugely unsuccessful product.

Act Three: iPod, a hugely successful product.

Success. Failure. Redemption.

Right there, a clean narrative arc.

Moreover when we think about Steve Jobs, remember how excited the world was with each product launch and in particular Jobs’ role in introducing them:

So you have a solid three-act structure. You have the energy of the 30 minutes leading up to the announcement of each product. You have a real-time, doc-style approach to the narrative.

And you have lots and lots of time for characters, most notably Jobs, to speak Sorkin dialogue.

Sounds like a winning combination to me!

3 thoughts on “Sorkin on the Steve Jobs biopic

  1. I think of Steve Job’s narrative more this way:

    i) Ascent to the throne: Steve Jobs creates his kingdom, through Apple II and Mac.

    ii) Exile: Driven from power in his own kingdom, Jobs tries to create a new kingdom outside, but fails in a valiant attempt to recapture his former glory. However, that time in exile is not wasted as he resurrects a failing animation company called Pixar and uses NeXT to create a portfolio of valuable intellectual property.

    iii) Return of the King: Crisis in the old kingdom causes Jobs to return to the place he belongs. Using the treasures created at NeXT and a new group of visionaries he leads the old kingdom back to its former glory and beyond.

    1. V3ntricity says:

      still there must be more specific forces of antagonism other than “the economy”. i don’t know his story, but some evil board members are usually up for that job.

      i would also imagine that his cancer could be used to some sentimental effect.

      1. Exactly,

        Jobs’ story can be framed precisely in terms of power struggles, friendships, loyalties and betrayal without losing the narrative.

        There’s a reason San Jose has had a Woz Way since the 80s but no street named after Steve Jobs. Or one named after John Sculley.

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