Screenwriting Lessons: "The Social Network" — Part 1: Compelling Protagonist

July 14th, 2014 by

[Note: This was originally posted February 14, 2011.]

As I watched The King’s Speech recently, I was struck by how many screenwriting lessons could be gleaned from the movie. So I decided this week and next to analyze The King’s Speech and The Social Network, the most likely winners of this year’s Academy Awards for Best Screenplay (Speech for original, Network for adapted) to see what takeaway we could derive from both movies and their excellent screenplays.

Today: The Social Network — Compelling Protagonist.

Last week in the very first post in this Screenwriting Lessons series, I focused on the importance of a sympathetic Protagonist:

Hollywood is not stupid. They know the simplest, easiest way to accomplish audience identification is by telling stories with sympathetic Protagonists. The fact is we are much more likely to identify with a Protagonist if we sympathize with them. So as far as the studios are concerned, screenwriters should accept that as a given and go write them a hit script.

Except when your name is Aaron Sorkin and you write the hell out of a Protagonist (Mark Zuckerberg) who is not a terribly sympathetic character at all in The Social Network. Indeed if you believe Zuckerberg’s fictional soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica, he is… well, here’s what she has to say:

               
                ERICA
          (close)
Listen. You're going to be successful and
rich. But you're going to go through life
thinking that girls don't like you
because you're a tech geek. And I want
you to know, from the bottom of my heart,
that won't be true. It'll be because
you're an asshole.

Let us count the ways we can consider this Protagonist to be an asshole:

* He’s demeaning to Erica when he talks to her in the opening scene.

* After their break-up, he immediately creates a website and blogs to the world, “Erica Albright’s a bitch… do you think all B.U. girls are bitches,” then provides dirt on the minimal size of her breasts.

* He listens to the Winklevoss twins pitch their idea for Harvard Connection, then turns right around and pitches something strikingly similar — as if it’s his own idea– to his best friend Eduardo.

* He takes start-up money from Eduardo without telling him about the project’s roots, thereby ensnaring Eduardo in future business hassles.

* He strings along the Winklevoss brothers, supposedly working on their project when he actually works on his.

* In legal depositions, which comprise a considerable part of the movie, he is pompous and acerbic to the point of narcissism saying things like this:

               
                MARK
Ma'am, I know you've done your homework
and so you know money isn't a big
part of my life, but at the moment I
could buy Harvard University, take the
Phoenix Club and turn it into my
ping pong room.

And this:

               
                MARK
I think if your clients want to sit on 
my shoulders and call themselves tall, 
they have the right to give it a try - 
but there's no requirement that I enjoy 
sitting here listening to people lie. You 
have part of my attention - you have the 
minimum amount. The rest of my attention
is back at the offices of Facebook, where 
my colleagues and I are doing things that 
no one in this room, including and 
especially your clients, are intellectually 
or creatively capable of doing. Did I
adequately answer your condescending 
question?

* But most egregious of all, he screws his best friend Eduardo, albeit under the influence of Sean Parker, but that does not make Zuckerberg any less culpable.

So why in the world does The Social Network work if it flies directly in the face of one of the most widely held beliefs in Hollywood — that in order for a movie to succeed, it needs to have a sympathetic Protagonist?

Because in Zuckerberg, Sorkin created a compelling character. He may not be likable. Or sympathetic. But he’s damn interesting:

* Youngest billionaire in the world.

* Created a social network that has transformed hundreds of millions of lives, even world politics.

* Caught up in not one, but two massive lawsuits.

* He has a brilliant mind.

Per this last point, frankly if you go through all his dialogue where his egocentricity is in full bloom and he is being an asshole, we can’t help but be fascinated to hear what will come out of this guy’s mouth next.

Given Hollywood’s fixation in this area, I would advise you to think twice about working on a story where the Protagonist isn’t sympathetic, let alone an asshole. But if you do write one, make sure you do this: Create a Protagonist who is compelling.

How about your current script? Is your Protagonist compelling? Consider this: If you create a sympathetic and compelling Protagonist, how much more likely you’ll be at crafting a story with which a reader will be engaged.

Now it just so happens later today I’ll be featuring an interview with the head of a Hollywood movie studio who has some interesting things to say about The Social Network and the concept of sympathetic Protagonists. Stay tuned.

Tomorrow: Narrative Structure.

UPDATE: Found this interesting quote in THR from Robert McKee:

But his highest marks go to Aaron Sorkin‘s Social Network because the life in question, that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, “doesn’t give you a great ending the way The Fighter did, so you have to make some ending about some other thing that changed and make audiences care about it. Sorkin had a great challenge because he had a protagonist who is not particularly empathetic because he’s awkward and closed-off socially. But he did a brilliant job of making the hows and whys of what he did quirky enough so that the process really intrigues us. He knew exactly where to create tension in the audience’s mind. You don’t have a big climax, but you have a big resolution.”

Intrigue = Compelling, right?

Highlights: Aaron Sorkin interview

July 4th, 2014 by

Via Indiewire:

Aaron Sorkin has a lot going on these days: In addition to feverishly writing the final season of his HBO drama “The Newsroom,” he’s collaborating with director Danny Boyle on a Steve Jobs biopic and considering another project based on Michael Lewis’ bestseller “Flash Boys.” But none of that stopped him from taking time to hang out in Nantucket over the weekend. The veteran writer of punchy dialogue, often spoken by powerful, conflicted men, dropped by the Massachusetts island to receive the Nantucket Film Festival’s screenwriting award. Then, on Saturday afternoon, he sat down with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews for an hour-long conversation about his career writing for television and movies. The wide-ranging discussion included anecdotes about the original ending of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Eduardo Saverin watching “The Social Network,” and why he’s decided to bring “The Newsroom” to a close.

The trademark Sorkin “walk and talk” is a practical solution to his limitations as a writer.

I write nothing of any visual interest whatsoever. I essentially write radio plays. So as a director, I have to find a way to make it visually interesting. One way of doing it is, if we’re having this conversation, let’s walk to have this cup of coffee and we’ll have movement.

—-

He knows how to write anti-heroes.

We’re getting ready now for [a biopic on] Steve Jobs, which is another one with an anti-hero. The trick of an anti-hero is that you can’t judge the character. You have to write that character as if they’re making the case to god that they can go up to heaven. So you’ve got to find what it is in that character that’s like you.

He has one major failing as a writer.

My Achilles Heel is story. It’s the truth. You had a thing last night [at the Nantucket Film Festival's "Late Night Storytelling event"] where people told stories. I wouldn’t have been able to do that. Part of the reason is that I always get my stories not from the stories themselves but from what they sound like.

For the rest of the article, go here.

THR Roundtable: TV Showrunners

May 13th, 2014 by

From THR:

Despite achieving golden-boy status this year for his debut series True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto, 38, briefly reverted to starstruck fanboy on an April evening when five giants of television joined him inside a downtown L.A. warehouse to swap tales from the TV writer trenches.

And who could blame him? Present was last year’s drama series Emmy winner, Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan, 47, who braved a gnarly commute from Burbank, where he and his team were prepping the first episode of the Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul. Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner, 48, a four-time Emmy winner for best drama series, was fresh from his season-seven premiere but quick to share his stress over the dreaded task of writing the show’s final episodes. Carlton Cuse, 55, the Zen-like Emmy-winning executive producer of Lost and co-creator of A&E’s Bates Motel, caught up with pal Gilligan as Oscar winner and Emmy veteran Aaron Sorkin, 52 — shooting the third and final season of The Newsroom and casting his Steve Jobs biopic for Sony — joked that his plan, for once, was to “not talk at all.” (Didn’t happen.) And Ann Biderman, 62, an Emmy winner for NYPD Blue, happily took a few hours off from shooting season two of her gritty Showtime drama Ray Donovan to meet peers and talk shop — so long as no one asked her the dreaded question: What is it like to be a woman writing such a manly television series?

Excerpts:

Some say killing off characters has become a lazy plot device, designed to shock and help a series stand out in a crowded TV environment. Is there any truth to that?

BIDERMAN I don’t think you’re doing it for that reason. You’re not thinking, “I must have that happen in episode seven.” It has to feel inevitable in some way or it’s gratuitous to think, “I need this many bodies.” Really good storytelling should have this sense of inevitability to the characters dying.

WEINER But the audience does have expectations. I remember being on The Sopranos, and people asking me, “When’s Tony going to whack somebody?”

BIDERMAN There are those.

WEINER More people died on The Sopranos than the mob had killed during those seven years!

You’re [Pizzolatto] writing season two with a new story and characters. How will you keep the essence that makes it True Detective?

PIZZOLATTO I’m treating it like this year’s novel. It’s going to be the same genre, and what carries over is the authorial vision, the authorial voice. The same way you can pick up a book by a particular author. You have your favorite book by that author, and then his lesser works. I might have built myself a nice coffin here. But writing got me into this, and writing’s going to have to get me out. There’s a way in this business — I mean, I just started — but you have to get off on the pressure, right?

WEINER But you have to find a way to not become incapacitated by the pressure. What I found is that I am a person who feels better when I’m writing — as hard as it is.

CUSE I think it was David Milch who says, “Never believe anything you think about yourself as a writer when you’re not writing.”

SORKIN That’s great.

WEINER But we’ve all sat next to somebody in the trenches who was completely incapacitated, unable to think as well as they can when they’re not, and you’re sort of like, “Just do it.” There is a lot of luck involved — it’d be stupid to pretend like there wasn’t — but there is a tenaciousness that requires multiple rejections and keeping your head when you see people being incapacitated next to you.

SORKIN A healthy fear of failure helps, too. I have a lot of experience with failure, and I hate it. It’s going to happen again, but it’s like electroshock therapy. So combined with the pressure that you put on yourself, that’s pretty much the jet fuel for writing. You know when you’re not [writing well], when you’re slogging through it and it’s all coming like molasses, you know something’s wrong. But when you’re writing well, there’s nothing like it. It’s like the golfer who hacks his way around a golf course all day long, but then for some reason, you don’t know why, just hits a beautiful shot. That’s the reason they keep coming back to the golf course.

WEINER Do you have a nonsports analogy for some of us? I don’t know what you’re talking about.

SORKIN I don’t play golf, either, but surely you can understand the metaphor.

WEINER I’m perpetuating a stereotype, which is 100 percent accurate.

GILLIGAN I think about failure all the time, and I’m the same as you — I hate it. It scares the hell out of me, keeps me awake at night. But when I’m being really honest with myself, the only thing

I ever learn from is failure. Because Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career, I don’t know what to take from it. I’ve never actually solved a Rubik’s cube, but …

WEINER This [metaphor] is working better for me. (Laughs.)

GILLIGAN Finally, you get it right, and you’re like, “Wow, I got that. How the hell am I ever going to do that again?”

WEINER I think we don’t learn from it, on some level. Going to [Mad Men's season seven] premiere and seeing the show go on the air, I was like, “I just keep sticking my neck out there. Why do I keep doing this?”

PIZZOLATTO “I’m painting a target on my back.”

WEINER Yeah, it’s like, “Who needs punching?” But the glory is the work and coming here and having people say that they watch the show and enjoy it. I don’t want to get too deep into the psychological profile of a writer, but we have a lot in common. There is something about being heard and the chance to have that sort of controlled communication that I think is worth all the failures.

PIZZOLATTO But maybe we should differentiate between the types of success because there’s something that might hit an audience really big that you’re not satisfied with.

SORKIN I know exactly what you’re talking about.

PIZZOLATTOI think there needs to be a kind of personal meter there. It’s important for any creator to always have the audience in mind, but be careful of what your yardsticks are.

GILLIGAN That’s good advice [but] hard to take.

PIZZOLATTO Well, if you stay off the Internet, it’s easy.

GILLIGAN That’s the first rule: Stay the hell off the Internet. Except for the porn. (Laughs.)

WEINER That is a very hard thing.

PIZZOLATTO Yeah, the first month of the show, I was still reading comment sections.

WEINER You can’t do that. Don’t do that!

PIZZOLATTO They had an intervention with me. Everybody sat me down.

WEINER Good luck if you can [stay away]. You’ve got to go to Promises Malibu or something. You’re going to have to go into rehab every once in a while. It’s irresistible; especially if things go well, you get drawn back in again.

For the rest of the article, go here.

Amy Schumer’s parody of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom”

April 17th, 2014 by

Awesome!

Tarantino, Sorkin and Dialogue as Purpose

October 2nd, 2013 by

In my current Core V: Dialogue online class, we’ve had some really enlightening discussions including this one about two masters in this arena: Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino. Both of them are known for the occasional long dialogue-laden scene and we might be tempted to interpret these as just being about entertainment. Read this excerpt from my first lecture which precipitated the online conversation, considering the screenwriting principle Dialogue = Purpose:

The first 8+ pages of The Social Network script would appear to be the very epitome of purposelessness. Apart from introducing two key characters — Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara) — the dialogue zigs and zags from one topic to the next, a confused quilt of references and observations. Here is a list of topics in the scene:

  • People with genius IQs in China
  • How to “distinguish yourself” amongst people who got 1600 on SAT’s
  • A Capella choir, rowing crew, inventing a “25 dollar PC”
  • Final club
  • World class athletes rowing crew
  • How girls like cowboys
  • Exclusivity
  • Various final clubs at Harvard with the Porc being the “best of the best”
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Mark’s friend Eduardo made $300,000 betting on oil futures
  • Predicting weather and the price of heating oil
  • Spat about Erica asking which final club is the “easiest to get into”
  • Spat about Erica calling it “finals” club
  • Spat about Erica calling Mark “obsessed,” he says he’s “motivated”
  • Mark thinks Erica speaks in “code”
  • Mark says “I need to do something substantial” to get the “attention” of the clubs
  • Mark: “Because they’re exclusive. And fun and they lead to a better life.”
  • Mark: “You should be a lot more supportive,” benefits for her if he was in a club
  • She tells him she is no longer his girlfriend
  • Mark says Erica used to sleep with the door guy of the club they’re drinking in
  • Erica gets angry and says she’s leaving
  • Mark tries to apologize
  • Erica says dating Mark is “exhausting”
  • Mark disparages B.U. (Boston University) where Erica goes to college
  • Erica delivers two “stingers” and leaves him

8 plus pages. 111 sides of dialogue. Where is the purpose in this scene?

Dialogue conveys exposition: If we define exposition as information, data, and backstory, we can see how Sorkin laces a lot of it into these pages:

Information: Mark attends Harvard; Erica attends B.U.; the Porcellian is the most exclusive final club at Harvard; Teddy Roosevelt was a Porc.

Data: The number of geniuses in China; Eduardo made $300K last year.

Backstory: Mark got 1600 on his SAT; Mark and Erica have been romantically involved; Mark thinks Erica used to sleep with the door guy.

This exposition is key in establishing the story’s setting (contemporary Harvard) and some of the basics of the Protagonist (Mark) and Attractor (Erica) characters.

Dialogue reveals a character’s inner life: Through text and subtext, Sorkin conveys important aspects of both Mark and Erica’s thoughts and feelings:

Mark: He is looking to distinguish himself; he feels pressure to do “something substantial” with his life; his reaction to Erica’s comment about the easiest final club shows he has personal insecurities; he thinks she should be more supportive of his desire to join a final club; Mark is dismissive of B.U. as an academic institution; his goal is a “better life.”

Erica: She thinks Mark is “obsessed” with final clubs; she has a difficult time following Mark’s way of thinking and talking; she gets angry at Mark’s insensitivity (i.e., door guy accusation, derision of B.U. and by extension her own intellect); she finds being with Mark “exhausting.”

The purpose of this facet of the scene’s dialogue is to go beyond exposition and provide readers a deeper insight into the inner workings of these two pivotal characters.

Dialogue distinguishes one character from another: In what they say and how they say it, Sorkin creates a clear sense of Mark and Erica’s individual identities:

Mark: He is extremely, almost excessively verbal; he is kinetic, his ideas spewing forth; he carries on his own internal conversation that often loses Erica; he is essentially humorless.

Erica: Less intelligent, but smarter socially; she tries to use humor to make points (“You don’t care if side effects may include blindness, okay, just do it,” “What part of Long Island are you from–England”); she is primarily reactive to him; she does not waffle in her decision to break up with him.

There is also this subtle distinction between them. Whereas Erica is actually hurt by Mark’s derisive comments, unintentional though they may be, when Erica dumps him, Mark doesn’t feel distress so much as shock, as if it is unfathomable she would have any reason to terminate their relationship.

At this level of purpose, Sorkin not only distinguishes the two characters in terms of the text of their words, but also the subtext, the deeper emotional meaning under their words.

Dialogue moves the plot forward: Within the realm of a story universe, perhaps the single most important purpose of dialogue is to advance the plot. On the surface this extended exchange between these two characters in The Social Network seems precisely like a conversation with little or no substantive part to play in terms of the narrative. A closer examination reveals the scene moves the plot ahead in two ways: (1) The scene itself has a clear Beginning, Middle and End; (2) Its end point is a critical event that sets into motion everything else that follows in the plot.

Scene structure: The Beginning of the scene revolves around establishing Mark’s powerful desire to get into a final club. The Middle involves Erica calling into question Mark’s obsession while Mark challenges her to support him, and in so doing provides one dismissive comment toward her after another. The Ending centers on Erica breaking up with Mark.

Point of the scene: It’s the break-up and specifically Erica’s final lines to Mark as she leaves [P. 8]:

ERICA
Listen. You’re going to be successful and
rich. But you’re going to go through life
thinking that girls don’t like you
because you’re a tech geek. And I want
you to know, from the bottom of my heart,
that that won’t be true. It’ll be because
you’re an asshole.

And then this final parting shot [P. 9]:

ERICA
And you’re never getting into a final
club.

The point of the scene is two-fold: (1) Erica breaks up with Mark. (2) Erica’s parting shot becomes a verbal talisman to inspire Mark to make something of himself and join a final club. The scene’s ending dialogue caps off this key purpose of the scene tied to the plot.

Mark Walker, one of the writers in the Core class, responded with this:

I think that is a key observation that those new to screenwriting (like myself) need to get into their heads. I think, when I started out, I was probably of the mind that dialogue wasn’t as important as the scene description and visual “delivery” of the film.

As I have wised up a bit (there is still a lot of room for further improvement) from reading books and blogs, and the SMC, it has become clearer just how powerful good dialogue can be, let alone great dialogue. it is interesting to watch films knowing this and think about how the dialogue works so well.

Scott’s example clearly shows this, and how it is an art to make it look like conversation when it actually isn’t. To throw all that stuff at you that you probably don’t recognise as character building and exposition until later in the movie when you get those call-backs that relate to some of that conversation and it all clicks into place, is a vital skill.

In the spirit of the Dialogue Death Match, I would compare this to Tarantino introducing Jules and Vincent as they approach the building where the guys with Marcellus’ brief case are waiting. An excerpt:

EXT. APARTMENT BUILDING COURTYARD – MORNING

Vincent and Jules, their long matching overcoats practically dragging on the ground, 
walk through the courtyard of what looks like a hacienda-style Hollywood apartment 
building. We TRACK alongside.

                                     VINCENT
                         What's her name?

                                      JULES
                         Mia.

                                      VINCENT
                         How did Marsellus and her meet?

                                      JULES
                         I dunno, however people meet people.
                         She usta be an actress.

                                      VINCENT
                         She ever do anything I woulda saw?

                                      JULES
                         I think her biggest deal was she
                         starred in a pilot.

                                      VINCENT
                         What's a pilot?

                                      JULES
                         Well, you know the shows on TV?

                                      VINCENT
                         I don't watch TV.

                                      JULES
                         Yes, but you're aware that there's
                         an invention called television, and
                         on that invention they show shows?

                                      VINCENT
                         Yeah.

                                      JULES
                         Well, the way they pick the shows on
                         TV is they make one show, and that
                         show's called a pilot. And they show
                         that one show to the people who pick
                         the shows, and on the strength of
                         that one show, they decide if they
                         want to make more shows. Some get
                         accepted and become TV programs, and
                         some don't, and become nothing. She
                         starred in one of the ones that became
                         nothing.

 They enter the apartment building.

 INT. RECEPTION AREA (APARTMENT BUILDING) – MORNING

 Vincent and Jules walk through the reception area and wait for the elevator.

                                      JULES
                         You remember Antwan Rockamora? Half-
                         black, half-Samoan, usta call him
                         Tony Rocky Horror.

                                      VINCENT
                         Yeah maybe, fat right?

                                      JULES
                         I wouldn't go so far as to call the
                         brother fat. He's got a weight
                         problem.  What's the nigger gonna
                         do, he's Samoan.

                                      VINCENT
                         I think I know who you mean, what
                         about him?

                                      JULES
                         Well, Marsellus fucked his ass up
                         good.  And word around the campfire,
                         it was on account of Marsellus
                         Wallace's wife.

The elevator arrives, the men step inside.

INT. ELEVATOR – MORNING

                                     VINCENT
                         What'd he do, fuck her?

                                     JULES
                         No no no no no no no, nothin' that
                         bad.
                                     VINCENT
                         Well, what then?

                                     JULES
                         He gave her a foot massage.

                                     VINCENT
                         A foot massage?

Jules nods his head: "Yes."
                                      VINCENT
                         That's all?

 Jules nods his head: "Yes."

                                      VINCENT
                         What did Marsellus do?

                                      JULES
                         Sent a couple of guys over to his
                         place.  They took him out on the
                         patio of his apartment, threw his
                         ass over the balcony.  Nigger fell
                         four stories. They had this garden
                         at the bottom, enclosed in glass,
                         like one of them greenhouses – nigger
                         fell through that. Since then, he's
                         kinda developed a speech impediment.

 The elevator doors open, Jules and Vincent exit.

                                     VINCENT
                         That's a damn shame.

I think we get all four of Scott’s purposes in that conversation which, on the surface of it, sounds like two guys just chewing the fat about work and shit. But we hear about (amongst everything else):

  • Vincent being in Amsterdam – he has been away and missed some stuff
  • We get banter about their weapons which tells us they are gangsters/hitmen….dangerous
  • Jules is catching him up about the guy that gave Mia foot massage
  • This tells us their boss is a hard man not to be messed with
  • We hear Vincent has been asked to “take her out” while Marcellus is away – setting up the next part of the story.
  • Jules concern in relation to foot massages tells us more about their boss and theor perception of him.
  • The dialogue tells us about the suitcase Macguffin.
  • We get to learn that Vincent and Jules are very different – Jules is respectful and more refined than Vincent who is a little more brash – all found from a conversation about giving foot massages

We get everything; exposition, inner life of the characters, we learn how they are different from each other and  plot moves forward with regards the macguffin. By the time we are ready to kick the door down we know exactly who these two guys are, what they do for a living and who they work for, as well as a bit about their past and what is in store for them (or at least Vincent) in the next chapter. None of the dialogue is “wasted” or “filler” – like everything else with screenwriting – if it doesn’t serve the story, does it need to be cut?

My response to Mark:

That example you cite from Pulp Fiction works as entertainment straight-out, thus if we don’t look closer, we may assume it’s just QT riffing with dialogue, pure and simple. But if we do examine the content, we see, as you pointed out so well with your analysis, Mark, that there is a purpose to the conversation, in fact, several of them, in effect setting up a few important subplots.

A comparison of this scene and the opening to The Social Network reveals that everything hangs on the dialogue’s tie-in to and advancement of the plot. In fact, if one were to boil down each scene to the single most important contribution each makes to the plot, it’s right there:

* Pulp Fiction: To establish the upcoming ‘date’ Vincent is going to have with Mia and the pressure he will be under to handle that properly re Marcellus and his temper. That sets everything in that subplot into motion including Vincent scoring the heroin as a way of taking the edge of the date which leads to Mia overdosing on it (thinking it’s cocaine), and so forth.

* The Social Network: The breakup of Mark and Eric which, as the denouement shows [even though the entirety of their subplot is only 4 beats], provides one big fat motivation on Mark’s part to succeed: To prove he has worth in response to her rejection of him.

Takeaway: Dialogue = Purpose. This is true even if you go off on a riff a la Tarantino and Sorkin. Tie the dialogue to those four markers, but most especially to the advancement of the plot.

I don’t care how good you are with dialogue, if you write a scene in which the dialogue has zero impact on the plot, you should consider reshaping the scene to make it relevant to the plot or drop the scene entirely as being extraneous.

What are your thoughts about how important dialogue is to plot?

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!

Dialogue Death Match: Sorkin vs. Tarantino

September 30th, 2012 by

In the current Dialogue class I’m teaching, we came up with a terrific idea: A Death Match between two screenwriters noted for their dialogue: Aaron Sorkin vs. Quentin Tarantino.

Here’s how we can do this. Go to IMDB, look up your favorite Sorkin and Tarantino movies, scroll down to Quotes, click on it, then look for your favorite dialogue sides or exchanges. Copy and paste them in comments. For example:

Colonel Jessep [A Few Good Men, written by Aaron Sorkin]: “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.”

Jules [Pulp Fiction, written by Quentin Tarantino]: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.”

Let the Dialogue Death Match begin! And while we’re at it, how about we do some analysis why their dialogue is so damn good.

Sorkinisms

June 27th, 2012 by

Via Flavorwire.

How to Write an Aaron Sorkin Script, by Aaron Sorkin

June 21st, 2012 by

Lots of folks tipped me off to this yesterday, a first-person article in GQ by Aaron Sorkin on how to write and “Aaron Sorkin script”. An excerpt:

A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing— when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern. In the pilot of The Newsroom, a new series for HBO, TV news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) emotionally checked out years ago, and now he’s sitting on a college panel, hearing the same shouting match between right and left he’s been hearing forever, and the arguments have become noise. A student asks what makes America the world’s greatest country, and Will dodges the question with glib answers. But the moderator keeps needling him until…snap.

Will
It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor, that’s my answer.

Moderator
[pause] You’re saying—

Will
Yes.

Moderator
Let’s talk about—

Start off easy. First get rid of the two noisemakers.

Will
Fine. [to the liberal panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin’ smart, how come they lose so GODDAM ALWAYS!

The use of inappropriate language has a purpose—the filter’s off.

And [to the conservative panelist] with a straight face, you’re going to tell students that America’s so starspangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.

Always wanted to know how Sorkin approaches those monologues of his? He’s thinking of them like an aria. For more, you can go here.

Video Interview: Aaron Sorkin (WSJ)

June 3rd, 2012 by

Aaron Sorkin sits down with the Wall Street Journal: