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
- 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?
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!
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.
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.
It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor, that’s my answer.
[pause] You’re saying—
Let’s talk about—
Start off easy. First get rid of the two noisemakers.
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.
Aaron Sorkin sits down with the Wall Street Journal:
Delivered May 13, 2012:
Thank you very much. Madam Chancellor, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and administration, parents and friends, honored guests and graduates, thank you for inviting me to speak today at this magnificent Commencement ceremony.
There’s a story about a man and a woman who have been married for 40 years. One evening at dinner the woman turns to her husband and says, “You know, 40 years ago on our wedding day you told me that you loved me and you haven’t said those words since.” They sit in silence for a long moment before the husband says “If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.”
Well, it’s been a long time since I sat where you sit, and I can remember looking up at my teachers with great admiration, with fondness, with gratitude and with love. Some of the teachers who were there that day are here this day and I wanted to let them know that I haven’t changed my mind.
There’s another story. Two newborn babies are lying side by side in the hospital and they glance at each other. Ninety years later, through a remarkable coincidence, the two are back in the same hospital lying side by side in the same hospital room. They look at each other and one of them says, “So what’d you think?”
It’s going to be a very long time before you have to answer that question, but time shifts gears right now and starts to gain speed. Just ask your parents whose heads, I promise you, are exploding right now. They think they took you home from the maternity ward last month. They think you learned how to walk last week. They don’t understand how you could possibly be getting a degree in something today. They listened to “Cats in the Cradle” the whole car ride here.
I’d like to say to the parents that I realized something while I was writing this speech: the last teacher your kids will have in college will be me. And that thought scared the hell out of me. Frankly, you should feel exactly the same way. But I am the father of an 11-year-old daughter, so I do know how proud you are today, how proud your daughters and your sons make you every day, and that they did just learn how to walk last week, that you’ll never not be there for them, that you love them more than they’ll ever know and that it doesn’t matter how many degrees get put in their hand, they will always be dumber than you are.
And make no mistake about it, you are dumb. You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there. We all were there. You’re barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya. It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.
Today is May 13th and today you graduate. Growing up, I looked at my future as a timeline of graduations in which every few years, I’d be given more freedom and reward as I passed each milestone of childhood. When I get my driver’s license, my life will be like this; when I’m a senior, my life will be like that; when I go off to college, my life will be like this; when I move out of the dorms, my life will be like that; and then finally, graduation. And on graduation day, I had only one goal left, and that was to be part of professional theater. We have this in common, you and I—we want to be able to earn a living doing what we love. Whether you’re a writer, mathematician, engineer, architect, butcher, baker or candlestick maker, you want an invitation to the show.
Today is May 13th, and today you graduate, and today you already know what I know: to get where you’re going, you have to be good, and to be good where you’re going, you have to be damned good. Every once in a while, you’ll succeed. Most of the time you’ll fail, and most of the time the circumstances will be well beyond your control.
When we were casting my first movie, “A Few Good Men,” we saw an actor just 10 months removed from the theater training program at UCLA. We liked him very much and we cast him in a small, but featured role as an endearingly dimwitted Marine corporal. The actor had been working as a Domino’s Pizza delivery boy for 10 months, so the news that he’d just landed his first professional job and that it was in a new movie that Rob Reiner was directing, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, was met with happiness. But as is often the case in show business, success begets success before you’ve even done anything, and a week later the actor’s agent called. The actor had been offered the lead role in a new, as-yet-untitled Milos Forman film. He was beside himself. He felt loyalty to the first offer, but Forman after all was offering him the lead. We said we understood, no problem, good luck, we’ll go with our second choice. Which, we did. And two weeks later, the Milos Forman film was scrapped. Our second choice, who was also making his professional debut, was an actor named Noah Wyle. Noah would go on to become one of the stars of the television series “ER” and hasn’t stopped working since. I don’t know what the first actor is doing, and I can’t remember his name. Sometimes, just when you think you have the ball safely in the end zone, you’re back to delivering pizzas for Domino’s. Welcome to the NFL.
In the summer of 1983, after I graduated, I moved to New York to begin my life as a struggling writer. I got a series of survival jobs that included bartending, ticket-taking, telemarketing, limo driving, and dressing up as a moose to pass out leaflets in a mall. I ran into a woman who’d been a senior here when I was a freshman. I asked her how it was going and how she felt Syracuse had prepared her for the early stages of her career. She said, “Well, the thing is, after three years you start to forget everything they taught you in college. But once you’ve done that, you’ll be fine.” I laughed because I thought it was funny and also because I wanted to ask her out, but I also think she was wrong.
As a freshman drama student—and this story is now becoming famous—I had a play analysis class—it was part of my requirement. The professor was Gerardine Clark. (applause) If anybody was wondering, the drama students are sitting over there (applause). The play analysis class met for 90 minutes twice a week. We read two plays a week and we took a 20-question true or false quiz at the beginning of the session that tested little more than whether or not we’d read the play. The problem was that the class was at 8:30 in the morning, it met all the way down on East Genesee, I lived all the way up at Brewster/Boland, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but from time to time the city of Syracuse experiences inclement weather. All this going to class and reading and walking through snow, wind chill that’s apparently powered by jet engines, was having a negative effect on my social life in general and my sleeping in particular. At one point, being quizzed on “Death of a Salesman,” a play I had not read, I gave an answer that indicated that I wasn’t aware that at the end of the play the salesman dies. And I failed the class. I had to repeat it my sophomore year; it was depressing, frustrating and deeply embarrassing. And it was without a doubt the single most significant event that occurred in my evolution as a writer. I showed up my sophomore year and I went to class, and I paid attention, and we read plays and I paid attention, and we discussed structure and tempo and intention and obstacle, possible improbabilities, improbable impossibilities, and I paid attention, and by God when I got my grades at the end of the year, I’d turned that F into a D. I’m joking: it was pass/fail.
But I stood at the back of the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington watching a pre-Broadway tryout of my plays, knowing that when the curtain came down, I could go back to my hotel room and fix the problem in the second act with the tools that Gerry Clark gave me. Eight years ago, I was introduced to Arthur Miller at a Dramatists Guild function and we spent a good part of the evening talking. A few weeks later when he came down with the flu he called and asked if I could fill in for him as a guest lecturer at NYU. The subject was “Death of a Salesman.” You made a good decision coming to school here.
I’ve made some bad decisions. I lost a decade of my life to cocaine addiction. You know how I got addicted to cocaine? I tried it. The problem with drugs is that they work, right up until the moment that they decimate your life. Try cocaine, and you’ll become addicted to it. Become addicted to cocaine, and you will either be dead, or you will wish you were dead, but it will only be one or the other. My big fear was that I wasn’t going to be able to write without it. There was no way I was going to be able to write without it. Last year I celebrated my 11-year anniversary of not using coke. (applause) Thank you. In that 11 years, I’ve written three television series, three movies, a Broadway play, won the Academy Award and taught my daughter all the lyrics to “Pirates of Penzance.” I have good friends.
You’ll meet a lot of people who, to put it simply, don’t know what they’re talking about. In 1970 a CBS executive famously said that there were four things that we would never, ever see on television: a divorced person, a Jewish person, a person living in New York City and a man with a moustache. By 1980, every show on television was about a divorced Jew who lives in New York City and goes on a blind date with Tom Selleck.
Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt. My junior and senior years at Syracuse, I shared a five-bedroom apartment at the top of East Adams with four roommates, one of whom was a fellow theater major named Chris. Chris was a sweet guy with a sly sense of humor and a sunny stage presence. He was born out of his time, and would have felt most at home playing Mickey Rooney’s sidekick in “Babes on Broadway.” I had subscriptions back then to Time and Newsweek. Chris used to enjoy making fun of what he felt was an odd interest in world events that had nothing to do with the arts. I lost touch with Chris after we graduated and so I’m not quite certain when he died. But I remember about a year and a half after the last time I saw him, I read an article in Newsweek about a virus that was burning its way across the country. The Centers for Disease Control was calling it “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or AIDS for short. And they were asking the White House for $35 million for research, care and cure. The White House felt that $35 million was way too much money to spend on a disease that was only affecting homosexuals, and they passed. Which I’m sure they wouldn’t have done if they’d known that $35 million was a steal compared to the $2 billion it would cost only 10 years later.
Am I saying that Chris would be alive today if only he’d read Newsweek? Of course not. But it seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less of each other, and that’s got to change. Your friends, your family, this school expect more of you than vocational success.
Today is May 13th and today you graduate and the rules are about to change, and one of them is this: Decisions are made by those who show up. Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world.
Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance—and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy. Unless they went to Georgetown, in which case, they can go to hell. (Laughter)
Don’t ever forget that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.
Rehearsal’s over. You’re going out there now, you’re going to do this thing. How you live matters. You’re going to fall down, but the world doesn’t care how many times you fall down, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.
For the class of 2012, I wish you joy. I wish you health and happiness and success, I wish you a roof, four walls, a floor and someone in your life that you care about more than you care about yourself. Someone who makes you start saying “we” where before you used to say “I” and “us” where you used to say “me.” I wish you the quality of friends I have and the quality of colleagues I work with. Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it. When you aim high and hit your target, when just for a moment all else disappears, and you soar with wings as eagles. The moment will end as quickly as it came, and so you’ll have to have it back, and so you’ll get it back no matter what the obstacles. A lofty prediction, to be sure, but I flat out guarantee it.
Today is May 13th, and today you graduate, and my friends, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Thank you, and congratulations.
“Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.”
HT to Nick Johnson for emailing this to me yesterday.
Created by Aaron Sorkin
Debuts on HBO: 24 June 2012