This backround on biopics and the new movie Jobs from Wendy Cohen:
“Screenwriting Drafts of History”
Four years ago, when Gus Van Sant’s MILK, Oliver Stone’s W. and Steven Soderbergh’s CHE — political biopics as varied about the figures they covered as the critical praise they received — were in the midst of awards season contention, The New York Times produced this intriguing article highlighting the films’ screenwriters and their process of, as writer Dennis Lim astutely noted, “wrangling a life into the shape of a narrative.”
Here at GITS, we’ve talked about biopics as a movie story type — a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or subgenre.
One recent example we’ve analyzed is Aaron Sorkin’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, the effective use of Mark Zuckerberg’s two deposition scenes as a narrative device to travel back and forth in time, and jumps using lines of dialogue, pre-laps, and visual clues to serve as touch points for each transition.
Sorkin’s next project: a tell-all biopic of Apple innovator Steve Jobs, structured around three 30 minute scenes all set right before three major product launches. The products: The Mac, NeXT, and the iPod.
This will be the second biopic of Jobs. The first, Joshua Michael Stern’s JOBS, will be released this weekend.
The difference in structure between the two movies? Seismic.
As Scott has previously noted, biographical adaptations are one of the most difficult screenwriting challenges for two big reasons: 1) You have to find the movie in the subject’s real life story; in other words, you can’t let the facts get in the way of the movie you write and 2) What historical details and personal dynamics you omit about the subject is as important as what you choose to keep in the script.
At a Q&A following a special screening of JOBS, director Joshua Michael Stern spoke with Deadline Hollywood film critic Pete Hammond about his serendipitous collaboration with the entrepreneur responsible for the movie’s inception, working with a first-time writer and structuring the film around what he believes to be the most narrative-friendly and dramatic moments of Jobs’ life.
Below are several excerpts from their conversation.
PH: You never met Steve Jobs himself. What I think is so interesting is that it came from a guy way outside of Hollywood.
JMS: It’s a guy who owns a magazine in Dallas, Texas — and he tells the story that when Steve Jobs retired, his whole business shut down to give homage to that, and he thought “that’s interesting, that’s something that’s part of the culture,” so he hired a writer to write a screenplay. And he had seen “Swing Vote” and called me up and said “I’ve got a script.” At the time, it was 205 pages. We brought it to town and got it to Ashton, and it sort of took off from there, but he really was from outside of the system.
PH: It’s always tough doing a biopic as they say in the business as to what you focus on. How did you hone this to focus on those years and why did you decide to do it that way?
JMS: The story to me was about him and Apple. There’s going to be a lot of stories about Steve Jobs and a lot of movies about Steve Jobs. And the most interesting part of his life for me was everything before the iMac — that computer we all recognize as his first innovation. To me, to be honest, it was a story about a prince who’s raised by working class peasants who he loves and loved him, but he always felt he was bigger than them — then he sort of meets this ragtag group of guys and ne’er do wells and then he finally gets into the palace but he’s never seen as legitimate, and then he’s banished and then comes back resurrected and he decides that he has to take everybody out. The movie’s 2 hours and 5 minutes, and there’s a section, about 8 or 9 years there, where he meets his wife, he works at NeXT which doesn’t really do very well, he’s on the board of Pixar — so that section was the most interesting as to how to deal with that. The problem of his life was that a) The relationship with his wife was so secretive. There wasn’t much meat on the bones there. He was really in the doldrums during that time. So to hazard a guess as to what’s going on in his relationship with his wife would a) be conjecture totally and b) we wanted to respect that. And anything above the iMac — after the end of the movie — that history took off by itself. We know what happened. You have to decide what story you’re gonna tell, and this was just the story about him and Mac.
PH: Was there ever a consideration of doing this in another format, like a miniseries?
JMS: I think you could — that wasn’t what was presented to me — I think there is a lot of information. And the most interesting thing about Steve is that different people have different things invested in him and in his story. Everybody has something that they’re close to him on. We did every once in a while have a line that referenced something. But when you’re making a movie, there are certain things that are either just not active or because they’re such big issues you have to deal with it. And so when you deal with it, you have to actually follow it up. You open up a can of worms. Anyone’s life is always a balance of what would be interesting to know and what we don’t want to know. But I thought Steve’s resurrection was almost sort of a coda. But you had to pick and choose. It was tough.
PH: Can you tell us more about the script and the writer, Matt Whiteley?
JMS: Yeah, it was his first screenplay. It was interesting that he was making a story about Steve Jobs that was totally homegrown. I didn’t really touch the script. I’ve written everything else I’ve ever done. So, for me, the experience was having to step back and not really being able to touch the script very much, and I was really kind of shackled to the script. They had done so much research. There’s a scene in the boardroom and I had them build this beautiful boardroom and I filled it with extras during the scene, and they came in and said there were only four board members. And I said, “I built this huge room — what am I going to do with all these chairs?” So there’s a scene where he’s got his arms back and I have this huge wide shot that showed every empty chair, but I was really hamstrung by being within the accuracy of what was written, and Ashton had an encyclopedic knowledge as well. For his first screenplay, the writer did a good job.
JMS: There’s going to be many movies about Steve Jobs. We’re the first out of the gate, so…
PH: It’s always good to be first.
JMS: In the original script we actually had a scene with Steve and his sister Mona walking through a park, and it didn’t really lead very far, but it created a relationship with his sister, which I think was an amazing story. I think it made it make sense that he was brilliant, because it came from something. The thing about the story of Steve Jobs is it’s not like Johnny Cash. It’s not like he got abused, he had a drug habit… He had great parents, friends… traveled, and then he came to and never left Silicon Valley. He worked eight miles from where he grew up. Everything was within that zone. Which was interesting to his personality, wanting things to be familiar to him. It kind of made sense when you started to get under the skin of him. I think we latched onto the fact that there was a sense that he didn’t belong, but he didn’t dwell on it.
Thanks to Wendy for this post.
JOBS goes into wide release on August 16th. For tickets and more information, click here.