Peter Kafka

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Aaron Sorkin Wants Your Attention

Digital technology gives storytellers lots of new tools. But none of that matters if you don’t know how to tell a story, says Aaron Sorkin. The man has pretty good credentials, so it’s worth listening to him.

The guy who wrote “The West Wing,” “A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network” and HBO’s upcoming “The Newsroom” had a lot to say about how he actually makes all that stuff (spoiler: it involves copious amounts of ESPN-viewing) at the D10 conference today. And he also had a lot to say about the way his audience watches all this stuff.

Capturing Sorkin’s thoughts via a liveblog isn’t the easiest task, because he does indeed talk like one of his chatterbox characters. But we did our best below. If you’re good at delayed gratification, we’ll have a highlight reel later today. Weeks from now, we’ll have the entire session available.

Hollywood edict: If you want to make a movie about a Silicon Valley legend, you need to hire Aaron Sorkin. The writer took on Mark Zuckerberg’s story (sort of) a couple years ago. Now he’s signed on for a Steve Jobs biopic.

So maybe we’ll get a preview of the new movie during his D10 interview today. But this is likely to be a wide-ranging talk, because Sorkin has a wide-ranging career: Movies, plays and some of the most iconic TV shows of the last 15 years (with a new HBO one ready to go). I’ll do my best to keep up via a liveblog below, but if you’re reading this in real time you should also be able to follow along via our livestream. This should be a ton of fun.

And we’re off. “What are you working on right now?” Walt wants to know.

Sorkin mentions new HBO show. Walt notes this is his third TV show about TV.

Walt: Why do people care about what goes on behind the scenes at TV?

Sorkin: I’m not sure that they do. “I try to write what I like, and what my friends like, and then cross my fingers and hope that it’s good enough for me to earn a living.”

Walt: Steve Jobs used to talk like that, about using his own internal compass as a guide. And you’re writing about Jobs now.

Sorkin: Yep. One of many adaptations I’ve done — “A Few Good Men,” “Social Network,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” …

I’m at the earliest possible stage with Steve Jobs. “What I’ll do is go through a long period that would not look to any casual observer like writing. It would look a lot like watching ESPN.” It’s a process of procrastination while you try to figure out what watching the movie will be about.

Biopics are hard to do without seeming formulaic, “so I’m probably not going to write one” — instead he will try to find the essence of the story, key friction point, and try to dramatize that.

The Jobs movie is a “minefield of disappointment” because it’s like a movie about the Beatles. So many people know so much about him, much more than me.

“Anytime you’re at the movies, and you see the words ‘The following is based on a true story,’ you should think about it as a painting, not a photograph.”

Walt: Who’s playing Steve Jobs in your movie?

Sorkin: I don’t know. “But it’s going to have be a very good actor.”

On writing style: “By and large, I write about people who are considerably smarter than I am.” Everyone in my family is much smarter than me; same with friends growing up. “I really fell in love with the phonetic sound of intelligence” and the sound a good argument.

So yes, whoever plays Steve Jobs will have to talk fast, but he’ll also have to be smart, because you can’t fake intelligence.

Walt: I’ve seen almost all your stuff. Hard to believe you’re not smart.

Sorkin: Okay, I’ll prove it. When my friends were being bar- and bat mitzvahed, I decided I would try to learn the Torah in six weeks, even though I didn’t know Hebrew. A rabbi dissuaded me.

Walt: I went back and watched a lot of “West Wing” recently. I’m wondering if that kind of stuff works in the digital age. What I mean is: You have this dense text with lots of allusions, and you need people to rewind and pay attention. In the digital age, everything gets cut up into small pieces, and people watch TV with another screen in their hand. How does that work with your stuff?

Sorkin: When you do TV at all, the audience has a much more passive relationship with what they’re watching than when they go to movies or plays. Those are things you invest in with money and time. Watching TV is a different relationship. We’re used to watching TV while doing other things. Always been a challenge for me. “The stuff that I write doesn’t work very well as background music.” HBO works because the audience is conditioned to pay attention — they’re paying for it. But now throw in different platforms, like HBO Go. I’m of two minds: I love HBO Go — great way to watch the show. Incredible numbers now on that thing — only half the audience watches an HBO show when it premieres on Sunday night. But: When you have the iPad in your hand, you’re not getting the sound that I want you to hear, or the picture I want you to see — it’s not the ideal way to watch. “But I’ll take it,” because I want you to watch.

Walt: So when you write stuff now, are you thinking about the environment that people are in when they’re watching it?

Sorkin: Nope. I’m writing the same way as the guys who wrote “I Love Lucy,” “and I’m hoping for the best.” I wouldn’t know how to make changes to accomodate new ways of viewing, and I think that if I did, it would lessen the quality.

Walt: I think the same people who are multitasking when they watch NBC are also multitasking when they watch HBO. Does that raise the bar for you?

Sorkin: Yes. And there’s a lot of people multitasking while they watch us talk right now. I just try to do the best job I can.

Walt: Let’s talk about digital and today’s news business.

Sorkin: The new show takes place in a fictional newsroom. I want to stress that — it’s not meant to be MSNBC, or Fox, or CNN. But it is cable news, covering real events that happened in the past. You’ll see that in the pilot episode, that it starts about two years ago.

There’s a dramatic discussion of the news, and politics. But the show will depend on how engaged you are with the characters.

Digital plays a big role in the show — there’s a character that’s very idealistic about the way social networks work. And you’ll get to see the way the people on the show get their news — which is digital — no one ever gets their news from a guy whispering in an alleyway.

Walt: You’re saying your writing hasn’t changed because of digital. What about your life?

Sorkin: I have lots of digital stuff, just like everybody. But “I’m all but computer illiterate, which I’m not proud of.” Mostly I just use my computer to write scripts. But I’m amazed that 3-and-a-half-year-olds can resonate with computers right away. “If I could ask Steve Jobs anything, it would be ‘What’s that magic trick?'”

But storytelling hasn’t really changed that much. The digital age has brought us five-, six-minute stories. That’s really cool. And it’s great that people have these great tools to make movies, like my daughter, who has a laptop and iPhone, and does that all the time.

“I think what we might see is digital filmmaking sort of becoming the new indie film.” But we still have to “distinguish between what’s going to be good and what’s not going to be good.”

There are lots of crappy $100 million movies. But at least when we buy a ticket to that, “we know there was a vetting process.” In journalism, it’s hard to get a job at the New York Times. But you don’t need credentials to start your own digital newspaper. (That’s a good thing, Aaron.)

Walt: What do you think about mashups?

Sorkin: “I smile at it.” It’s flattering when people do that with my work.


Q: You wrote a play about patents. (Didn’t know that!) What do you think about that today?

A: Yep, “The Farnsworth Invention,” about Sarnoff from RCA, and Philo Farnsworth, the guy who basically invented TV. My father was an IP lawyer. My knowledge about patents came entirely from him. “But I don’t pay as much attention to patent law as I do copyright law. But whatever side this group of people is on, I’m on.”

Q: You have certain actors who follow you from show to show. How does that work?

A: “They didn’t follow me, I kidnapped them.” Good actors are hard to find, so I try to take people like Josh Malina and Bradley Whitford from show to show. That said, this new show has actors I’ve never worked with before. It’s a great luxury to write for actors you know. I’ll give minor characters increasing time, because you respond to the actors.

Q: Jon Kaplan, the guy who built Flip: How do you scale great storytelling? How do you scale you?

A: There is a lot of circus out there. But there’s also a lot of great storytelling. A lot of it is happening on TV. Anytime there’s a lot of content, most of it is going to be bad, so you have to look around for the good stuff. “Storytelling is a very old art form, and the important parts of it don’t change at all.” Read your Aristotle.

“People shouldn’t learn that rules are bad things when it comes to creativity.” Just like in sports — rules help make things great. “It’s the rules that make it cool. Without rules in any kind of art, it’s just finger painting.”

Sorkin now using “scaling” to describe mountain climbing instead of the way Kaplan meant. Anyway, he’s as nervous about his new HBO show as anything he’s ever done. “It’s not like the Flip, which you knew everybody would like. … I know for sure everybody isn’t going to love this, and I’m going to hear from people.”

Q: Lots of the great dramas now feature antiheroes. What happened to the traditional hero?

A: I wrote one antihero story — “The Social Network.” But I usually like heros, and that’s what I have in my new show. That’s what I respond to. I think all those shows are great, “but my taste lies in quixotic heroes.”

Walt: Where does Steve Jobs lie in the hero/antihero spectrum?

Sorkin: He’s a complicated guy. Zuckerberg was, as well. But when I’m writing this movie, “I cant judge this character. He has to be, for me, a hero. … To put is as simply as possible, you want to write the character like they are making their case to God, why they should be let into heaven.”

Walt: Cook talked about Jobs’s penchant for changing his mind on a dime. He thought that was a good quality.

Sorkin: I agree. You have to be able to come back and say, “I was wrong, and here’s why.” “The ‘here’s why’ is important. You have to be a good diagnostician.”

With Jobs, what captured everyone’s attention was “that he made things.” Now we’re told that we’re just going to be servicing things. But Steve Jobs made things that people want. We do that in Hollywood, too. We’re making a lot of junk, but we still make things that people like.

Q: How do you make your fictional characters so authentic?

A: Thanks! I never try to tell an audience who a character is. I try to show the audience what a character wants. “I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle.” That conflict is the whole point of drama.

“In terms of protagonists, I’m less interested in the difference between good and bad than I am in the difference between good and great. What can a good person do if they realize their potential?”

And we’re done. Thanks for following along.

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