Q&A: Aaron Sorkin On ‘Steve Jobs’ And What He Wants To Invent
By Matt Pais, Redeye (TNS)
CHICAGO — “Even now people are saying, how could you not do the iPhone? It was the most important product,” says Aaron Sorkin at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel. “It’s because the movie’s not about products. At all. It wouldn’t have mattered really if Steve was selling toasters.”
That’s quite a statement from the Oscar-winning writer (The Social Network), whose new movie is Steve Jobs. But it speaks to how the 54-year-old creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom (who also wrote Charlie Wilson’s War and co-wrote Moneyball) had no interest in the conventional elements of a biopic, which he calls “that cradle-to-grave structure where you land on a protagonist’s greatest hits”. Instead he structured the film, starring Michael Fassbender as the iconic and sometimes very cold innovator and Apple co-founder, as three long scenes set at the launches of three of Jobs’ products (again, the iPhone isn’t one of them, and neither is the iPod) to explore the personality and relationships of the late, infinitely influential figure. Through Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire, highly articulate dialogue, of course.
Q: Everyone at one point in their life has come up with a crackpot idea and wanted to invent something. Can you think of something that you thought, “Man if I had the help or resources, I’d like to invent this”?
A: Yeah, I’d like to invent an invisible suit. But I’m waiting for technology to catch up to me. I had an app idea; it’s based off the same theory that’s behind Pandora. Pandora can recognize your taste in music, and then it’s going to give you that kind of music. Say you email with your girlfriend a lot, but there’s one trigger where you always get into a fight with your girlfriend. This is an app that would be able to recognize how you guys communicate and if you say something that the app thinks is going to be a trigger, it’ll warn you, like, “Do you really want to mention this ex-girlfriend in the email? I don’t think you should do that.”
Q: That would be brilliant.
A: Or, “You’re misspelling a lot of words; are you drunk right now?” That kind of thing.
Q: What would an invisible suit be?
A: It would be a suit that makes you invisible.
Q: Oh, I was thinking a suit that you can’t see, so you’re just naked.
A: No, it makes you invisible.
Q: What excites you more: a great use of words or a great idea?
A: To me an idea really only becomes great in its execution. There’s no such thing as a bad idea or a great idea. You have to execute them well. So great use of words aside, there are ideas that are a good start but there’s no such thing — if somebody comes up with an idea it shouldn’t be dismissed as boring or a bad idea. If it’s executed really well then it can be good. A soap opera executed well can be great.
Q: There’s a great line in the movie where Steve says something to the effect of, “God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but people like him because he made trees.”
A: In other words, “OK, I may be a little bit rough around the edges but I’m making these great devices and machines, so maybe cut me a break.”
Q: I feel like after a bunch of articles and movies, people are aware the aspects of Steve Jobs that weren’t as nice. There are a lot of public figures that aren’t the best people in private. What does it say about people that — is it that we’re forgiving, or we don’t care if an artist is imperfect as long as they provide us with an album, movie, device that we like?
A: Well, first of all nobody’s perfect. It depends. I think that a public figure, an elected official, if they’re cheating on their husband, if they’re cheating on their wife, it shouldn’t be that big a deal to us unless we’re talking about hypocrisy. Unless they’re somebody who’s talking about the sanctity of marriage, and yet they’re cheating on their wife all the time.
Q: Which is usually the case.
A: Yeah. I think that with Steve Jobs it shouldn’t matter to us his relationship with his daughter, his relationship with his friends; that’s the business of his daughter and his friends, and if you want to buy the products, that’s fine.
Q: You talked about how being nice and being gifted don’t have to be mutually exclusive or binary. To what degree do you think the ends justify the means when a ruthless motivator like Steve Jobs gets great work out of someone? Has there ever been a time when you feel you pushed someone, and when you look back on that was it a good thing because of what resulted or was there something you learned about that motivational approach?
A: Well, Steve Jobs and I have two different motivational techniques. When I’m in a leadership position, if I’m doing a television series, even on the set of a movie, I try to get the best out of people by just letting them know that I notice their work and I appreciate it. If you’re able to go the props person, somebody’s carrying a clipboard with pieces of paper on it, and it’s got notes scrawled and everything — I mean a character is carrying the clipboard — and you say, “You know what? That clipboard looked great. And all the stuff that was written on it was perfect. Everything that was crossed out, the stuff in the margins, you used three different colored pens, it all looked perfect.” That props person now feels like they have ownership of the show too. That they’re one of the authors, that their work is noticed, and they’re — I promise you — going to do the very best you can. The very best that they can, excuse me. Berating them, first of all, is not temperamentally who I am, but I also don’t think it’s likely going to get the best out of them, and it’s not going to create the best work environment. I want to come to work some place where it’s nice to come to work, and I think everybody does. But Steve had his own methods, and he would say of my method that it’s vanity. That what I really want is for these people to like me. And I’m sacrificing the quality of the work for that. I think he’s mistaken, but he’s also pretty successful.
Q: What do you think he would think of the movie?
A: Well, it’s one of those hypotheticals that’s a little nutty. I think that if the movie were about somebody else, if he didn’t have a personal stake in it and was able to look at it objectively, I think he might like it. I think it’s streamlined; I think that it’s got clean lines the way he liked. We’re definitely thinking different; it’s something new. So he might appreciate that.
Q: Based on the research you did and conversations you had with people involved, who do you think treated people better: Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg?
A: Oh, gee. That’s an interesting question. They’re both so different. Mark Zuckerberg, generally speaking, is, or was — the Mark Zuckerberg that I was writing about mostly was 19; I was also writing about him when he was 25 but mostly was 19 — and he was just awkward, shy with people. He wasn’t so much treating them bad as he couldn’t quite look you in the eye and liked to use as few words as he could. Not the case with Steve, who would be happy to call you a bozo if he felt that you weren’t up to snuff.