D10: Aaron Sorkin on Steve Jobs, Aristotle, and I Love Lucy

Photo courtesy of All Things D

There’s a classic joke about an the actress who was so dumb she tried to sleep with the writer in order to get ahead in Hollywood. The writer is not the star. And yet when Aaron Sorkin stepped on stage at the D10 conference Wednesday, all tanned skin and tousled hair, the audience of grizzled tech execs got all starry-eyed.

Sorkin’s not just any writer, of course. His track record—The West Wing, Sports Night, A Few Good Men, and many more—has made him a superstar screenwriter. He touched on the tech industry with The Social Network and will do so again as he writes the screenplay adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. And he’s got a show to plug—The Newsroom, premiering on HBO later in June.

Steve Jobs biography

Right now Sorkin’s work on the Jobs biography is entirely internal. He’s thinking about it. I wonder if he might even get some inspiration from some of the sessions here at the conference, including a tribute to Steve Jobs coming up later Wednesday. But right now, it’s all just being mulled over.

“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,” he said. More seriously, “it’s a process of procrastination while you try to figure out what the movie is about.”

Sorkin said that biographies tend to end up shaped into a cradle-to-grave structure that doesn’t really interest him. “I’m going to identify the point of friction [in Steve Jobs’s life] that appeals to me, and dramatize that.” Ultimately, he said, anytime you see the statement “the following is a true story” on screen, you must “think of it as a painting, not a photograph”—the writer is always interpreting reality, not reflecting it exactly.

While Sorkin comes across as (rightly) confident about his gifts, he admitted being a bit daunted by the subject matter and the audience of people who knew Jobs. “It’s a little like writing about The Beatles,” he said. “There are so many people who know so much about him and revere him… I just saw a minefield of disappointment.”

Currently there’s a different Steve Jobs movie in production, featuring Ashton Kutcher playing the Apple co-founder. Sorkin seemed unworried about the conflict, citing Hollywood’s tendency to release similar movies in clusters. (He made reference to two movies about Truman Capote; I was thinking about the year there were two movies about comets or asteroids hitting the earth. Don’t judge me, Sorkin.)

“Steve Jobs is a big enough person, and led a big enough life, to support more than one movie,” he said.

Later on in the conversation, an attendee asked Sorkin about the recent trend toward TV series (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) that feature protagonists that are less sympathetic, more like antiheroes. Sorkin said his preference is to write idealistic characters who are very heroic, though he admitted that Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network is more of an antihero.

So what about Steve Jobs?

“[My character] has to be, for me, a hero… To put it as simply as possible, you want to write the character like they are making their case to God about why they should be let into heaven.” Presumably Sorkin will find the heroic in Jobs, but also the flaws—and let’s be honest, that is a classic combination that should make for some good drama.

Digital Sorkin

Conference co-host Walt Mossberg tried repeatedly to get Sorkin to talk about how the evolution of digital technology has changed his life and work processes. (After all, that’s what the D conference is all about.) Sorkin admitted that he’s got desktop PCs and laptops and an iPad and an iPhone, but that when it comes to his craft he’s “writing it the same way those guys wrote I Love Lucy.”

“I wouldn’t really know what changes to make to accommodate the different ways people watch now,” he said. “And I’m concerned if I did know, it would just lessen the quality… The only solution I can come up with is to do as good a show as I possibly can, and hope that wins.”

Sorkin said he’s not worried about people increasingly multitasking while watching TV, because he feels his work simply can’t be appreciated that way. “The stuff I write doesn’t work well as background music,” he said. “And the HBO audience is conditioned to do that already. They’re paying for it.”

“The art of telling stories hasn’t changed” since the early days of human culture, he said. The rules of drama are the same as those in the days of Aristotle. And those are rules “that make it cool—without rules in art, it’s just fingerpainting.” That said, Sorkin did say he appreciates that the digital age has allowed the creation of short videos, five-minute-long pieces. “Webisodes—I think that’s cool.”

Show within a show

Mossberg noted Sorkin’s track record of creating TV series set behind the scenes of TV shows—Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and now The Newsroom, and asked why he thinks people are interested in what happens behind the scenes on TV.

“I’m not sure they are,” Sorkin said. “When I write, I don’t try to guess what people want. I’m not sure I’d guess right, and that’s no way to write… But there’s more going on there than behind-the-scenes stuff. This show will succeed or fail based on how much you invest in [the show’s characters]. Nothing more.”

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