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The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin interview

The Social Network

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED screenwriter Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin talks about the themes behind The Social Network – aka ‘the Facebook movie’ – and his delight at how the film has become such a big box office hit.

He also considers the potential dangers of social networking sites, as well as the lengths he had to go to satisfy the legal criteria for getting the film completed.

Q. This is a remarkable film in that you don’t really need to know anything at all about Facebook or that world of social networking because it’s essentially a Faustian drama isn’t it?
Aaron Sorkin: Yes, first of all I don’t know anything about Facebook or that world of communication, so it’s not surprising that the audience doesn’t need to either. As far as it being a Faustian drama, sure that’s one of the many things that it is. You can say what prophets a man if he gains the world and loses his soul – with Justin Timberlake in the role of Mefistofele? So that’s one of the many things that it is. But we’re really pleased that… the movie opened in the US this past Friday and in the weeks leading up to that we’ve been criss-crossing the country and screening the movie on college campuses both for students and their professors and people are taking away from it a variety of themes and conclusions. We encourage that too. There isn’t one thing that the movie is about. It’s about several things, so we like that those arguments are happening in the lobbies and the parking lots.

Q. So, what is your take on Facebook and why people have become so addicted to it?
Aaron Sorkin: I’ll give you my take on Facebook but only after underlining that all of my education and experience is in playwriting… I have no education in sociology and, to make matters worse, know nothing really about Facebook – and certainly nothing about Facebook in 2010; my only knowledge is of Facebook in 2004. That said, I think it does do a lot of wonderful things. When Andrew [Garfield] spoke of money being raised, it’s been responsible for a lot of good social activism, whether it’s the protests against the Iranian elections, or an incident in the US about genocide [Stop The Genocide], so it’s good at that.

My worry about it is that this device that was made to connect us all, to bring us closer together, may well be doing the opposite… that by replacing humanity with technology, it seems to me to feel like a slightly insincere form of communication. Justin [Timberlake] is right, we now have a way to not show people our flaws and to reinvent ourselves from the privacy and solitude of our rooms and create a rather facile version of ourselves that we want people to see. I can identify with that because I would like people to think that I’m as quick and as clever as the characters that I write. So, I do professionally what people do for free on Facebook. It’ll be some time – decades and decades – before we know what the results are of this social experiment.

But to me it feels like socialising on the Internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality: that there is an insincerity to it that is unappealing to me but I have no difficulty understanding why it is appealing to, at minimum, 500 million other people.

Q. You obviously had the book [The Accidental Billionaires] to draw on and elements that were in the public domain, but what were the issues and constraints that you faced in telling this story with these real people involved?
Aaron Sorkin: When you’re doing non-fiction about people who are still alive and, in this case young people there’s a great responsibility. You have two important things in your hands – you understand that a Hollywood movie is going to make a loud, cannon shot. This, for most people, will be their impression of these people and these events. So, you have history and you have someone’s life in your hands. First, there is a legal obligation to be met. This script was vetted by countless, countless lawyers. I am simply legally not allowed to say something that is both untrue and defamatory.

But even greater than that, you have a moral obligation not to mess around with someone’s life for the sake of a good movie scene. So, as you mentioned, there’s a lot of available material out there, which anybody can find as easily as I did. For one example, Mark’s blog post that we hear in voice-over at the beginning of the movie, while I changed the girl’s name – her name wasn’t Erica Albright, it was someone else and there are two other cases where I changed a character’s name because it wasn’t relevant to the story and I didn’t want to further embarrass this person… there’s available research, there are cartons and cartons of legal documents that a pair of lawyers and legal experts both in the field of corporate law and intellectual property law were able to walk me through.

But most important was the first person research that I did – meeting and speaking with many of the people that were present at events that are dramatised in the film. Some of those people are characters in the movie. Most of those people spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. This would be a good time to mention, by the way, that obviously there’s someone missing up here: the person most responsible for this movie – David Fincher – who is in Sweden right now shooting The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. You can pretend that he’s here and scowling at you! But both David and I took as seriously as can be the truth, which was tricky in this case, because we were telling a story about there being three different versions of the truth.

There were two separate law-suits brought against Facebook at roughly the same time; the defendant, the plaintiff, the witnesses all walked into deposition rooms, all swore an oath to tell the truth and we ended up with three very different versions – often conflicting – of the same story. So, rather than pick one version, decide that was the truth and write a movie about that, or pick one version and decide this was the sexiest and write a movie about that, I like that there were three different versions of the truth – apologies to Kurosawa, because I really like Rashomon! I also really like courtroom dramas which, at its soul, this is what it is. We never make it into the courtroom, we’re only in the deposition room, but we’re hearing from witnesses who are contradicting each other and who are, throughout the movie, changing our minds about who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s bad.

Q. But does the fact that these are not only young men, but wealthy young men, make the studios sweat a bit more than they otherwise might?
Aaron Sorkin: I can’t speak to how much they ordinarily sweat [laughs] but I can tell you that in this particular case there was nothing left to chance. If there was the slightest doubt, if I was unable to source something that I was saying was truth to their satisfaction, I couldn’t say it. I don’t mean by saying this to insult Ben Mezrich or his book, as obviously without Ben and without The Accidental Billionaires this movie would have happened. I’m required to deliver to the studio an annotated script, which is a footnoted script essentially saying there a piece of information is given, whether it’s a character taking a bong hit, or making an assertion – I’m required to, when it’s not fiction, say where I got that information from.

The Social Network

In this case, saying I got it from Ben’s book wasn’t good enough. So, things either had to be cut or I would have to, like Woodward and Bernstein, go back out there to satisfy Ben Bradlee, and find out another source saying that this happened. And anytime a fact was in dispute, which was a lot, I needed to make it clear to the audience that that fact is in dispute. The first time we go to the deposition room, after the opening sequence, Mark and Erica have their fight at the bar, Mark gets his heart broken, he goes back to his dorm room, he begins drinking, blogging, hacking, creating Facemash, and Facemash goes viral and all the while we’re cutting to this sort of fantasy party that Mark always imagines is out there somewhere, that he hasn’t been invited to. We then cut for the first time to the deposition room and the very first words out of Mark’s mouth are: “That’s not what happened.” And that’s our signal to the audience that you’re going to be hearing from a series of unreliable narrators.

Q. This is a rare Hollywood film in that it doesn’t have gunshots, explosions, CGI or naked ladies, and yet it’s done extraordinarily well and is a gripping film. How come a movie that involves listening to the dialogue has been able to do so well?
Aaron Sorkin: We don’t know, for the life of us! We couldn’t be more thrilled. But I want to give credit to Amy Pascal at Sony and to our producers for making the movie that you just described, without saying that you’re going to have to put some kind of sugary frosting on it that will appeal to this demographic or that demographic… it does not have – and here’s a quote that will send people stampeding to the box office – any of the bells and whistles that we’re used to seeing from Hollywood.

Moreover, and as if that weren’t bad enough, in the ‘80s Hollywood made movies about very cuddly nerds, and very easy to dislike jocks and bullies, and so you knew from the outset who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. Things aren’t nearly as clear in this movie as they were then. So, I give a great deal of credit to the studio for making the movie. But I also think that this movie demonstrates what I absolutely believe that people who go to see movies aren’t dumber than people who make movies. And, as Andrew said, people like using their brains – it’s fun when you’re watching a movie. This movie begins at 100mph, right in the middle of a conversation, it forces you to sit forward and listen right away, and that kind of participation in the experience of watching a movie is exhilarating and people like it.

I don’t know the answer to your question, I’m grateful that people are coming to the movie, that people are liking the movie – not just the critics – but ticket buyers… I’m not on the business end of making movies but they break down the numbers for me in terms that a fifth grader can understand, and one of the things that I’m really pleased by is that this movie breaks evenly in every demographic: male, female, under 35, over 35… everybody is going. Now, they may be having different experiences at the movie but they’re enjoying it in spite of the lack of a gunshot, or special effects. The only special effect in the movie is one you’re not supposed to notice, which is that Armie Hammer is playing two people at the same time.

So, I credit the studio for making the movie and I credit as often as humanly possible David Fincher, for taking what… I have to tell you. Listen, Justin Timberlake moonlights as a songwriter and singer, so he knows what it means why I say I don’t write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed. I’m sure that Justin would not get very much satisfaction out of writing a good song on a piece of sheet music and then passing it out to you to have a look. It gets fun for me when the band comes in and the thing starts to be sung. There were 100 ways to make this movie badly – if you can think of half of them, you are a genius – but David managed to not step in any of those pot-holes along the way. He won the bullfight with cliché and he made, from where I sit, a very special film.

The Social Network opens in UK cinemas on Friday, October 15, 2010.