The apple of his eye

Aaron Sorkin on the wizardry of Steve Jobs.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Steve Jobs' director Danny Boyle with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin
Steve Jobs' director Danny Boyle with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs stars Michael Fassbender as the central player of the digital revolution, with a formidable supporting cast including Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Makenzie Moss, Perla Haney-Jardine and Sarah Snook.

Jeff Daniels and Aaron Sorkin listen at the brunch.
Jeff Daniels and Aaron Sorkin listen at the brunch. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Screenwriter of David Fincher's The Social Network, Bennett Miller's Moneyball and Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War, Aaron Sorkin, clued me in on his adaptation of Walter Isaacson's biography, Steve Jobs, before sitting down for brunch at The Vault of the St. Regis. Alain Resnais' Last Year In Marienbad, an Iris Apfel quote in Albert Maysles' portrait Iris, an eye tattoo, loving corridors, to be or not be a ghost, Shakespeare, Hegel, the Three Little Pigs and the Holy Trinity, come into play in our conversation. Son Of Saul director László Nemes, whom I spoke with three days earlier, introduced me to his star, Géza Röhrig. They were seated at Danny Boyle's table with Peggy Siegal.

From the 1984 launch of the first Macintosh, to the NeXT workstation in 1988 and the iMac in 1998, in Boyle's Steve Jobs, we get to know the key players by their behavior behind the scenes, right before the big events. Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO and former Pepsi executive John Sculley, Katherine Waterston as ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, computer scientist on the original Apple development team, and Lisa, Jobs' [non-] daughter in three ages, act and react with the man who changed the world.

Waterston plays Chrisann as a cipher. She does that mainly through her voice which has many shades, neutral and desperate, resigned and annoying when we don't want her to be annoying but a shining protector of her child. Steve Jobs has no problem talking about his aiding "underprivileged kids", while ignoring the one right in front of him. Several people discuss with Jobs what it means to be an adopted child. "It's control," he exclaims; this explains his psyche.

Jobs to Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet):
Jobs to Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet): "If you love the Macintosh, you're going to love me."

Difficult company politics and even more complicated family dynamics are exposed as Fassbender's Jobs suggests the machinations of his mind, mainly through interactions and in lightening quick flashbacks. The screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, despite the formal construction of having most of the talking take place before the three major launches, is all about the private man with his demons on display.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Was it always clear to you that you wanted to tell Steve Jobs' story in a classic three act structure?

Aaron Sorkin: No, no, it wasn't. When I began, I didn't know what I was going to do. All I knew was what I didn't want to do - and that was write a biopic. A cradle to grave story where you land on the characters' greatest hits along the way. I felt that that was a form that was familiar to audiences and that it really wouldn't get us anywhere in terms of learning something about this very, very interesting character.

AKT: The structure into three parts can make you think of many things. On the one hand, there's Hegel, there's the Three Little Pigs, there's the Holy Trinity. All of the scenes take place before the launches, which made me think of Iris Apfel. Did you see Albert Maysles' last finished film about her?

John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender):
John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender): "Sculley wasn't there - he never saw Steve again ..."

AS: No, I didn't.

AKT: She says "the best thing about a party is getting dressed for the party." Before the launch is the best part?

AS: I'll tattoo that quote behind my eyelids! That's wonderful. Yeah, that's exactly it. Listen, showing the launch, the different presentations wouldn't have gotten us anywhere. There's no conflict out there on stage. The conflict is backstage, before it happens. You can see those launches on YouTube, I've watched them plenty of times.

AKT: How did you pick these particular three launches?

AS: It didn't have anything to do with the products themselves. I didn't choose three devices that I wanted to have launched. It had to do with where we were in Steve's life at that point. In 1984, he was still denying paternity of Lisa. In 1988, he was the king in exile. And then in 1998, the king returns.

AKT: I just spoke with Jeff Daniels about the Shakespearean quality of the story. His character [John Sculley] reminded me most of a ghost of all of them. But I have a question about corridors. You seem to love corridors. Do you like [Alain Resnais'] Last Year In Marienbad?

Aaron Sorkin, Jeff Daniels and Danny Boyle
Aaron Sorkin, Jeff Daniels and Danny Boyle Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AS [laughing]: Yes, I do. And you're right, I do love corridors. But Danny [Boyle] loves corridors, too. There had to be some kind of visual movement in this thing. It is film, after all. So you couldn't set it all in… - I could, I'm absolutely capable of setting something entirely in one room and never having to move. But you did need to move them around a little.

During the conversation moderated by Joe Neumaier, I had a follow up question for Aaron Sorkin and after the laughter in the room subsided, he gave a detailed response.

Anne-Katrin Titze: "God sent his son on a suicide mission but we like him anyway because he made trees," is what Steve Jobs says. Where did that line come from?

Aaron Sorkin: My imagination! He is saying it in defense of, you know, take the time to be nicer to people. This was advice, I am sure, that was given to him by a number of people. One of the people who essentially said, be nicer to the people you work with, was Larry Ellison, one of his best friends. And Steve told Larry Ellison that he thought that that was vanity. That anytime a boss says to a co-worker "good job, way to go, man" - what they are really … the thing that's most important to them is that their co-workers think he's a nice guy. And not that the product be as good as it can be.

Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) Lisa Brennan (Makenzie Moss):
Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) Lisa Brennan (Makenzie Moss): "In 1984, he was still denying paternity of Lisa."

So, that line was Steve saying to Joanna Hoffman [Kate Winslet], and this speaks to a much larger theme in the movie, if you love the Macintosh, you're going to love me. It's not going to matter if I say "please" or "thank you", you're going to love the Macintosh. And then, of course, we get to the end of the movie and what he says to Lisa … then you can kind of fill in the blanks and go back to the scene with Seth [Rogan], with Woz [Steve Wozniak], when Woz says "The things you make are better than you are."

And he says "That's the idea." Put that together with everything else that he said and you understand that this is a man who considers himself to be somehow deeply and irreparably damaged and unworthy of being loved. Or liked. But he has the ability to make machines and devices that people do have an emotional attachment to.

That they don't just find useful, they really love their phone, they love their iPad, they love their laptop. They sleep on the sidewalk for five days just to get the new colour phone. They love it so much, they subscribe to five different magazines… For Steve, that was enough. This [The Vault at the St. Regis where we are sitting for brunch] is a roomful of artists who can probably empathize with that feeling. If I write a great book, a great story, a great movie, a great play, a great song, a great painting - let the world see that as me and not me as me.

Steve Jobs poster at the New York Film Festival
Steve Jobs poster at the New York Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The discussion continues about the character of Sculley. A question I did not fully phrase to Sorkin beforehand comes back to be answered after all during the brunch.

Aaron Sorkin: Someone here before we sat down for brunch, I can't remember who it was, was talking about Jeff's character, John Sculley, in Shakespearean terms as the ghost.

Anne-Katrin Titze: It was me.

AS: Ah, great. It was not the first time… it's not original…

AKT: That's okay.

AS: But everyone else who was saying it is extremely bright! I sometimes thought, another writer, a very good writer, might have written those Steve/Sculley scenes as if Steve was having a dream. As if Steve was talking to someone who wasn't really there. And they might even perhaps do that to justify Steve having conversations with Sculley that, as Jeff said, in the third act, Sculley wasn't there - he never saw Steve again after Steve left Apple.

I just didn't feel the need to do that - to call him a dream, a ghost or anything like that. I just thought - have the conversations, don't invent any facts, don't distort any facts but take these people and face them toward each other. And have the conversations that would have been most fascinating and that would have been helpful in revealing who this man, who these people were, are.

Coming up, Danny Boyle and Steve Jobs' Apple CEO and former Pepsi executive John Sculley, Jeff Daniels.

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