Aaron Sorkin gives Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg a poke (Q&A)

“Socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality”

Aaron Sorkin

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 29: Screenwwriter Aaron Sorkin attends Columbia Pictures' and The Cinema Society's screening of 'The Social Network' at the School of Visual Arts Theater on September 29, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, best known for television’s The West Wing, wrote the script for The Social Network, which opens this weekend. Directed by David Fincher (Fight Club), it’s the story of how Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg built a multi-billion-dollar empire from an idea hatched as a dorm room prank at Harvard—while triggering two lawsuits and turning his best friend into an enemy. I interviewed Sorkin by phone from New York City on Sept. 24.  My article about the movie, and the writer, appears in this week’s Maclean’s. Here’s a transcript of our talk:

Q. I can’t remember when I’ve heard so much fast, smart talk in a movie. The dialogue in The Social Network is like a form of action. It really rips along.

A. I have to give David Fincher credit for that. There are scenes in this movie that play like a bank robbery, because only David can do that.

Q. OK, Let’s get straight to the controversy.

A. Hang on, is there a controversy that happened while I was sleeping?

Q. The problem is, I’ve been spending too much time on the Internet.

A. That is the problem. I don’t even know what the problem is but that’s the reason.

Q. What did you have to take out of the film because of objections from Facebook.

A. Nothing, let’s be really clear about that. Zero. We aggressively courted Facebook’s participation a couple of years ago when this whole thing started. There was a lot of negotiating but in the end they did exactly what I would do: they declined.  I told them whether or not they participated I would show them the script when I was done writing it, and I got their notes. Their notes were almost entirely about hacking, certain hacking terminology. There was absolutely nothing taken out of the movie because of Facebook. There were certain frames taken out of the movie to get us the PG rating from the MPAA.

Q.Those were the scenes of cocaine being snorted on bare breasts?

A. It’s more of a background shot that you see the cocaine being used and laid out and we took out a few frames where it was in the foreground.

Q. Facebook  had notes only about hacking?

A. Yes, hacking terminology.

Q. But Zuckerberg has called the movie fiction.

A. And I’d be doing the same thing. I believe their PR people are every bit as good as ours. There were 2 lawsuits brought against Facebook at roughly the same time. The defendant, the plaintiffs, the witnesses, they all went into deposition rooms, they  all swore an oath, and what we ended up with were three very different versions of the story. So at any given time, at least two of them are going to be wrong. Rather than picking out and decided that one’s the truth, I’ll dramatize that, or this one’s the sexiest, I’ll dramatize that, I really liked that there were three conflicting stories . I wanted to do it Rashoman-like. That’s  how I came up with the structure of the deposition rooms  and everyone challenging everyone else’s fact. The first words out of Mark’s mouth when we’re in the deposition room for the first time is “that’s what’s not happened.” And the movie of course ends with the scene of Rashida [Jones] saying, “Creation myths need a devil.” If I were Mark I would want the story told only from my point of view. But it was told from Marks’ point of view as well as Eduardo Saverin’s and Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss’s. Facebook’s beef isn’t with the movie, it’s with the people who sued them and what they said.

Q. Regardless of the Roshoman approach—and that the film offers multiple points of view, anybody seeing it would conclude that Eduoardo is the good guy and Zuckerberg is an asshole.

A. People are going to conclude that it’s a little more complicated than that. But let me further back up the non-fiction cred of this movie. There are a lot of legal documents I had at my disposal. And there is a lot of first- person research. I had conversations with most of the characters portrayed in the movie, most on the condition of anonymity. Moreover, with a script like this—non-fiction about people who are very much alive and who have shown they don’t mind suing people and who have the resources to scringe you to death—the movie was vetted to within an inch of its life by a legal team that doesn’t care if the movie is good or bad and doesn’t care if it sells any tickets. All they care about is making absolutely sure that I don’t say anything that is both untrue and defamatory.

Q. You’ve said you were relieved Zuckerberg didn’t cooperate. Why?

A.  If Facebook had cooperated there would have been a sense that this was a Facebook production and that we’re not getting the truth, we’re only getting Mark’s part of the story. And the controversy would be that I had screwed Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevosses, and that I was Mark’s poodle. If Facebook had agreed, there would have been certain editorial controls as a prerequisite, and I’m not going to give that to anybody. We were aggressive in asking. We met with them many times in an effort to convince them that I had no intention of writing a hit piece. I told them the truth—that I empathize with Mark on a lot of levels, and that I was going to be speaking to people who had an axe to grind.

Q. Who do you most identify with in the film?

A. Mark.

Q. Really? You’ve got a bit of reputation as a control freak. Does that have something to do with it?

A. I’m not sure about the being-a-control-freak part. But I identify with him for a number of reasons. I felt like an outsider. I’ve felt like I’ve had my nose pressed up against the glass of some cool party I haven’t been invited to. I feel that the world has reflected back to me that I’m a loser. Purely in terms of the legal controversy, of the Winklevosses saying, “Hey, it was our idea; you’ve stolen this from us,” any time anyone writes a movie or a TV series that has any kind of profile, you can count on 10 people coming out of the woodwork saying “I had this idea 10 years ago, you stole it from me.” When I did The American President and again when I did The West Wing, there were people who said, “He stole that from me. I wrote this thing that never got done that was set at the White House. And look at the similarities! They both have scenes that take place in the Oval Office.”  When Mark has a line in the  deposition room scenes—“You guys don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this. If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook”—that was coming right out of my blood.

Q. Is Zuckerberg comes across as a genius whose mind is turning over at warp speed. Is  he a kind of intellectual superhero.?

A. He has an IQ of 7000. But he also has creativity. What he was able to do is invent a world in which people reinvent themselves. He’s leveled the playing field; nobody’s a social outsider any more. All the things about yourself that you don’t like, or more accurately you don’t think other people like, whether you consider yourself to be unattractive, or not charming, not smooth, not funny, you can fix all those things, just by assuming a new identity, even if it’s under your own name.  When I see a Wall post (I don’t have a Facebook page anymore; I did when I was writing the movie) on someone’s Facebook page— “Had a girls’ night tonight, split 5 chocolate deserts, better hit the gym tomorrow”—that’s someone who’s reinventing themselves as Ally McBeal. They know what the buzz phrases are for us to think of them as the very popular thirtysomething single girl making it on her own in the Big City, and overcoming obstacles like “I love chocolate but it goes right to my thighs.” Because that character has been embraced on television for decades—be that person!

Q. For a second there, I thought you were about to say Facebook was a good thing, the great democratic equalizer.

A.  If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest country in the world. If you’re asking me what I think about it personally—which doesn’t affect the movie—I think it’s an insincere form of socializing. Socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.

Q. So people rebrand themselves. It’s like digital cosmetic surgery.

A. Well put. That is what Mark did. It took an intellectual and creative genius to do it. The movie doesn’t take a position on who’s right and who’s wrong. We leave the audience to do that.

Q. What would you say to Mark Zuckerberg if  you saw him?

A. I’d say what I say to you. I don’t think there’s any of us who would want the things we did when we were 19 years old to be made into a movie. I would say that if someone were telling my story, I would want it told only from my point of view, not also from the points of view of people who have a genuine axe to grind. And finally I would tell him about the reactions we’ve been getting at the many, many screenings we’ve done. We’ve been out on the road for weeks now hitting college towns, screening the movie and doing a talk-back afterward. When it comes the character of Mark in the movie, people’s reactions have been uniformly that they want to give him a hug.

I read a review the other day that the movie made her want to egg Mark Zucherberg’s house then help him clean it up. If Mark is worried about the movie, he has less to worry about than he thinks. He spends the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie being an anti-hero, but the final five minutes, the most important five minutes, being a tragic hero, so that means he’s paid a price and he feels remorse. When we see that, we embrace him.

Q. So you think the movie could even make him a few friends?

A. Mark is clearly a guy who capable of doing whatever he wants. I don’t want to pretend to be his psychologist or expect him he should thank me for improving his image.

Q. I don’t think there’s any danger of that. Tell me what’s most fictional about the movie’s dramatic arc.

A. Nothing was invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it. In three cases I’ve changed someone’s name, one of them being an off-screen character, and the two others instances where it did not matter  and there was no reason to embarrass them by keeping the name. In one case I have conflated two characters into one secondary character. But the dramatizing that I did is the exact same kind of dramatizing that any writer does when they’re writing non-fiction. Peter Morgan who wrote The Queen, a great screenplay, was not in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when she was talking to her husband about their daughter in law.

There’s a set of available facts, and facts that you can research, but ultimately those are only going to be buoys, and you’ve got get from one buoy to the other. In between is the writer’s job. But even more important than that, people don’t speak in satisfying dialogue. And life doesn’t play out in scenes. I write dialogue and connect scenes to get from the beginning to the end of the story.

I think the thing that’s striking everyone that’s different about this film is it’s happening now. It’s more recent than The Queen or Charlie Wilson’s War. So there’s an expectation of journalism. But again, while we would never play fast and loose with the truth, we’re making a movie, not a documentary.

Q. I assume you have less control of a movie than a TV show. Which do you prefer?

A. I had a great partnership with David Fincher. If all I ever did was make movies with David Fincher for the rest of my life I would be the happiest guy in the world. But on a movie, the director is the field general and in television it’s the writer.

Q. So if you had to make a choice, where would you be?

A. I’m just happy I don’t have to make a choice.


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