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The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin on the challenges of writing for younger characters

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The Social Network - Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on the set © 2010 Columbia Pictures

Best known for his four years producing and writing the acclaimed television series The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series all four years.

His film adaptation of his play A Few Good Men was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. He also wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts’ movie, Charlie Wilson’s War.

His new film The Social Network is creating a lot of controversy and Oscar buzz. It tells the story of the creation of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg, a brilliant Harvard student. But his close friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), and his Harvard classmates, the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), have different versions of how Facebook came into existence.

Why did you decide to do the movie as a series of conflicting narratives?

The Social Network - Jesse Eisenberg
Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) © 2010 Columbia Pictures

Well, because there were conflicting narratives, and rather than choose only one of the narratives and decide that it was the “true” one, or the most interesting one, I thought the most exciting thing to do would be to dramatize all of them. The conflicting narratives are the story.  ‘And then this happened’ kind of narrative is more the province of the conventional biopic than what I wanted to write.

What research did you do?

As much as I could. I had a number of direct and first-person conversations with many of the characters depicted in the film – and also with many others who were present at the time of Facebook’s inception. I can’t reveal sources, but these conversations were extensive and detailed; they were also fascinating because everyone’s perception of the events was different.

A great deal of the movie recounts incidents that occurred between two people in a room seven years ago. Even now, those two people still don’t agree on what happened between them, after lawsuits and depositions and settlements – and I did everything possible to accurately characterize those disagreements. The disagreements are what drive the story.

What was your way into Mark Zuckerberg?

The Social Network - Jesse Eisenberg
Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) © 2010 Columbia Pictures

Anytime I’m writing an antagonist, I want to write the character as if he’s making his case to God as to why he should be allowed into heaven. People aren’t all good or all bad and certainly Mark isn’t all either one. But there’s only one person on earth who could’ve done the thing that he did.

Mark is a guy with both a utopian social vision and a gigantic amount of pure imaginative technical ability, and who is very driven to do what he’s about to do.  He has the vision and the brains – but people and things get destroyed along the way.

The failure of Mark’s utopian ideal – that success will solve all of his problems (when of course it doesn’t), that a social networking site will bring us all closer together when it’s actually done the opposite – is what I wanted to write about.

A primary way your characters position and project themselves is verbal, through what they say – can you talk about the use of language here?

I envy visual writers who are able to tell stories through the pictures they are describing, but that’s not something I’m able to do. I write people talking in rooms. As a matter of fact, I thought it was going to be a real challenge for me to write this movie because these characters are much younger than the characters that I usually write about.

I thought I needed to be writing, literally, in a different language, in a language of youth — and after stopping and starting a couple of times on page one, I just decided ‘this isn’t going to work’.

First of all, not all 19-year-olds speak the same and this is going to sound ridiculous if I try to imitate the sound of youngness and hipness.  I thought, ‘I’m going to write the way I write and I’m going to put as much of myself into this as I can.  I know who this guy is, he’s a version of me, and I will make this script better if I own up to it and get it as close to me as I can.’

What did director David Fincher bring to the movie, do you think?

The Social Network - Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and Director David Fincher
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and Director David Fincher on the set © 2010 Columbia Pictures

Boy, I could talk forever about that.  First of all, it was a counterintuitive marriage of material and director. I write people talking in rooms, and David is peerless as a visual director — so you wouldn’t immediately think of him for a script of mine. But David embraced all the language in the movie, and he added a haunting visual style to it that really puts it head and shoulders above what it could have been had a less talented director been doing it.

Is the truth important in this movie?

Of course. In this case, though, the truth is subjective  Facts are not subjective, but at the water coolers, in the parking lot, there will be people who say, Come on, don’t be crazy. He stole the idea from Cameron and Tyler. Without Cameron and Tyler, there would be on Facebook. Plain and simple.’ Other people will say, ‘You’re out of your mind. First of all, Cameron and Tyler’s think wasn’t Facebook – it was a dating site.’ I can easily argue both sides, and I loved making both arguments in the screenplay.

The basis for my own ability to make both arguments credibly was research.  Without that research, without being steeped in the facts, it would be fiction – and this isn’t fiction.