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Aaron Sorkin Q&A: Why He Directed ‘Molly’s Game’ and Refused to Let Jessica Chastain Change His Words

When Aaron Sorkin writes a script, his voice is instantly identifiable. He digs into his process as he directs his first film.

Molly Bloom, Aaron Sorkin and Jessica Chastain'Molly's Game' film premiere, Arrivals, New York, USA - 13 Dec 2017

Molly Bloom, Aaron Sorkin and Jessica Chastain

Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

I’ll tell a story that will make me sound like a jerk. There’s a scene when Charlie is asking Molly about her father. He’s starting to get too close, peeling the onion, asking about her father.

Charlie says, “Are you and your father close?”

She says “No.”

“Was he hard on you?”

She says, “I was hard on him.”

He says, “What do you mean?”

The next line reads, “Mmmmm, I was a brat.” It’s 5 ms and then, “I was a brat.” The first take we did, Jessica said, “Mm, I was a brat.”

“Jessica you did two ms, you need to do all five of them.” (laugh)

What is your writing process?

To the untried eye, a lot of my writing process would look like someone watching ESPN. There’s a lot going on up here while I’m watching ESPN. My process is agonizing not because of the writing, but the not-writing: Days, weeks, months, it turns into having nothing, flipping through a rolodex of a hundred bad ideas a day. How bad it is watching bad movies every day! This is it, until something happens. Once the writing starts, I’m very physical when I’m writing, I play all the parts, have arguments. I once broke my nose writing. Scott Sassa, the head of NBC with Jeff Zucker when we were doing “The West Wing,” sent me a headset paired with the car phone. Scott said, “I was next to you at a red light today. Please wear this whenever you are in your car, you look like a madman.” He had seen Sam Seaborn having a fight with CJ. Cregg. I start arguments with myself.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5879853g)Rob Lowe, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Allison JanneyThe West Wing - 2001Warner Bros TVUSATelevisionTv Classics

“The West Wing”

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Did you like directing? 

I owe it all to the writer. In the past when I’ve done these panels, there’s always a director sitting next to me. The director is always very kind, “It starts with the writing.” I agree… but, listen. There were a number of times during the process of climbing the budget, when someone comes in who is expert at this reads the script and talks to you about how they see every scene and reports to the studio on what it’s going to cost: “Don’t be ridiculous, we are not going to spend that.” A first-time director is not going to get very far. Spielberg can get the number you need. In climbing the budget oftentimes I was asked to take off the writer and put on the director hat. I can’t bifurcate myself into two people, we are the same.

You had no intention of directing this.

When I turned in a first draft, I was asked to direct the movie by the producers. Amy Pascal, Mark Gordon, and I met at a restaurant. I had a piece of paper with 20 director names with pros and cons. At the end, they said, “We think you should direct it.” “Honestly? Aw, shucks.” I didn’t want to hold them to it. It’s like you accidentally say “I love you.” You can’t take that back. (laugh) So I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position. They wanted me to do it and kept talking about it.

Why did the project leave Sony?

Mark Gordon left Sony and wanted to finance it himself. It was set up at Sony by Amy while she was head of Sony, then she left. Mark’s company had just been bought by EOne and got a huge investment, a big influx of money to make movies. He wanted this to be the first movie to finance. I took three weeks to speak to other directors I respect. They were very encouraging. When I write something, I always want the best possible director. The reason I said “yes” this time: I knew that with this story there would be a natural gravitational pull toward the shiny objects in the story: the glamor, the decadence, the Hollywood boldface names. I wanted the story to be set against the backdrop of those things. I had been feeling and seeing in the year since that first meeting with Molly, a bigger, more emotional story than she was giving herself credit for. I wanted to make that movie, and if it got messed up it was on me.

I enjoyed every minute of it and the people I was surrounded by. I was determined in staffing up to find people where I was the least talented one involved. That was troublingly easy to do. I discovered cinematographer Charlotte Christensen (who did “Fences” and “Girl on the Train) from Denmark. She flew over to meet with me. I asked her about seeing different styles for the present day and past, the poker games would be memory shards of things. Cinematography is where art and science intersect. She said, “Don’t worry about it.” We composed and choreographed what happened with shot lists minute by minute; little was left to chance. I’m not totally inexperienced; I was on set every day on every movie, and was the showrunner for four TV shows. So we minimized the number of decisions we were making while shooting. We’d make decisions in pre-production and post-production.

Did you feel a loss of a writer’s control?

I felt exactly as in control as I wanted to be. The first A.D. [assistant director] keeps the set moving, knows what everybody is supposed to be doing at any moment. You look through the camera, look through the monitor, talk to your actors, your DP [director of photography], occasionally change a prop. It’s a triumph of collaboration with everyone from the crew on set, to Jessica, Idris, and Kevin, who when he made his directorial debut had to worry about the direction of 500 buffalo! He was so generous. I was terrified of Kevin. He was an Academy Award-winning director and movie star; he scared the bejesus out of me.

“Molly’s Game”

You’re doing “A Few Good Men” on live television?

I thought it would be great if we could do live plays on television, harken back to the days of Playhouse 90, and bring great productions into the living rooms of people who don’t get to to New York to see theatre. It’s something TV can do. I didn’t mean we should start with my play! Bob Greenblatt runs NBC, he said “Let’s do it.” So yes, we are going to try to do a live production of “A Few Good Men” on NBC with Alec Baldwin as Jack Nicholson. We need to cast a ton of other people. There’s no one around anymore who knows how to do it.

George Clooney?

He did “Fail Safe.” When Sidney Lumet died, he was the last of the Playhouse 90 directors. We have to figure out how to do this all over again. Somebody will direct it. I don’t want to direct my own play. It will be directed by somebody else.

What are you doing next?

It’s like an arranged marriage when you wind up falling in love. I haven’t found anything I’ve fallen in love with. With “Steve Jobs” and “Moneyball,” there was enough there I could see I was interested in to wait to fall in love and that happened. On “The Social Network,” as soon as someone said, “Did you know there are two lawsuits against Mark Zuckerberg, who invented Facebook?” That was love at first sight. I was in love on “Molly’s Game.” It didn’t write itself. In both cases it was two years thinking, researching, writing. From the beginning, I had this feeling.

When did you know that the movie was finished? 

Movies aren’t finished, they are confiscated. An adult comes along and says, “Pencils down, we have to put this on screens.”

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