Aaron Sorkin has a lot going on these days: In addition to feverishly writing the final season of his HBO drama "The Newsroom," he's collaborating with director Danny Boyle on a Steve Jobs biopic and considering another project based on Michael Lewis' bestseller "Flash Boys." But none of that stopped him from taking time to hang out in Nantucket over the weekend. The veteran writer of punchy dialogue, often spoken by powerful, conflicted men, dropped by the Massachusetts island to receive the Nantucket Film Festival's screenwriting award. Then, on Saturday afternoon, he sat down with MSNBC's Chris Matthews for an hour-long conversation about his career writing for television and movies. The wide-ranging discussion included anecdotes about the original ending of "Charlie Wilson's War," Eduardo Saverin watching "The Social Network," and why he's decided to bring "The Newsroom" to a close. These are the highlights.
He never planned on pitching "The West Wing."
It was not something I set out to do. My agent asked me to meet with a very successful television producer named John Wells, who at the time had "E.R." and "China Beach" under his belt — two successful, sophisticated hourlong dramas. I had no intention of doing television. I had no experience with it. So this meeting was set up and the night before the meeting, I had some friends over at my house, including Akiva Goldsman, who would go on to win the Academy Award for writing "A Beautiful Mind." I mentioned to Akiva that I was having this strange meeting with John Wells. We were sitting in a little home office I had downstairs, and Akiva pointed to this poster of "The American President," and said, "You know what would be great? That — if you just made it about the senior staffers and took out the romance." I said, "I'm just having lunch." So I go to the lunch and immediately I saw that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. It wasn’t just just John — it was several agents from ICM, CAA. Instead of saying, "I think there’s been a misunderstanding, I wasn’t expecting to pitch you anything," they said, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "I want to do a series about the president's senior staffers."
He used scraps from an early draft of "The American President" to write the show.
The first draft of "The American President" was 385 pages. Around page 150, Annette Bening character shows up. So I had these little leftover pieces, which became the first couple of episodes of "The West Wing." Then I was on my own after that with this phenomenal cast.
He’s more interested in the personal dimensions of the presidency than anything else.
I was a bit tickled by the fact that we don’t have a king in this country. We have a person with a temp job. My favorite moments on "The West Wing" were never in the Situation Room or abroad. They were always when I could make the President human. You do that by making him somebody’s husband, somebody’s father, somebody’s son. It was fundamentally a workplace drama about a man and his children. So I wanted him to become one of us. I loved every minute of every day of working on "The West Wing." In our history, in popular culture, we portray our leaders as either Machiavellian or idiots. I didn’t want to do either. They’re not backstabbing or power-grabbing. We have to know if they woke up this morning wanting to be there, wanting to work for us. Once we know that, we’re going to forgive the mistakes that they make. I wanted them to lose as much as they can. So I got to create my own White House.
The trademark Sorkin "walk and talk" is a practical solution to his limitations as a writer.
I write nothing of any visual interest whatsoever. I essentially write radio plays. So as a director, I have to find a way to make it visually interesting. One way of doing it is, if we’re having this conversation, let’s walk to have this cup of coffee and we’ll have movement.
"Charlie Wilson’s War" was supposed to have a much darker ending.
This movie was meant to be one long build-up to a punchline, and we cut the punchline. There’s a story that Phil Hoffman tells towards the end. He takes Tom Hanks aside and tells him this story, that there was a village and in this village was a wise man. One day, a little boy gets a horse for his birthday. Everyone in the village says, "Isn't that great, the boy got a horse for his birthday." The wise man says, "We'll see." And then the boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg. Everyone says, "Isn"t that terrible? The boy broke his leg." The wise man says, "We’ll see." One day, everyone has to go off to war. The little boy can’t because his leg is broken. Everyone says, "Isn’t that wonderful? The little boy is spared." The wise man says, "We'll see."
That was the point of this movie: Isn’t it great that we got the communists out of Afghanistan? Except that you left behind a country with 70% of the population under 14 years old. We gave them and taught them how to use point-and-shoot weapons. I could give one to anyone in this room and you could shoot down a helicopter. It becomes a symbol of terrorism. We have them zillions of them. And we had our CIA train them for exactly how you mess with an army from a superpower. So isn’t it great that we got the communists out of Afghanistan? We’ll see. Because then everyone with a couple of screws loose went to Afghanistan because there’s this power there. That includes a guy named Osama bin Laden. The CIA had vetted various groups to figure out, "Who’s good at this? Who should we train?" They found a group called The Base. In Arabic, that translates to Al-Qaida. So the last scene of the movie was the epilogue in George Carl’s book.
If you saw the movie, you will not remember this scene, because it’s a setup without a payoff, where Tom Hanks is showing Emily Blunt the view from his balcony and says it’s the greatest view in Washington. He says, "Look, you can see the Pentagon out there." OK, there’s only one reason you say that at the beginning of the movie: It's important information for the end of the movie! In the end, there’s an explosion, with smoke coming out of the Pentagon, and nobody knows what happened, and the phone is ringing and it’s Phil Hoffman saying "turn on your TV." It was an entire setup for a punchline, and we shot it, and at the last minute, we decided to cut that punchline for the following reasons. It was a request by Charlie Wilson himself that people not think we were attacked by Afghanistan. To be honest with you, Tom Hanks — who I love — started getting nervous about playing the guy who’s responsible for 9/11. I said, "Nobody’s seeing it that way, and why did we just sit through the first two hours of the movie?" I got over it.
Eduardo Saverin watched "The Social Network" after it was finished.
I can tell you that Eduardo Saverin got in the neighborhood of a couple billion dollars out of his settlement. But he would lose that money if he said a word about the deposition or the settlement. He knew the easiest way for Facebook to claim he’d said a word was if he’d met me. So he didn’t meet with me. But the Friday when the movie opened, I got a call from our producer Scott Rudin, saying that Eduardo Saverin wanted to see the movie now. So we quickly set up a screening room at Sony in New York. We let him see the movie. I didn’t want to sit next to him while he was watching it. So he watched it by himself and I was standing out in the lobby when he came out. He looked much as you’d expect from someone who’d just seen this very traumatic thing from their life played out on a giant screen, directed by David Fincher with a score by Nine Inch Nails. He was completely white, but he thanked me, and he thought it was fair. That was the only time I met him.
He knows how to write anti-heroes.
We’re getting ready now for [a biopic on] Steve Jobs, which is another one with an anti-hero. The trick of an anti-hero is that you can’t judge the character. You have to write that character as if they’re making the case to god that they can go up to heaven. So you’ve got to find what it is in that character that’s like you.
He has one major failing as a writer.
My Achilles Heel is story. It’s the truth. You had a thing last night [at the Nantucket Film Festival's "Late Night Storytelling event"] where people told stories. I wouldn’t have been able to do that. Part of the reason is that I always get my stories not from the stories themselves but from what they sound like.
Surviving addiction put his life back on track.
I got lucky very early. "A Few Good Men" was a hit and I had another movie after that was a hit. Then I started doing coke and somewhere in there I became a cocaine addict. I didn't lose my job or my family or wreck my car. I didn’t hurt anybody. I went into rehab. There were people there, I didn't know what they were getting sober for. They had lost everything. I had something to come back to. I don't want to turn this into a meeting, but being sober is where you have to start. You can’t think, "The chances are I’m not going to win an Academy Award, so what’s the point of not shooting heroin?" Then, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m 13 years clean now and I have a 13 year old baby.
Why "The Newsroom" is ending.
Because we can. We're about to start shooting the final episode, this Thursday. On HBO, there’s no business incentive to keep something running longer than it should. So I just felt like it was a good time to stop. When I was doing shows like "Sports Night" and "West Wing," it was 22 episodes a year. The first year of "West Wing" was the last year of "Sports Night." We don’t want to get to the fifth season and have everyone go to space camp.