“Steve Jobs” is “Citizen Kane” meets “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for the social media age. But by structuring his adaptation of the Walter Isaacson biography around three product launches, Aaron Sorkin has conjured a unique backstage biopic, exploring Jobs from the inside out with theatrical flair.
The trick was to come up with a bold visual style, so director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler (“Sunshine”) decided to shoot three distinct looks for each launch (16mm for the Macintosh in 1984, 35mm for the NeXT in 1988 and digitally for the iMac in 1998). Thus, style becomes content as Jobs confronts his past (both publicly and privately) while plotting his grand tech vision for the future.
They shot in the real San Francisco locations during graveyard shifts, which cost more but provided authenticity (Boyle actually flipped the last two venues, the Opera and Symphony Hall, because it worked better psychologically). And they shot in sequence to allow the actors to attack Sorkin’s dialogue (Michael Fassbender is spellbinding as Jobs). But to avoid interrupting the flow of the visual language, flashbacks stay consistent with the look of each section.
“The Steadicam operator was crucial because it would be physically straining as we go up and down these corridors and on three floors of the San Francisco Opera. And there were lots of limitations but Danny likes limitations,” Küchler said.
It was all about keeping up with Jobs as he frantically prepares for each presentation and interacts with those closest to him in a crucible of Shakespearean proportions. Kate Winslet plays marketing head and confidant Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen portrays Apple co-founder/chief engineer/erstwhile buddy Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels takes on Apple CEO/father figure John Sculley and Michael Stuhlbarg transforms into original Mac team member/brotherly Andy Hertzfeld. Perla-Haney Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss play Lisa at different ages. Interestingly, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” with its three-part structure for clouds, love and life, becomes the film’s central metaphor.
Working in 16mm was liberating for Küchler because it was so rough and light and retro cool. Not surprisingly, he used period practical lights but also made it look harsher for greater contrast. The second section shot on 35mm film is more polished but darker, in keeping with Jobs plotting his revenge against Apple (the cinematographer likens it to “The Godfather Part II” and “Citizen Kane”). And the digital gloss of the final section conveys eventual success and how Jobs learns to comfortably live within his own skin.
“We didn’t want Michael Fassbender to end up in darkness [all the time] so we had to be clever about choices and work out the logistics of where he would be and how you could help that, giving the actor the best means to perform,” Küchler continued. However, for “the worst sacking in corporate history,” he utilized darkness, heavy rain and wide angle lenses to emphasize the humiliation and lack of control for the ultimate control freak.
Meanwhile, working with Fassbender was a revelation and Küchler relished each and every close-up: “After 10 hours, he was like a computer that had to shut down and by the time Friday came, he was completely drained. I think it was just the sheer level of concentration he needed to deliver, and he’s very demanding of himself. He said he never had to do a film with such a focus on lines. He’s edgy, he likes to be spontaneous, he likes to try a different way. But because the lines are so big and the structure was so binding, he had to find a way of working with this. So he didn’t want to obey the marks.”
Fittingly, each section goes from darkness to light and ultimately the movie achieves a very humanizing portrait.