The 53rd New York Film Festival continued Saturday with a highly anticipated screening of “Steve Jobs,” Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s superbly acted and ingeniously structured drama about the eponymous Apple co-founder. Taking place behind the scenes at three major product launches — Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998 — the film takes the oft-explored topic of an alienating genius and dissects it in a wholly unique and compelling way.
Telling Jobs’ story in such an unconventional structure was the big drawing card for Sorkin. Addressing members of the press alongside Boyle and his cast — including Michael Fassbender, Seth Rogen and Kate Winslet, among others — Sorkin remarked, “I knew what I didn’t want to do and that was a biopic — that would be the conventional, cradle-to-the-grave structure where you kind of land on all the greatest hits of the character along the way. That’s a structure that’s familiar to audiences and I didn’t think I’d be able to shake it. I don’t think I’d be that good at it.”
“I like claustrophobic spaces. I like compressed periods of time and a ticking clock,” he continued. “So I wondered if I could take all the work that Walter [Isaacson] had done [in his book], and if there was a way to dramatize the points of friction in Steve’s life and dramatize in this way — with three scenes, three real time scenes.”
Assisting Sorkin’s three-act structure is Boyle, who was adamant on set about making each section as different as possible. Not only did the director commission composer Daniel Pemberton to create three vastly different scores, but he also employed a shooting schedule in which rehearsing and filming occurred on an act-by-act basis. The team would rehearse an act and shoot it, before moving on to do the same with the act that followed.
“I have to be honest — it was terrifying, but it was amazing,” Winslet said of the production. “What Danny did for all of us that I think made a huge difference and was key to the process was that he pulled everyone into the rehearsal room, so it wasn’t just the case of who was available and what scenes we’d happen to be doing. When possible, which was the majority of the time, all of the actors — no matter how big or small their roles — were in that space together.”
Most boldly, Boyle shot each timeframe with a different style — 16mm, 35mm and digital — in order to make each act feel as individual as possible. “We used 16mm for the first act because it felt like [the] early days,” he said. “[Steve] very much thought of himself as the pirate and rebel then — breaking down the edifice of IMB. The homemade feel of 16mm — which is more and more distant from us now — felt really wonderful for that.”
“We used 35mm for the second act — we always used to say there was like a subterranean river of intention running through it which no one can see. Film is wonderful for that — the illusion. Film loves illusion as a story. Then we moved to the Alexa for the final part, which is the brutal high definition,” Boyle said.
For the performances, Boyle was adamant in keeping with the film’s “behind the scenes” metaphor. The director knew audiences were familiar with Jobs, but only from his “public appearances.” The film was a chance to dig beneath what audiences had seen on YouTube. For this reason, he told his cast that “being a lookalike” and sharing the same “physical mannerisms” with their characters didn’t matter, and that what was important was nailing “their energy, their essence.”
When asked how he prepared for the role, Fassbender hilariously responded, “I studied Ashton Kutcher,” a sly dig at the derided 2013 biopic “jOBS.” But he continued more honestly, “Obviously I don’t look anything like Steve Jobs. That was the first thing that I said to Danny, ‘You know, Christian Bale looks a lot more like him.’ He was like, ‘I’m not interested in that. I want to get the energy, the essence of the man. Let’s go with that.’ From the beginning, the approach was ‘let’s not try to emulate that look.'”
Fassbender admitted to not knowing much about Jobs prior to taking on the role. “I obviously knew who he was, but I’m not very interested in technology,” he said. “I suppose the thing that really stuck with me was meeting people that knew him in his life through work…Even if the relationships were difficult, there was a sadness and love there for them that was pretty clear. I could feel there was a love there for the man.”
“It’s Shakespearian really,” added Boyle. “It’s a historical figure — and a key one for us — and there were facts that were true and lot of stuff that was dispensed as well. It was about the man and his relationship with these other people.”
It’s precisely these relationships that make “Steve Jobs” such a stinging and unexpectedly resonant understanding of the late icon’s work and personality. Fortunately for Boyle, Sorkin and their talented cast — especially Fassbender and Winslet — it’s an unconventional risk that should pay off big time this awards season. Expect nominations aplenty.
“Steve Jobs” opens in select theaters October 9, before hitting nationwide starting October 23.