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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

After years of letting Hollywood’s best directors take over his meticulous scripts for Oscar winner “The Social Network” (David Fincher) and Oscar nominee “Moneyball” (Bennett Miller), Aaron Sorkin finally decided to do it himself. While Sorkin was an executive producer of shows like NBC’s “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Newsroom,” directing his adaptation of poker wrangler Molly Bloom’s confessional “Molly’s Game” was a first.

“Molly’s Game” debuted in Toronto, and since STX released it December 25 (Metascore: 71) it’s picking up steam in the awards race, with Globes, BAFTA, and Writers, Editors and Producers guild nominations. I screened the film for my UCLA Sneak Previews class, and afterward Aaron Sorkin came in for a chatty Q&A: The man loves to talk. He did stop to ask me one question: “Can I just ask you, in the history of doing this, has there ever been an answer this long?”

Anne Thompson: How did you come to construct the film’s intricate back-and-forth time-frames?

Aaron Sorkin: Any time you can get the audience participating in what’s going on, rather than just being a spectator, you are doing yourself a favor. There were two stories that I was telling at once. One is basically the story that Molly tells in her book, how she came within 100 yards from making the Olympic team and going to Harvard Law School with an Olympic medal around her neck, and starting a foundation for women. She had her life planned out, with the credentials to do it. How she went from that to running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game, that’s the story she tells in her book, but as Charlie (played by Idris Elba) says, she wrote the book before the good stuff happened.

Then there’s the present-day story that isn’t in the book: she gets arrested in the middle of night two years after she runs her last game. She has 48 hours to find a lawyer to appear in federal court for the arraignment and help her stay out of jail. So going back and forth between those two stories was the puzzle.

How did narration become the key to telling the story, and did you debate using it? Some screenwriters don’t like it.

I’m one of them, believe it or not. I’ve never quite liked it. In some movies it works great — “Goodfellas” is a classic. As a screenwriter, I’ve always felt like it was cheating; it’s easy enough to have somebody talk to you, but that’s not really what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to dramatize it. How did I wind up with a movie blanketed with voiceover? It’s because I’m not that good! (laugh)

I wanted Molly to tell the story of the past, and not the filmmakers. I wanted it to feel like the best TED Talk you’ve ever been to. And I just imagined Molly up there at a college auditorium where she’s been invited to speak, with a screen behind her, and she can demonstrate things: “There are the two hole cards and now he’s going to go crazy.” In present day, there’s no voiceover at all. It was my way of getting Molly’s voice. I was knocked out by Molly when I met her and spend hundreds of hours talking to her during the research phase. She has a particular sense of humor about the observations she makes. She has a way of talking about these calamitous decisions she made which was very winning. I wanted to get that in there. I wanted it to feel like Molly telling her story.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (9227603o) Kevin Costner, Jessica Chastain Molly's Game - 2017

Kevin Costner, Jessica Chastain in “Molly’s Game “

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Is the character played by Jessica Chastain Molly Bloom?

No. Jessica Chastain does a phenomenal job of playing the character I wrote. I’ve written a bunch of nonfiction characters. Unless it’s iconic Abraham Lincoln or Elvis Presley, it’s never been that important to me to be journalistic about the character. I start with facts and certain truths important to me, and by page three it becomes a painting of a photograph: It’s my interpretation. If Molly was up here talking, you’d recognize the difference. She’s a human being; it’s a fool’s errand to try to do an imitation of her. There are plenty of things about her that went directly into the movie, from small crazy things like, out of the blue she would say, “Do you know that we know what the center of our galaxy smells like? Raspberries.” “How do you know these things?” She explained that after hours and hours of being at these poker games, she’d surf the net, so she learned all these things. I was charmed by that, that went into the movie.

Was the father-daughter scene between Kevin Costner and Jessica Chastain in the book?

No. Very little about her father is in the book. What is there is very much in praise of the strange relationship she had with her father. I was sent the book by an entertainment lawyer. “Do me a favor, read the book.” I did, the book is a fun ride, I recommend it to anyone. When the time came to meet with Molly, I Googled her, and read about the famous people who played the game.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Michael Gibson/STX Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9307966d) Michael Cera "Molly's Game" Film - 2017

Michael Cera in “Molly’s Game”

STX Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Ben Affleck, Leo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Matt Damon?

If you say so. One of the challenges when you try to tell a story about a unique movie heroine who is a heroine because she was unwilling to gossip about the people and gossip about them in the movie, is, do you make up a star? “Here’s movie star Joe Johnson!” Or pixellate their faces, as if they hadn’t signed a release to be in the movie? Maybe shoot over their shoulder and you never see their face, just their hands or their chips and stuff? It wasn’t going to work in scenes with Molly. So I came up with the concept of Player X: she’s telling the story, there were four famous movie stars: “I’m changing their names and doing my best to obscure their identities.” She tells us that Player X represents the movie stars. That’s how I did that.

After I read the book and went to meet with Molly, I thought the person I was meeting was someone cashing in on a decade-long brush with celebrity that I wasn’t interested in. Boy, was I wrong! The first meeting with Molly lasted one hour and in the hundreds of hours of meetings to follow, it was clear in the first few minutes, as it would be clear to you if she were sitting here today, she’s a brilliant woman, strong as a tree with a sly sense of humor built out of integrity. The story she told in the books was the tip of the iceberg. She did that on purpose. She had to write this book. There’s the scene of the meeting with her literary agent who says, “You only have one asset. You’re deep in debt, you owe millions to the government. Your one asset is your one story to tell. If you tell stories about all these bold-faced names I can guarantee you $1 million dollars and half. If the movie sells, you will be able to set yourself up for the rest of your life.”

She’s gone from this gold-plated future to having one thing on her resume: She was arrested for running illegal poker games. She could jumpstart her life on the money she got for this book. She got $35,000 and told as little as she possibly could, as little as HarperCollins would accept. The book they wanted was about dresses and makeup. “Tell us about the Hollywood parties you went to!”

So the book she wrote was the very tip of the iceberg. I was able to see that at the end of the first meeting. Her story left breadcrumbs to a great story. She was holding back stuff. There were contradictions there.

Can I just ask you, in the history of doing this, has there ever been an answer this long?

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (9227603a) Idris Elba, Jessica Chastain Molly's Game - 2017

Idris Elba, Jessica Chastain in “Molly’s Game”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Was her lawyer played by Idris Elba real? 

The one fictional element in the movie is Idris Elba. Molly had a criminal defense lawyer; he saved her life, according to her. She found him to be a thoroughly decent guy, according to her. I never met him or spoke to him. I needed that character for my purposes, because in present day I wanted to tell the story of the journey I took with Molly going from not expecting much to feeling like I have found a real-life movie heroine here. So Idris goes from, “You don’t need me, you need a publicist” and “What if every one of your ill-informed unsophisticated opinions about me we’re wrong?” to Molly being his daughter’s role model.

The script was how many pages long? 

The first draft was 201 pages; the shooting script was 182 or roughly 60 pages longer than the average script.

120 pages.

My scripts tend to have more dialogue that most scripts. Dialogue in an average movie takes up more room on the page and less time on the screen than action. That’s reason number one. Two, I tend to fall in love with the sound of my own voice.

Your voice is extremely identifiable. Actors talk about the rhythm of your dialogue and how if they change one word it falls apart.

I’m not precious about the words at all, but the actors, if they’re this good, if they’re Jessica, Idris and Kevin, they‘ll know if they drop the syllable, substitute a one syllable word for a two syllable word, it didn’t quite sound right.

The script reads the same as the movie, word for word.

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