Yes, Aaron Sorkin is a skilled dramatist — and has an Oscar to show for it for “The Social Network” — and we know he can deliver a courtroom drama — he adapted his own play “A Few Good Men” for filmmaker Rob Reiner. But “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a triumph of the form. Plowing through a dozen books on the subject, and 21,000 pages of transcripts from 5 1/2 months of the 1969 trial, Sorkin was able to distill a top Original Screenplay contender that is a marvel of the craft. He will be hard to beat.
Sorkin helped me to figure out how he did it during a Zoom interview for the Writers Guild Foundation.
1. Say ‘yes’ to Steven Spielberg.
One Saturday morning 14 years ago, the filmmaker invited Sorkin to come over to his house and told him he wanted to do a movie about the Chicago Seven. First the screenwriter said “yes,” then he immersed himself in finding out all he could about the defendants charged with inciting the 1968 riots outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago. He also met with leftist radical-turned-politician Tom Hayden, long before his death in 2016, who revealed details of his personal tension with Yippie Abbie Hoffman that formed one crucial thread of the screenplay.
2. Put in the hours.
Sorkin was dead serious about delivering a “relevant, provocative and persuasive drama,” he said, but he also wanted the audience to have a good time at a popcorn movie. That’s not easy to pull off. After “pacing and climbing the walls to figure out what story to tell, more than a dramatized Wikipedia page,” he opted to tell three stories simultaneously, “a courtroom drama; the evolution of the riot, when what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration turned into a bloody confrontation with the Chicago police and the National Guard; and the personal tension between Tom and Abbie, two guys who can’t stand each other, with each one thinking the other is harming the side.”
When he’s writing — not during a pandemic — Sorkin walks around the lot at Warner Bros., he said. “I’m playing all the parts myself, it’s physical, walking up and down, looking like a crazy man having an argument with himself. Then come the actors, they bring a lot to it, more than just their faces.”
That’s on a good day. For Sorkin, writer’s block is his default position. “I have occasional bouts of this scene that I am able to write,” he said. “It’s climbing the walls when I’m not writing that’s hard. Once I have an intention and an obstacle, and something standing in the way of someone getting it, I just try to know as much about the scene that I’m going to write as I can, then write it. When things are going well, l can’t wait to get back to writing. When they’re not going well, I feel I’m never going to write again.”
Because Sorkin figures out his characters’ intentions, his words fit them like a glove, and actors love finding his inimitable rhythm. “It would sound weird,” Sorkin said, “I promise you, if people started ad-libbing.”
Because Sorkin kept pulling the script out of the drawer to develop as the Spielberg-produced project went through a succession of directors (including Paul Greengrass, Gary Ross, Peter Berg, and Ben Stiller), the refined screenplay kept getting better, shorter, more condensed. “I’m sure that I wrote more than 20 drafts of script,” Sorkin said. “A screenplay isn’t finished until its confiscated. It’s pencils down.”
At one point Sorkin took 18 months to try and turn the script into a play, but it didn’t work for him.
Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020
3. Expand your horizons.
Given his druthers, Sorkin prefers writing “scenes in a room with two people talking — not walking even — just standing there,” he said. But “Chicago 7” has “battle scenes with tear gas and blood, all this stuff I obviously had never directed before and had never written before. It was new to me.”
Because of the budget-busting riot scenes, the movie couldn’t get made — until Spielberg finally pushed through a $35 million movie at Paramount with Sorkin as director. Having collaborated with directors Reiner, Mike Nichols, Danny Boyle, Bennett Miller, and David Fincher, “I’d have to be really not paying attention,” Sorkin said. “I never underestimated how hard directing is. And I still enjoy working with great directors as a writer, too. I was able to learn on ‘Molly’s Game’ and ‘Chicago 7.’ I’m sorry I had to learn in front of everyone.”
4. Fictionalize to reach the truth.
Ever since “The Social Network,” Sorkin has been defending his right to dramatize history as he sees fit. Just as real people don’t speak in film language, “people’s lives don’t line up in scenes that form a narrative,” Sorkin said. “So writers have to do that.” That also holds for dramatizing a 5 1/2 month trial in two hours: “You’re not getting journalism from me, it’s a painting. It’s not a photograph.”
5. Set it up, pay it off.
Sorkin knows the rules of drama. Figure out your protagonists and the obstacles they must overcome. The Chicago Seven are not only going up against the U.S. Department of Justice’s lead prosecutor (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and corrupt Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) but each other. Early on, Sorkin sets up the payoff at the trial’s end (Spoiler alert: Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) reads the names of the dead into the record.)
“When I’m speaking to students who are new screenwriters,” Sorkin said, “I say, ‘when writing the first draft, you try to get through to the end before you go back to the beginning. You might find the problem isn’t in the third act, it’s in the first act. Once you do, it pays off in the third.'”
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6. Get creative.
Sorkin and his “Molly’s Game” cinematographer Phedon Papamichael devised clever ways to shoot the riots within their budget constraints. They shot in Grant Park, the actual location of the riots, using two handheld cameras, closeups, and inserts to put audiences close to the action, but, inspired by Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” docudrama, Papamichael also tried to match up his shots with black-and-white processed newsreel footage of the real thing.
“Sometimes you make a creative choice out of budget necessity,” Sorkin said. “It forces you to get real with everyone while they come up with the thing you wouldn’t have done with an unlimited budget. The shark in ‘Jaws’ never worked, so he shot it without seeing the shark. You don’t see it until the end of the second act, at exactly the right time.”
Niko Tavernise/Netflix © 2020
7. Get coverage.
Papamichael figured out that the director was invested in seeing certain lines of dialogue from the actors, so he devised ways to shoot the actors reacting and interacting with each other in small groups. They were all on point every day in the courtroom, even if the camera wasn’t focused on them. This paid off handsomely in the editing room.
8. Lean on your composer.
Sorkin started out not wanting to use ’60s source music, except for the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” at the end. “I didn’t want that disconnect with history,” he said. “I told Daniel [Pemberton], this is all an orchestral original score.” But when Sorkin tried to use the song, “it didn’t it work. The whole film didn’t work. It added up to nothing. You were left not feeling anything.” So Pemberton had to outdo the Beatles for the movie’s finale.
9. Every movie finds its moment.
Back in 2006, Sorkin thought he was aiming to release just in time for the 2008 election. After President Donald J. Trump’s ascension, the movie was crying out to get made. “Fourteen years ago, although it was a good story to tell, I always wanted it to be about today, not 1968,” Sorkin said. “I had no idea how much about today it was going to become. The world changed. Steven said, ‘it’s time to make it now. You’re going to direct. And the riots are your problem. Here’s how much money you have to do it and figure it out.'”
During the film shoot in 2019, Trump was holding big rallies. “You’d see a protestor get the crap beat out of him,” Sorkin said, “and you know [Trump is] nostalgic for the good old days as they carry him out on a stretcher. When they talk about the good old days, they’re talking about 1968. You see the same demonization of protest. I thought it was plenty relevant when we were filming last winter, and it didn’t need to get more relevant, but it did. I never changed the script to mirror events going on in the world. Events in the world kept changing to mirror the script.”
After the pandemic hit followed by the George Floyd protests, Paramount Chairman Jim Gianopulos during the summer held a marketing meeting where he explained the unknowable future. “We don’t know what movie exhibition is going to look like in the fall,” he told Sorkin, who wanted the movie to come out before the election. “Let’s dip our toe with the streamers.”
Netflix made a deal Paramount couldn’t refuse, and pushed the movie out in October, both in theaters and online. Whatever the alternate no-pandemic timeline would have been, the movie is a long-haul contender for multiple Oscars. Actors will rally around the ensemble cast led by Yippies Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong, and in a year lacking films with scope, writers, directors, cinematographers, and editors will appreciate the craft on display.