Sorkin: witty wording and clever composition

The writer Aaron Sorkin is one of the well recognised and talented screenwriters of the late 20th and early 21st-century bragging a rostra of fantastic screenplays and achieving a status achieved by few if any other professionals in his line of work. His snappy dialogue, convoluted and non-linear dialogue structure and deep dedication to the art of research has earned him fame and recognition in a way few other writers can hope to achieve. Film School students and playwrights alike admire Sorkin for his economic use of language and deep understanding of how to impress complex character traits in the readers mind mirroring the complexity of real life conversation. As a child Sorkin grew up in a family in which using ten words where you could use one was expected and admired. Therefore from an early age Sorkin felt pushed to speak with wit and articulacy. To fully understand his thought process it is important to look at his most memorable work as a screenwriter, this being a few Good Men, The Social Network and his most recent project Steve Jobs. Each of these projects represent a stage in his evolution as a screenwriter and reveal his more collaborative and open style to screenwriting he has become well known for.

Originally an actor, Sorkin came to learn that his talents lay elsewhere. His upbringing by his parents and training as an actor had fostered his articulacy and aided him in becoming more observant and to absorb dialogue both in the context of the theatre and real life. This came to a head in the early 1970s when a relative dropped off a typewriter no longer being used to his flat in Brooklyn. Sorkin describes that night as being one where he was left alone in his apartment jealous of his friends as he was neglected invitation to one of their parties. In those late hours of the night Sorkin wrote his first pages of dialogue. This seed soon grew into the belief that he must become a playwright. In the months following this revelation Sorkin began work on a play for broadway which earned him initial recognition.

It seems right to think that starting from a place of vulnerability and loneliness and having a fascination with dialogue these two factors colluded in starting Sorkin’s creative process as a writer. Surrounded by talented broadway writers Sorkin cut his teeth as a writer learning how to create dramatic tension, small intimate scenes and character composition. After a few years in this field Sorkin turned his talents to screenwriting under the mentorship of Rob Holt, an experienced screenwriter who helped ease the transition from a playwright into an adapted screenplay writer in the form of the film A Few Good Men. This project appealed to Sorkin’s sensibilities as a writer focusing around an intense political drama in the form of a court case on Guantanamo Bay. The high stakes, twisting narrative and rapid fire dialogue proved to audiences that Sorkin had made the transition to screen with style. Watching Daniel Kaffee and Joanne Galloway bouncing ideas off one another in the form of linguistic acrobatics many of the scenes in this film seemed to articulate the poetic beauty of screenwriting.

Sorkin worked in collaboration with the director Rob Reiner at a painstaking rate over the course of six weeks at his home. The two went through the entire script from start to finish asking the question ‘why?’. Why did the screen fade in and not start with a quick cut? Questions such as these helped Sorkin to evolve his writing into a more complex and complete style. Looking back over the scripts for his early work on stage set alongside the script for A Few Good Men it becomes obvious that this helped ease the transition. His dialogue became more and more purpose orientated. His words were more sparing and always emphasised or emphasised new and exciting character traits as seen in Nicholson’s colonel character. The evolution of his account of events and offhanded response style created stark contrast to the climactic court room scene and helped to highlight the raising stakes and mountain of opposition. This made the bureaucracy of the court-room seem fresh and exciting. The importance of minor scenes Kaffe and Sam exchange a look lays down a beat for beat articulation concisely. Later in the scene it reads If you asked him, he’d say the gates to heaven were guarded by US marines. With clarity and precision Sorkin articulates a characteristic on which to build his character.

With a winning script and talented cast one might expect workings role in the process to finish their, but instead  Sorkin remained a key element in the production of A Few Good Men staring a tradition of heavy involvement in the production process. He made sure to have intimate conversations with the actors, and to not shy away from criticism and rewrites as he tailored his final draft as late as the moments leading up to the camera rolling.

After a series of critical successes including The West Wing among others Sorkin turned his talents to my favourite work of his to date The Social Network. This critically acclaimed drama tells the story of the throes and struggles of Facebooks conception as seen through a recount of the deposition process. Not being of technical ability one might expect this adapted screenplay not to pay in Sorkin’s lane but just as in great Sci-Fi movies where it is about the characters and not the technical this proved advantageous. Based on the non-fiction book The accidental billionaires the story immerses the reader in the glee of rebellion as seen through the young and inexperienced as Mark Zuckerberg learns how to become the douchebag millionaire he aspires to be. In the research process of this movie Sorkin found it difficult to filter truth through his sources. Zuckerberg filed a letter of non-compliance with the research process leaving Sorkin with individuals with an axe to grind. He embraced this however describing in a recent interview how three different accounts of the story appeared in conflict with one another. Instead of picking the sexiest or easiest one Sorkin examined the different perspectives to give an almost journalistic sense of objective complexity while still remaining exciting (journalism is not a term Sorkin would like associated, he sees himself less in the biographical field as in the artistic field). The research process continued through the blogs written by Mark Zuckerberg and the legal documents from the deposition alongside these individuals to construct a narrative around the facts.

FromSorkin’s perspective Mark as a real person was a creative and programming genius isolated and jealous of his superiors in the Harvard social hierarchy. He pressed his face against the glass of the higher social echelons and decided to create a social environment that suited his introverted personality. In the process he felt a compulsion to take his close friends down a few pegs as his core motivations came into play. This can be seen as through Eduardo Saverin’s expulsion from the organisation or insults towards his ex-girlfriend Erica. It came from a place of vulnerability and has remarkable parallels to the isolation experienced by Sorkin in that apartment all those years ago.

It is however, the writing process that is more enthusing than the context surrounding it. As with many great narratives Sorkin focuses on unreliable narrators to underline the theme of conflicting accounts and needs. This presents itself in the form of the first line from the deposition scene from Mark “That’s not what happened. She’s wrong”. This contradiction of opinions enriches the fabric and builds Mark’s character as we switch between his arrogance at the deposition to diminishing uncertainty as we alternate back and forth. This is a clever move as it plays on the idea that many in the audience already know the result, this being a recent historical event, and begs the question how did it come to this point.

One of my favourite scenes, and perhaps one of the most famous scenes of 21st century film is the beginning one. As the screen fades in to the interior of a student bar certain descriptive terms in the narrative help to describe the predicament of the character Erica. The script describes without saying what is meant a message, an underlying statement. As the scene progresses Erica’s forced politeness becomes more and more tested by the ego and lack of compassionate thinking in mark’s part. The line ‘the one that’s the easiest to get into would be the one where anybody has the best chance’ with reference to the finals clubs indicates a shift in tone as this politeness is tested the underlying tone indicates the growing passivity and non-confrontational nature of her words. This helps to emphasise  Mark’s obsessive and competitive streak. Sorkin focuses on creating a less hyper-communciative protagonist and instead focuses on the poetics of not saying what one really means with clear inspiration from scriptwriting greats such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet.

This is underlined earlier in the script by a quick exchange that exemplifies the different accounts of the conversation as Mark’s rapid mind and self centred attitude flip flops through topics in a way that means the two people in the conversation are having different conversations. Mark lists finals clubs ending on Roosevelt to which Erica replies “Which one?”. Mark follows up saying, “The Porcellain, the porc, it’s the best of the best”. This beautifully articulates Mark’s narrow vision on becoming a finals club member as his mind skips from topic to topic where his heart takes him. The Social Network is a good story well told.

Following his trend of non-traditional biopics on creative technological giants Sorkin began work on adapting Walter Isaacson’s biographical book in 2012. The film’s narrative structure and composition is experimental and intelligent so as to give way to a more advanced series of character arcs. The film takes place over the course of 12 years in the minutes leading up to a new product launch focusing on the character dynamics between Jobs and the people closest to him. This structure allows the viewer to see him in a high stress situation, under pressure and at his most brilliant. Growing up listening to people smarter than himself arguing Sorkin developed a quick retort in his writing to give his dialogue an elevated and satirical feel. The film likes to ask questions without giving answers concerning topic such as the strength of Jobs’ father-daughter relationship explored at various points in each of the three acts as well as his how artificial his legacy and appraisal has become. These topics fascinate the viewer and enable Sorkin to play in his home ground – dialogue.

One particular scene that fascinates me is the back and forth between Jobs and Wozniak before the final product launch. The clever retorts of The Social Network continue with Wozniack’s comment ‘You can be both decent and gifted, it’s not … binary’. This perfectly articulates the essence of the struggle between these two real life figures. The turn of phrase is lucratively fascinating and follows in the footsteps of lines such as ‘if you want to sit on my shoulders and call yourself tall’ and ‘I am six foot two, I run cross and there are two of me, let’s sue this mother f**cker’ from the Social Network.

Ultimately, Sorkin has evolved to become a collaborator and a team player, better seen nowhere else than his creative process behind Steve Jobs. The crew would rehearse for two weeks and the film an act and then repeat the process two more times to complete the film. During this time Sorkin worked with the actors and perfected his script with a freedom and confidence from years of experience. This paid off and in his own words ‘made the film’. Time and again he praises the actors and directors he works alongside to reveal his love of the collaborative process. David Fincher’s dark colour palette, heavy realism and gritty exposure of the less kind human traits made him a perfect partner on the film The Social Network. Rob Reiner’s lack of style and focus on characters helped ease Sorkin’s transition to film. Danny Boyle’s exuberant visual style and fascination with the potential of cinematography created an energy perfect to match the tone and style of Sorkin. Through his talent as a writer and appreciation of the collaborative process that is film Sorkin has proven himself to be an icon of his generation with a silver tongue and a sharp pen.



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