The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Steve Jobs.
How did you develop this story?
Aaron Sorkin: I like claustrophobic spaces and compressed periods of time, especially when there’s a ticking clock. I like being behind the scenes, in this case literally behind the scenes. After many months of spending time with the real people who are represented by characters in the movie as well as a few dozen other people who aren’t represented by a character in the movie, I started identifying interesting points of friction in Steve’s life—between Steve and Lisa, between Steve and Wozniak, between Steve and John Sculley, and so on. I just thought, Well what if the entire movie were three scenes in real time, all of them taking place backstage in the moments leading up to a product launch, would I be able to dramatize these conflicts, would it come to anything, would it work, and also at the time, what I was thinking was, will the studio allow me do this? And they did. But of course to succeed it was going to need a visual master, it was going to need someone who could get great performances from some of the greatest actors in the world, and that was going to be Danny Boyle.
Danny Boyle: I was reading the news, as you do, and I heard that they were doing this movie, and then I heard that Fincher dropped out, and then Scott Rudin rang up and he said, Do you want to read this script? Yeah! And I did. I was just…it was…I mean I think we all had the same reaction, didn’t we? It’s a starburst of a script. It’s absolutely like, Wow! It just sucks the air out of the room and it’s weirdly like the subject. It’s different—like his motto was—but it’s also controlling. It’s very descriptive, and at first it’s so intimidating, and then you will realize, and this is important—I think it was for the actors as well—you realize actually what it’s crying out for you to do of course is own it. It’s a provocation by Aaron as well because it’s so emphatically what it is, can you add to that? It’s very exciting to do. I’ve never done anything like that. I was in straight away. This is some of the finest writing—and I’m not just talking about screenplays—because obviously he’s a great writer. It’s the desire to work on material of that quality and then to wonder if we can add to it, can you find the actors, can you find the scenarios, because he doesn’t…there’s no real manual guiding you. There were some suggestions for music, and that was it. He doesn’t give you stage directions, there’s no room for them because it’s just dialogue. And it’s great. Everything is in the rhythm of the dialogue. It’s outrageously eloquent, except when you look at the vocabulary, the vocabulary is rich but it’s not ostentatious vocab. It’s the rhythm of it. It builds meaning through rhythm and the fluency and the current and the way these guys got up and started speaking it, you can hear it. They clock it because they’re A-list actors; they lock in like a laser beam on it and then start exploring it. It’s a very exciting thing to be involved with.
“We all had the same reaction, didn’t we? It’s a starburst of a script.”
How did you prepare for the role?
Michael Fassbender: The script. That took up most of my time. If I wasn’t repeating the script I was watching YouTube clips and interviews, speeches, seminars, whatever I could get my hands on of Steve Jobs. But really, mainly it was the script. Just repeating it, repeating it, and just trying to learn the lines.
Jeff Daniels: [My character] speaks to the Father theme that is so strong in Steve and with his daughter and the whole deal. He starts as this father figure, there’s this trust and respect for each other…and maybe even love because it wasn’t just the corporate cliché. I met with John and the big take away for me was that it still hurt. He went through a tough time after this. I yanked that out of him, thank you very much, and then put it in. Aaron had written that Shakespearean fall for him. You start him out as they did—brothers really. And then the betrayal and it ends very badly. It still hurts him. That was a great character to play, so well written and the arc of it was just so clear.
Kate Winslet: It was such a privilege to play with these wonderful words and these incredible actors. To know that I was going to be in a room with Michael made me honestly want to wet my knickers. But when we walked into the rehearsal room on the first day I could see that he was clearly already wetting his knickers.
Fassbender: Bricking them, rather.
Winslet: I knew immediately that we would be in it together. You always are as actors, and I have to say on this that was one thing that I think Danny brilliantly found for all of us was this almost forum whereby we could just be in the same space together, every single actor no matter how big or small their role. There was so much to benefit from for us because of that feeling. Playing Joanna was…I’ve played people who have existed before, but often they’ve died. It’s very rare that I get to play somebody who really is still around. To sit with her and to hear her stories, which she was extremely generous with sharing. I have to be honest, it was really hard for her to talk about Steve because she really…they were friends more than colleagues actually. I’d say their working relationship was kind of a quarter of the time that she ultimately knew him for. She would get really quite emotional. What I could see in that, and what Aaron had clearly seen as well was this extraordinary warmth and compassion that she just possesses within herself. She’s almost an access point for the audience to those softer sides of Steve. It was very important to me to make sure there was a physicality between the two of them. Not in sort of a husband and wife way but in a kind of brother/sister, kind of jiving each other sort of a way. I could feel that was in the language. And I said to her were there hugs. “Oh yes hug, lots of hugs.” I would say, “So hang on, wait. Your backstage before a launch, would you really embrace.” “Oh god yes of course.” In a way those were beautiful light bulb moments. We were fully given permission to have that level of physicality, that steady hand at his back, that ease. There were no barriers to be able to fill them, not just with the language but with those little physical touches that really meant their relationship had that sort of warmth and vibrancy to it. That did show the other side of Steve that I think stops it being a biopic and something audiences really haven’t seen before.
You guys filmed each section separately and had separate rehearsal periods, correct?
Fassbender: Yeah. Thanks to Danny. He really structured it. Without that rehearsal structure I don’t think I could have really…we had this sort of two-week rehearsal, and then we shot the first act. Then we had two weeks, and then we shot the second act. Then we had just a little bit less than 2 weeks, then we shot the third act. Without that it would have been very hard for me to just get everything under control in terms of the lines. It was an old fashioned situation as an actor. “Just learn your lines, darling.” I just had to get a grip on that. But also I think it was interesting for us to explore it that way.
Boyle: We started cutting the first part and we were rehearsing the second part. In the editing room, he’s cutting the first part. Wonderful editor, Elliot Graham. It was full of such spiky energy, it felt very punkish. You thought, “Right…!” And then you suddenly get the opportunity, you think, the second act should be much more liquid. It should just flow much more rather than be jagged. It’s very rare to have that opportunity to be assessing as you’re moving forward like that. And likewise for the third act, which felt like it should be so open, because there’s such…I mean I think they’re some of the finest scenes in that third act where these guys, they all come to, what we use to call the depth charges that have been laid, just begin to go off each time as they come into the room. We tried in the first part and the second part to vary the locations enormously. Aaron intended to write, it’s a dressing room, they’re coming in. But by the time we got to the third part, you just let them arrive in the dressing room, a part from one instance, where he goes out with the big scene with Wozniak. But otherwise they just come to the dressing room, and then the depth charges begin to come off
Did working on The Newsroom with Aaron Sorkin’s writing help?
Daniels: You’ve got a leg up on just where the rhythm is. These guys found it very, very early. As Michael was saying before, we all know this, we’ve even probably done it—I sure have. There’s that memorizing it in the makeup chair and walking on and kind of knowing it, but I’m going to improv and add lib, and kind of paraphrase a little bit, and improve upon it. Well… You don’t know you’re fucking lines. This was great to work with people who put in the work, as we did on The NewsroomÉ. There’s a difference between I think I know it and I know it. I remember Jane Fonda before she started Newsroom, she goes, “My god, tell me what to do, please tell me what to do.” I said, “At six in the morning, you need to know it, and know what you’re going to do with it.” With the amount that Aaron gives you, which is tremendous to play. A friend of mine said, “Wait till you see the things you get to say.” And we all did in this movie. That’s how he writes. Actors love doing his stuff. It’s such a flow. You get on top of those lines, you start to own them. You know them and you dance on top of them. That’s what I saw. I saw in the first read through, not memorized yet, but I could hear these guys. In that first twenty-five pages. It just sang. That’s his singular voice—that’s Aaron.
How much of the blocking did you keep from rehearsal? The camera was so dynamic, it never felt static, and it didn’t feel talkie.
Sorkin: I feel bad that it didn’t feel talkie. All right. You’re asking for it. Next movie, more talking!
Boyle: You know when he says, A-list, I don’t want B-list because they discourage the A-list. That’s engineers and stuff like that, but when you with A-list actors, and this lot are. It’s one of those things you learn. The director, if you start talking about blocking, “Oh…I don’t really want to get fixed down there like that.” It’s one of the wonderful tensions there is when you get great actors. They don’t want to be locked in, because as Michael used to say, you turn up on a Tuesday, and if the scene isn’t done that day, by the time you actually come to do it the following Tuesday, you’re a different person. If actors are going to bring anything to it, other than be voice boxes, they’re bringing themselves to it, which becomes merged with this character. So you’re not watching Steve Jobs as he was, you’re watching a reality, which is even more intense, because it’s a bit of Jobs, a bit of Sorkin, a bit of Fassbender. It’s all in there like that. We were very lucky because we found this way of working where we didn’t have to be locked down. You do get locked down a bit. Of course you do, because good actors know, I should make sure I’m back over here by the time to say that line otherwise nothing would ever cut together. But you want to keep as much freedom as possible. We tried to shoot with that kind of freedom. We had an amazing Steadicam operator, Geoffrey Haley, so they did have the freedom to move a bit more than they might do if your were blocking.