Aaron Sorkin is a busy man. He has time only for an interview on the telephone from the car taking him to Heathrow Airport; he volunteers to carry on our conversation once he has landed in Los Angeles but, to no surprise of mine, that call never comes. This is the kind of round-the-clock, minute-to-minute way of doing business made possible – or, arguably, forced on us – by modern technology. By people like the late Steve Jobs, the Apple founder and Sorkin's most recent subject.
"You know, in the mid-'70s and late '70s, the people using computers were hobbyists and geeks," says Sorkin into his iPhone. "He [Jobs] said 'this is for everyone' ... That was his vision from very early on and I think that's what he cared about." Money wasn't his passion; he might have been worth $US10.2 billion when he died but, at the point we meet him, he is living in a house with no furniture and hasn't seemed to notice. "You can become a slave to money easily and become preoccupied by that and I don't think he ever was," Sorkin says. "He was one of those guys who wants to be a world-changer."
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Steve Jobs: A look inside
Steve Jobs takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution to paint an intimate portrait of the brilliant man at its epicentre.
Or a world ruler, judging by the kind of demagoguery Sorkin attributes to him in his script. Steve Jobs, which stars Michael Fassbender as the Apple mastermind, and is directed by Danny Boyle with his characteristic energy, is divided into three acts; each culminates in a rowdy product launch. In 1984 he presents the Mac; in 1988, having been exiled from Apple, he shows the ill-fated NeXT black cube computer; in 1997, back at Apple and on the brink of world domination, he is presenting the iMac. These product launches are actually mass rallies. Thousands of devotees cheer as Jobs walks on stage to push a button; he is both guru and rock star in his own digital world.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in his office. Photo: New York Times
Before each showtime, we are taken behind the scenes to follow Jobs in his confrontations with the same half-dozen people central to his life. There is his loyal marketing guru and closest confidant Joanna Hoffman, played by Kate Winslet; the man he hired to run Apple who later fired him, John Sculley, who is played by Jeff Daniels; most importantly, there is the daughter he initially refused to acknowledge, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, played as an adult by Perla Haney-Jardine. There are the tech whizkids who brought his visions to life and were variously exploited, trusted, cajoled and abused by Jobs, including Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg).
None of them would have been where they are shown to be or said the words Sorkin put into their mouths, a fact that has deeply riled those Jobs fans who have written about the film on Mac-friendly websites. Of course, as Sorkin has said in response, he knows Jobs didn't see the same six people in the last half-hour before every product launch. Most of them weren't there at all; Joanne Hoffman wasn't even at Apple any more by the time the iMac came out. "That is plainly a writer's conceit," he says. "But I do think the movie gets at some larger truths, some more important truths."
More concerted opposition to the film came from those personally outraged or commercially concerned by those very "larger truths" as Sorkin saw them. Steve Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell opposed plans to make the film when they were first mooted by Sony and then, when Sony dropped it for financial reasons, put similar pressure on Universal; she also reportedly called both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale, both of whom had been approached to play Jobs before Fassbender was cast, asking them not to do it.
Current Apple CEO Tim Cook went onto Stephen Colbert's talk show to remember Jobs as "an amazing human being" whom he missed every day. Movies made about him – a previous biopic starring Ashton Kutcher was released in 2013 – reflected "a lot of people trying to be opportunistic ... it's not a great part of our world". Sorkin responded immediately, saying: "If you've got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour, you've got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic." He later apologised, saying that both he and Cook "went a little too far".
There are ethical difficulties, he concedes now, with writing stories about real people. He had access to plenty of material: the producers had the rights to Walter Isaacson's comprehensive biography of Jobs and Sorkin himself was able to do extensive interviews with many of the major players in Jobs' life, including some of those who had not spoken to Isaacson. Lisa Jobs, who had not wanted to talk about her father while he was alive, confided in him. So did John Sculley. Steve Wozniak, who worked with Jobs back when it was just the two of them in a garage dreaming up the Mac, was a paid consultant on the film.
Michael Fassbender as the obsessive visionary Steve Jobs.
Facts had to be bent or jettisoned, however, to fit the fictional truth. "There's a bit of discomfort; you do have listen to your internal moral compass," Sorkin says. "You know, that ought to be like the Hippocratic Oath – which first states 'do no harm' – and, by the way, if your internal moral compass is broken, the studio's legal department will help you out. They are not going to let you say anything untrue or defamatory." But that isn't quite the same thing, is it? "No, it's not quite the same thing." Sorkin was once asked if he thought Jobs would like the film; he said he thought he would "if it were about somebody else".
Perhaps the same applies to Mark Zuckerberg, who was very unhappy with his portrayal as a socially awkward, selfish nerd who wanted to sneer at the girls who wouldn't give him the time of day in the Sorkin-scripted The Social Network. When that film came out – to tremendous acclaim – Sorkin told me brusquely that "being not good with girls is the worst thing you can say about anyone". He has softened somewhat on that subject. "I'm sorry that I hurt Mark's feelings. To be honest, my guess is that he liked The Social Network more than he is going to say, but I take him at his word when he says his feelings were hurt and that does make me sad," he says.
Even so, he can't start pulling his punches. "Part of me says I should get out of the non-fiction business. I would prefer not to write about real people who are alive for the very reason that you're saying, but once you make a commitment to do that, you can't write with one hand tied behind your back. You've got to be human and, like I said, you've got to follow your moral compass but, you know, you have to write."
What will upset people can be unpredictable, anyway; one of the people represented in Steve Jobs worried over one word that could – at a stretch – have been interpreted to suggest arrogance. I am not allowed to say who this is, probably because Sorkin likes the "really wonderful" person in question. He still didn't change that word. "Listen, I can't start taking notes off of the real people. The real people have a different hope for the movie than the film-makers do."
Steve Jobs is his second film with a techy anti-hero, but he maintains he is no more interested in computers now than he was when he wrote The Social Network. "Everything I've written, I've written on a Mac and I have an iPhone in my hand right now, but I don't have the emotional relationship with the products that other people do." What interested him about Jobs was his complicated, flawed character; he is also, very unusually, interested in work. "Steve Jobs is my seventh movie," he says. "I believe if you added them up I don't think there is more than a total of 10 minutes that takes place in a person's home. They're all in offices, courtrooms, laboratories, things like that."
And if his scripts hit their marks, he thinks of it as friendly fire. "I write a character like that as if they're making their case to God as to why they should be let into heaven," he says. "And in order to defend that character I do have to be able to identify with them to some extent, to find something in that character that is like me." In the case of Steve Jobs, what he thought he saw was that "Steve's identity was wrapped up in the things he made". As a writer, he could identify with "being judged by what you make and these things being much more than just a way to make a living."
And also as a writer – strictly as a writer, he stresses, given that he is not a psychologist and that writing is not psychoanalysis – he felt that Jobs' perfectionism about the things he made was a behavioural flag marking a swirl of insecurities beneath the go-getting surface. "I think Steve deep down felt himself to be so irredeemably flawed, so unworthy of being liked or loved that the things that he made had to be more than useful or commercially successful. What people find magical about these products is that they love their relationships with them. They love their iPods, they love their phones, they love their laptops and that is how Steve felt love and affection. He couldn't perfect himself, but he could perfect these products. So if you stood in the way of Steve perfecting these products, if you found it silly that he wanted the computer to have rounded corners or a particular font, he would cut you to ribbons."
Katherine Waterston plays an early girlfriend of Steve Jobs, Chrisann Brennan, who was also the mother of his first child. Photo: Francois Duhamel
This conversation took place before Steve Jobs was released in the United States. So now I wonder how Aaron Sorkin is dealing with the fact that, despite rapturous reviews it has received across the board, the film has done so badly at the box office. Its opening weekend fared hardly any better than the rather wretched Ashton Kutcher film a few years earlier; the following weekend was even worse. At that point, Steve Jobs was pulled from thousands of American cinema schedules. According to an analysis of this dire result in the Hollywood trade magazine Variety, Universal planned to keep it running in the cities where it was drawing a select art-house audience until the awards rolled around.
That was obviously a good decision. Michael Fassbender, who is quite brilliant as Jobs, is nominated for an Oscar; so is Kate Winslet, following her Golden Globe win as best supporting actress. Aaron Sorkin deservedly won the Golden Globe for his dazzling script. This is, without a doubt, five-star filmmaking about a fascinating subject. But for whatever reason – "Steve Jobs was too brainy, too cold, and too expensive to make it a success" offers Variety – people haven't wanted to see it even though it's true, as Sorkin says, that people love their Apple gear. Perhaps they just don't love it enough.
Steve Jobs is in cinemas on February 4.