Where 'Friend' Is a Four-Letter Word

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin explores the fractious founding of Facebook in 'The Social Network'

Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin enters the interview suite on one of the upper floors of the Austin Four Seasons and heads straight for the picture window. He admires the beauty of Lady Bird Lake and focuses on the rowers. He turns to Armie Hammer, a young actor who practiced to become an expert oarsman for The Social Network, and asks, "Do you have any desire to continue rowing?" The answer is yes, which leads to a conversation about Hammer's training regimen prior to shooting. Their reverie is quickly interrupted by the voice of a hectoring studio publicist, "Guys, we're running behind." Twenty-minute interviews are stacking up like planes lined on a tarmac waiting for takeoff, so it's time to step away from the window.

Sorkin, who is in Austin to talk about the screenplay he wrote for The Social Network, sighs. "That's the hard part," he says. "People nudging me all day long to move faster." There is some irony there. Sorkin, the writer and producer of the TV shows The West Wing, Sports Night, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is famous for his characters' distinctively brisk speech patterns (as his extensive and high-speed answers to my questions spill from his lips, it's obvious in whose image his characters have been molded). Sorkin has also directed some of that signature speed to his latest project, The Social Network, an adaptation of Ben Mezrich's nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. (Sorkin began work based on Mezrich's outline long before the book was actually finished.) The Chronicle recently sat down with Sorkin to discuss what it was like to write about real people – and really young people – in The Social Network, which was directed by David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and opens in Austin this Friday.

Austin Chronicle: Writing about real characters is a bit of a change for you. Does that alter your approach?

Aaron Sorkin: With nonfiction, obviously you can't play fast and loose with the truth, you can't do anything you want. And we're talking about not just historical nonfiction; we're talking about nonfiction about people who are still alive. So you have two important things in your hand: You have history, and you have somebody's life. And, yes, you can't mess with that. You have to take that seriously. So a lot of research went into it – legal documents and first-person research where I spoke to any number of people who are either characters in the movie or people who are close to the subject and close to the event, most of them on the condition of anonymity, so I can't go too deeply into that.

AC: We've heard that you got hot for this property when you first read the book outline for The Accidental Billionaires. So you were writing this script simultaneously with the book?

AS: Yes, we were writing at the same time. Ordinarily, there's a book that you're hired to adapt. What I had was a book proposal – albeit a real page-turner of a book proposal – that Ben Mezrich had written for his publisher, and the publisher was shopping around for a film sale in Hollywood. That's how the proposal ended up in my hands. It was somewhere around page 3 of this 14-page book proposal that I said: "I have to do this. This is too good to be true." I assumed that the studio would want me to wait until Ben had written the book, that they would want me to begin work maybe a year from now or something. But they didn't. They wanted to start right away. So Ben and I, on parallel tracks, were doing our research at the same time, and we were writing at the same time, but Ben's faster than I am. I was about 80 percent of the way through the screenplay when he gave me the galley of his book.

AC: Were there any large inconsistencies between the two?

AS: No. There are things he included in the book that I didn't use in the movie, and I'm sure that there are things in the movie that aren't in the book. We came at it from two different angles. What I really liked was that there were two lawsuits brought against Facebook at roughly the same time. The defendant, the plaintiffs, and the witnesses – they all came into the deposition rooms, they all swore an oath, and what we ended up with were three very different versions of the same story. What I wanted to do was instead of [deciding that] one is the truth and that'll be the version I dramatize or [deciding that another is] the sexiest, that'll be the one I dramatize, I liked the idea that there were three different versions of the truth. That's what I wanted to dramatize, like Rashomon. As in a courtroom drama, where you're certain that someone is guilty or somebody is innocent and you change your mind five times all the way through – I wanted to do that. The movie presents, I hope, everybody's side of the story. It doesn't take a position on what the truth is or who's a good guy or who's a bad guy. We'd love for those arguments to happen in the parking lot.

AC: The opening scene of The Social Network is a wonderful bit of filmmaking – I could watch it on a loop endlessly.

AS: Fincher is a guy who has made his name being visually spectacular, and he's got to open the movie with a nine-page scene of two people sitting at a table talking. Nobody's aging backward; nobody blows anything up. He wasn't scared a bit, couldn't have been more patient. But everything in that scene, from the sound mix to a napkin stain to a moment when a waitress goes with a tray with beers on it, is meticulous. To me, that kind of direction is every bit as beautiful as a sort of breathtaking feat of technology in moviemaking.

AC: You always write about very topical things. Is that intentional?

AS: I don't really think of it that way, that I'm writing about timely things. I like to write about timeless things. In this case, there were these grand themes. The center of it is an invention that is topical and is as modern as it gets. [But] the themes in the story are as old as storytelling: friendship, loyalty, betrayal, power. But for the high tech invention, this is what Aeschylus would have written about. It's what Shakespeare would have written about. A couple of decades ago, this is what Paddy Chayefsky would have written about. That's what I'm thinking of when I'm writing. Sometimes by coincidence the thing is timely, but the thing that's drawing me to it and what I'm thinking about while I'm writing are ancient things.

AC: These are the youngest characters you've ever written. Did you find it more difficult to write about young people?

AS: For two hours I did. But when all the research was done, and all the pacing around and climbing the walls and thinking, "How do I get that cursor to stop flashing at me?," I knew what the first scene was going to be, and it was time to write it. When you know what you're going to write, when you know every moment of the scene, when you're kind of schooled up, fueled up, and loaded up to do that, I like to do it just as fast as I can because I think that energy makes its way onto the page somehow. I sat down to do that, and that's the moment I realized: "Hang on. These are the youngest I've ever written about." These are 19-year-olds in 2003 – which still feels like today to me – I need some sort of conversion dictionary of fortysomething guy to twentysomething guy. I tried faking it. I tried writing it using 19-year-old words. I tried that for a couple of hours and said: "This is a disaster. I'm going to have to write this in my own voice. And that's just going to be the way it is, and that's just how everyone in the movie is going to talk."

AC: Did the truth ever get in the way of good storytelling?

AS: We were hyperaware that we were telling a story where the truth is in dispute. So when we knew the truth, we sure wanted to get it right. And when we didn't know the truth, we wanted to make it clear that this is a fact that's in dispute right now, by having the characters say: "You're lying. That's not what happened." As an example of the desire to get it right: We know from Mark's blog that night – the one that you hear in the movie, which is verbatim, all I did was make it shorter, I didn't do anything to it but that, and even in the stuff I excised, I did not change the trajectory – that he's drunk. He says, "I'm intoxicated." So what I said in the script was that he comes into the room, turns his computer on, walks out of the frame, comes back into the frame, puts a glass down, clinks ice into the glass, pours vodka over the ice, pours orange juice over the vodka, and begins typing. Very shortly before photography, we found out that he was drinking beer that night and found out what kind of beer. So David [Fincher] said: "Sorry Aaron, he's not going to do the screwdriver. He's going to grab a beer from the fridge." I said: "Oh, c'mon David. We know he was drunk; what does it matter how he got drunk?" The screwdriver is just a more visually interesting thing: the clinking of ice, the pouring of stuff. It also reads as "I'm drinking this to get drunk" rather than "I'm just thirsty" or "I'm just a college student." I liked the screwdriver better. David said: "No. We know it was a beer and that it was a Beck's, so he's gonna do it." And that shows you A) how concerned we were about getting it right and B) the fact that we know what kind of beer he was drinking on a Tuesday night in October seven years ago when there were only three other people in the room, which should tell you something about how close our research sources were to the subject and the event.

The Social Network opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 1. See Film Listings for review.

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The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich, David Fincher, Jesse Eisenberg, Armie Hammer

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