Interview: Aaron Sorkin on “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Posted on October 14, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyright Netflix 2020

Aaron Sorkin answered questions from a small group of critics about “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” premiering this Friday, October 16, on Netflix. The all-star cast play the eight men accused of conspiracy and incitement to riot at demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The highly unpopular Vietnam war and the frustration with candidates who seemed old and out of touch, the fury at the loss of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy earlier that year, led several groups to send protesters to the convention. Mayor Richard J, Daley called in the National Guard and gave the local police orders to “shoot to kill.” The battle between the police and the demonstrators became very violent and many were arrested and injured.

In the film, Nixon’s new Attorney General, John Mitchell (later sent to prison himself for crimes associated with Nixon’s re-election and the Watergate scandal) orders the District Attorney to bring charges. Among the eight defendants (later reduced to seven when one’s case was separated), the two characters that are the focus of the film are the flamboyant, outspoken Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and the quieter, more traditional Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne).

Sorkin told us that he first met with Steven Spielberg in 2006 to talk about the film. Spielberg asked Sorkin if he would be interested in writing a film about the Chicago 7. Sorkin said “It sounds like a great idea; I’d love to do it,” then “as soon as I left his house I called my father to ask who the Chicago 7 were.”

The trial, which was filled with colorful characters and memorable confrontations, exemplified and embodied many of the conflicts of the era, between old and young (this was the era when the term “generation gap” was popular), between tradition and upheaval in resolving issues of civil rights and social justice.

Copyright Netflix 2020

It was front page news around the world in 1969 but not generally remembered today. “I had to go to school on this,” Sorkin told us. That included the many books on the trial and the 21,000-page trial transcript. But most valuable to him was the time he spent talking with the late Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of the group. “In my head, the film organized itself into three stories that would be told at once: the courtroom drama, the evolution of what was supposed to be a peaceful protest into a riot, a violent clash with the police and the National Guard, and the third story, one that wasn’t in any of the books or the trial transcript, and that I would only be able to get from Tom, was the relationship between Tom and Abbie , two guys on the same side who can’t stand each other, who each think the other is doing harm to the movement, but in the end they come to respect each other. I turned in the first draft and the next day the Writer’s Guild went on strike.”

So, everything was on hold and the film kept getting “kicked down the road for a while, until two things happened at once. One was that Donald Trump got elected. And he was holding big rallies where he would say of a protester, ‘In the old days they would have carried that guy out of here on a stretcher; I’d like to punch him in the face and beat the crap out of him,’ being nostalgic for 1968, and by that time I had directed my first film, ‘Molly’s Game,’ so Steven said, ‘The time is now and you should direct it.'”

“We thought the film was pretty relevant when we were making it last winter. We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but obviously, it did.” He spoke about seeing tear gas and nightsticks used at the Black Lives Matter protests “with Donald Trump in the role of Mayor Daley. We couldn’t believe our eyes; it was chilling, it was shocking.” He said he had been asked whether he made changes in the script to reflect the current conflicts, to make the parallels more explicit. “The answer is, not a word, not a frame. Events in the world changed to mirror the script…Ultimately, I feel like the film has been on a 14-year crash course with history.”

The only part of the story that could not be found in a book or the trial transcript was the relationship between Hayden and Hoffman, so that became the heart of the story. There was another key point he learned from Hayden that becomes significant in the film, which I won’t spoil here. “It’s a personal story. Most of the conflict in the story is about ideas, but it gets more personal than that. I was coming at these people and at this event with next to no knowledge at all…Coming at this with no preconceived notions turned out to be a blessing. I had a hard time getting fully on board with Abbie Hoffman…I found his antics counterproductive, the way Hayden does. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. But I wanted him to be a hero. Tom and Abbie kind of balance each other out. It’s a reflection of the Democratic party today, the intramural friction between the left and the further left, between people who want incremental change and want to work within the system and people who are tired of incremental change and want revolution. I have respect for both of those points of view and I have respect for both men as well as the others, and I thought that was an argument that belonged in this film and that the tension throughout between the two of them that was leading to an explosion in the third act was helpful for the film.”

Sorkin talked to “smart people” of the era, not necessarily involved but with strong, principled views about the issues and who was right and who was wrong, “to see how much of other people’s intelligence I could borrow and inject into the film.”

He talked about the challenges of shooting riot scenes on a budget, with help from the real-life locations, like Chicago’s Grant Park, which allowed them to blend new footage with archival images. “I don’t want to be glib, but the tear gas was helpful, too, having all that smoke, we could camouflage certain things, make it look like more people there than there really were.”

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (L to R) KELVIN HARRISON JR. as Fred Hampton, YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II as Bobby Seale, MARK RYLANCE as William Kuntsler in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020

Sorkin talked about what it is appropriate to change in a story based on real life. “There’s a difference between what you are doing and journalism, just like there’s a difference between a painting and a photograph.” He gave an example from “The Social Network,” where in real life Zuckerberg drank beer, but Sorkin thought a screwdriver was “more cinematic.” Director David Fincher disagreed, and in the movie it is beer. Here, one departure from the real story was the look of the courtroom itself. The real-life courtroom was an unprepossessing mid-century design that “looked like a middle school multi-purpose room.” The grander one in the film better suggests the power dynamic in the force of the US government being brought to bear on the protesters. “Real courtroom scenes aren’t as entertaining and snappy and dramatic.” And the real trial went on for almost six months. “Your inner compass has to decide what’s an important truth and what’s an unimportant truth — and if yours is broken, the studio legal department will be glad to help you out.”

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Based on a true story Directors Interview Writers

Aaron Sorkin Wants to Hear Your Bad Ideas

Posted on June 26, 2016 at 3:55 pm

Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “Moneyball,” “The Social Network”) is teaching an online master class in screenwriting. Whether you dream of writing great films or television series or just want to learn how to communicate more effectively, this is an extraordinary opportunity.

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Steve Jobs

Posted on October 22, 2015 at 5:01 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Tense and angry confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2014
Date Released to DVD: February 15, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B0168UF2PS

Copyright Universal Pictures 2015
Copyright Universal Pictures 2015

If you want a straightforward, fact-checked biography of Apple visionary Steve Jobs, watch Alex Gibney’s documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man In the Machine, or the Ashton Kutcher biopic (better than its reputation), simply titled Jobs. You can read the meticulously researched biography biography by Walter Isaacson. This film, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, does to the traditional biographical movie what Jobs himself did to traditional ideas about computers. A lot of people won’t like that, but for me, after years of diligent, comprehensive and increasingly formulaic biographical films, my view is that of Patrick Henry (who might have been considered a candidate for Jobs’ “Think Different” ad campaign) — If this be revolution, make the most of it.

So, let’s get it straight from the outset. A lot of stuff in this movie didn’t happen or didn’t happen when and where it is shown here or between the characters who appear in the film. And no one in history, even Aaron Sorkin, can snap out dialog as dazzlingly crafted as this in normal conversation.

This is not a “and then this happened, and then there was this revelation, and then there was this setback, and then there was this triumph” sort of movie. This movie respects its audience enough to assume that either we already know the parameters of Jobs’ life or that if we do not know the details, we are more interested in the essence. Think of it this way. It is not a photograph of Steve Jobs; it is an abstract painting. Or, it is not Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things;” it is John Coltrane’s 14-minute meditation on the Richard Rodgers tune. This is pure cinema, and it is thrilling to watch.

The movie takes place in three acts, three moments in real time, as Jobs (Michael Fassbender, capturing the fury, magnetism, brilliance, and shocking selfishness of the man). Jobs is backstage, preparing for three product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the Next computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998, after Jobs had been fired from Apple and then brought back in utter vindication to the company he co-founded. Each act is filmed (literally, mechanically shot) and scored to meld form and content.

Composer Daniel Pemberton wrote three entirely separate movie scores. The first was played exclusively on the technology of 1984. The second, reflecting the grand setting of the launch in San Francisco’s opera house and the operatic drama of the disastrous launch of a wildly overpriced product, is a full-scale symphonic piece with an Italian libretto (the lyrics are about machinery). And the third, with Jobs’ triumphant restoration to the role that meant everything to him, was composed entirely on Apple products.

Sorkin’s favorite tools are all here — hyper, rat-a-tat dialog as characters race around to meet a deadline, people who are superb at their jobs and lousy in their family and social relationships, and people who bring the trauma of their personal failures into the professional context (some vice versa as well). He moves people on and off stage at the pace of a door-slamming Feydeau farce. We see Jobs’ hyper-focus and grandiosity as he barks orders to (illegally) turn off the exit signs in the auditorium so the light won’t interfere with the total darkness he wants for the presentation and complains that he was not on the cover of TIME’s Man of the Year issue. He understands something important, not what people want because they do not know it exists, but what they will want. Computers are designed by engineers for engineers. He wants them to be not just tools but friends. He wants them — literally — to say “hello,” to be so “warm and playful” that English majors and bakers and fire fighters and musicians will want to use them. He wants an ad campaign that tells people they (all) can “think different” like Jim Henson (perfect for a generation that grew up on “Sesame Street”) and Cesar Chavez by using his products. And he wants to “make a dent in the universe.”

People who make a dent in the universe usually do serious damage to their relationships. We see that through the years as Jobs battles with his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), cruelly denying paternity of their daughter Lisa, with his longtime partner, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his programmer (Michael Stuhlbarg), and with the professional manager he brought in to run the company, Pepsi’s John Sculley (a very sympathetic Jeff Daniels). He agonizes over the double rejection of being put up for adoption and then being brought back by the first couple who tried to adopt him. He talks to Lisa about two versions of the song “Both Sides Now,” a double double. And, crucially, he knows going into the first two launches that both will be disasters.

The film opens with archival footage of another visionary, Arthur C. Clarke, predicting the future of computers. A movie like this is what helps us understand the future of humanity.

Parents should know that one of the themes of this film is a disputed paternity test and failure to meet the financial or emotional obligations of a parent. There are references to neglect and drug usage and some tense and angry confrontations.

Family discussion: What did the revelation about the TIME cover mean to Steve Jobs? What was his most important contribution and what, at the end of his life, mattered most to him? Should he have thanked the Apple II team?

If you like this, try: the Gibney documentary, the Isaacson book, and “The Social Network”

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Biography Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Trailer: Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs”

Posted on September 14, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Director: Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”)

Writer: Aaron Sorkin

Subject: Steve Jobs

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and Seth Rogen

Opening: October 9, 2015

Me: there

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Based on a true story Biography Trailers, Previews, and Clips

One of Aaron Sorkin’s Best Scenes

Posted on June 24, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Tonight is the premiere of the new HBO series “The Newsroom,” written by Aaron Sorkin, Oscar-winning scripter of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Social Network,” “A Few Good Men,” and the television series “The West Wing.” I am a big fan of his series Sports Night, starring Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”), Peter Krause (“Parenthood”), and Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”). People often notice Sorkin’s “crackling” hyper-articulate dialogue, but what I love is the spacious and generous humanity of his characters. In one of my favorite “Sports Nights” scenes, Jeremy, a new employee, explains to his boss that he is embarrassed at having fainted on an assignment to cover a deer-hunting expedition.

JEREMY (Joshua Malina)

Not fitting in is how qualified people
lose jobs.

ISAAC (Robert Guillaume)

Yeah, but a lot of time it’s how
people end up working here. You had an
obligation to tell us how you felt.
Partly because I don’t like getting a
phone call saying I’ve put one of my
people in the hospital. But mostly
because when you feel that strongly
about something you have a
responsibility to try and change my
mind. Jeremy, did you think I was
gonna fire you ’cause you made a
convincing argument? It’s taken me a
lot of years but I’ve come around to
this: If you’re dumb, surround
yourself with smart people.
If you’re smart, surround yourself
with smart people who disagree with
you. I’m an awfully smart man and Mark
Sabath is an idiot. He had you and he
blew it. You’ve gotta trust us. Fit in
on your own time, when you come to
work for me you show up to play.
(BEAT) I’m going home.

You don’t know us very well. So if
it’s hard trusting us at the
beginning, maybe it’ll help a little
to know that we trust you. G’night.

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