Aaron Sorkin likes to go on. For anyone familiar with the screenwriter’s work – which spans genres but has become so recognizable in its sensibilities that projects not even of his making can be fairly described as “Sorkin-esque” – there is nothing surprising about learning the man likes to talk. Just like his characters on The West Wing or in The Social Network, Sorkin speaks fast and furiously, dropping allusions like they were prepositions and ensuring that every new sentence is a slight twist on the one that came before.
Which is why, when his WiFi connection suddenly cut out the other day during our Zoom interview – yes, we broke the Internet – I wasn’t shocked to learn that Sorkin just kept going on in response to my question, assuming I was still on the other end.
“This doesn’t speak well of me, but I was talking for a while before I realized you weren’t there,” he says, half-apologetic, half-self-aware, once we’re reconnected. “What was the last thing you heard?”
I’m not sure. Not that it matters. One question to Sorkin will set him off on another one not of the interviewer’s making, and on and on. But to mark the release of Sorkin’s latest project, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 – a dramatic chronicle of the infamous case against seven, but really eight, men charged with disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention – I tried to keep up.
There is a line early on in the film in which protester and defendant Lee Weiner remarks that this is “the Academy Awards of protesting.” Which seems like a wink at both the scale of this cast – Sacha Baron Cohen, Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne – and its own awards potential …
I couldn’t agree more on the casting. I came to work every morning at 6 a.m. and felt like I was getting tossed the keys to a Formula 1 race car – all I had to do was not drive the car into the wall. On the line, I’m sure I didn’t mean it as a wink. [Defendant] Jerry Rubin actually said that line, and I added the line, “So it’s an honour just to be nominated.” Just as a way of introducing Weiner and [fellow defendant] John Froines as the kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the story.
This project has been in the works for more than a decade. What was the development process?
In 2006, I got a call from Steven Spielberg to come to his house on a Saturday morning, which I need to point out is not common. I don’t hang out with Steven Spielberg. But he said he wanted to do a movie about the Chicago 7 and asked if I wanted to write it. I was just saying yes to Steven Spielberg, like anyone would. So I left the house, and called my father to ask him who the Chicago 7 were.
How much of a boon has Netflix been to the project since taking it on in the summer from Paramount, which has shelved all its 2020 theatrical releases? Is this something that had to come out before the November U.S. election?
All the way back to Spielberg’s house, the last thing he said to me was that it would be great if this could be released before the election. He meant 2008, but he also didn’t specify. But we all knew that this had to come out before the election. Not that we thought he could influence the election in any way, but because now we’re in the mood for this. Several months ago, I got on a call with Paramount’s marketing department and chairman Jim Gianopulos, and it ended with Jim saying, “Listen, guys, we just don’t know what the exhibition business is going to look like in the fall.” They got back some troubling data indicating that the first people who return to theatres will be the people who think that COVID is a hoax and won’t wear a mask. And I agreed that the Idaho militia wasn’t the audience for this, so we should dip our toe into the water with streaming services.
This is your second directorial effort after Molly’s Game. What lessons did you take from that movie, other than Jeremy Strong should be cast in everything you do?
Well yeah, that. But Jeremy should be in everyone’s films going forward. I had and continue to have a lot of learning to do when it comes to directing. But as a writer, I’ve worked with a murderer’s row of great directors, from David Fincher to Danny Boyle to Tommy Schlamme. I have to really not be paying attention to not pick something up. But what’s most important to me when a movie or an episode of television is done is how it sounds. I would watch first cuts with my eyes closed, looking down, just listening. I rely heavily on the director of photography, the production designer, to help me create an interesting frame. People who have a better visual sensibility than I do.
What about the editing process? I imagine as a writer, you’re possessive of language, but maybe also used to other directors having their way with it. Is it easier to kill your darlings when you’re in control?
I’ve been very lucky in that there’s not many of my darlings on the editing-room floor. With The Social Network, there was nothing cut. I’m trying hard when I write the script to edit while I’m writing it. I don’t want to hand the director a shopping bag full of pages and ask them to make a movie out of it. But editing Chicago 7, I enjoyed finding out that, you know what, if I cut the last line of that scene, it’s better. Now, habitually I’ll experiment with cutting the last line of everything.
It seems that every new project you produce gets labelled “Peak Sorkin.” I recall many critics saying so when The Newsroom premiered in 2014, and now we’re saying it again, myself included, for Chicago 7. Do you consciously lean into what we think of when we think of Aaron Sorkin: Snappy dialogue, liberal politics, walk-and-talk speeches …
I don’t. I can only write the way that I write. And I know that because I’ve tried to write not the way that I write. With the play of To Kill a Mockingbird, I tried to do a Harper Lee impersonation at first. In The Social Network, I toiled with making them sound like regular college students – these were the youngest characters I had ever written. But then I said screw it, I have to write the way I write.
This interview has been condensed and edited
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available to stream on Netflix starting Oct. 16
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