Aaron Sorkin sits atop the Hollywood screenwriting world thanks to his scripts for The West Wing, A Few Good Men, Moneyball, Steve Jobs and The Social Network — the last of which netted him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He’ll compete for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar this year with The Trial of the Chicago 7, which tells the based-on-real events tale of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam protestors who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. And although in many ways it's a classic Sorkin film, there’s one element that distinguished it from the rest – much to his concern.
Speaking alongside fellow Oscar nominee Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), as well as Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version), Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) and Sam Levinson (Malcolm & Marie) as part of The Hollywood Reporter’s roundtable discussion of writers, Sorkin admits that what set The Trial of the Chicago 7 apart from his past projects was its considerable social-upheaval chaos. “Riots and violence and all this action, and all this stuff I’m not used to, was brand new territory for me,” he confides.
Confessing that he’s a theatrical artist who “fakes his way through movies and television shows” — a modest claim for an artist as celebrated as he is — Sorkin remarks, “They say if you’re bringing home a puppy, you should get a crate that’s just big enough for the puppy to turn around in, but no bigger. Because those confines give the puppy a sense of security. They like being in that tight space. I’m sorry to compare myself to a cute animal, but I’m the same way. I need four walls really badly. So the idea of just going outdoors in a script scares me. Just writing 'EXT' [exterior in a script] scares me.”
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As a result, Sorkin naturally gravitates to courtroom dramas, “not just because of the confines," he explains, "but in a courtroom drama, the elements of drama are so clear. The intention and obstacle are so clear. The stakes are clear. The jury is a stand-in for the audience; the jury knows as little as the audience does, so there’s a reason for exposition. And the dynamic between a lawyer and a witness who is being cross-examined is the essence of drama, of that friction. That’s why I like courtroom dramas.”
While Sorkin may be best known for such legal dramas — including his 2018 Broadway revival of To Kill A Mockingbird, starring his The Newsroom headliner Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch — Powers is quick to interject that he thinks Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs is “the gold standard of how to do an effective biopic.” Flashing the sort of humor that also peppers his finest writing, Sorkin subsequently encourages the rest of the panel to continue the praise: “I really appreciate that," Sorkin says. "And I would like the rest of you to talk about what you like about my work, too.”
All kidding aside, though, Sorkin pinpoints Steve Jobs as another preeminent example of the puppy-crate metaphor, because “I was adapting Walter Isaacson’s 800-page biography of Steve Jobs, and I didn’t want to start with a little boy looking in the window of an electronics store, and go through all that. So I got as small as I could get, and I said, 'What if I just wrote a play with three scenes, three real-time scenes?'”
To hear more about Sorkin’s writing process, check out the clip above. And to see if he takes home his second gold statuette, tune into the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25.
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