Aaron Sorkin
Photo by Joe Pugliese

Aaron Sorkin: “That takes quite an ego”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: Aaron Benjamin Sorkin
DOB: 9 June 1961
Place of birth: Manhattan, New York, United States
Occupation: Screenwriter, director

Mr. Sorkin, what mindset are you in when you sit down to write?

I am actually only able to write when I am in a good mood. I have a teenage daughter, and if anything is going wrong with her — something wrong at school, any of the teenage things that happen — I am done for the day. I am not going to be able to write. When I was writing The West Wing, if my then-wife and I had any sort of argument in the morning, if there was any friction or tension or something was not right, by the time I would drive to work, I would always call her and say, “Listen, I know you are mad at me, but can you do me a favor? Can we make up right now because I have to write next week’s episode?”

And what would she say?

She was always very good at understanding that: “Okay, we are made up, go on living.” (Laughs) So, I don’t need to be in pain and tortured in order to write.

Even if you have to write a particularly dark scene?

If I am writing a scene that is full of pain, I can get myself there pretty quickly! But I am happy when I am done doing that. When I was younger I used to think, “I come from a white, upper middle class, suburban background — I come from a completely functional family. This is a terrible recipe for good writing.” First of all, I was wrong about coming from a normal family until I understood what other families were. Mostly what I was wrong about was that you don’t have to have the kind of pain that Eugene O’Neill had in order to be able to write.

The pilot of The Newsroom (2012-14), created by Aaron Sorkin

Didn’t O’Neill once say that writing was his vacation from living?

(Laughs) For me, my best writing, if not my only writing, happens when I am in a good mood. Think of it like this: screenwriting is like coming to a dinner party and saying: “I’m going to be the only one who talks, and I tell you guys a story, and at the end of the two hours and 12 minutes, you are going to be happy that I was the only one talking. And you might even want to go through it again.” That takes quite an ego to think you can do that! But you are not going to that if you show up to the dinner party unhappy or sad or something is going on in your personal life. You’re going to want to be quiet and let somebody else do the talking.

Where do you think that ego comes from?

I’m not sure. Is it in your DNA?

Would you say it’s in yours?

Well, it’s more a question of: how does that ego live with insecurity at the same time? That’s how it lives in me. I have the ego required to believe that I can entertain those dinner party guests for two hours and 12 minutes but I live and die with whether or not I was successful doing it. If I am not writing, or if I am not writing well, I feel terrible. What is the worst thing that can happen to a writer? An idea being stillborn; that you have this great idea and you want to so badly to see it through to the screen undiluted. When that doesn’t happen, it feels terrible. When I fail at an episode of TV, when I swing and miss with a movie or a play, it’s life or death for me. I feel I don’t have any value, that there is no reason someone would want to be friends with me, that kind of thing… I think that is something that’s not going to change, so I try to use it as motivation.

“That’s not going to change, so I try to use it as motivation.”

A stillborn idea is still better than an idea you have to kill, isn’t it?

Killing your darlings, as they say, is always hard. But it’s always necessary.

Did that become even harder for you once you started directing?

No, I didn’t find it any harder as the executioner in the case of Molly’s Game. I actually found that I had directed a lot of the movie while I was writing it: whether it was music, the sound of ice flying off the edge of a ski… Whereas oftentimes I am happy when the director comes in and is able to take what is in my head and take it to another level. Molly’s Game probably has more visual interest than any other movie I have written combined.

Of course. You are best known for long, cinematic speeches — like the famous “You can’t handle the truth!” monologue in A Few Good Men.

Well, I have always loved courtroom dramas for a few reasons: the stakes are clear, the intentions and the obstacles are clear. You have a jury, which is a stand-in for the audience. They know as little as the audience does, so exposition is easy to handle. Sitting at my family’s dinner table and listening to the conversations, I just always loved the sound of, “Okay, but have you thought of it this way...?” And that often happens in courtroom dramas. So, you know, I am always surprised when people, particularly film critics, are surprised by the amount of language in the movies that I write.

Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise go head to head in A Few Good Men (1992), written by Aaron Sorkin

Does that happen very often?

The movies that I love are packed with language! They are not just images with minimalistic language attached, whether it’s Ben Hecht — or Paddy Chayefsky, who is a hero of mine. It’s all about this fantastic language that he was able to create. I like language and so when I write something, I always want the best director to direct it. But in the case of Molly’s Game the producer suggested to me that I might be the best director.

Was that a question of control, or was it about protecting your story?

I was aware that with this story there was a natural gravitational pull toward the shiny objects in the story: the money, the glamour, the decadence, the poker, Hollywood names, and that it would be easy for someone else to drown out the story that I wanted to tell with those elements. I wanted to tell a story that was set against the backdrop of those elements, yes — but I guess I just had such a clear idea of that that I wanted to see it all the way through. It was not going to be enough to just successfully get it on the page; I wanted to get it to the screen, too. And I thought I might be the best person to do that.