Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Sorkin’

“Here’s what’s key in creating drama—intention and obstacle. That’s what you’ve got to cling to. . . .”
—Oscar winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

Related posts:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Aaron Sorkin on ‘90% of the Battle’ in Screenwriting
Screenwriting vs. Finger Painting (Aaron Sorkin on the Rules of Art)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“My mentality was to go out and win—at any cost.”
—Basketball great Michael Jordan
The Last Dance

“The same thing that made Michael Jordan a star will make your character stand out from the run of the mill, and attract the actors you want and need. Make sure your main character wants something very much, and has a goal. He or she should face problems, obstacles, and conflict to achieve that. And after achieving it, or failing, the character is changed, or the direction of his or her life is changed, or both. For nearly all endings are new beginnings—the first day of the rest of your life. Even Donald Duck and Woody Woodpecker run off to a new future at the end. And, I repeat, make all of that clear to your audience, but without bludgeoning them. Clarity with subtlety, with artistry, is the ideal combination.”
—Producer Lawrence Turman (The Graduate)
So You Want to Be a Producer
Page 87

P.S. In my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I point out how screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet don’t agree on everything, but when they do pay close attention. Here’s where they both agree with Turman’s “Make sure your main character wants something very much, and has a goal.”

I have to stick—really closely, like it’s a life raft— to intention and obstacles. Just the basics of somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it.” 
—Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

“Drama has rules. We’re given a premise. The hero wants something. To find the cause of the plague on Thebes, or to free the Jews, or to establish civil rights, or to fly the Atlantic. We get it. We are going to follow his or her journey until the end. And the end is going to be surprising—and inevitable. Just like in a great football game.”
—Screenwriter/ Playwright David Mamet  (The Verdict)
MasterClass/Purpose of Drama

This post touched on basketball and football, and tomorrow’s post I’ll give a nod to baseball great Joe Morgan who died on Sunday. One of my biggest inspirations as a kid.

Scott W. Smith

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“There is a tendency to think that art is finally the place where there are no rules, where you have complete freedom. I’m going to sit down at the keyboard and it’s just going to flow out of me onto the paper, and it’s going to be pure art. No. What you’re describing is finger painting. Rules are what makes art beautiful.”
—Playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin
MasterClass, “Rules of Story”

You can find plenty of working screenwriters online who say there are no rules in screenwriting. Neither Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet are in that camp. In my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I curate many conflicting views on what are the essential elements of dramatic writing.

I talk about going to a writing workshop with a writer who’d won an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award who said if there were any rules that he didn’t know what they were. I do think it’s possible that some writers have an ingrained understanding of the rules/principles/concepts without knowing how to articulate it to others.

I asked that highly accomplished writer who said there weren’t any rules , “What about conflict?” He said, “Yeah, you need conflict.” So we’ll take a look at that next.

Scott W. Smith

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You want to get ahead?
Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead
Aaron Burr, Sir lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.28.49 AM

“I’m king of the world.”

Years ago someone (and I wish I could remember who) said America is the kind of place where people cheer you as you enter the triumphant gates, and then throw rocks at you when you pass through to the other side. In a click bait generation, that kind of behavior is amplified.

That is as a sweeping generalization we love to see the musician, athlete, actor, politician, whatever rise up from obscurity and make a name for themselves for some super accomplishment. Then once they’ve received enough adoration, it’s like some evil emperor hits a button to sink the ship.

When I started this blog in January of 2008, Diablo Cody was the darling of the media as people ate up the story of a Midwestern screenwriter who wrote the indie hit Juno. But right around the time she collected her Oscar she crossed through to the other side of the triumphant gates and there was a huge backlash against her. And that rise and fall happened in less than 12 months.

I’ve seen it over and over again in my lifetime. In college, I remember talking to a friend about a favorite indie band of hers and she said, “Oh, I don’t like them anymore.” I asked what changed her mind and she said, “They got too popular.” Lesson learned.

Some superstars crash and burn on their own, but others we just get tired of. I think the recent backlash of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is yet another layer of scorn in the age of social media. If you read the three day old Rolling Stone article by E.J. Dickson ”Why Generation Z Turned on Lin-Manual Miranda” you can get caught up on backlash Miranda is experiencing. (Maybe he can call Diablo Cody for advice.)

This is a screenwriting blog so I’m looking at Hamilton from a creative perspective, rather than looking for places to stab it. But I will say to those critiquing Miranda’s choices something I learned long ago from a professor:

“You can’t say everything all the time, or you end up saying nothing.”
—Richard Pratt

Every dramatic writer taking on writing about a historical character has to make choices on what to leave in and what to leave out. To boil the life of any noteworthy person into a two or three hour play or movie is mighty task. Not to mention one that will be engaging enough for producers and studios to develop and fund and that audiences will want to support and be entertained by.

When Aaron Sorkin was asked about creative choices he made in writing The Social Network and Steve Jobs, Sorkin pointed out that he was making a painting, not a photograph. For the sake of time, composite characters were created, timelines shifted around, and liberties taken with dialogue (because, to quote Hamilton, the writer wasn’t “in the room where it happened.”)

Sorkin condensed Steve Jobs’ 56 years on this earth into just three days. He didn’t even touch on Jobs’ involvement in Pixar which could probably be its own 10 part limited series on Netflix. Reportedly, when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak saw the movie Steve Jobs he said, “None of that happened, but it’s all true.”

Sorkin used three days in Jobs life to construct an emotional truth. A painting, not a photography. An impression, not a documentary. And he used mythical language to explain the three acts he used: the king dethroned, the king in exile, and the return of the king. Brilliant.

I don’t know enough about the life of Alexander Hamilton to know what did and didn’t happen, but I know that Miranda did lean on Ron Chernow’s book Alexander Hamilton as the guide for his remix on the life of Hamilton.  From what I’ve read, Miranda hit the key signposts pretty well. And admits where he deviated for dramatic purposes. (Hamilton didn’t hit a bursar.)

Obviously, most of the people represented in the multi-racial cast were white in real life. And even back in 1776 they didn’t talk in rhyme. It’s like Miranda says from the start, if you can accept this construct then we can do business.

In the second song of Hamilton (Aaron Burr, Sir) Hamilton meets Burr and then ends up having a beer with Burr, John Lauren, Hercules Mulligan (best name ever), and Marquis de Lafayette is not a meeting that happened in real life, but that was his posse. The purpose of that scene/song is to show Hamilton as a young ambitious man without a track to run on. But then he connects with some likeminded men.

If Hamilton and his band of brothers had of lived in the 1990s instead of during the American Revolution you might find them hanging out at the local Fight Club.

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt)

Aaron Burr, Sir sets up perfectly Hamilton’s I Want song (My Shot) that we’ll look at in my next post.

P.S. There is one line in Aaron Burr, Sir that I found particularly interesting. Hamilton says, “I wish there was a war, Then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.” There have been very few periods in recorded world history where humans aren’t at war. I heard on NPR a while back that at any given time there are 200 civil wars going on in the world. And that doesn’t include office politics, home owner associations, or people on TikTok. Makes you question human nature, doesn’t it? There is a direct connection with Alexander Hamilton wanting to go to war in 1776 to make a name for himself and the characters in The Hurt Locker. There seems to be a pull to be where the action is rather than wandering the aisles of the grocery store looking for Captain Crunch. Rodney King’s “Can we all just get along?” is one if the most profound questions in history.

Related post:
Aaron Sorkin on ‘Steve Jobs’ and Screenwriting vs. Journalism

Scott W. Smith 

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“[William Goldman]was the dean of American screenwriters and still is.”
Aaron Sorkin (after learning of Goldman dying in November)
LA Times

Where were you in 1983? Some of you weren’t even born yet. But that’s when William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade came out. I was in film school in 1983 and had never lived in a house or apartment that had cable TV, had never used a personal computer, was still a year away from owning a VCR to rent VHS movies, and more than a decade away from using the Internet for the first time.

Yes, 1983 was a different world. Movies for a large number of people were still the chief form of entertainment. Like many Americans then, my high school and college years were full of weekly movie going. Often multiple movies in the same week. And I even remember once going to three different movies on the same day.

I remember movie lines that wrapped around the theater when ET came out in 1982.

Contrasts that with high school and college students today who tell me they rarely go to movie theaters, and when they do stream movies they do it in spirts (often in the background while playing video games).

So the movie-going experience has evolved greatly from the world that Goldman wrote about in 1983. But Adventures holds up well and it’s well worth your time to read, or re-read.

It’s the book that Aaron Sorkin read when he was learning to learn and write screenplays. The original book version included the screenplay for Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (back when you couldn’t just go to the Internet and find screenplays) which proved instructional to Sorkin because it was “an incredibly readable screenplay” (as opposed to the screenplays as just a blueprint idea of screenwriting).

“Bill wanted you to have the movie experience while writing screenplays. . . . So now when I’m writing a screenplay I want whoever is reading it, the studio, a director, an actor, I want to come as close to the experience that you’re going to feel in the theatre as possible, I want to put that on the page.“
Aaron Sorkin
TIFF Masterclass via Mentorless

Goldman later actually became a personal mentor to not only Sorkin, but others including Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

If you’re just starting your screenwriting journey consider cutting through all the clutter out there a read Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and his book Four Screenplays with Essays—which include his scripts for Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and Misery.  

Then watch those movie versions as well.

That’s a pretty solid education from the dean of American screenwriting.

You’ll be learning from a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter who was born during the Great Depression, was enthralled by the classic movies of the 30s and 40s, who after college and a stint in the Army became a novelist in the 1950s, a screenwriter beginning in the 1960s, and when he’s screenwriting career slow in his fifties he became known for his non-fiction writing including Which Lie Did I Tell?, Hype & Glory, and The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood.  

William Goldman lived a full life of 85 years and lived to write about it, and be apart of Q&As at various film festivals in his closing years.

Scott W. Smith





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“You had me at hello.“
Dorothy Boyd (Rene Zellweger) in Jerry Maguire

Most of the time, me writing looks—to the untrained eye—like someone watching ESPN. The truth is if you did a pie chart of the writing process, most of the time is spent thinking. When you’re loaded up and ready to go—when you’ve got that intention and obstacle for the first scene that’s all you need.  For me at least, getting started is 90% of the battle. The difference between page zero and page two is all the difference in the world. So once I had the technical jargon to write [the ‘Hello’ scene in the movie Steve Jobs] and I also knew that scene would take us into a dressing room of some kind. . . . In the dressing room I knew they were going to talk about the overinflated projections and managing expectations, and that was going to get us into Time magazine, which was going to get us into paternity. I was able to see that far ahead. So once I knew everything about what I was doing—once I start typing it’s not going to be finger-painting, I’m not just going to be feeling my way in the dark and ‘let’s see where these characters take me.’ . . . Once you do know what you’re doing—for me, it’s intention and obstacle, for you it could be something else. You do understand there isn’t one way of doing this, right? Whatever way works for you is the right way, for me it’s intention and obstacle. Once you have that, there does come a time when you actually now are ready for your talent to take over. Start writing. Do your thing.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Related post:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention, and Obstacles

Scott W. Smith

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“Andy Hertzfeld’s reaction to the movie [Steve Jobs] was probably the most accurate—‘My god, none of that happened, but it’s all true.’”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

This post is three years behind the times since the movie Steve Jobs came out in 2015, so I’m going to begin at the end. So if you haven’t seen it—spoiler alert. But since Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, had her memoir Smal Fry recently published this seems like perfect timing.

In The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith (which is a favorite podcast of mine), Goldsmith does a great job of interviewing Aaron Sorkin about his process of writing the screenplay.

Jeff Goldsmith: Here’s one of the toughest challenges to writing [the screenplay for Steve Jobs], because Isaacson’s book [Steve Jobs] was very clear about [Steve] Jobs having a not so friendly side to him. And you’re writing a story where your protagonist is also your antagonist, and that is not an easy feat. So what were your challenges as a writer? Because audiences love Steve Jobs, but not everybody has read that book yet. For some people, this is new news—this dark side. Part of your task is to get the audience to engage with your characters. And I think you did it, but it’s a tough balancing act to show the dark and the light together and have us care. So what were the challenges in doing that for Jobs?

Aaron: Well, the biggest challenge for sure—I’ll forgive a lot, I was not able to get past his denying paternity of Lisa and the way he treated her. Lisa was the one who got me past that. Now I found the emotional center of the story, because I’m not getting that emotional about the computer that won’t say hello. Here’s the emotional center of the story . . .  she would tell me stories about her father that often weren’t the most flattering stories about him. But she would always at the end of the story, turn it like a prism for me, and say, ‘But you can see how he really did love me.’ Because think about this and this and this. . . .The rest of it goes back to don’t judge the character. See how much you can identify with that character. And I can [identify with Steve Jobs]. . . . It’s not hard for me understanding Steve wanting end-to-end control of all his stuff. ‘Here, you get to buy it or not. I’ve made this thing, but I don’t want you messing with it’ . . .  

While Jobs is not the most sympathetic person to write about, Sorkin said he was looking for a way that showed Jobs change “even just a little bit.” In the closing scene, he does that. Though he’s clear that not everyone liked the ending. One lady at a Q&A in San Francisco even asked Sorkin if he was pressured by the studio or director into writing the final scene with Lisa that humanized Jobs and Sorkin replied he wrote, “exactly the scene I wanted to write.” Goldsmith said it was the right ending.

Goldsmith: Characters need redemption. And if you did a movie like this without a scene like that that where there was absolutely no redemption whatsoever there would be—

Sorkin:—I couldn’t agree more. The story of the movie is Will Steve and his daughter get together? The fact is that in real life they did find each other isn’t even the reason why I did it. Although I like it’s supportable by facts. I did it because I don’t just think there’s a movie if you don’t do it. I think what you’d have is a theater full of people saying, ‘Why did you make me sit here for two hours?’

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
What’s Changed?
Martin Luther King Jr. and Writing Strong-Willed Characters
The Major or Central Dramatic Question

Scott W. Smith

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“The last 15 minutes of any movie are the most important, but the first 15 pages of any screenplay are the most important just from the standpoint of getting the movie made. I’m talking to young writers now who want to get their foot in the door. They want their scripts made. If you have a kickass first 15 pages, a studio executive will forgive the crummy 110 pages that follow. It’ll need to be re-written. But those first 15 pages, if they really hook you—someone’s going to be interested.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

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There is a tendency to think that art is finally the place where there are no rules, where you have complete freedom. I’m going to sit down at the keyboard and it’s just going to flow out of me onto the paper, and it’s going to be pure art. No. What you’re describing is finger painting. Rules are what makes art beautiful. Rules are what makes sports beautiful…Think about the rules to baseball. Abner Doubleday was a freaking genius. That’s a great game. Football is a great game. It’s the rules that makes sports beautiful, and it’s the rules that make art not finger painting. Think about music and all the rules that music has. Anyone who studied music for a year or two when they were in elementary school, anyone who picked up a flute or a trumpet, knows that at the beginning of every piece of music, there’s a time signature and a key signature. If you’re in 4/4 time, it means there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note gets one beat. There can’t be five beats in a measure. There can’t be three beats in a measure. If you’re in the key of C, it means that there are no sharps and no flats. There can’t be a sharp. There can’t be a flat. These rules also apply to writing. The rulebook is The Poetics by Aristotle. All the rules are there.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Masterclass/ Rules of Story

Link to Poetics. (S.H. Butcher version on The Project Gutenberg site.)

P.S. Tomorrow I’ll follow this post with David Mamet taking the torch from Sorkin and driving this point home. You can believe what you want to believe about rules, but if Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet agree on something then you might want at least pause before you embrace the “there are no rule” viewpoint.

But Sorkin is also clear that the “The only rules there are are the rules of drama.”

Related posts:

Trying to Understand the Mysterious Process of Writing 
“There are no rules.” (Tip #92)
There are no rules, but…(Tip #93+)
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Rules, Breaking Rules, No Rules
Screenwriting & Structure 

Scott W. Smith

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“I know when I write a line that I like. When musically it feels right. What the words sound like are as important to me as what they mean….I don’t know [while writing] we’re going to be saying ‘You can’t handle the truth,’ however many years later.”
Aaron Sorkin
Interview with David Brooks

“I’m not writing something that’s meant to be read; I’m writing something that’s meant to be performed. Just having written a screenplay is no more satisfying to me than if a songwriter handed out pieces of sheet music.”
Aaron Sorkin
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process
by Christy Groaz, Variety  

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is one of those exceptions to the rule. Movies are a visual medium so there is much emphasis to write visually. (Visual Conflict, Visual Subtext, George Miller Masterclass in Visual Storytelling, Show Don’t Tell.) Which explains these quotes found on the ScreenCraft website.

“A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue.”
Screenwriter/playwright David Mamet (The Verdict)

“Dialogue is a necessary evil.”
4-time Oscar-winning producer/director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon)

And this one from a Timeout interview:

‘I’m not one of those people who writes long soliloquies… And I just think that visual storytelling, for me, is more interesting. So if I can show something rather than say it, I will. And to have a character who almost says nothing is perfect for me, I love that.’
Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List)

But Sorkin wasn’t a hyper movie buff growing up, his parents took him to plays and he developed an ear and appreciation for dialogue. He majored in musical theatre. And so one of the things that set Sorkin apart was his knack for writing sharp dialogue.

P.S. Ironically the two credited screenwriters on Moneyball are Sorkin and Zaillian. A film which happens to have some moments that play out visually and others that play out with dialogue that flows like music. Sorkin & Zaillan—yin & yang.

Related posts:
‘Everyone wants to say cool dialogue.’
‘Storytelling Without Dialogue’
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Peter Bogdanovich
The Four Functions of Dialogue 

Scott W. Smith





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