Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Sorkin’

“I was 21, maybe I was 22 [when I began writing].  It was shortly after I graduated from college, moved to New York, got a number of survival jobs. I bartended in Broadway theaters, I dressed up as a moose and handed out leaflets. I drove a limousine, I delivered singing telegrams. I did all the kinds of things you’re going to do, because it’s unlikely that you’re going to graduate and instantly be hired to do what you dream about doing. And I would only urge you — and I know this is a lot easier said than done — but I would only urge you to get on the bottom rung of a ladder you want to climb, and not the middle of a ladder you don’t care about.

“Or even the second rung of a ladder you don’t care about. Get on the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, and that really hard work you’re doing for no money is not going to seem quite so hard. You’re going to have a hard time paying your bills, it’s going to be a hard life, everything is going to be hard, but there’s going to be something fun about it. Your soul is going to feel good. You’re going to like yourself. And work hard and you’ll get to the second rung, the third, the fourth, and fifth.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
The Hollywood Reporter interview with Stephen Galloway


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“Follow your curiosity. Stories are sometimes found in the most unlikely places.”
Producer Laura MacDonald (Gladiator)
(That’s the drum that I’ve been beating on this blog since 2008.)

Yesterday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences dropped the above video giving advice to screenwriters. Here are a few of my favorite insights from that video:

“Screenwriting is no different than playing the violin, you have practice. Read the screenplays of your favorite movies, watch the movie with the screenplay on your lap—just try to sort of reverse engineer it.”
Aaron Sorkin

“I would say write something that’s inexpensive to produce. Don’t write like a 200 million dollar movie and then wonder why no one wants to take a shot and make it.”
Seth Rogan

“Please don’t describe your female characters as ‘broken but beautiful.’ Please. Please. I’ve read it so many times.”
Brie Larson 

“Don’t over-describe, let the action and the dialogue do the work.” 
Lenny Abrahamson

“When I can see that someone is following a system, or some formula that they’ve been taught, I completely lose interest. I prefer things that break the rules somehow.”
Michael Shannon

Related posts:

Aiming for Small Scale Success First “More and more people are getting their foot in the door by doing really good work on a small scale.”—Jon Favreau
Little Victories, Big Lights
Descriptive Writing (Frank Darabont)
‘Learning from the very best’
Descriptive Writing (Characters)
‘Broken Wings & Silver Linings’
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic  “For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.” Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)
How to Write a Screenplay in One Day

Scott W. Smith

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A nice segue from my recent Rod Serling posts (and even my golf/movie related posts from a couple of weeks ago) is the following quote by Oscar-winner screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Serling was born in Syracuse, New York and Sorkin went to Syracuse University.

“I have a lot of experience with failure, and I hate it. It’s going to happen again, but it’s like electroshock therapy. So combined with the pressure that you put on yourself, that’s pretty much the jet fuel for writing. You know when you’re not [writing well], when you’re slogging through it and it’s all coming like molasses, you know something’s wrong. But when you’re writing well, there’s nothing like it. It’s like the golfer who hacks his way around a golf course all day long, but then for some reason, you don’t know why, just hits a beautiful shot. That’s the reason they keep coming back to the golf course.”
Aaron Sorkin (West Wing creator)
Emmys Roundtable—The Hollywood Reporter 

Bonus failure quote from the same article:

“When I’m being really honest with myself, the only thing I ever learn from is failure. Because Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career.”
Vince Gilligan

Related posts:

J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Spectacular Failures
Rod Serling on Rejection
Winning. Losing and Little Miss Sunshine “From my perspective, the difference between success and failure was razor-thin…”—Oscar-winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt
Orson Welles at USC in 1981 (Part 3) “Anybody who goes into film has to be a little crazy. And has to be ready for every kind of disappointment and defeat.”—Welles

Scott W. Smith

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“I think what I’m trying to say [in Network] is, ‘How do you preserve yourself in a world where life really doesn’t mean much anymore?’ That’s what I was trying to say. The trick is, of course, to say it so that it’s a good movie.”
Paddy Chayefsky
Interview with Dinah Shore

 “It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to be handed the same award that was given to Paddy Chayefsky 35 years ago for another movie with ‘network’ in the title.”
Aaron Sorkin
Oscar acceptance speech for writing The Social Network

In 1977 Paddy Chayefsky won an Academy Award for his Network screenplay. Over the weekend I saw a link to a NY Times piece call The Notes Behind ‘Network.’ Here are a few highlights that give a glmpse into the writing process of Chayefsky:


ACT II of the Network Stogy
The general framework of Act II is to show how the
network becomes successful and powerful. Obviously, one
crazy anchor man isn't enough to make a network success-
ful. A networkfpower comes from the number of affiliates
it has. Affiliates join a network essentially because
their programs are most in demand by the local areas
serviced by the affiliates. So the next step in the
solvency and success of the network is the success of
programming, built on the,lead--in success of the angry
7:00 news program: - What missing here is the satirical
clarity of how one network achieves successful program-
ming. "he only joke we have going for us is the idea of
ANGER - The American people are angry and want; angry shows --
They donlt want jolly, happy family type shows like 
Witness News; they want angry shows -- So they base their
propgramming on ANGER -- At the moment, the successful
sitcom shows are those that make political comments, mild,
bland,liberal political comments - on racism, Watergate,
political corruption, reactionary neighbors, etc. - UBC
decides to go one step better and make genuinely angry
ainx sit--coms, so that they become sit--tragedies -- The
American people seem to be hungering for happier days
like the Depression, note The Waltons -- frogramming sets
up depression shows with happy, starving families -
No matter how much programming satire we use, we still 
afetbasing the success of their programming on unclear
ines. are assuming UBC programming will now
telling business. You're in the
boredom-killing business. You kill
time for two hundred million Americans
who don't know what to do with themselves.
You give them football games and songs
and dances and soap operas and talk shows
Eor people who forgot how to talk to
each other. You 
tell them
news because they've forgotten how to read -
INTERCUT: Reactions of a glacial hostility settling over
the vast room - There is a noticeable movement of the PRESS
and TV Camera erews slowly edging down the aisles toward the
rostrum -
BACK TO: Eddie at the rostrum. FLASHES from press photographers
occasionally fire, punctuating Eddie's speech -
-Why? Because you're not really in
the entertainment business. You're in
the merchandising business. Your job
is to assemble the largest audience of
consumers. You are, in short, shills
for your sponsors. And television, d1e
fountain of truth,
Q, is, in fact, being run, for the
benefit of a few giant corporations -

Related Posts:

Screenwriting Quote #134 (Paddy Chayefsky)
Paddy Chayefsky Interview
“Television used to suck”—Frank Darabont
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) “Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”—Chayefsky
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 5) The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning.”— Chayefsky

H/T Scott Keiner for the NY Times link (Via the Two Adverbs screenwriting group on Facebook.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I’d counsel anyone that as soon as they see a movie which starts ‘Based on a true story’ should look at it the way you do with a painting and not a photograph.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

In yesterday’s post Emotional Climaxes I pulled a quote from Aaron Sorkin on how he used “emotional climaxes” in writing A Few Good Men. That made me think about the ending of The Social Network. When we think of climaxes in movies it’s easy to think of things like the shark exploding at the end of JAWS.

But you don’t hear much about emotional climaxes. We’re back in the realm of the outer story and the inner story. The outer story of The Social Network, written by Sorkin, has to do with a law suit surrounding Facebook. But the inner emotional story is what packs a punch in the very last scene of the movie.

Sorkin sets up The Social Network story in the dynamic opening scene by showing the Mark Zuckerberg character’s emotional mindset of wanting to be popular and accepted, so that he can have a better life. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sorkin wrote the first and the last scenes first because they make such a tidy bookend.

If The Social Network were a proverb it could be, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the world, but forfeit his friends?” The following comment by Sorkin give some insights into how he went about developing the Zuckerberg character. (Yes, based on a real life character who just happens to be the richest man in the world under 30-years old—but Sorkin was painting with a broad brush.)

“Just because you have money, it’s not like you no longer have emotions. (Zuckerberg) spends the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie being an anti-hero and the last five minutes being a tragic hero. I’m not judging, I want to respect and defend him so I locate the things in him that are most like myself…I’m awkward socially, and I’ve spent a lot of time with my nose pressed up against the glass feeling like an outsider.” 

That Sorkin quote was pulled from an interview with Trevor Johnston/Time Out London. An interview where Sorkin also revealed that he is the first actor playing the roles in his scripts, which includes him saying the lines out loud and getting into arguments with himself.

Aaron: “In fact, when I was writing The West Wing the head of NBC sent a package to my office: it was one of those headsets you used to get for a phone while you were in the car. There was a note saying: ‘I stopped beside you at a traffic light today and you looked like a madman—please wear the headset, even if you don’t plug it in.'”

Trevor : So the car’s a really productive space for you…

Aaron: “And I take maybe six or eight showers a day when I’m writing. Not because I’m a germophobe, but it just gives me a little energy shot, and putting on fresh clothes makes me feel, especially if I’m not writing well, and started the day on the wrong foot—that I’m getting a do-over. Listening to music in the car is another one for me. If I hear a song that takes me to a certain place emotionally, I try to think about writing a scene that gets me there.”

The odds are pretty good that Sorkin’s name will pop up on an Oscar nomination this year for his hand in writing Moneyball—so if you’re looking for a jolt in your writing you may want to keep an eye on those emotional climaxes, act out your scenes, use listening to music in your car as a springboard emotionally, and don’t forget those six to eight showers a day.

Related Post: Writing to Music (Tip #52)

Scott W. Smith

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“When I wrote the screenplay for A Few Good Men, not only had I never written a screenplay before, I had never read a screenplay before. I didn’t know much about movies at all. I had been a student of plays…so I read as many screenplays as I could. I started to pay attention to movies, and I tried to figure out how to kind of crowbar this story into a three-act structure, which I was told movies have to be. So I fiddled around with the placement of some emotional climaxes in the story and then managed to turn it into three acts.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting by William Froug 

On that first screenplay (based on his play) Sorkin wrote an emotional climax that is one of the most memorable (and most quoted) scenes in contemporary cinema when Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Thinking back to my days in L.A. doing actor workshops, the scenes where people yelled (or had some other emotional outburst like crying) usually won the competitions that were judged by people in the industry. They call it drama for a reason.

Scott W. Smith

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“Dating you is like dating a StairMaster.”
Erica Albright (Rooney Mara)
The Social Network


Two young people sitting at a table talking and drinking beer.

MALE: I can’t believe it’s three minutes shorter than American Pie.

FEMALE: The movie?

MALE: The song.

FEMALE: What are you talking about?

MALE: The opening scene in the movie is five and a half minutes long, and the song is eight and a half minutes long.

FEMALE: What movie?

MALE: The Social Network.

FEMALE: Your point?

MALE: Eight thirty-three.

FEMALE: Eight thirty-three what?

MALE: Technically that’s how long the song is. Eight minutes and thirty-three seconds.

FEMALE: No one cares.

MALE: It’s one of the most popular songs ever.

FEMALE: No one cares that it’s eight minutes and thirty-three seconds long.

MALE: Do you want to order some food?


MALE: Movie scenes are usually only between one and three minutes long.

FEMALE: Listen to me—No one cares.

MALE: Screenwriters care.

FEMALE You’re obsessed with screenwriting. You have screenwriting OCD. You need help.

MALE: Screenwriting leads to a better life.

FEMALE: Really? Name one screenwriter who’s happy?

MALE: I didn’t say they were happy.

FEMALE: Can we talk about something besides screenwriting?

MALE: Did you know that they did ninety-nine takes of that opening scene in The Social Network?

FEMALE: How is that even possible?

MALE: They shot it over two nights.

FEMALE: Two actors, ninety-nine takes? That’s crazy. Wait. I thought we weren’t talking about screenwriting.

MALE: We’re not. We’re talking about directing.

FEMALE: You are insane.

MALE: You should be a little more supportive. If I get in I’ll be taking you to parties and you’ll be meeting people you don’t normally get to meet.

FEMALE: You’d do that for me?

MALE: Of course. We’re dating.

FEMALE: Well I have news for you, we’re not.

MALE: Not what?

FEMALE: Dating. Bye, bye Mr. American Pie.

She’s gone. He’s left there with his beer. Alone—without a friend in the world.

The End

Director David Fincher not only did 99 takes of the opening scene in The Social Network, according to the movie’s screenwriter Aaron Sorkin he didn’t even yell “print” until the 30th take. Think of that— 99 takes of a scene that on paper is slightly over eight pages. Imagine what it took for actors Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara to pull off that scene from a sheer energy level.  (But I’m guessing that was the point, exhaustion and exasperation. You could hear one the actors saying to Fincher, “Acting for you is like working with a StairMaster.”)

Of course, they were shooting digitally on the Red Camera so there really was’t anything to “print,” but terminology tends to have a long shelf life in the film industry. (Like it will be the “film industry” long after film technically disappears.)

Fincher and director of photography Jeff Croneweth not only shot digitally, but they shot that opening scene with multiple cameras. It’s doubtful that in the history of cinema that there ever was a single scene shot on film with multiple cameras for 99 takes. The film costs alone would be outrageous. (But I’ll have to go back and check the records on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.)

But that opening scene of The Social Network is brilliant. It’s a simple scene that is full of complexity. It reveals character, theme, and meaningful conflict, and sets the tone for the entire movie. I think that as soon as they finished editing that movie that they should have sent it directly to the Smithsonian.

We’ll see what the Academy thinks tonight at the Oscar awards.

Related posts:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles

Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)

Writing “The Social Network (part 1)

Writing “The Social Network: (part 2)

Screenwriting Quote #42 (Aaron Sorkin)

Scott W. Smith

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“I thought if (Harvey Pekar, American Splendor) could write comic books about real people maybe I could write plays about real people.”
Rick Cleveland

Though The West Wing won 27 Emmys in its seven year run it only collected one for best writing. Just one.  And that one program, In Excelsis Deo, was written by the show’s creator Aaron Sorkin along with Rick Cleveland. Cleveland originally wrote the script as a tribute to his father, a Purple Heart Veteran of the Korean War who lived in flop houses in Ohio in his later years. (I was not able to embed the clip here but you can follow this You Tube video link to view an excellent clip.)

Cleveland actually grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio in the town of Parma and it was Harvey Pekar, who wrote  the American Splendor comic books, who was an early inspiration for Cleveland.

“I’ve sort of made a study of Harvey’s comics—and jokes, too—they all have a perfect beginning, middle and ending. Harvey’s stories always start with a problem and you get deeper into it, and then the problem gets solved or doesn’t. I really love the narrative structure of storytelling.”
Rick Cleveland
Interview with Lee Batdorff

Cleveland spent ten years in Chicago doing improv at Second City and working as a playwright and was one of the founders of the American Blues Theater. He then attended the University of Iowa for graduate work. He received his MFA in 1995 from Iowa’s Playwrights’ Workshop. In 1998 the movie Jerry and Tom was written by Cleveland based on one of his plays and it was an official selection at Sundance. The next year he was writing for the inaugural season of The West Wing.

He also wrote for the TV show Six Feet Under and the screen adaption of John Grisham’s Runaway Jury and has written articles for Outside Magazine and the Chicago Tribune, as well as a commentator of NPR’s All Things Considered. More recently he has written for Mad Men, Nurse Jackie and Scoundrels.

At the 2006 US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, Cleveland performed My Buddy Bill about his relationship with his golden retriever and President Bill Clinton and it won the Jury Award for Outstanding Performance, Best One Person Show.

By the way, Cedar Falls, Iowa has a nice connection to The West Wing in that is where actress Annabeth Gish (Elizabeth Bartlet Westin on the show) was raised.

Related Posts:Screenwriting and the Little Fat Girl From Ohio

Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connection
Cleveland Screenwriter Hit’s Lottery
Screenwriting from Sunset Blvd.
Screenwriting da Chicago Way

The Juno-Iowa Connection (Note: Rick Cleveland is one of a long list of writers who are graduates of Iowa; from Tennessee Williams to Diablo Cody)

Scott W. Smith

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One of the great things about listening and reading about writers talking discussing the writing process is you see how everyone’s approach is different. Some write in the morning, some at night, some write quickly in bursts and others methodically take their time. Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) was very successful writing from theme, but fellow Syracuse University grad Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men) has a little different perspective on theme:

“When you’re talking about things like theme you have to be really careful because that’s not what’s going to make the car go. Okay? It’s what’s going to be what makes the car be good and give you a good ride. But that’s not what’s going to make the car go—at least not for me. You know, everybody writes different. But for me 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. Make sure you have that cemented in place. Themes will then become apparent to you and you can hang a lantern on the ones you like. Bring them into relief, you can get rid of the ones that aren’t doing you any good and you can paint the car and make it look really nice. But the car isn’t going to turn over unless you see to the basics of drama, and drama is intention and obstacles, somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it.”
Aaron Sorkin
Creative Screenwriting podcast interview by Jeff Goldsmith
December 24, 2010

Related Post: Screenwriting Via Index Cards (Touches on the writing process of Aaron Sorkin.)

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“What jumped out at me (about the 14 page treatment for Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires) wasn’t Facebook. Facebook wasn’t something I knew a lot about when I started. Frankly, it’s not something I know a whole lot about now. I know more about Facebook in 2003-04 than I do in 2010. But what jumped out at me about it was set against the backdrop of this very modern invention was a story that was as old as storytelling itself.  Of friendship, and loyalty, and betrayal, and class, and power—these things that Aeschylus* would have written about, or Shakespeare would have written about, or Paddy Chayefsky would have written about a few decades ago, and it was just lucky for me that none of those guys were available so I got to write about it.”
Aaron Sorkin on what attracted him to write the screenplay for The Social Network
Creative Screenwriting podcast interview by Jeff Goldsmith
December 24, 2010  

* Greek playwright born circa 525 B.C (That’s his pre-Facebook look on the top right.)

Related post: Screenwriting Quote of the Day #42 (Aaron Sorkin)

Movie Cloning (Part 1)

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