Aaron Sorkin finds Rashômon at the heart of the world’s biggest Internet success story with his film The Social Network.
That brief exchange comes toward the end of The Social Network, the film directed by David Fincher on the genesis, rise and triumph of Facebook ... and it’s perhaps telling that one feels no need to explain to you, reader, exactly what Facebook is, so ubiquitous is its hold on the public consciousness.
“Marylin” is a young associate at a big-shot law firm, though wise beyond her years; and “Mark” is her client Mark Zuckerberg, the 25-year-old computer geek who just happened to be—and remains—the youngest billionaire in the world. In the course of the movie, they are partners in depositions over not one, but two gigantic lawsuits: the first involving a group of Harvard classmates alleging that Mark stole their idea, the other versus his one-time business partner who claims to have been muscled out of the Facebook bonanza. At stake isn’t just millions of current and future dollars, but each complainant’s place in history. “Emotional testimony”? No doubt about it.
But while we’re at it, did this conversation really take place? Is there even a real-life “Marylin”? These and similar questions, if posed to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, would surely elicit a resounding “Maybe,” because getting at the truth of what began at Harvard in 2003 and what is now a worldwide influence in 2010 couldn’t be further from his purpose.
Marylin and Mark’s banter is, of course, the kind of quick-witted verbal tennis match one immediately associates with Sorkin who, thanks to The West Wing, Sports Night, and a host of stage, screen and TV triumphs, is one of the few brand-name scribes whose name can be said to be familiar to the general public. But like much of Sorkin’s repartee, it also hints at the work’s underlying concern, which in this instance is: Who exactly is the keeper of the truth?
Everyone in the saga has a different narrative, starting with Zuckerberg himself, whose quirky personality may have played at least as significant a role in his invention as his computer genius, and surely contributed to the personal squabbles at the heart of the lawsuits. Eduardo Saverin, the young Harvard classmate and Brazilian native who provided the seed money for Mark’s project, has his version of what went down when he was tossed out. So do the Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron, privileged rowing stars who wanted to use the Internet to link Harvard men and women and (with classmate Divya Narendra) hired a geeky kid named Mark to do their programming for them ... or so they thought ... or so they claim to have thought.
Factor in Sean Parker, the wacky visionary who hoped to do for Facebook what he’d failed to do with the music-sharing app Napster (that is, take it to the next level and become rich in the process), and you’ve got the recipe for a clash of viewpoints not seen since Akira Kurosawa assembled a thief, a warrior and his wife, a ghost, and a beggar to bear very different witness to tragedy in Rashômon. As Sorkin describes it, “What I was hoping for was a series of unreliable narrators, just telling us that the filmmakers don’t know what the truth is from here. We’re just going on everybody’s version of it.”
Unwrapping multiple yarns isn’t new in the Sorkin oeuvre. It was a rare week when The West Wing didn’t have the White House, influential citizens, foreign dignitaries, and the press corps struggling to determine which account of some incident or policy was destined to rule the news cycle. And in his most recent, fascinating stageplay, The Farnsworth Invention, which enjoyed a far-too-brief Broadway run in 2009, he set two real-life pioneers in the field of television—self-made inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and self-made millionaire and fabulist David Sarnoff—to debating face to face as to which of them truly owned the patents (and the power and the glory) in the most influential mass communication invention of the 20th century.
What could be more logical than to take the next step and sort out with immediacy and humor the new century’s most influential mass-com invention to date? Just don’t expect any more resolution to the Facebook controversy than Sorkin has brought to any of his other works.
He sought out the Farnsworth/Sarnoff contretemps, but this one fell into his lap. “I got a 14-page book proposal from Ben Mezrich’s publishers, shopping the film rights. On page three, I called my agents and said, ‘I really want to do this.’ It’s the fastest I ever said yes to anything.” Such alacrity and enthusiasm were particularly surprising in that Sorkin could be one of the Internet’s last stubborn holdouts. “I’m not a frequent visitor on the Internet. I send e-mails and that’s about it.” (All of the computer details in The Social Network ended up being provided and vetted by what he calls “the ventriloquist with his hand up my back,” research assistant and UCLA computer science major Ian Reichbach, whom Sorkin praises extravagantly.)
He goes on to admit, “I didn’t know anything about Facebook any more than I know about a carburetor: I’ve heard the term, but I couldn’t open the hood of my car and point to it or tell you what it does.” What drew him to the tale was its universal qualities. “The irony of it is, you could tell pretty much the same story about the invention of a really great toaster.
“The story is as old as storytelling itself: friendship and loyalty. Jealousy and power. Things Aeschylus or Shakespeare would have written about, or Paddy Chayefsky would have written about just a generation ago. Fortunately, none of them was available, so I got the job.”
The self-admitted Internet naif went about researching the phenomenon at the same time that Mezrich did. (In what may make for an interesting Academy dilemma during awards season, the screenplay was at press time billed as “based on” Mezrich’s best-selling The Accidental Billionaires, though Sorkin says that he and Mezrich “were working in parallel; we were able to share a lot of information but ended up attacking it from two different angles.” That’s not an inappropriate state of affairs, perhaps, when your topic is dueling narratives.)
Eager to get to know Facebook if not his own carburetor, the screenwriter set up an open page of his own, one which didn’t require “friending” but simply explained what he was doing and invited others’ input. (“My social network,” he says, “is talking to people.”) He admits surprise that before he shut the page down, over 10,000 visitors came by with stories to tell. And though some of the chat ended up becoming a Q&A on his other work, “I read mostly positive references to friends around the world, or who met their spouses through Facebook, and so on.”
Neither Sorkin nor Mezrich was granted access to Zuckerberg for what Sorkin calls “totally understandable reasons.” But Sorkin did make “contact with a number of people involved who would only speak to me on condition of anonymity, and in some cases, there would be great penalties for them to speak to me. I can’t tell you much about the process of research, but I can tell you I didn’t speak to Mark.”
At the very least, many facts were on record for both writers to absorb. As an undergrad, Mark had created a site he called “Facemash” in which visitors were presented with side-by-side photos of Harvard co-eds and invited to decide who was hotter. (Remember “Hotornot.com”? Facemash took it up a notch.) To feed the site, Zuckerberg hacked into the Internet rosters, known as facebooks, of a group of individual student dormitories and paired up the snapshots.
It went viral: Facemash received 22,000 hits within two hours, and Zuckerberg received six months’ academic probation for breaching university security. A short time later, “Theface book.com,” as it was first known, went online as “A Mark Zuckerberg Production.”
And the rest is highly disputed history.
“I’ve never written about an antihero before,” Sorkin says. “Mark spends the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie as an antihero, and in the last five minutes, he becomes a tragic hero. He starts out with his nose pressed against the window of college life—socially awkward, to say the least—and goes on to invent the most important social-networking apparatus in human history.
“When he saw that he would never be able to sit at the cool kids’ table, he found a way to create his own cool kids’ table that he’d be the president of, never get kicked out of, able to invite anyone into. At that point, the genius, the creativity kicked in and it just got bigger and bigger.”
The story of The Social Network gets bigger and bigger, as well: Multiple characters with their aforementioned conflicting viewpoints keep getting brought in, and the chronology and geography expand accordingly. To keep things under control, Sorkin turned to another of the ancients, whose precepts were instilled in him at a very young age.
“I cling to the classical rules of dramaturgy like a lifeboat. My screenwriter friends grew up studying and loving movies; they can tell you who the second A.D. was on every Hitchcock film. I watched movies like anyone else, but I watched plays like a student of plays. And Aristotle wrote a little 68-page pamphlet called Poetics, a set of instructions and a definition of what drama is. If anything’s wrong with your script, if you’ve driven it into a snowbank, it’s only because you’ve broken one of his rules.
“I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle,” Sorkin insists, meaning he is highly sensitive to determining what the characters want (“intention” or “objective,” as it’s called), and what they, or others, or fate sets in their path to thwart those desires. It’s the clash of highly active characters with diametrically opposed intentions, and obstacles as obstructive as they can possibly be, that makes for great drama.
Moreover, dramatists know that when a play or screenplay is truly unified, every character’s intention—even that of the smallest walk-on roles—bears some relation to, or mimics, everyone else’s intentions. The “spine” of a work of art, in other words, becomes the definition of unity, and so it plays out in The Social Network.
“Everyone in this movie,” Sorkin explains, “wants to be a member of some invisible club that doesn’t have a name or walls. There’s something out there that they want to be a part of but don’t know what it is or how to get there.”
The spine of “wanting to get into some invisible club” is present, for instance, in the one-scene appearance of an actor portraying real-life college President Larry Summers, who “knows what Harvard is supposed to be” and insists on maintaining it against any force that would breach it. But more importantly, it’s assuredly at work in the principals. Eduardo, the outsider from another country, is torn between wanting to follow Zuckerberg down the uncharted path to a makeshift club that might flourish or—more likely—wither and die; or take the traditional route into Harvard’s prestigious “final clubs” and risk being left behind by his visionary, if wacko, best friend.
“Eduardo,” says Sorkin, “is more comfortable in his own skin than Mark is, but Mark is more adventurous than Eduardo is.”
Sean Parker, the outrageous promoter with flashes of genius who knows how to build Facebook into a powerhouse, has adventurousness to spare and a seeming comfort level with himself. But as scripted by Sorkin, Sean’s personally destined always to fall short of the brass ring by virtue of his holding views like, “A million dollars isn’t cool. A billion dollars is cool.” He will discover that when a million isn’t enough to make you feel like “part of the club,” nothing is enough.
Mark’s main antagonists, the Winklevoss twins, are already in a club—the club of power and privilege—but they sense another, bigger one rising up and become infuriated when it’s closed to them, as Sorkin explains: “I think Mark puts it well when he says, ‘They’re not suing me for intellectual property theft. They’re suing me because for the first time in their lives, the world’s not working the way it’s supposed to.’ Nothing is going right here. The Winklevosses are trying to do everything right, like Good Men of Harvard.” So, when Summers declines to take seriously their claim that “employee” Zuckerberg stole their idea, they’re aghast. “How is this possible? The world becomes flat for a moment to them.”
Yet it almost goes without saying that a script’s spine must first and foremost animate its principal character. Says Sorkin, “When you’re 19 and in college, all you want is the girl. But it’s more than that. When we’re growing up, we all get called a loser. Some of us believe it, some of us don’t. And Mark is a guy who’s been shoved in lockers all his life. The difference between Mark and most of the others is this incredible IQ and creativity.” At the same time, he was surprised to discover that “there is a subset of brilliant tech people who are nonetheless still incredibly angry that the cheerleader still wants to date the quarterback and not them. That the cheerleader doesn’t understand that they’re the ones running the universe now.” For many of these newly crowned masters of the universe, their own inner conflict might be seen as the biggest obstacle to a stress-free life.
In sum, then: To hear The Social Network tell it, all of the characters in the Facebook drama, major and minor, are attempting to find their “place in the sun,” only to discover that others have already taken over their towel or place under the beach umbrella and there’s not enough room on the sand for everyone. With big bucks and bigger egos at stake, the stage is set for a clash of pint-sized titans, all of them putting forth narratives that simply do not jibe with each other.
“The hardest thing for me is getting started,” Sorkin confesses. “I really need to get loaded up before I start writing. I hardly ever have been able to ‘see’ the whole thing at the outset, but if I can ‘see’ the opening, I can begin.”
He realized that “what we have here is a lot of people’s different versions of the truth. So rather than pick one and tell that story, why not embrace the idea that there are a lot of different people’s versions and make that integral to the storytelling?” After months of research, having his clandestine meetings with sources and poring over the input to his Facebook page—not to mention “climbing the walls”— he realized that the opening had come to him. “I knew it would be Mark being broken up with by a girl; Mark going back to his dorm, blogging and hacking; starting Facemash; Facemash going viral; and a present-day legal deposition. Once I had that, I had my foot in the door and I wanted to write it.
“Once we realize it’s a flashback” with the appearance of a six-years’ older Mark and the boardroom replacing the dorm room, “the first words out of Mark’s mouth are, ‘That’s not what happened.’ I wanted to let the audience know right away that there are going to be a couple of different truths in this movie.”
One major personal obstacle he thought he had identified was the characters’ speech, in theory far from that displayed by his usual array of well-educated, upper-class, mature professionals. “When it finally came time to write, which is to say when I’d put enough index cards up on the corkboards and was ready to really type, my first day of work I felt, ‘I’ve got to speak in a more youthful voice. How do you talk like a 19-year-old?’
“And it was a godawful page and a half! Terrible! So I threw it out and thought, ‘I’ve got to write like myself, and not tell the audience who the characters are but show them what the characters want, and trust that will work.’ So, I put their age out of my mind and I just pretended they were anyone else.”
What remained was the challenge of dealing with a demographic of less than verbally fluent communicators, “as opposed to the hypercommunicative characters you find on The West Wing. Mark is the opposite of that: He’s sort of debilitatingly awkward, shy and unsocial. So that was a departure for me.
“The kid that I’m closest to is my own; she’s nine now and she was seven when I began writing this. So I couldn’t really use her! I thought about hanging out with kids for a while, and then I figured there’d be two problems with that. First, I doubt that there’s only one way a 19-year-old talks, and if I [try to write it], it’ll sound like High School Musical. Second, there’s the Mark we see at 19 and the Mark we see six years later at the deposition. He’s been around the block a few times since; he’s still a lonely guy, though he’s a billionaire and tremendously successful. Yet, he’s actually able to hold his own under enormous pressure with these high-priced lawyers all around and his accusers sitting right across from him.
“Ultimately, I enjoyed writing someone who wasn’t hyperarticulate, who was never comfortable sitting, standing, talking, eating, sleeping, and who had a lot of anger inside of him, anger at the cool people. I think I found a voice for him.” (And interestingly, it’s quite a bit different from the Zuckerbergian voice we hear in the pages of The Accidental Billionaires. In Mezrich’s take, the most common verbal tic Mark displays is the cool, noncommittal, mysterious “Interesting”—a word he never utters in the pages of The Social Network. Different scribes; different Marks.)
Sorkin is blessed, or cursed, with the need to move forward without gaps. “I can’t jump around in a script. If I’m stuck on a scene, I can’t skip ahead to the next one—I’m OCD about that.” Moreover his discipline is, by his own admission, not the greatest. “I really admire people who have a routine, who go to the office at nine and work until six and they drive home with a fistful of pages. That’s not me. If you were to do a pie chart of my work, the smallest slice would be my typing.” In fact, he says, “It’s really easy for me to get up and check ESPN and get to the end of the day having done nothing and feeling terrible.” (Going to his Warner Bros. office helps, he says: “If I go to the office and take a two-hour nap, I feel better than if I’d taken a two-hour nap at home.”)
`One ingrained habit that does help is his transitioning from working day to working day: “I always try to leave off in the middle of something, because then I can get up in the morning already knowing what I’m doing. I can take a shower, shave, get dressed and get right to it, instead of pacing around, climbing the walls, trying to see what the next scene is.” For whatever reason, despite his self-confessed sloth, he managed to put together a first draft in record time for producer Scott Rudin and director Fincher; it was delivered in May 2009 and shooting began five months later. “The whole process has gone incredibly smoothly and quickly.”
Mark Zuckerberg would—at least in Ben Mezrich’s telling—doubtless reply “Interesting” to a Sorkin quote the author does not back away from: “Everybody is entitled to a voice but not everybody is entitled to the microphone, and that’s the problem with the Internet.” He affirms he does think the Web “has made us dumber and meaner.
“There used to be credentials, and that’s how you did it. Now everyone’s voice seems to be the same. It’s bad enough when it’s that kind of voyeurism and gossip and schaden-freude, but it’s particularly bad in a democracy where nothing is more important than a well-informed electorate. Facts and the truth are needed to make a decision. So, when we see that 67% of Americans thought we were attacked by Iraq on 9/11, you think ‘Is that a reason for us to be talking about war?’ But facts are up for grabs now. Everybody has a truth, and is saying it very authoritatively on the Internet. Civility is gone and it’s been given a bad word, ‘p.c.’ ‘Can we stop all this p.c. nonsense?’ I just thought it was about being polite.”
With this kind of passion going, it’s no surprise that Aaron Sorkin isn’t yet done with exploring different versions of the truth in the media age. He has optioned, and is set to adapt, The Politician—John Edwards’ cohort Andrew Young’s memoir of the scandal that brought a presidential campaign and a marriage to highly public disaster. “There is so much going on in this story. There are so many intense motivations, decisions and consequences, and (again) it almost seems like a modern Greek tragedy. It also feels play-like— I feel like it can be in my comfort zone.” (He’s also scheduled to make his directing debut, which should assuage his conscience a bit: “I’ve always felt that being a director is hard, but at least at the end of the day, you know you’ve done a day’s work.”)
Still in the pacing and researching and wall-climbing stage, he’s reluctant to say much of what The Politician will be, but “I only know what I’m not going to write: the movie we’re all seeing in our heads right now, the Lifetime version of this thing. It’s going to be more claustrophobic, going much deeper than the tabloids’ version.” We can also be pretty sure that the Edwards’ versions (“I’d be very surprised if they spoke to me”) and that of Young and Rielle Hunter and God knows who else will be very different from each other and difficult to sort out.
After all, isn’t this the writer who claims, in his single most famous line of dialogue, that “You can’t handle the truth!”?
Originally published in Script magazine September/October 2010