The paradox we have just poked out is not lost on Aaron Sorkin – naturally. He’s chuckling away as he admits, “I’m tempted sometimes to write under a pseudonym.”
I’ve just spent a bizarre quarter of an hour discussing the nature of ‘Sorkinesque’ with Mr Sorkin. Well, all TV journalists have spent so many happy hours celebrating it, analysing it, latterly bemoaning its flaws, it seems a shame not to get the benefit of any insights from its creator.
And he’s the first to admit that any concerns he may have about the particular way his mind works being turned into a high-falutin’ genre of rhetoric, a category all of its own, one of the backbones of the so-called golden age of television… well, as he says “these sound like very glamorous problems to have. If you’d told me 20 years ago that there would be such a thing as Sorkinesque writing or that I’m going to have to come out and defend or talk about things I’m writing, well then, it sounds like it worked out.”
Nevertheless, his very success – from his breakout scripts with ‘The American President’ and ‘A Few Good Men’, through the golden years of ‘The West Wing’, the Oscar for ‘The Social Network’, the more challenging ‘Newsroom’ - does mean that the engine room increasingly resides right at the front of the screen, that the actors in these projects are judged, not really on their own merits, but to what extent they can get their heads and tongues around Sorkin’s uncompromisingly meritocratic syntax. Allison Janney proved a supreme exponent of the craft. Emily Mortimer wasn’t so fortunate.
It also means that Sorkin himself is a palpable presence, right there in the middle of the Oval Office, the university dormitory, currently backstage with Steve Jobs. Sorkin knows it, but there’s not much he can do about it while he continues to be this effective.
“The less that’s known about the writer, the better. I don’t want the audience thinking about me when they’re watching the movie,” he explains. “I don’t want them thinking, ‘I read this quote where he said this,’ I don’t want them thinking that the actors are simply a delivery system for something I’m trying to say, instead of being characters in a story which is what they are. I do not speak through my characters, it’s not a ventriloquist act.”
But fans, and there are many millions, remain in awe, and curious, about that very engine room he’d like to tuck away, something else he can do little about…
“I am uncomfortable talking about the things that I write. It seems unseemly to me. I have no problem at all when I see anybody else talking about the same project, but I feel my work should speak for itself.
“I got to talk for two hours in that movie, for the exact length of the film, I got to do it without anyone interrupting me, I got to do many, many drafts of it, I got to think about it for a long time, (so it) seems a little arrogant, self-centred to carry on."
He shrugs. “On the other hand, I want people to come see the movie, so if the studio says, ‘Will you please go to London and do press,’ of course I’m going to do that.
“Where the problem comes, and again we’re talking about a gold-plated problem, is that I’ve found particularly in the last few years, really since ‘The West Wing’, that a lot of the discussion about my work becomes about me and not my work, and I’m tempted sometimes to write under a pseudonym to see if there be a difference.”
It does seem a shame that, having broken his back for two decades to bring us such stimulating scripts, those rare few that make us feel more intelligent just by passively enjoying, he would give up his unique brand to get away from the analysis.
On the other hand, it also means he’s properly uniquely equipped to put his pen to the life of brand guru Steve Jobs, in a story told ambitiously and theatrically in three set pieces, each backstage before a key product launch in Jobs’ iconic career-line.
The way Sorkin tells it, there are similarities between him and Steve Jobs, for example, in the tireless, sometimes cantankerous pursuit of perfection. In his West Wing days, Sorkin was renowned for keeping his pedigree cast from Rob Lowe to Allison Janney waiting while he endlessly polished his cloistered exchanges. Sure, it made for about a million Emmy Awards but for actors having to learn another 10 pages in an hour, it didn’t necessarily make for a headache-free existence for all concerned.
“You have to be able to find something in that character that is like you, that you can identify with,” he concedes. “I believe that Steve Jobs deep down felt himself to be irreparably damaged somehow – at the end of the film, he says ‘I’m poorly made’ – but that he could make things that people would have a genuine emotional attachment to.”
And, from Sorkin's perspective, Steve Jobs spoke a similar language of attachment but he did it through his products, his boxes with rounded corners, his perfect cubes, his beautiful wheels on iPods, and was able to receive the affection we all feel for these products to compensate for the rougher edges in his personal life.
However, Sorkin is emphatic that none of his characters represent him. More specifically in this case, unlike Steve Jobs or at least the one on display here, Sorkin admits he remains keen to be liked.
“I don’t have Steve’s temper. I don’t yell at people. I don’t wish to make anybody unhappy,” he explains. “Steve, by the way, would call that vanity. My way of getting the best from people on a set is to notice their work, to make every prop master, every seamstress, part of ‘The Newsroom’ or ‘The West Wing’ or ‘Steve Jobs’. That seamstress is an author in this now.
“I want her to feel like this because it makes it a better place to come to work, I want her to feel like that because it’s nice, but I also believe that as an employer, as a leader which I am sometimes in addition to being the writer, is the way that you get the best work out of somebody.
“Steve Jobs would tell me, you are doing that because you like being liked, you want that prop mistress to tell all her friends, Aaron Sorkin is the nicest guy to work with in the world.
“Yes, I’d rather be liked than unliked, I’m not indifferent to that. But, as a leader, I also believe you’re going to get the best work out of that person. Steve would disagree.”
Sorkin's script shows clearly Jobs' preferred approach which, without ruining it for those yet to view the film, can be safely summarised as stick, not carrot. Despite the criticisms of the film from those close to the Apple boss, it seems Aaron Sorkin is not judging Steve Jobs as harshly for these differences as those critics would have us believe…
“I have to tell you… everyone that I spoke to, all the people close to Steve who worked with him, at every level from CEO John Scully to Woz, co-founder of Apple, to someone way down the food chain, to a man and woman they all say the same thing,” he begins, putting his fingers together, steeple-style, settling in for the tale.
“’Yes, he was very difficult to work with. No, I would never want to be in that situation again, I left Apple after four years and a nervous breakdown…’ that kind of thing, but to a person they all said that he made them better.”
He adds, by way of contrast, his own personable director on the Jobs’ film. “Danny Boyle makes everyone better on set, and a sweeter guy you’re not going to meet.”
So how will we ever know, then?
“We won’t.” he beams. “And for all we know, it might be Stockholm syndrome too. But we won't ever really know." And Aaron Sorkin, for one, seems delighted by this uncertainty.
'Steve Jobs' is in UK cinemas now.