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Monday 26 February 2018

Sorkin casts net over his demons

Writing The Social Network helped Aaron Sorkin banish his drug addiction, says Evan Fanning

Evan Fanning

'I don't know anything about Facebook or that world of communication," Aaron Sorkin states emphatically. It's an odd sentence to come out of the mouth of the man who has written a masterful and definitive account of the creation of a website which now numbers one of every 14 people on the planet as a member.

The Social Network may be the film which earns an Oscar for Justin Timberlake, propels Jesse Eisenberg to the forefront of a new wave of young American actors, and gives everyone who sees it an opinion on the establishment of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, but really it is a movie with just one star -- its scriptwriter,Sorkin.

On a dreary October afternoon in London, he takes to a stage accompanied by a significantly younger and more glamourous troupe. There's Timberlake, of course, alongside British rising star Andrew Garfield, recently chosen to play the lead in the new Spider-Man movie. There's also Eisenberg who plays the role of Facebook creator Zuckerberg (a man who is worth every one of his 26 years in billions of dollars).

That Sorkin, tanned and bespectacled, can overshadow this group -- and most of the questions from the gathered hacks are directed towards the 59-year-old -- is testament to his writing, and a career which has seen him go from being a wannabe actor teaching children's theatre on the side, to being the writer, creator and powerhouse behind The West Wing, a show which, along with The Sopranos, changed the game for what was possible with television drama.

Sorkin may not be au fait with the Facebook -- in fact, in a recent interview he was quite scathing of the internet and bloggers saying: "Everybody has a voice -- the thing is, everybody's voice oughtn't be equal ... nothing has done more to make us dumber or meaner than the anonymity of the internet" -- but in essence his film is a familiar story.

It's a tale of greed, power and money, friendship and betrayal. It could be set during the Gold Rush or Wall Street in the Eighties, but this time it's a land grab on a digital frontier. "What I really like are courtroom dramas and at its soul this is what it is," Sorkin says.

The film uses the two lawsuits Facebook creator Zuckerberg faced -- one involving colleagues in Harvard who claimed he stole their idea, and the other from his former friend who financed the site in its infancy who claims he was frozen out of the business -- to tell of the inception and phenomenal success of the social networking platform.

"This script was vetted by countless lawyers," Sorkin explains. "I am simply not allowed to say something that is untrue or defamatory. Even greater than that, I had a moral obligation not to mess around with someone's life for the sake of a good movie scene. Both David [Fincher, the director] and I took the truth as seriously as can be. It was tricky in this case because we were telling a story about there being three different versions of the truth.

"There were two different lawsuits brought against Facebook at roughly the same time. The defendants, the plaintiffs, the witnesses all walked into deposition rooms, all swore an oath to tell the truth and we ended up with three very different versions, often times conflicting, of the same story. Rather than pick one version and decide that was the truth and write a movie about that, or pick one version and decide this is the sexiest and write about that, I liked that there were three different versions."

So how did the ordinarily twitchy studio heads react to a movie being made that does not always show a real-life person in the most favourable of lights when that person is known to oppose the making of the movie and could buy and sell the studio several times over?

"I can't speak to how much they ordinarily sweat but I can say that in this particular case there was nothing left to chance. If I was unable to source something that I was saying was truth to their satisfaction then I couldn't say it. Any time we present a fact that was in dispute -- and that was a lot -- we had to make it clear to the audience that the fact is in dispute. When we first go to the deposition room (after seeing Zuckerberg split with his girlfriend, go home and get drunk and create a site called Facemash which was a precursor to Facebook) the very first words out of Mark's mouth are 'that's not what happened'. That's a signal to the audience that you're going to be hearing from a series of unreliable witnesses."

That Sorkin is here at all writing a movie such as this is, by his own admission, an unlikely state of affairs. "I should be dead," he said recently. "I should be dead five times now. I did things that should have killed me."

Many of those things that should have killed him came while he was producing the best work of his life. After successfully converting his play A Few Good Men from stage to screen (a play he wrote on cocktail napkins while working as a theatre barman) Sorkin was commissioned by Rob Reiner to write the script for The American President.

Sorkin holed himself up in the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles in a marathon writing session and turned out a 385-page script which he is said to have handed to Reiner in a plastic bag. While the research into the inner-working of the White House would pay even more dividends later in Sorkin's career when he came to write The West Wing, the chaos of the marathon writing session saw him become addicted to crack cocaine.

The mammoth process was fuelled by the drug, with Sorkin telling the LA Times: "I was the kind of addict who was functional. I was actually writing good material. But I didn't see people or talk to people. I'd fax my pages over to Rob at 7am and after we talked about it, I'd close the curtains and start writing again."

Once the script was finished, Reiner noticed that Sorkin had a problem and, with the help of Julia Bingham, one of his studio lawyers, they got Sorkin a place at an exclusive rehab clinic in 1995. Bingham's influence on Sorkin was such that they subsequently married and they have a nine-year-old daughter.

Sobriety presented Sorkin with new challenges. "When I first got sober, my biggest fear was, 'am I going to be able to write without cocaine?'" he recently told W Magazine. "In the past, my dealer would come over, and I'd do drugs all night long and I'd write high. I was worried that I couldn't write with the sun out."

He returned to work, however, on a TV drama called Sports Night, the idea for which came to him when he was writing The American President and had ESPN's nightly sports report on his hotel television as company. He also wrote the pilot for a drama set within the White House.

When both got picked up, Sorkin, rather than enlist writing help, decided he could deliver two weekly shows all on his own. He would write Sports Night from Friday to Sunday and The West Wing from Monday to Thursday.

That kind of output needed some artificial assistance -- and Sorkin again turned to drugs. In 2001, he was stopped and searched in Burbank airport and found to be in possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms and rock cocaine.

He returned to rehab and The West Wing producers insisted on providing some writers to assist him -- many fans of the show insist it was never quite as good again. Not long afterwards he split with Bingham and they divorced in 2005. He has since had a long relationship with columnist Maureen Dowd, which has ended, but they remain close.

He worked on The West Wing until it came to an end in 2006. Since then he wrote Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes look at a nightly television show, which was critically acclaimed but cancelled after one season.

He wrote Charlie Wilson's War, starring Tom Hanks, in 2007 and has since been engulfed in The Social Network. It seems that writing both protects Sorkin from, and brings him closer, to his demons. "It's like an on/off switch," he explained recently. "Everything can be going well, but if I'm not writing, I'm not happy. When I'm writing well I'm like a different person."

Sorkin is now the writer of a film which is packing much of the pre-Oscar buzz. It's a film which has the potential to reach out to all demographics without relying on car chases or battle scenes. Just Sorkin's carefully chosen words. "The movie demonstrates what I absolutely believe," he states, "and that's that people who go to see movies aren't dumber than people who make movies. People like using their brains."

The Social Network is now showing

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