Aaron Sorkin is a screenwriter who needs no introduction. After all, what is there to say about his astonishing career that isn’t better illustrated by simply listing some of the amazing shows and movies he’s responsible for? The West Wing, A Few Good Men, Steve Jobs, The Social Network, Moneyball, Molly’s Game and Sports Night are just a few of the acclaimed movies and series that have made his name synonymous with gripping drama.
As masters of the form go, there aren’t many bigger or better – so you can imagine how delighted I was to welcome the man himself onto this week’s Script Apart, my podcast about the first-draft secrets of great movies.
Sorkin came on the show to talk about how he wrote The Trial Of The Chicago 7 – his Oscar-nominated courtroom drama about a court case on which the future of free speech in America seemed to hinge. The episode’s a treasure trove of insights into his writing process – how to identify stories, how to craft conflict, what makes characters come to life and why screenwriting is a game of persistence. Here are just five tips from the episode that I can’t wait to try out in my own work…
“It’s a lot like walking in the dark with a flashlight. You can only see as far as that beam will go, but the further you walk, the further you can see,” Sorkin says, describing the daunting feeling of starting a story without knowing where it’s going.
“When you start writing a first draft and you get to page 40 and you’re changing your mind about things – keep going. Don’t go back to the beginning. Keep going and get to fade out, because by the time you get there, you’ll have learned a lot about what you’re writing.” Seeing where your first draft fails will show you how to succeed with your second.
“My first draft of Chicago 7 was a dramatized Wikipedia page.”Aaron Sorkin
“My first draft of Chicago 7 was a dramatized Wikipedia page,” Sorkin recalls of his initial attempt at the drama, penned 14 years ago when Steven Spielberg was set to direct. Back then, he was working with just the court transcripts, and as a result, his script was a linear telling of what happened in court.
“I knew it wasn’t good enough,” he reflects. Research was key to unlocking the story on an emotional level for his characters. Sorkin met with one of the real-life Chicago 7 who told him things that the court transcripts didn’t show – namely, the behind-the-scenes tensions in the group, as the defendants argued amongst themselves about the best way to get their revolutionary message heard. This lent the story a much-needed human dimension, Sorkin explains.
The key to great character dialogue is to write passionately from their perspective – even if it’s an opinion that’s wrong or different from your main character/audience. “You have to make them as if they’re making their case to God as to why they should be allowed into heaven,” says Sorkin. “It’s most important if you’re writing an anti-hero. Someone like Nicholson in A Few Good Men, or the character of Zuckerberg in The Social Network. You can’t judge that character or decide they’re bad.” Instead, you should look to “make the audience say, huh, they have a point – an argument they’re uncomfortable agreeing with.”
“Any time you can get the audience to participate in the story, make them sit forward a little bit to work out what’s going on, it’s exhilarating for an audience.” Aaron Sorkin
“I like to kind of parachute the audience into a situation that’s already going 100mph,” says Sorkin, who decided early on in the writing process on Chicago 7 to begin the film with a frantic opening scene that intercuts lots of characters and places, making the audience work to understand what’s going on and who these characters are.
“Any time you can get the audience to participate in the story, make them sit forward a little bit to work out what’s going on, it’s exhilarating for an audience.”
In The Trial Of The Chicago 7, the defendants all want the same thing – but have differing views on how to achieve that goal. Tom, played by Eddie Redmayne, believes change is achieved by winning elections. Abbie (Sacha Baron-Cohen) on the other hand, wants to reject the broken system entirely, and as a result, goofs around a lot in court.
“Abbie’s ideology and Tom’s are both easy to defend. You can find things about them that are admirable and things about them to criticize,” Sorkin explains. “When you have two strong opposing arguments like that and you can defend both of them, you’re going to be able to write pretty good scenes.”