Danny Boyle’s new film on the life and career of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs seems to be on the lips of many film lovers lately and it isn’t surprising considering the exciting collaboration between director Danny Boyle, writer Aaron Sorkin, and actors Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet. I was fortunate enough to see it at the New York Film Festival recently. So let’s take a look at what this film teaches us about filmmaking…
Danny Boyle’s new film on the life and career of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs seems to be on the lips of many film lovers lately and it isn’t surprising considering the exciting collaboration between director Danny Boyle, writer Aaron Sorkin, and actors Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet. I was fortunate enough to see it at the New York Film Festival recently. So let’s take a look at what this film teaches us about filmmaking.
The film was based on Walter Isaacson’s book ‘Steve Jobs’ and was adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin who had Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak help make sure the script portrayed the events accurately. In 2014, David Fincher expressed interest in directing the film and wanted Christian Bale for the role of Steve Jobs. It was after Fincher left the project because of contract issues that Danny Boyle signed on. Christian Bale was cast in the lead role but eventually left and was replaced with Michael Fassbender.
Production started on January 16, 2015 and was shot in the San Francisco Bay Area and they even shot at Job’s childhood home in Los Altos, California. Many of the scenes were shot in the actual locations where the events took place. Another example is De Anza college—where, in 1984, the original Macintosh computer was revealed.
I’m from the bay area and my dad was actually in the audience in 1998 when the iMac was unveiled. He asked me what Jobs was wearing during that sequence of the movie and I told him that it was his trademark black turtleneck and jeans. My dad said that he wasn’t actually wearing that during the iMac product launch as you can see in this clip. I was a little confused why they would overlook something like that, seeing as a lot of research had been put into making the film, but I found a clip that seems to explain it.
“With Suttirat and Ivana who’s head of the make-up and hair– she’d amazingly got all these back-up plans. So we had wigs– we had the grey wig for the end, but we were never sure whether we were going use that or which way we would go. We just had the options. And so by, I think it was midway through the second act, Danny and I started talking and it was like, you know, let’s get the black turtleneck and the jeans and the New Balance. I think, you know, the audience will want that. And the glasses and the sort of iconic, more iconic look and that just sort of happened then. It just kind of developed, you know, as the third act came along, but it was very organic.”
So, what can we learn?
First, unique story structure.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin did not want to approach the film with the traditional “cradle to the grave” biopic structure. Instead, he decided on three distinct sequences that take place directly before three of Jobs’ product launches.
“Uh, so I wondered if I could take all of the work Walter had done and if there was a way to dramatize the points of friction, chew some of the points of friction in Steve’s life and dramatize them in this way with three, just three scenes, three real-time scenes. Real-time of course is when thirty minutes for you in the audience is the same as thirty minutes for a character on the screen. And I didn’t think that there was a chance that the studio would let me do that, but they did.”
“I identified five conflicts in Steve’s life, with other people, and found ways to play them out at these events.”
So, Sorkin had the stage set with these three settings and worked the five conflicts from Job’s life into these sequences. I believe the five conflicts are Steve and Joanna, Steve and Lisa/Chrisann, Steve and Woz, Steve and Sculley, and Steve and Andy. And to condense the major conflicts of Job’s life into these sequences, Sorkin would take the things he liked from Isaacson’s book—details and interesting beats— put them on note cards, and stick them to his wall. For example, Sorkin got the idea for the part about finding the right shark picture because Jobs once tasked an employee to find the perfect picture of a birthday cake to use as a slide during a product launch celebrating the five-year anniversary of a different product.
“There are things that happen that people say that did not happen at this particular location, but he’s taken the dramatic license to take what Walter wrote and what Walter researched for the book and going, ‘I’m not gonna- we’d be doing a Ken Burns twenty-part series in order to do it that way.’ So he’s confined it into these certain areas (settings) and then brought everything to it.”
In this way, with a bit of poetic license, we can get a better picture of the man against these energetic and fascinating backdrops— although, ‘picture’ might not be the best word to use.
“I think any time you are at the movies and you see the words, ‘the following is a true story,’ you should think of it as a painting and not a photograph, that you’re gonna get an authorial point-of-view.”
The structure of the film doesn’t begin and end in the screenplay. Actually, Danny Boyle approached each of the three sections completely differently. In an article for The Guardian, Boyle was quoted saying, “Like Jobs himself it’s a film of movement. We thought of the film as the sound of his mind.” The article goes on to say that “The aesthetic of the three acts was, says Boyle, carefully delineated so as not to feel repetitious. Therefore the ‘punky’ first third shows Jobs trying to forge a ‘creationist myth’, the second is all about elegance, while the third has even cleaner lines. ‘And simplicity is now seen as the ultimate sophistication,’ said Boyle. ‘Products and world vision are both heading that way.’”
So, as the story progresses, narrative and style becomes cleaner and simpler much in the same way the Apple products did.
“Each section of it is, each time period is as different as possible and we actually used three- one of the big things is that we used three different formats. We used 16mm for the first act because it felt like, you know, it was early days and he’s very much thought of himself as a pirate, the rebel then—breaking down, you know, in the 1984 film, breaking down the edifice of IBM and so that home-made feel of 16mm, which is more and more distant from us now, you know, felt really wonderful for that. And we used 35mm for the second act, which is, we always used to say that it was like a subterranean river of intention running though it, which nobody could perceive and Joanna is constantly trying to find out by asking him about what is going on and film’s wonderful for that— the illusion and you go to an opera house like the San Francisco it’s a Beaux-Arts it’s beautiful ornate and film loves that—soaks it up, you know and loves an illusion as a story. And then we moved to the Alexa in the final part, which is like the brutal HD thing.”
And it didn’t stop there, Daniel Pemberton wrote a score for each section in a different style.
Second, is rhythm and pacing.
All of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays rely heavily on a well-defined rhythm and this is because they are extremely dialogue heavy. What he does here is he throws the audience into the middle of a tense situation and has the audience experience it unfold through how the characters deal with that situation.
“It’s a very heightened, pressure-cooker type atmosphere that is created by the intensity of the writing and the pace at which the story is being told. And it’s just very cleverly done because as an audience member, you feel a part of it. You feel present. You feel that you’re backstage with those people. You feel as excited and nervous as they are to walk on the stage and launch this product.”
“I like claustrophobic spaces. I like compressed periods of time where there’s a ticking clock. I like things that are behind the scenes—in this case, literally behind the scenes.”
Making a dialogue heavy film is really tricky because it sort of pushes against what is cinematic. Film is a visual medium and it is easy to get lost in dialogue—especially when the dialogue deals with a fair amount of technical jargon that the average film goer isn’t familiar with.
“Often times in things that I’ve written—whether it’s A Few Good Men or I wrote a movie called Malice or American President or Sports Night or The West Wing there’ll be a quick passage that’ll go by and, you know somebody, the studio or producer, someone will say, ‘Gee, no one’s gonna know what these two people are talking about.’ You know, I’ll say, ‘It’s actually not important that they do, what’s important is that the audience say, ‘Wow, these guys really know what they’re talking about. That’s interesting.’ And that’s what I try to do.”
The trick seems to be that these are ‘quick passages’ that are peppered throughout. We are introduced to each situation in a relatively simple way—for example, Jobs wants the Macintosh to say, ‘hello’ with text-to-speech software and it’s not working. After that, it doesn’t matter what technical jargon is being spoken because we understand the conflict and emotion of the scene. It’s almost like watching an opera in another language.
“There’s a musicality to Aaron’s writing. To all the great writers over the decades, centuries, go back to Shakespeare—there’s a musicality. The good ones: there’s a music to it. And once you find the music, the rhythm that Aaron has written in there, it just sings. His scripts just sing. I remember when we did the reading of the script way back in during rehearsals before we started shooting and you heard Michael and Kate, and everyone just jumping in and suddenly it was like this orchestra that they were all playing in the same key, but they were all talking at once. And this would come and that would happen and that was- there were no ad libs.”
“We’re all used to a certain degree of improvising or changing things up or just mixing a few words around to just make it a little more comfortable and natural to say, but you know, Aaron Sorkin writes it in a way that is natural, does sound as though you’re improvising.”
Of course such a precise and dialogue-heavy script needs a great deal of rehearsal to work, but Boyle elected to approach rehearsal in a rather unorthodox way.
“We did this weird thing where we’d rehearse, yeah, no, but only the first bit and then we’d sort of run it through. We sort of had little run-throughs where the actors could see the other actors and then we’d film that bit and then we stopped, which is the weird bit, where the accountants can’t understand about why you would stop once you’ve entered the tunnel of filming and we did stop. And we’d rehearse the second part.”
So, the structure of the film lent itself well to this style of rehearsal and the actors were able to work on the rhythm of the scenes in a more manageable fashion with more focus and attention given to each part rather than attempting to keep in mind the precision and rhythm of scenes further down the road.
“And Michael and I would try things in rehearsal and we would know straight away that it wasn’t really going to work, but we’d soldier on for the 12 or 13 pages and then look at each other and go, ‘Oh yeah, that was absolute shit. We will never do that on set. And so it was very necessary to have that process really in particular for creating the energy that was required to keep up with the pace and what Aaron had written.”
Third, is creating a protagonist out of an icon.
From the beginning, the aim was to get to the essence of the character and more or less cast aside the superficial aspects.
“You know, that was the first thing that I said to Danny, I was like, ‘Well, you know, Christian Bale looks a lot more like Steve Jobs than me and so he was like, ‘I’m not interested in that,’ you know, ‘I just want to sort of get the energy and the essence of the man and go with that. So from the beginning, the approach was to just not try and, you know, emulate that look or copy look and so basically the only thing I did was I put in brown contacts.”
“An actor gets a part and they start to explore it because what they find interesting about it internally. That’s one of the wonderful things about actors. You can set them to actually explore it from the public side of if it. I.E. set about to try and look like him, have prosthetic surgery, knock out your front teeth, you know the weird stuff you hear about. You can ask them to do that or you can say, ‘don’t do that. Find it internally.’ And that’s what he set off to do.”
So, they concentrated more on finding the internal aspects of the character. When making a film about such an iconic figure—especially a contemporary one who most have some kind of preconceived notions about—it seems like the thing that works is to try and find the connection of what makes that person like you or me instead of what makes that person different. Steve Jobs may have changed the world, but he also had struggles that we can all empathize with.
“Well first there’s no point in writing about someone unless they’re flawed. Perfect people, who probably don’t exist, aren’t that interesting and typical people also don’t exist. There’s no such thing as a typical person.”
“He’s taking these extraordinary figures, which is what Shakespeare used to do, and he’s grounding them in stuff we also suffer from, whether that’s ambition and vanity, ego, whatever the flaws are we all suffer from them to, you know, certain levels and certain degrees.”
Sorkin once said that the difference between a character and a person is that a character can be ‘unlikable and incredibly compelling at the same time.’ Early in the film, Jobs comes across as quite unlikable and the challenge over the course of the film is to cultivate a relationship between the audience and Jobs in which they can empathize and identify with him. This empathy mainly evolves using a device that is actually quite prevalent in storytelling. The device is most often known as ‘kicking the dog’ and ‘petting the dog,’ which refers to a character treating someone or something poorly or kindly that the audience empathizes with—in this case, that person is Lisa, Steve’s daughter. We immediately empathize with Lisa—a young child who wants a relationship with her father and the way we feel about Steve Jobs is most greatly impacted by whether he treats her poorly or kindly.
“I had one experience writing about an anti-hero and that was The Social Network and there are- Aristotle wrote rules of the anti-hero too, but I tend to- my resting pulse as a writer is writing idealistically and romantically, aspirationally.”
“Where does Steve Jobs lie in that? I know you are just getting going, but where do you think he lies in that, in that spectrum of hero anti-hero whatever. He’s a complicated guy.”
“He’s an extremely complicated guy. That I know for sure. Mark Zuckerberg is an extremely complicated guy as well, but when I was writing that and the same will be true with as little as I know about the Steve Jobs movie, I know this for sure—that I can’t judge the character. He has to, for me, be a hero. I have to find the parts of him that are like me. I have to be able to be able to defend this character and you really, with a character like Steve Jobs or the character like David Sarnoff in The Farnsworth Invention—to put it as simply as possible, you want to write the character as if they are making their case to God why they should be allowed into heaven.”
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Quote: “Like Jobs himself it’s a film of movement. We thought of the film as the sound of his mind.” The aesthetic of the three acts was, says Boyle, carefully delineated so as not to feel repetitious. Therefore the “punky” first third shows Jobs trying to forge a “creationist myth”, the second is all about elegance, while the third has even cleaner lines. “And simplicity is now seen as the ultimate sophistication,” said Boyle. “Products and world vision are both heading that way.”
‘Steve Jobs’ Press Conference | NYFF53
Full Cast Behind the Scenes Movie Interview – ScreenSlam
Aaron Sorkin on his Steve Jobs movie
Aaron Sorkin Talks Steve Jobs Movie, His Digital Life and His New Show “The Newsroom” – Wall Street Journal
Steve Jobs movie Q&A with Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle – The Verge
Steve Jobs introduces the Original Macintosh – Apple Shareholder Event (1984)
Steve Jobs introduces the Original iMac – Apple Special Event (1998)
“Lessons” by Sohn
“Backed Vibes Clean” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.