Well, Melbourne is back into lockdown again for at least a week, and I suspect longer – and needless to say all my glass classes are postponed for now – so it’s time for me to dust off my writing fingers and put out a blog for your interest. I’ve been meaning to write about Aaron Sorkin for some time, so here it is.Before I tell you all about why I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing – here’s my favourite speech from just about any drama, ever. Enjoy the brilliance of this writing, and the performance from the ineffable Greg Daniels.
He said it to him over and over again.
‘You have the capacity to be so much better than you are’ Aaron Sorkin’s teacher said to him. The young Sorkin listened and strove to constantly improve.
Thank goodness for all good teachers who challenge and encourage and get the best out of a student!
The teacher was Arthur Storch, who spent most of his working life following in the footsteps of Lee Strasberg, famous for having established The Actors studio in New York and “method acting”. So, what was Arthur Storch teaching Sorkin?
Sorkin was born in Manhattan, New York City, to a Jewish family: his mother was a schoolteacher and his father a copyright lawyer who had fought in WWII and put himself through college on the G.I. Bill; both his older sister and brother went on to become lawyers. His paternal grandfather was one of the founders of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).
Sorkin took an early interest in acting. During childhood, his parents took him to the theatre to see famous – and famously ‘wordy’ – shows such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and That Championship Season.
Sorkin attended Scarsdale High School where he became involved in the drama and theatre club. Then in 1979, Sorkin attended Syracuse University. In his freshman year, he failed a class that was a core requirement, which caused a setback because he wanted to be an actor, and the drama department did not allow students to take the stage until they completed the core classes. Determined to do better, he returned for his sophomore year, and graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre.
Recalling the influence of theatre teacher Arthur Storch, Sorkin said: “Arthur’s reputation as a director, and as a disciple of Lee Strasberg, was a big reason why a lot of us went to Syracuse University … ‘You have the capacity to be so much better than you are’, he started saying to me in September of my senior year. He was still saying it in May. On the last day of classes, he said it again, and I said, ‘How?’, and he answered, ‘Dare to fail’. I’ve been coming through on his admonition ever since”.
Dare to fail. Great advice.
1983–1990: Early work and to a serendipidous moment.
Sorkin moved to New York City where he spent much of the 1980s as a struggling, sporadically-employed actor who worked odd jobs, such as delivering singing telegrams, limousine driver, touring Alabama with the children’s theatre company Traveling Playhouse, handing out fliers promoting a hunting-and-fishing show, and bar-tending at Broadway’s Palace Theatre.
One weekend, while house-sitting for a friend, he found an IBM Selectric typewriter, and started typing, and “felt a phenomenal confidence and a kind of joy that he had never experienced before in his life”.
I don’t want to analyze myself or anything, but I think, in fact I know this to be true, that I enter the world through what I write. I grew up believing, and continue to believe, that I am a screw-up, that growing up with my family and friends, I had nothing to offer in any conversation.
But when I started writing, suddenly there was something that I brought to the party that was at a high-enough level.
—Sorkin on becoming a writer.
He continued writing and eventually put together his first play, Removing All Doubt, which he sent to his former theatre teacher, Arthur Storch, who was impressed. In 1984, Removing All Doubt was staged for drama students at his alma mater, Syracuse University. This play was the leaping off point for the rest of his career.
After that, he wrote Hidden in This Picture which debuted off-off-Broadway in 1988. The quality of these first two plays earned him a theatrical agent, and so a stellar career began! Producer John A. McQuiggan saw the production of Hidden in This Picture and commissioned Sorkin to turn the one-act into a full-length play called Making Movies.
Sorkin was inspired to write his next play, a courtroom drama called A Few Good Men, from a phone conversation with his sister Deborah, who had graduated from Boston University Law School and signed up for a three-year stint with the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The movie of the play, of course, includes one of the most famous lines ever written – “You can’t handle the truth!” (See the video below for Jack Nicholson’s delivery of this famous line.)
Deborah told Sorkin that she was going to Guantanamo Bay to defend a group of Marines who came close to killing a fellow Marine in a hazing ordered by a superior officer. Sorkin took that information and wrote much of his story on cocktail napkins while bartending at the Palace Theatre.
To this day, Sorkin has a habit of chain smoking while he spends countless hours cooped up in his office plotting out his next scripts. He describes his writing process as physical because he will often stand up and speak the dialogue he is developing.
A brief summary of his works include the Broadway plays A Few Good Men, The Farnsworth Invention, and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as the television series Sports Night (1998–2000), The West Wing (1999–2006), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006–07), and a personal favourite – The Newsroom (2012–14) – where the video at the head of this article comes from. He wrote the film screenplay for the legal drama A Few Good Men (1992), the charming comedy The American President (1995), and several biopics including the revelatory Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) on how America influenced the situation in Afghanistan when the Russians were still in charge, Moneyball (2011), and Steve Jobs (2015). For writing 2010’s The Social Network, he deservedly won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and also a Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.
In 1988, Sorkin sold the film rights for A Few Good Men to producer David Brown before it premiered on stage, in a deal that was reportedly “well into six figures”. After opening in late 1989, it ran for 497 performances.
Sorkin wrote several drafts of the film script for A Few Good Men in his Manhattan apartment, learning the craft from a book about screenplay format. A Few Good Men was released in 1992 and was a box office success, grossing $243 million worldwide.
Sorkin conceived the idea to write about the behind-the-scenes happenings on a sports show while residing at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles writing the screenplay for The American President.
He would work late, with the television tuned into sports channel ESPN, watching continuous replays of sports shows. He turned his idea into a television comedy series Sports Night was produced by Disney and debuted on the ABC network in 1998. Sorkin fought with ABC over the use of a laugh track and a live studio audience. The laugh track was widely decried by critics as jarring, with Joyce Millman of Salon magazine describing it as “the most unconvincing laugh track you’ve ever heard”.
Sorkin commented that: “Once you do shoot in front of a live audience, you have no choice but to use the laugh track. Oftentimes enhancing the laughs is the right thing to do. Sometimes you do need a cymbal crash. Sorkin entertained offers to continue the show on other television channels, but declined all the offers because they were dependent on his involvement and he was already working on his signature piece: The West Wing.
Sorkin conceived the political drama The West Wing in 1997 when he went unprepared to a lunch with producer John Wells; in a panic he pitched to Wells a series centered on the senior staff of the White House. He was apparently using leftover ideas from his script for The American President. He told Wells about his visits to the White House while doing research for The American President, and they found themselves discussing public service and the passion of the people who serve.
Wells took the concept and pitched it to NBC, but was told to wait due to the prevalence of the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal. There was a concern that television audiences would not be able to take a series about the White House seriously against that background. A year later, other networks started showing interest in The West Wing and so the NBC decided to give the project the green-light despite their previous reluctance.
The West Wing duly garnered nine Primetime Emmy Awards for its debut season, making the series a record holder for most Emmys won by a series in a single season at the time. In 1999 Rick Cleveland and Sorkin jointly won the Writers Guild of America Award for Television: Episodic Drama at the 53rd Writer Guild of America Awards for the episode “In Excelsis Deo”.
In 2001, after completing the second season of The West Wing, Sorkin suffered a drug relapse, and was arrested at Hollywood Burbank Airport for possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms, marijuana, and crack cocaine. He was ordered by a court to attend a drug diversion program. There was huge media interest but he did go on to make a successful recovery
Sorkin wrote 87 screenplays for The West Wing, which is nearly every episode during the show’s first four Emmy-winning seasons. He admitted that saying “Out of 88 [West Wing] episodes that I did we were on time and on budget .. never … not once.” He was famously difficult to work with. In 2003, at the end of the fourth season, Sorkin and fellow executive producer Thomas Schlamme left the show due to internal conflicts at Warner Bros. Sorkin never watched any episodes beyond his writing tenure apart from a minute of the fifth season’s first episode, describing the experience as “like watching somebody make out with my girlfriend.” Sorkin later returned in the series finale for a cameo appearance as a member of President Bartlett’s staff.
Sorkin told The Charlie Rose Show that he was developing a television series based on a late-night sketch comedy show similar to Saturday Night Live. In October 2005, a pilot script dubbed Studio 7 on the Sunset Strip, written by him and Schlamme as producer. The show’s name was later changed to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin described the show as having “autobiographical elements” to it and “characters that are based on actual people” but said that it departs from those beginnings to look at the backstage maneuverings at a late night sketch comedy show.
On September 18, 2006, the pilot for Studio 60 aired on NBC, directed by Schlamme. The pilot was critically acclaimed and viewed by an audience of over 12 million, but the show experienced a significant drop in viewership mid-season. Sorkin spoke out against the press for reporting heavily on the low ratings, and for using blogs and unemployed comedy writers as sources. After two months hiatus, Studio 60 resumed airing the last episodes of season one, which would be its only season.
Meanwhile, in the theatre, in 2005, Sorkin revised his play A Few Good Men for a production at London’s West End. The play opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket directed by David Esbjornson, with Rob Lowe of The West Wing in the lead role.
In 2007, Sorkin was commissioned by Universal Pictures to adapt George Crile’s non-fiction book Charlie Wilson’s War for Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone. The biographical comedy, Charlie Wilson’s War, is about the colorful Texas congressman Charlie Wilson who funded the CIA’s secret war against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Directed by Mike Nichols, and written by Sorkin, the film was released in 2007 and starred Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film earned five nominations at the Golden Globes, including Best Screenplay for Sorkin.
In August 2008, Sorkin announced that he had agreed to write a script for Sony Pictures and producer Scott Rudin about the beginnings of Facebook. David Fincher’s The Social Network, based on Ben Mezrich’s novel The Accidental Billionaires, was released on October 1, 2010. It was a critical and commercial success; Sorkin won an Academy Award, BAFTA and a Golden Globe for the screenplay.
A year later, Sorkin received nominations in the same award categories for co-writing Moneyball. It is based on Michael Lewis’s 2003 non-fiction book of the same name, an account of the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s 2002 season and their general manager Billy Beane’s attempts to assemble a competitive team.
In 2011, Sorkin played himself on the series 30 Rock, episode “Plan B”, where he did a “walk and talk” with Liz Lemon played by Tina Fey.
While still working on the screenplay for The Social Network, Sorkin was contemplating a television drama about the behind-the-scenes events at a cable news program.
Talks had been ongoing between Sorkin and HBO since 2010. To research the news industry, Sorkin observed the production crew at MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and quizzed Parker Spitzer‘s staff. He also spent time shadowing Hardball with Chris Matthews, as well as other programs on Fox News and CNN.
Sorkin told TV Guide that he intended to take a less cynical view of the media: “The characters are going to be trying to do well in a context where it’s very difficult to do well when there are commercial concerns and political concerns and corporate concerns.” Sorkin decided that rather than have his characters react to fictional news events as on his earlier series, it would be set in the recent past and track real-world stories largely as they unfolded, to give a greater sense of immediacy and realism.
“The trick is to follow the rules of classic storytelling. Drama is basically about one thing: Somebody wants something, and something or someone is standing in the way of him getting it. What he wants—the money, the girl, the ticket to Philadelphia—doesn’t really matter. But whatever it is, the audience has to want it for him.” Sorkin explains.
HBO ordered a pilot episode in January 2011 with the working title More as This Story Develops, with Scott Rudin serving as an executive producer. In September, HBO ordered a 10-episode series of The Newsroom with a premiere date of June 2012. A day after the second episode aired, HBO renewed the series for a second season.
Sorkin said The Newsroom “is meant to be an idealistic, romantic, swashbuckling, sometimes comedic but very optimistic, upward-looking look at a group of people who are often looked at cynically. The same as with The West Wing, where ordinarily in popular culture our leaders are portrayed either as Machiavellian or dumb; I wanted to do something different and show a highly competent group of people.”
Sadly, for many fans, the series concluded after its third season.
In 2015, Danny Boyle’s biographical drama Steve Jobs was released. The screenplay by Sorkin was based on Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and starred Michael Fassbender as Jobs.
Sorkin expressed hesitation for tackling the film, saying “it was a little like writing about the Beatles—that there are so many people out there who know so much about him [Jobs] and who revere him that I just saw a minefield of disappointment. […] Hopefully, when I’m done with my research, I’ll be in the same ball park of knowledge about Steve Jobs”.
He duly won a Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.
2016 Venture into directing
In February 2016, it was announced that Sorkin would adapt Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the stage, and work alongside Bartlett Sher. His Broadway adaptation opened on December 13, 2018 to positive reviews at the Shubert Theatre.
Next, Sorkin made his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, an adaptation of poker entrepreneur Molly Bloom’s memoir. He also wrote the filmscript for it. Production began in 2016 and the film was released in December 2017 to mostly positive reviews; Sorkin received his third Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Sorkin told Vanity Fair in July 2020 that Steven Spielberg offered him a job in 2006 about “a movie about the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the trial that followed”. However, after meeting at Spielberg’s home, Sorkin is quoted in Vanity Fair as saying “I left not knowing what the hell he was talking about.”
Back in 2007, Variety magazine reported that Sorkin had signed a deal with DreamWorks to write three scripts. Sorkin eventually both wrote and directed the film, focusing on the case of the Chicago Seven (and Bobby Seale), the film began a limited release on September 25, 2020, before streaming on Netflix. At the 78th Golden Globes, Sorkin won Best Screenplay for the incredibly powerful portrayal of a famous court miscarriage of justice, brilliantly capturing the participants., and he was also nominated for Best Director.
Sorkin once famously said: “For me, the writing experience is very much like a date. It’s not unusual that I’m really funny here and really smart here and maybe showing some anger over here so she sees maybe I have this dark side. I want it to have been worth it for everyone to sit through it for however long I ask them to.”
— Sorkin on his writing as characterized by mentor William Goldman
On television, one hallmark of Sorkin’s ‘writer’s voice’ is the repartee and banter that his characters engage in as they small talk and banter about whimsical events taking place within an episode, often puasing to interject obscure popular culture references into conversation. Although his scripts are lauded for being literate, Sorkin has been criticized for often turning in scripts that are overwrought. Agreeing with this, Sorkin said in an interview with Vanity Fair writer James Kaplan. “I kind of see plot as a necessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write musical dialogue,” Sorkin says of his notoriously snappy, fast style of discourse: “So these arguments aren’t me finding sort of a clever way to be politically persuasive. [What I write about] just a really rich area for arguing.” He admits, “I’m pretty wordy when I write. He further explained to Vanity Fair writer James Kaplan, “I’ve always thought of myself as somebody who, when it comes to comedy or drama, I don’t do either one of them well enough to do only one of them, so I try to mix up my pitches a little bit in an episode.”
But, says Emily Mortimer, star of Newsroom, that is part of why she loves doing Sorkin. “The problem with romantic comedies nowadays is that they’re not clever and they’re not about anything. Whereas this is very clever and it’s about something. The great writers and directors of the past have understood that sexual tension can be so brilliantly depicted in the way that people talk to each other—Billy Wilder and Cukor knew that, Shakespeare knew that, and Jane Austen knew that. And it’s so rarely investigated these days, partly because the world has to be a world where people talk fast and funny.” His mentor William Goldman has commented that normally in TV and film what would be recognised as monologues or speeches on stage are avoided, but that Sorkin has a talent for dialogue and gets away with breaking this rule.
Here’s a video of Aaron Sorkin in 2020 talking about his skills with Stephen Colbert.
In August 2016, Sorkin launched a screenwriting course on MasterClass. The course includes dialogue, character development, story pacing, plot, and his process of working. Students can watch videos, download workbooks, and share their observations and progress through discussion boards and social media groups.
Interestingly in 2016, after President Donald Trump won the election, Sorkin wrote an open letter of apology to his daughter Roxy and her mother Julia. Read it here: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/11/aaron-sorkin-donald-trump-president-letter-daughter. Tellingly, given the nightmare of Trump’s four years in office, Sorkin began with the words:
Well the world changed late last night in a way I couldn’t protect us from. That’s a terrible feeling for a father. I won’t sugarcoat it —t his is truly horrible. It’s hardly the first time my candidate didn’t win (in fact it’s the sixth time) but it is the first time that a thoroughly incompetent pig with dangerous ideas, a serious psychiatric disorder, no knowledge of the world and no curiosity to learn has.
A very interesting reaction to this letter was written by Jenna Martin in the SBS Blog: “I found this letter particularly poignant, and hilarious, because as far as I’m concerned, there is only one person to blame for Trump’s victory: Aaron Sorkin, who, in making a career out of rousing political fare like The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War and a little-known show called The West Wing, has unintentionally created a generation of people who won’t get off their bums to support a candidate that isn’t ground-breaking, earth-shattering or awe-inspiring. For the Gen Y’s and millennials of this world, “competent”, doesn’t cut it.”
I know our household have spent hundreds/thousands of hours ttansfixed to the television, perfectly enthralled by the characters that Sorkin has created. And on balance, I am glad Sorkin “raises the bar” for what we can expect from people. We need to be inspired.
Anyhow, here you can see some amusing West Wing Bloopers. Enjoy.
Sorkin’s work has enriched so many lives.
So: what was your favourite Sorkin moment or show? Do let me know!
And for my friends and colleagues in lockdown in Sydney or Melbourne, hang in there. Hey! Maybe you could watch some Sorkin drama?
Tags: aaron sorkin Academy Awards acting drama film Golden Globes Oscars political writing satire screen writer Screenwriter scriptwriter Sorkin teaching television series Vanity Fair West Wing writer