Lloyd Grove talks to The Social Network writer about empathizing with Mark Zuckerberg—and the art of creating a new personality from scratch. Plus, View Our Complete Coverage of The Social Network
In some ways, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t have had a more empathetic interpreter of his life for Hollywood than Aaron Sorkin, the acclaimed screenwriter of The Social Network.
“Here’s how I empathize with Mark,” Sorkin tells me at New York’s Harvard Club (Zuckerberg is a Harvard dropout), where the Columbia Pictures promotional machine has him being charming and witty in 15-minute increments to a conveyer belt of press junketeers. “I watch the show Entourage and I think, ‘Wow, that looks really cool. I wish I could be part of that life.’ Not only am I part of that life, I’m on Entourage playing myself. And I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in! I empathize with Mark for another reason. He’s got right now—frankly, because of me—the whole world wondering if he’s an asshole, OK? He’s got to pick up the paper every day and see that.” And yet: “The reaction of most people who see the movie is they want to give him a hug.”
The movie—directed by David Fincher, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake, and based on Ben Mezrich’s partly fictionalized book The Accidental Billionaires and Sorkin’s own research, including talks with some of the key players—seems a good bet for big box-office and Oscar nominations. And even the media-shy Zuckerberg, who has made no secret of the distress it has caused him, seems resigned to being turned into grist for mass entertainment.
“It’s a movie—it’s fun,” he said last week during an Oprah Winfrey Show appearance in which he announced a $100 million grant to the Newark, New Jersey, public school system. It was a spectacular bit of largesse that many suspect was timed to deflect attention from his less-than-appealing depiction in The Social Network. “A lot of it is fiction. Even the filmmakers will say that. They’re trying to build a good story,” Zuckerberg added. “This is my life—so I know it’s not that dramatic.”
Although two decades and billions of dollars separate the 49-year-old Sorkin from the 26-year-old Zuckerberg (net worth: $6.9 billion), both men are brilliant, intense, misunderstood, envied, and attacked. Both have been accused of being arrogant and controlling; both have had to defend themselves against complaints of taking credit for other people’s ideas; and both have made a deep footprint on the popular culture.
And—if one accepts Sorkin’s vivid version of Zuckerberg as compellingly portrayed by Eisenberg in this critically admired film, opening October 1—both are motivated by a healthy dose of insecurity and anger.
It’s debatable whether the real-life Zuckerberg, who presents himself as calm and confident, resembles the celluloid version.
But there’s little doubt that Sorkin—whose impressive writing credits include such commercial and critical successes as A Few Good Men, both the play and the film, The American President, and television’s The West Wing—is in touch with his inner misanthrope.
When I ask if he feels any kinship with the much-sued Zuckerberg because of his own experiences as an Emmy-winning writer fending off claims from less successful detractors (especially since Zuckerberg's defendant status in various intellectual property lawsuits form the movie’s dramatic spine), Sorkin seethes.
“This absolutely infuriates me,” he says. After a studio publicist protests my line of questioning, the interview is halted. It is left to Sorkin to salvage the train wreck a few minutes later, taking me by the arm and flashing a grin as he suggests we resume the interview. “Let’s be friends,” he says—and then he thoughtfully answers the question that originally set him off.
“I feel like Mark has to defend himself against these attacks that he stole something,” Sorkin says, “because these guys [Harvard twins and Olympic rowers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, key plaintiffs along with Zuckerberg classmate and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin] had an idea for a website. Mark’s line, ‘If you were the inventor of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook’—that’s coming from me! That’s me unzipping myself and stepping out and shouting at every single hack who comes out of the woodwork and says, ‘Ten years ago, I wrote this script that absolutely nobody read anything about, but it also had a scene in the Oval Office, so you stole it from me.’ What are you talking about? If you were the writer of The American President, why isn’t your name on The American President?”
And despite his perch at the top of the Hollywood ziggurat, Sorkin claims to share with his Zuckerberg character a deep social insecurity. “Certainly I was like that when I went to Scarsdale High [in the posh New York bedroom community where he grew up], but right now I’m like that,” he confesses. “I would like people to think I’m as quick and clever and smart and charming as the characters that I write, so I identify with somebody wanting to build an entire world”—i.e. Facebook—“where they get to reinvent themselves. Where they can socialize in solitude. Where they can do a rewrite and a polish on their own personality.”
Sorkin, who says he isn’t among the 500 million users worldwide who log onto Facebook every day, is skeptical of its social utility. Referring to a young woman who recently posted a Facebook status update about eating too many chocolate desserts and vowing to hit the gym, “I thought this girl was reinventing herself as Ally McBeal. There’s a great beloved American character of the thirtysomething single woman making it on her own in the city that we’ve had since Mary Richards. Now in that wall post, she wasn’t talking to somebody, she was writing at somebody—and she was writing for an audience. That’s what I do. I don’t call that socializing. I call it acting and performing. I feel that socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.”
Sorkin has been awesomely productive as a writer, an occupation he describes as both collaborative and lonely. “I wrote all 45 episodes of Sports Night. I wrote the 88 episodes of The West Wing during the four years I was writing the show. I wrote 22 episodes of Studio 60,” he says, referring to the television shows he created. “I understand that’s different from other shows where the show-runner assigns episodes out, and the show-runner just does a final polish on his typewriter. That’s not what I do. I collaborate with a great many people. I collaborate with the director. I collaborate with the actors. I collaborate with the designers. But I’m a playwright. I don’t write by committee. I write by myself.”
“The reaction of most people who see the movie is they want to give him a hug,” Aaron Sorkin said.
Sorkin has spent much of his career battling cocaine addiction, often free-basing the stuff, and he recently told W magazine that the most difficult thing he accomplishes every day is staying drug-free. “You know, this is something I don’t talk about publicly anymore,” he says when I ask what the differences are between writing while using cocaine and writing without it. “I’ve had nine years and five months now [of sobriety], and I’ll have 10 years… The difference is it doesn’t matter if you’re writing better or worse on cocaine. Don’t use cocaine. You’re going to ruin your life.” He adds that he still smokes cigarettes, but has promised his 9-year-old daughter to cut down his cigarette consumption by half in the coming year.
Clearly, the release of The Social Network is a watershed moment in the life of Aaron Sorkin, who has managed to produce at a consistently high level through talent and sheer force of will.
“What’s great is to have written a movie that people are responding to so positively,” Sorkin says. “It’s really snowballed. The reviews that are coming out—each one is better than the last. Each screening is playing better than the last.” He quickly adds: “The immutable laws of popular culture say the backlash will begin any minute. I keep looking up at the sky to see where the other shoe is going to come from.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.