“I wasn’t on Facebook. I had heard of Facebook the way I had heard of a carburetor,” playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said in an interview in the Daily’s offices last month. “I can’t pop open the hood of my car and point to it and tell you what it does.”
Despite his lack of familiarity with the popular social networking site, Sorkin — whose works include “A Few Good Men” and the Emmy-winning TV series “The West Wing” — never hesitated in signing on to write “The Social Network,” a film about Facebook’s improbable and tumultuous beginnings, out in theaters today in tandem with Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires.”
“Here’s what happened: I got sent a 14-page book proposal that Ben Mezrich had written for his publisher. And the publisher was trying to shop it around for a film sale and so that’s how it got into my hands. I think I was on page three when I said yes to this. It was the fastest that I’ve ever said yes to anything,” Sorkin explained.
Actor Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, was just as new to the online craze as Sorkin.
“Prior to shooting, I had a cynical attitude toward it,” Eisenberg explained. “I think also, as an actor, I value my privacy a little more … maybe I have a greater sensitivity toward putting information about myself online, because sometimes people write stuff about me online and it’s so mean-spirited and I don’t want to be involved in that.”
Once Sorkin had accepted the project, which would become “The Social Network,” and landed David Fincher (“Fight Club”) as director, he and Mezrich began figuring out what exactly the whole Facebook phenomenon is about. And he had a lot to learn, since the site wasn’t his motivation to take on the project.
“What attracted me to it was that the themes in this story are as old as storytelling itself,” Sorkin said. “Of friendship, and loyalty, and betrayal, jealousy, power, class — these are things that Aeschylus was writing about, that Shakespeare was writing about. Paddy Chayefsky would’ve written this story. Luckily for me, none of those guys were available so I got to write it.”
Sorkin was captivated by the lawsuits brought against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and decided to center “The Social Network” on the company’s legal struggles. Zuckerberg was being sued by his co-founder Eduardo Saverin for allegedly cheating him out of company ownership and by Divya Narendra, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss at roughly the same time for allegedly stealing their idea. From these lawsuits, three different stories of Facebook’s founding emerged.
“I decided that I was going to tell the story of how there are three different versions of the truth and get a ‘Rashomon’ effect,” Sorkin said. “In other words, embrace the fact that no two people are telling the same story here.”
However, when stories of loyalty, betrayal, jealousy, power and class are based off true events and real people, they’re typically met with some degree of controversy. Sorkin is aware some might not appreciate the film.
“I don’t think anyone would like a movie made about the things they did when they were 19 years old,” he said.
“I’m sure that Mark and Facebook would prefer that I only tell the story from Mark’s point of view, but I’m telling it from Mark’s point of view and the point of view of the people who were suing Mark,” Sorkin said. “Facebook’s beef isn’t with the movie; it’s with the testimony given from the people who sued him. I hope controversy isn’t the reason why people buy a ticket. I hope it’s because they heard it was good.”
Some would argue that after seeing the movie, they got a glimpse of a more compassionate Zuckerberg.
“My job for the six-month shoot, every day, was to defend Mark Zuckerberg and my character, because you can’t act in a scene if you can’t defend the character’s behavior,” Eisenberg said. “So I don’t feel like he’s acting in a way that’s mean-spirited or malicious. I think he’s coming from a place of loneliness and feeling threatened.”
The fact that Zuckerberg isn’t always portrayed in the most positive light was actually a relief for Eisenberg. Despite his history of playing well-meaning nice guys (including lead roles in “Adventureland” and “Zombieland”), he said he welcomed the change, as he found it easier to play a rougher character.
“It’s much, much, much less difficult,” Eisenberg said of his role in the film. “Because everything in a movie is really contrived, and so to act like myself in all those other movies … It’s more difficult because the characters are similar to me, my gauge for authenticity is so high. Like, I’m so much more critical of myself because I know if something’s off. It’s so much more obvious to me.”
To prepare for the role, Eisenberg watched videos of Zuckerberg, took fencing lessons (even though Zuckerberg — a known fencer — is never seen fencing in the film) and even attempted to learn some basic programming. However, despite all the research, neither Sorkin nor Eisenberg has ever met the Facebook founder. In fact, if Eisenberg eventually does meet the man whose life he studied, it’s likely to be through a mutual acquaintance.
“When I read the script, I asked my cousin for some help, because my cousin is a computer programmer,” Eisenberg said. “Then a month before the movie ended, he told me he had an interview at Facebook and eventually got a great job at Facebook. And the first week he was there, Mark Zuckerberg came up to him at a party and said, ‘I think your cousin is playing me in a movie.’ My cousin was a little nervous, but then Mark said ‘I think that’s really cool.’ ”
In remaining distant from their real-life counterparts, the cast was able to stay true to Sorkin’s characters and avoid impression-based acting. Still, Armie Hammer, who plays both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss with the aid of body double Josh Pence, did enjoy the fortune of meeting the real Winklevoss twins, the Olympic rowers who sued Zuckerberg for stealing their idea of an exclusive social network.
“It was weird. It was really weird,” Hammer said. “We had a totally different reaction than they had. When I met them I was like, ‘Guys! It’s so good to see you! When you were 15, you remember when your dad told you that and your mom was like, ‘No,’ and then you started rowing?’ And they were like, ‘We just met you and you’re freaking us out.’ ”
Both Eisenberg and Hammer credit Sorkin for writing great dialogue that made it easy to perform, even though Sorkin is known for his incredibly fast pace.
“If you were given bad dialogue, and you had to make it move at that speed, it’d be the hardest thing in the world to do,” Hammer explained. “But because the dialogue is so well written and so thought-out, it just flows. It would be just like you and I having a normal conversation. You do the scene three or four times and then all of a sudden, you don’t have to think about your lines, it just flows. It’s really cool.”
For Sorkin, knowing his cast would be so young made sitting down to write the first scene a little daunting.
“It is the youngest group of characters I’ve ever written about,” Sorkin explained. “And when I was ready to write after months and months of research and months and months of just kind of pacing around, climbing the walls, trying to think of what it was I was going to write, the day came when I knew what the opening scene was and it was time to write it, to actually type it. And I thought, well, I’m going to have to make them sound 19, and what are sort of hip 2003 words? And it was a disaster. I just stopped doing that and I said, to hell with them being 19, you’re just going to have to write in your own voice — just write the way you write and it all went smoothly from there.”
With “The Social Network” opening today, the movie will likely leave audiences wondering how much and which parts of the story were real, while Facebook insiders scrutinize the film for inaccuracies and imperfections. Still, Sorkin emphasizes the right to creative license when adapting real-life events to the big-screen and hopes the public will enjoy the film as a work of art, not a documentary.
“If you take facts — facts that aren’t in dispute about Mark — and you kind of use them as dots and start connecting the dots, what’s in here, what’s between the dots, is character,” Sorkin said. “I would encourage people when they go into a movie and it begins with the words, ‘the following is based on a true story,’ (to) look at it the way you look at a painting and not a photograph.”