Writer In Focus: Aaron Sorkin

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Known for his fast-paced, eminently quotable dialogue, and the ability to eschew industry norms (such as a general trend against characters having long speeches and monologues) without appearing to do so, Aaron Sorkin is widely regarded as one of the best screenwriters working today.

Sorkin started out as an aspiring actor in New York, where he struggled for much of the 1980s, before turning to writing. He worked as a playwright, writing two plays (Removing All Doubt (1984) and Hidden in This Picture (1985)), and gaining a reputation in Broadway. Sorkin’s first success came with his third play, A Few Good Men, in 1989. The play went to Broadway, where it ran for 497 performances and received interest enough from Hollywood to be bought for over $1 million.

As part of the deal to sell his play, Sorkin signed on to write three films for production company Castle Rock Entertainment, with an adaptation A Few Good Men being the first. The film (released in 1992) starred Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, was directed by Rob Reiner, and was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, as well as garnering Sorkin a Golden Globe nomination for writing.

The other two films Sorkin wrote for Castle Rock were Malice (1993), which Sorkin began writing before leaving to work on A Few Good Men (the film was finished by Scott Frank), and The American President (1995). Once his contract was up, Sorkin worked as a script doctor, editing, re-writing, and contributing to films such as The Rock (1996) and Enemy of the State (1998).

After this, Sorkin moved away from film, and began work in television, creating Sports Night (1998-2000). Initially planned to be a film about the goings on behind the scenes of a sports show, Sorkin struggled with finding the correct structure, and turned it into a TV comedy series. The show aired on ABC, but despite critical acclaim (including Emmy awards and a nomination for Sorkin) it was cancelled after just two seasons due to low viewership ratings.

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Photograph: NBC

In 1997, based on spare material from The American President, and conversations he’d had with White House staff whilst writing that film, Sorkin began piecing together the idea of a show looking at the lives of the people who worked in the White House. The West Wing, which ran for eight seasons (though Sorkin only worked on the first four), wound up as one of the most successful, critically acclaimed shows aired to date. The show’s first season won nine Emmys, the highest any series ever has in one year, and won Outstanding Drama and Writing for each of the four seasons Sorkin worked on, along with a host of other awards for acting, directing etc. He also approached his role as showrunner/creator in an unconventional way, refusing to lay out series-long arcs or plots (or even plan more than a few episodes ahead), and instead writing the show week-by-week. The effect of this was to make each episode of the show its own enclosed story more or less, and to create a chaotic, reactionary atmosphere that would more accurately reflect the goings on in the White House. It also allowed the show to consistently reflect the real-life political landscape, and address issues that were in the public consciousness.

During his time working on The West Wing, Sorkin fell into drug problems, suffering from a relapsing cocaine addiction (the subject of a sketch on Saturday Night Live), and being arrested for the possession of magic mushrooms. Sorkin also clashed with executives at NBC, his unorganised management and unconventional writing style leading to the show consistently being produced over-budget and past deadlines. This culminated in Sorkin leaving the show at the end of its fourth season.

A few years after leaving The West Wing Sorkin created a third TV show based on sketch shows such as Saturday Night Live. The show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007), premiered to enormous anticipation, a viewership of over 12 million, and critical acclaim. As its first season went on, however, ratings slipped dramatically, and it was cancelled mid-season.

In 2007, Sorkin returned to cinema, writing Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), before going on to work with David Fincher on The Social Network (2010), a film about the founding of Facebook and the lawsuits that sprang up around it, based on the novel The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. The film was a critical and commercial success, with many critics naming it the best film of the year (and it was a good year). As well as nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Actor at the Acadmey Awards, the film won Sorkin an Oscar for his screenplay. A year later Sorkin returned to the Academy Awards, where he was nominated again, this time for Moneyball (2011).

In 2011, Sorkin signed a deal with HBO to write two shows. The first of these was The Newsroom (2012-2014), a behind-the-scenes look at a network news show (there’s definitely a pattern here). The series’ first season received mixed reviews, but the second and third were more positively received. There has been no word as to what Sorkin’s second project with HBO will be.

Sorkin’s newest work is a biopic of Steve Jobs (entitled Steve Jobs) yet to be released. The film, which stars Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen, and is directed by Danny Boyle, is set to be released in October 2015.

Did You Know?

  • Sorkin learned screenwriting from a book while he was adapting A Few Good Men, and received no writing training of any kind before that.
  • The line “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men was named as the 29th most memorable movie quote by the American Film Institute.
  • The initial concept for The West Wing came to Sorkin on the fly, during a panicked dinner with a producer.
  • Sorkin wrote (or co-wrote) almost every episode of his four seasons at The West Wing, which is the equivalent of writing close to 20 films a year.
  • After leaving the show, Sorkin never watched The West Wing, apart from for a minute during the fifth season, describing it as “like watching somebody make out with my girlfriend.”
  • Sorkin has appeared in cameo roles in a number of his films and shows.

Sorkin’s Favourites:

  • Director Thomas Schlamme worked with Sorkin for almost ten years on Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60.
  • Composer W.G. Snuffy Walden, besides having the best name ever, worked on the same three shows with Sorkin
  • Rob Reiner directed two of Sorkin’s early films, A Few Good Men and The American President, as well as working with Sorkin on advertising campaigns for the Democrats during the 2004 US Election.

The Film/TV Show You Should Watch: The West Wing, arguably one of the best shows ever made. It’s like a happy, 90s version of House of Cards.

 

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A 3rd year English student who likes staring at all the pretty moving pictures. Also books, I suppose. I do take English after all

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