He has won six Emmys, two Golden Globes, and an Oscar. The man who wrote The West Wing, A Few Good Men, MoneyBall and The Social Network now makes his directorial debut in Molly’s Game. His phenomenal screenplays have been directed by names as illustrious as Nichols, Boyle and Fincher, so Aaron Sorkin says when he wrote Molly’s Game he had no intention of directing it himself. Not until the producers suggested it did the possibility occur to him. Confident that this tale of money, decadence and glamor was exceptional enough to lift things aloft, but understanding that there was far more to the story than surface gloss, Sorkin finally stepped up to pilot a ship that he built.
Introducing the film at a packed screening room recently, Sorkin praised and credited his cinematographer and editors as co-authors of the film. He tells me, “I’ve managed to learn none of the science of filmmaking.” instead he trusted his cast and crew to make choices as he learned about lenses with his cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen.
Sorkin tells me about his first-time casting concerns. “Would actors like Jessica, Idris and Kevin be willing to work with a first time director? If the answer was no, then we’d absolutely have to find a different director.”
This year’s AFI Festival has honored Molly’s Game by choosing it as the closing night feature, and Sorkin will receive a special tribute. Festival director Jacqueline Lyanga says, “Aaron Sorkin is an American master and we are proud to shine a proper spotlight on his directoral debut, Molly’s Game, on AFI Fest’s closing night. As Sorkin embarks on this next chapter of his career, his talents are timely for a tribute as he brings his gift of crafting compelling narratives and complex characters to the story of female impresario Molly Bloom.”
Read our interview below:
I have to ask, why has it taken so long for you to direct?
I love working with great directors and I’ve had the chance to work with Danny Boyle, Mike Nichols, Bennett Miller and David Fincher. I’ve loved doing that and I set out to write the screenplay without any intention of directing it, but when the producers came to me and said, “We think you should direct it,” I started giving it serious consideration. Because with this particular movie I knew that there was a natural gravitational pull towards the shiny objects. The money, the decadence, the glamor, the sex, and the Hollywood names and the story I was telling was set against the backdrop of those things, but it was a more emotional story about this woman who is this unlikely hero. She’s built out of integrity and has this quiet sense of character who won’t gossip about people for her own gain even if it meant guaranteeing her own freedom. I wanted to make sure that movie got made. I knew I was taking this big risk and that it was possible that I was going to embarrass myself on a very big stage and I was willing to take that risk. The worse thing would be if the other movie got made instead.
Her story is that of a great female protagonist. I was talking to Jessica about this misconception that some have of Bloom, but what was your take?
I read the book first and Googled around, I saw the tabloid story and was not expecting to be impressed. I was expecting to meet a woman who was cashing in on her decade-long brush with celebrity and she turned me around in ten minutes without trying to. We were just two people meeting for an hour. She wasn’t selling me on anything. It was easy to see right away how she’s witty and brilliant. She has this wonderfully dry sense of humor. She’s hyper-confident and as I started asking the same questions that you see Charlie ask in the movie, it became clear to me that the book was the very tip of the iceberg and she left many things out of it. Or she made bad people look nicer than they are because she didn’t want to dish on them.
As she got more comfortable with me she started talking about her father and other stories and it became clear to me that there was a whole other story that we aren’t paying attention to, and that she, as Charlie says in the movie, is not the woman the tabloids have made her out to be.
Talk about your casting process for a moment. Jessica and Idris play so sharply against each other. What’s it like to be on that end of the stick?
One of my concerns when I was considering to direct the movie was, would I be able to cast the movie. In other words, would actors like Jessica, Idris, and Kevin be willing to work with a first-time director? If the answer was no, then we’d absolutely have to find a different director. What I wasn’t willing to do was have a less than great Molly, a less than great Charlie and a less than great father just so I could direct a movie. I met with a number of actresses, but when I met with Jessica, it wasn’t an audition for her. I wasn’t trying to find out if she was suitable for the role. I was trying to discover would this actress who has been directed by Ridley Scott, Kathryn Bigelow, and Christopher Nolan, would she be willing to take direction from a first-time director or would I be taking direction from her.
About two minutes into that meeting, Jessica said, “This meeting is stupid. You should just give me the part,” and that’s how our relationship began. [laughs]
I wanted Idris badly. It had to be more than an offer going to the agent. We were lucky to get him and we were lucky to get Kevin. He was so generous and kind. Now, I’m directing an Academy Award-winning director. When he made his directorial debut, he had to worry about which direction 5000 wild buffalo were going to run in
You didn’t have that.
No. I didn’t have that wild herd of buffalo. He was and continues to this day to be very encouraging and sends me text messages. He tells me “Remember when you go into the mix, this is what you’re looking for.” Or messages like, “When you get notes on the first cut ignore x,y, and z.” He took me under his wing in a very unintrusive way. He was both fantastic in the role and a fantastic presence on the set.
When you introduced the film the other night, you mentioned the collaborative effort with your editors and cinematographer, saying they were co-authors of the film.
Charlotte and the editors of the film were absolutely co-authors of the film. Your first question was why had I not directed. I gave you a truthful answer until now, but in the 25 years I’ve been a writer, I’ve managed to learn none of the science of filmmaking. I don’t know anything about lighting and lenses and I felt that disqualified me as a filmmaker. When I met with Charlotte at our first meeting, we talked about my idea for the look of the film and we decided we’d shoot in two different styles whether we were in present day or flashback. I described those styles and she added some things. I also told her what I told you, that we would need to invent some kind of vocabulary because I don’t know anything. She said, “Don’t worry.” One of the reasons why I was so interested in her wasn’t just because of her work. She’d shot The Girl on The Train and Fences so beautifully, but with Fences, she was working with another first-time director Denzel Washington. She said, “I’ve got something you hold in your hand. I’m going to snap a lens on it and you tell me if you like what you see. If you do, that lens goes on the camera and if you don’t, we try something else.” That actually turned out to be the way it was with a few other departments.
I knew Molly’s clothes were important. I don’t know anything about clothes and I don’t speak in that language. I am simply unable to, and I freeze up at the idea of telling a woman what to wear to please me. Even if it’s a movie, I can’t do it.
Susan said, “You don’t need to know about clothes, that’s why I’m here.” She’d show me photographs and there would be circles around the ones Jessica liked. If I have two to choose from, I still can’t tell Jessica what to wear and I’d be happy with whatever she chose.
I don’t want people who will expertly faithfully carry out my instructions. I want people who are going to be better than my instruction. I want them to say, “I might have a better idea.” Sometimes I’ll say, I stick with what I want to do and sometimes they’ve been able to elevate the film to a better place that I wouldn’t have been able to.
As for the editors, it was the same thing. There is nothing like coming into the editing room in the morning and hearing them say, “We tried something. It might be crazy. Look at it.” Sometimes it’s crazy and sometimes it is fantastic. Those are the people you want to work with.
So, did you enjoy the experience and will you be doing it again?
I loved every minute of it. That is primarily because of the people I was working with, from Jessica to the PA. I am also very proud of what we did together. iIt’s a triumph of collaboration. I love working with great directors and I’m not done doing that. I will direct more and I feel I know more now than I did a year ago and I’m eager to know more a year from now than I do now.