Geri Cole: You’re listening to OnWriting a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. I’m your host, Geri Cole and each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news, break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes and so much more. Today I’m speaking with Aaron Sorkin writer and director of The Trial of the Chicago 7, now streaming on Netflix. Aaron’s written a few things you may have heard of including A Few Good Men, The West Wing and The Social Network. In our interview, we touched on how he’s been writing The Trial of Chicago 7 for the last 15 years, how intention and obstacle are the backbones of every good story and how his career is kind of like being struck by lightning, if being struck by lightning were a good thing. Thank you again for joining us today and thank you for making this film.
Aaron Sorkin: Thank you for having me and it was a great pleasure and thrill to make the film.
Geri Cole: So I’d like to start by talking about the first version of this film because you started it in 2007, if I’m correct and Steven Spielberg was going to direct.
Aaron Sorkin: In 2006 or 14 years ago, I was asked to come over to Steven Spielberg’s house on a Saturday morning, which just to be clear isn’t common, I don’t hang with Steven. And he told me he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago 7. And I said, “That sounds great count me in.” Left his house, called my father and asked my father who the Chicago 7 were. I didn’t know what he was talking about, I was just saying yes to doing a movie with Steven the way anyone would. So I had a lot to learn and there are a dozen or so good books written about the Chicago 7, some of them by the defendants themselves, there’s a 21,000 page trial transcript. But most critically during the research was that I got to spend time with Tom Hayden, Tom died a few years ago but he was very much alive in 2006.
Aaron Sorkin: And sometime in 2007, I turned in the first draft and the next day our guild went on strike. So of course, I wasn’t allowed to talk to the producer, the director of the studio, we kind of stopped. And for the next 14 years, I really never stopped writing the screenplay. I would just keep writing it, never to reflect what was going on in the world to keep up with current events, always just to make the screenplay better, to just do what screenwriters do. But it kind of kept getting kicked down the road and kicked down the road until Donald Trump was elected president. And he began getting nostalgic at his rallies when there’d be a protest or the old days that, “Carry that guy out of here on a stretcher, I’d like to punch him right in the face. Let’s beat the crap out of him. Those sons of who were in kneeling, the athletes.” Most of whom were black.
Aaron Sorkin: “Get those sons of off the field.” That happened and I had directed my first film Molly’s Game. Steven was sufficiently pleased with that, that he thought I should direct Chicago 7 and that the time to make it with now.
Geri Cole: Absolutely. I feel like you’ve covered so many-
Aaron Sorkin: Sorry, did I.
Geri Cole: Points that I wanted to. No, but that’s good.
Aaron Sorkin: Did I answer before questions.
Geri Cole: Because my followup question was going to be, how much has it changed over these years, especially given that sort of what’s happening in this new tumultuous time and it feels insanely relevant again.
Aaron Sorkin: Well, like I said, it never changed to mirror events in the world. The world changed to mirror the script is what happened. I feel like we’ve been on a 14 year collision course with events. But I never even back in 2006, I never wanted the movie to be about 1968, I wanted it to be about today. I never imagined how much about today was going to be. Even last winter when we were shooting it, we all thought the movie was plenty relevant then, we didn’t need it to get more relevant. But then in May, George Floyd is killed by the police, brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. Now there are protests in cities, all across America and in many of those cities, protestors are met by once again, nightsticks, tear gas and the demonization of protest as un-American.
Geri Cole: Wow. Can we talk a little bit about the process of you trying to weave together these historical accounts and then your fictionalized versions of things? How much leeway do you give yourself, especially since these are real people. Can you talk about your approach to characterization?
Aaron Sorkin: Sure. In terms of fact versus fiction it’s a conversation I think we’re having today because of the crown mostly, but it’s a conversation I’ve been having with people for a few years. Because I from time to time I write nonfiction like Chicago 7, everybody has their own internal compass about what they’re willing to do to the truth. And if your internal compass is broken the studio’s legal department is usually happy to help you out, but here’s the best way I can put it. There’s a difference between art and journalism and there’s a difference between a photograph and a painting. And this isn’t a painting, now that’s not an excuse to just make stuff up for the sake of making a movie better. But that 21,000 page trial transcript because the trial was on those six months long, a movie audience would fall asleep and die hearing that.
Aaron Sorkin: Real trials, aren’t nearly as snappy as the ones that we do in movies and television so a writer does that. Obviously, all of the dialogue is invented that’s something that writers do. People’s lives don’t play out in a series of scenes that form a narrative arc, that’s something that writers do. But what I would never invent for instance, would be Bobby Seale getting bound and gagged in the courtroom. Not only did that actually happen, but all of that dialogue, all of the exchanges between Bobby and Judge Hoffman, not just surrounding his being shackled, but all of his objections throughout the court, those are directly from the transcripts. I felt like that was sacred territory. And I wanted to be able to say, “Absolutely not.” If anyone asked me, “Did you make any of that up?”
Aaron Sorkin: I didn’t invent any of the events those happened. The things that I have to invent are conversations between two people that you and I weren’t there to witness. Not only do I have to invent that because we weren’t witnesses to it, but you have to move a story along. So the answer is, it’s a painting, not a photograph it’s supposed to be subjective. Whereas journalism is meant to be objective. And I think Chicago 7 has not at all perverted history or any of the people in it.
Geri Cole: Can you walk us a little bit through production and what it’s like for you to switch hats from writer to director and when you’re directing, do you still hear that writer voice in your head?
Aaron Sorkin: Yeah, I don’t have two hats and I don’t think of it as a switch of hats. I’ve always been hyper aware when I’m writing that I don’t write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed. So I’m always thinking about that. Thinking about the audience experience and thinking about how this will be performed, not what it looks like on the page, but what it’s going to look like on the screen, a big screen, a television screen, or a stage if I’m writing a play. In neither of the movies that I have directed now, Chicago 7 or Molly’s Game. Did I know that I was going to be directing the movie when I was writing it and that was probably helpful because I think if I knew that I was going to be directing Chicago 7 while I was writing it, I may have tried to find a way to not show the riots because that was pretty scary. But I surround myself with very talented people who don’t have any problem at all saying, “That is a bad idea, let me pitch you a better one.”
Geri Cole: Nice. Has there ever been a time when a director has changed a line or something that you’ve written that upset you, but now that you are a director, you understand what was happening.
Aaron Sorkin: No, there’s never been a time that a director has changed a line. There was one time… It’s not really worth discussing… So no I’ve worked with directors who it’s been a great partnership and they’ve got of notes during the development period and during pre-production, but I and they want the script to be done by the time we’re shooting it. You don’t want to make those kinds of decisions on the floor, in fact, you want to make as few decisions as possible on the floor, you want them made before you get there. So I’ve been very lucky in that regard.
Geri Cole: You also have been very lucky because you had an amazing ensemble cast for this film. Can we talk a little bit about your expectations when you hand the script to actors and that relationship?
Aaron Sorkin: Yeah, you’re right. The cast of this movie, it was amazing. And when I would come to the set in the morning, I felt like somebody was tossing me the keys to a formula one race car. And as long as I didn’t put the car in the wall, these actors were going to win. So I was excited to be working with these actors, I was nervous about a few things. I was nervous because most of these people are used to starting in their own movies and not being part of an ensemble. How would they be about that? They are also different actors, very different actors. And could I make sure that they were all in the same movie? It turned out that I had no reason to be concerned with either of those things. They are in addition to being extremely talented and skilled, they’re very generous actors.
Aaron Sorkin: So they are there for somebody’s big scene, giving them everything they can give them. There would be two, three days in a row where it was all about coverage, where they were sitting at the defense table while someone else was at the stand, while Frank Langella was doing one of his things. And they understood how important the coverage in those scenes were. So never a complaint, everybody just so happy to be at work, everybody by the way working for scale, which they’re also not used to. Steven said, “Take one step forward if you want to be a part of Chicago 7.” And then these were the actors who did.
Geri Cole: Wow, that’s incredible. This isn’t your first political project, obviously, from West Wing to Newsroom and Charlie Wilson’s War, A Few Good Men given where activism is now. What is your advice for writers trying to tell political stories?
Aaron Sorkin: When I write about politics, which just to point out I’ve done a few times, the impetus hasn’t been activism. It hasn’t been that I I’m trying to persuade you of something politically so here I go. When I write about politics it’s because it’s just an area where there’s a treasure trove of stories that I like to tell. I have a style of writing that’s romantic and idealistic and it suits that style. The conflicts that I write about tend to be conflicts of ideas, and so again, the politics suit that style. So with Chicago 7, it began, like I said, it began as, “Oh a chance to work with Spielberg.” And then it was, “Hey, this is a really good story on its own. This is a good story to tell. I have a chance to write a good screenplay here.”
Aaron Sorkin: And then it began to get eerily chillingly relevant. And then it was at a point where I would watch CNN’s coverage of the protests in Minneapolis or Kenosha or Portland and the law enforcement response. And think if you just degraded the color on CNN coverage a little bit, it would look exactly like the footage you used from 1968. So your question was, what advice would I have to a writer who wants to mix their writing with political activism? I would say you have got to cling to the rules of drama and storytelling and let the activism seep into the blood supply of what you’re working, but it’s still about intention and obstacle. It’s still Aristotle, it’s still drama.
Geri Cole: That’s good advice. So I’d also like to talk a little bit about your process. You were saying that you don’t start off having necessarily political intentions, but politics is an area that’s ripe for the types of things you like to write. Where do you write? Do you work in outlines, in cards or have any rituals?
Aaron Sorkin: Yeah. Well, first of all, just going back to the beginning of your question of not starting out with a political motivation, starting out with a storytelling motivation. Take The West West Wing, for example, which I suppose is the most overtly political thing that I’ve written. For me, that started out as thinking, “In popular culture, our leaders, especially our elected leaders have almost always been portrayed as either Machiavellian or dolts.” Idiots. “What if there was…” And I like workplace drama. “What if there was a workplace drama that took place in this very exotic romantic workplace, the White House. And instead of Machiavellian and instead of dolts, the people who worked there were everybody’s competent and dedicated as the doctors and nurses on a hospital show, or that the detectives on a cop show, or the lawyers on a legal drama.” It started from that place, not from a place of political activism, but many of those stories had to do with a clash of ideas and these characters that have strong opinions about those ideas.
Aaron Sorkin: We were going to words that we weren’t used to, remember this show went on the air in 1999 and a lot has changed on television in the last 21 years. But we weren’t used to hearing words like Democrat and Republican on TV. You didn’t want to split your audience in half and this show was going to do that. There was going to be a right and the left and opinions were going to be challenged. Anyway, you asked me about my process. I’ve never used an outline before, but I’m not discouraging anyone else from using it. I use index cards when I get there, especially if it’s not non-fiction there’s a research period. And there’s often a research period when it’s fiction too. Then there’s the climbing the walls period of just weeks and weeks, if not months of pulling your hair out because you can’t think of what this looks like or what it is, what’s the plot? What’s the story that I’m telling? Any of that stuff.
Aaron Sorkin: You finally get a glimmer you’re ready to start. You know what your first scene is, and then maybe what your second scene is. And yet if you have two scenes, you have two index cards and you put them up there and it becomes like walking in the dark with a flashlight, where you could only see as far ahead of you as that beam will go, just a few feet ahead of you. But the further ahead you walk, the more you’re seeing. So I don’t think I’ve ever written anything where I knew how it ended when I started it. I just had confidence that somewhere in the middle I’d figured out… Or by the time I got to the end of the first draft, I would have figured out what it’s about now I can go back to the beginning and change it. I call it the Skylab method of writing.
Aaron Sorkin: In fact, in the seventies, I think it was, NASA sent a satellite into space called Skylab. It was on a seven year mission to collect data, it was an unmanned satellite. And the only thing was when they shot it up into space, they didn’t know how they were going to get it back. But they were confident that the seven years that it was up there, they were going to figure out how to get it back. They did not. So Skylab after seven years came crashing down to earth, but they managed to make it crash in a thousand miles swath across the Indian Ocean so nobody got hurt, but they never did figure out how to I got it back. I still have faith in the Skylabs.
Geri Cole: Wow. That’s fantastic. Also it’s like faith, I guess.
Aaron Sorkin: Yeah. You got to have faith. But what you really got to do is start. For me, the difference between being on page two and being on page nothing is life and death.
Geri Cole: You started in theater and occasionally do still write plays. I’d like to talk a little bit about how theater has informed your screenwriting. And if your process changes at all, going back and forth between the two.
Aaron Sorkin: Here’s what I am I’m a playwright who fakes his way through movies and television. All of my friends who do what I do for a living, they can all tell you who the first AD was on every Hitchcock movie. I can’t, but I can tell you who the stage manager was on every play in the 20th century, I’m a theater geek. I studied theater in college and I wanted to be a playwright. Now I came to New York and got incredibly lucky, hit by lightning lucky if getting hit by lightning was a good thing. I wrote A Few Good Men and a group of really legendary producers produced it on Broadway. And the film rights were bought. And I came out here and did the screenplay for A Few Good Men, my intention being to go right back to New York and write my second play.
Aaron Sorkin: And it’s the oldest story of the book I stayed and I wrote another movie, and then I wrote another movie, and then I wrote a TV series and then I woulds run another TV series. And it was 17 years after my first play that I wrote my second play. But only a few years after that, that I wrote my third play, which was on Broadway. When all of Broadway, all theaters in America actually shut down on March 11th. And we believe we’re reopening in October, November. But yet I’m happiest when I’m in a rehearsal room. I’m happiest when I’m pacing the back of the theater during previews and in movies and television, and I guess I shouldn’t say this in a place where studios can hear it, I’m faking it.
Geri Cole: Well, you’re doing a very good job faking it [crosstalk 00:19:50].
Aaron Sorkin: Thank you very much.