This story originally appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Over a career that has ranged from “Trainspotting” to “Slumdog Millionaire,” from “Shallow Grave” to the London Olympics’ opening ceremony, Danny Boyle has put tens of thousands of words of dialogue on screens around the world. But it’s unlikely he’s ever dealt with such a concentrated barrage of verbiage as he does in “Steve Jobs.”
Aaron Sorkin‘s 185-page script channeled its subject’s antisocial brilliance, and Boyle turned that into a richly cinematic thrill ride that consists of little more than conversations inside three theaters at three different product launches.
Admit it: When you first read Aaron Sorkin‘s script, didn’t you think, “Oh my God, there’s too many words in this thing?”
Danny Boyle: [Laughs] If you allow yourself to get in that mind-set, I think there would be too many. So we didn’t let ourselves get in that mindset at all. We had to see it as an invitation.
An invitation to what?
To come up with ideas that match the linguistic brio. I remember being blown away by how bold it was to actually do structure like that. I personally think it’s the ultimate Sorkin script. How do you deal with these geniuses? Genius is a difficult thing to relate to, especially in a mathematical, cold world. And he does it through language, the thing we all share. The thing about Sorkin is, his vocabulary isn’t extensive. It’s not like he’s writing linguistically challenging stuff, you know? But the rhythm of it is so adventurous. I loved the boldness of that, and I loved that he moved toward this recognizable world at the end, where a father has to hold his hand up to his daughter and ask forgiveness, really. Which is something we can all relate to.
You’ve got three locations, and you can move the conversations from room to room. But making it interesting cinematically must have taken some careful planning.
Well, that’s what was exciting about it. You can say the script had 185 pages of dialogue, and that’s true. But it was also 185 pages of momentum. It’s Jobs’ relentless mind, the sound of his mind as we called it, and that’s physicalized as soon as you put it on screen. So we tried to use those three spaces very expressionistically.
In what way?
In the first act, you start with the empty chairs, because it’s the idea that there’s his huge audience out there for it, but they don’t know it yet. And then the second act, the operatic act, is a gift, because there’s a subterranean river of intention running through it. So what do you do? You set it in a place [the San Francisco Opera House] that’s giving you all sorts of clues the whole time that this is the revenge act, this is high-drama theater, this is an orchestrated execution. And for the third part, we went in the Davis Symphony Hall, and it had these acoustic panels above the stage. They were so perfect: You just thought, “That’s the iPod, it’s right there.” It’s the clean lines, it’s austere but beautiful, it’s full of sound. And so we designed the dressing room to look like that, so it begins to look like you’re inside his mind–which you are, in a way.
But the second act leaves the theater a lot, particularly during an argument with Apple CEO John Sculley that’s intercut with two earlier con-frontations between Jobs and Sculley.
Yeah, cutting backward and forward between the scene in his house at night and the scene in the boardroom. That was exciting. It was written to intercut, but our editor intercut it in a way that was a real piece de resistance of film editing, I think. It’s really like an action movie with words, which is how we used to talk about it. And I loved the setting for that scene, a room with chairs up on all the tables. I remember walking around the opera house, and the cleaners had been in, and they put the chairs up on the tables so they could wax the floor. It was like a setting for one of those South Korean movies where there’s going to be a battle between henchmen. In that movie, they would all take the chairs and smash them to pieces over each other’s heads. And in your final shot, the floor would be littered with the residue of the chairs.
I thought of “Birdman” in the backstage sequences-because even though there are a lot of cuts, it has the feeling of being shot in long, continuous takes.
That’s because we basically did shoot long takes. When “Birdman” came out I thought, “Oh my God, it’s going to be the same thing, isn’t it?” When I went to see it I was delighted that it wasn’t, of course. We did long, continuous takes, but that was really for the actors, to get them into the flow. And then we would shoot many, many different versions, which gives us the ability in editing to make it feel cinematic. Because they’re in the flow of performance, you get the sense of momentum that you get from long takes, but you also get the manipulation that you get from film editing. The actors did it, as you would imagine, at a great pace, but you can always speed things up in editing. You can take out the breathing that has to go on when actors do a six-page scene. And when you do that, one of the weird effects is that it makes the audience feel breathless.
There are obviously pitfalls when you’re dealing with real people. And in this case, Jobs’ family didn’t want the movie made, and some of his colleagues have criticized it as well.
Yes. It’s so difficult dealing with real people’s lives, and it’s why you have to have an important story if you’re going to do it. And when you’re dealing with people who just recently passed away, you are always going to be dealing with grief, or with personal sensitivity. I think the thing that is different about this is that Jobs was a huge public figure and a massive influence on all our lives. And I’m afraid, however unpopular this may be with his friends and family, he is a major figure in our lives, and it’s incumbent upon us all to look at his work, look at his legacy, see where it’s pointing us.
Did you talk to Jobs’ friends and colleagues depicted in the film?
Yes, we spoke to all of them. I spoke to everyone depicted apart from Chrisann Brennan, who Aaron had spoken to once. I spoke to [Jobs’ daughter] Lisa once, but she didn’t come into the rehearsal room. Everybody else who’s depicted came into the rehearsal room, which was really nice. And one of them, Andrea Cunningham, actually wrote a review of the film. It’s just bizarre, isn’t it? That’s the modern world: Not only are you playing real characters, they’re actually reviewing the movie on a website. Oh my God, the future has arrived.
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