The curious case of the writer who outshines his directors
Sorkin-esque. It’s become a recognisable identifier; a style of writing distinct enough to justify an Amy Schumer parody. It’s the walk and talk, the mile-a-minute dialogue, the behind the scenes look at a world of which we normally only see the polished surface.
But it’s more than that. Take Steve Jobs. Danny Boyle’s name is certainly on the poster. He’s an Oscar-winning director. Michael Fassbender’s face is there too. He’s an Oscar-nominated actor. Kate Winslet won one. Yet the narrative around the film is all Sorkin. Steve Jobs the film belongs to Aaron Sorkin far more than it belongs to Danny Boyle, or any of the cast.
In the world of film, it’s a rare, curious position for a writer to occupy. Writers are usually in the shadows, a distant third banana. For the writer to occupy any kind of position in the mind of the audience, or the promotion of the movie, is an achievement in and of itself. For that position to be as prominent as Sorkin’s is rarefied air indeed.
And it’s no freak occurrence either. Sorkin shared equal standing with David Fincher – a brand-name, and one of the most distinctive, interesting auteurs around – on The Social Network.
There’s arguably only one other writer who commands the same mindshare, and that’s Damon Lindelof. Maybe it’s their shared TV origins. If the director is king in movies, writers are very much on top in television. It’s the showrunner whose voice shapes a series; the director of the week is there to service this vision. For these high-achieving few, their small-screen success appears to be bleeding over.
But Lindelof’s films still feel like they’re filtered through the director, whether Brad Bird on Tomorrowland, or Ridley Scott on Prometheus. Vince Gilligan wrote movies post X-Files and pre-Breaking Bad. He’s credited on Hancock. It’s no knock to think even he might struggle to write a movie that truly delivered the ‘Vince Gilligan voice’ we all know and crave if he weren’t also in the director’s chair. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, feels like unadulterated Sorkin.
It may be that Sorkin’s style demands an allegiance to his words in a way others’ simply don’t. The whip smart dialogue comes so thick and fast that perhaps directors have no choice but to get out the way. It’s no coincidence, surely, that Steve Jobs would work on stage with barely a tweak. Whether you view this is a natural product of the story or of Sorkin’s style, or if you think director-proofing is a goal unto itself, depends on the level of deviousness you choose to ascribe.
Just as we’re getting TV projects like the first season of True Detective, or The Knick, on which a single director takes on equal importance to the showrunner, it’s interesting to find the reversal in movies. Ultimately the status quo is unlikely to change – the demands of a one-off movie are fundamentally different to an ongoing series – but if we can get a few more Steve Jobs out of it along the way, then that more than counts as a win.