Director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Walter Issacson, (writer of the authorized Jobs’ biography), along with actors Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg took to the stage after the New York Film Festival press screening of Steve Jobs. The conversation centered on creating the characters of this film based on the actual people and making them their own and not a caricature. The cast spent time with their real-life counterparts to learn more about them.
Danny Boyle: “It wasn’t about the actors being a look alike or imitating physical mannerisms of the real people. Jobs was a historical figure. His life was really Shakespearean.”
Adapting a book into a screenplay can be challenging in and of itself, but it can be further challenging when the book is a biography. Examples of book to screen adaptations based on a real person include The Aviator, Schindler’s List, Ray, The King’s Speech, Lincoln, Raging Bull, 12 Years a Slave, American Sniper, Frida, Wild, and Straight Outa Compton.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network (for which he received the Oscar® for Best Adapted Screenplay) shares similarities to the script for Steve Jobs; The Social Network is about the behind-the-scenes of the founding of Facebook and Steve Jobs is a behind the scenes look at the founder of Apple.
The structure of the Steve Jobs screenplay is literally set in three distinct acts — each taking place backstage at a major iconic product launch — the Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and the unveiling of the iMac in 1998.
Sorkin: “It started from Walter’s book. I know what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do and that was a biopic. That was a cradle-to-grave structure that audiences are so familiar with and I didn’t want to land on all the greatest hits.”
“I like claustrophobic spaces. I like compressed periods of time. I like the ticking clock. I like things that are behind the scenes, in this case literally behind the scenes. I wondered if I could take all of the work Walter had done (in his biography) and if there was a way to dramatize the points of friction in Steve’s life and dramatize it in this way. I identified five or six conflicts in Steve’s life and have those conflicts play themselves out in these scenes backstage—in places where they didn’t take place.”
When adapting a book into a screenplay, find the shape of the story and the story arc. One major plot element in this film that drives the engine of the narrative forward is Steve Jobs’ initial denial of paternity of his daughter, Lisa. The story arc is Steve finding his way to being a father to her by the end.
Unless you are writing a documentary, there are liberties to be taken. Fictionalizing events, combining several characters into one, and reorganizing the time lines are just some of the elements that can be employed in the adapting process. Consider what makes the main character in the biography interesting to you and what elements of the story you find engaging. Use the answers to these questions as your jumping off point. Find the essence of the story you are adapting and bring your characters to their new lives in your screenplay.
From Steve Jobs:
Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.
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