The following is an excerpt from the cover story of the Sept./Oct. 2010 edition of Script magazine:
Aaron Sorkin finds Rashômon at the heart of the world’s biggest Internet success story with his upcoming film The Social Network.
When there’s emotional testimony, I assume that 85% of it is exaggeration.
And the other 15%?
That brief exchange comes toward the end of The Social Network, the upcoming film directed by David Fincher on the genesis, rise and triumph of Facebook… and it’s perhaps telling that one feels no need to explain to you, reader, exactly what Facebook is, so ubiquitous is its hold on the public consciousness.
“Marylin” is a young associate at a big-shot law firm, though wise beyond her years; and “Mark” is her client Mark Zuckerberg, the 25-year-old computer geek who just happened to be—and remains—the youngest billionaire in the world. In the course of the movie, they are partners in depositions over not one, but two gigantic lawsuits: the first involving a group of Harvard classmates alleging that Mark stole their idea, the other versus his one-time business partner who claims to have been muscled out of the Facebook bonanza. At stake isn’t just millions of current and future dollars, but each complainant’s place in history. “Emotional testimony”? No doubt about it.
But while we’re at it, did this conversation really take place? Is there even a real-life “Marylin”? These and similar questions, if posed to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, would surely elicit a resounding “Maybe,” because getting at the truth of what began at Harvard in 2003 and what is now a worldwide influence in 2010 couldn’t be further from his purpose.
Marylin and Mark’s banter is, of course, the kind of quick-witted verbal tennis match one immediately associates with Sorkin who, thanks to The West Wing, Sports Night, and a host of stage, screen and TV triumphs, is one of the few brand-name scribes whose name can be said to be familiar to the general public. But like much of Sorkin’s repartee, it also hints at the work’s underlying concern, which in this instance is: Who exactly is the keeper of the truth?
Everyone in the saga has a different narrative, starting with Zuckerberg himself, whose quirky personality may have played at least as significant a role in his invention as his computer genius, and surely contributed to the personal squabbles at the heart of the lawsuits. Eduardo Saverin, the young Harvard classmate and Brazilian native who provided the seed money for Mark’s project, has his version of what went down when he was tossed out. So do the Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron, privileged rowing stars who wanted to use the Internet to link Harvard men and women and (with classmate Divya Narendra) hired a geeky kid named Mark to do their programming for them… or so they thought… or so they claim to have thought.
Factor in Sean Parker, the wacky visionary who hoped to do for Facebook what he’d failed to do with the music-sharing app Napster (that is, take it to the next level and become rich in the process), and you’ve got the recipe for a clash of viewpoints not seen since Akira Kurosawa assembled a thief, a warrior and his wife, a ghost, and a beggar to bear very different witness to tragedy in Rashômon. As Sorkin describes it, “What I was hoping for was a series of unreliable narrators, just telling us that the filmmakers don’t know what the truth is from here. We’re just going on everybody’s version of it.”
Unwrapping multiple yarns isn’t new in the Sorkin oeuvre. It was a rare week when The West Wing didn’t have the White House, influential citizens, foreign dignitaries, and the press corps struggling to determine which account of some incident or policy was destined to rule the news cycle. And in his most recent, fascinating stageplay, The Farnsworth Invention, which enjoyed a far-too-brief Broadway run in 2009, he set two real-life pioneers in the field of television—self-made inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and self-made millionaire and fabulist David Sarnoff—to debating face to face as to which of them truly owned the patents (and the power and the glory) in the most influential mass communication invention of the 20th century.
What could be more logical than to take the next step and sort out with immediacy and humor the new century’s most influential mass-com invention to date? Just don’t expect any more resolution to the Facebook controversy than Sorkin has brought to any of his other works.
He sought out the Farnsworth/Sarnoff contretemps, but this one fell into his lap. “I got a 14-page book proposal from Ben Mezrich’s publishers, shopping the film rights. On page three, I called my agents and said, ‘I really want to do this.’ It’s the fastest I ever said yes to anything.” Such alacrity and enthusiasm were particularly surprising in that Sorkin could be one of the Internet’s last stubborn holdouts. “I’m not a frequent visitor on the Internet. I send e-mails and that’s about it.” (All of the computer details in The Social Network ended up being provided and vetted by what he calls “the ventriloquist with his hand up my back,” research assistant and UCLA computer science major Ian Reichbach, whom Sorkin praises extravagantly.)
He goes on to admit, “I didn’t know anything about Facebook any more than I know about a carburetor: I’ve heard the term, but I couldn’t open the hood of my car and point to it or tell you what it does.” What drew him to the tale was its universal qualities. “The irony of it is, you could tell pretty much the same story about the invention of a really great toaster.
“The story is as old as storytelling itself: friendship and loyalty. Jealousy and power. Things Aeschylus or Shakespeare would have written about, or Paddy Chayefsky would have written about just a generation ago. Fortunately, none of them was available, so I got the job.”
The self-admitted Internet naif went about researching the phenomenon at the same time that Mezrich did. (In what may make for an interesting Academy dilemma during awards season, the screenplay was at press time billed as “based on” Mezrich’s best-selling The Accidental Billionaires, though Sorkin says that he and Mezrich “were working in parallel; we were able to share a lot of information but ended up attacking it from two different angles.” That’s not an inappropriate state of affairs, perhaps, when your topic is duelling narratives.)
Eager to get to know Facebook if not his own carburetor, the screenwriter set up an open page of his own, one which didn’t require “friending” but simply explained what he was doing and invited others’ input. (“My social network,” he says, “is talking to people.”) He admits surprise that before he shut the page down, over 10,000 visitors came by with stories to tell. And though some of the chat ended up becoming a Q&A on his other work, “I read mostly positive references to friends around the world, or who met their spouses through Facebook, and so on.”
Neither Sorkin nor Mezrich was granted access to Zuckerberg for what Sorkin calls “totally understandable reasons.” But Sorkin did make “contact with a number of people involved who would only speak to me on condition of anonymity, and in some cases, there would be great penalties for them to speak to me. I can’t tell you much about the process of research, but I can tell you I didn’t speak to Mark.”
At the very least, many facts were on record for both writers to absorb. As an undergrad, Mark had created a site he called “Facemash” in which visitors were presented with side-by-side photos of Harvard co-eds and invited to decide who was hotter. (Remember “Hotornot.com”? Facemash took it up a notch.) To feed the site, Zuckerberg hacked into the Internet rosters, known as facebooks, of a group of individual student dormitories and paired up the snapshots.
Who are you gonna send it to?
Just a couple of people. The question is, who are they gonna send it to?
It went viral: Facemash received 22,000 hits within two hours, and Zuckerberg received six months’ academic probation for breaching university security. A short time later, “Thefacebook.com,” as it was first known, went online as “A Mark Zuckerberg Production.” And the rest is highly disputed history.
I told him I thought it sounded great. It was a great idea. There was nothing to hack, people were going to provide their own pictures and information. And people had the ability to invite–or not invite–their friends to join. In a world where social structure is everything, that was the thing.
“I’ve never written about an antihero before,” Sorkin says. “Mark spends the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie as an antihero, and in the last five minutes, he becomes a tragic hero. He starts out with his nose pressed against the window of college life—socially awkward, to say the least—and goes on to invent the most important social-networking apparatus in human history.
“When he saw that he would never be able to sit at the cool kids’ table, he found a way to create his own cool kids’ table that he’d be the president of, never get kicked out of, able to invite anyone into. At that point, the genius, the creativity kicked in and it just got bigger and bigger.”
The story of The Social Network gets bigger and bigger, as well: Multiple characters with their aforementioned conflicting viewpoints keep getting brought in, and the chronology and geography expand accordingly. To keep things under control, Sorkin turned to another of the ancients, whose precepts were instilled in him at a very young age.
“I cling to the classical rules of dramaturgy like a lifeboat. My screenwriter friends grew up studying and loving movies; they can tell you who the second A.D. was on every Hitchcock film. I watched movies like anyone else, but I watched plays like a student of plays. And Aristotle wrote a little 68-page pamphlet called Poetics, a set of instructions and a definition of what drama is. If anything’s wrong with your script, if you’ve driven it into a snowbank, it’s only because you’ve broken one of his rules.
“I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle,” Sorkin insists, meaning he is highly sensitive to determining what the characters want (“intention” or “objective,” as it’s called), and what they, or others, or fate sets in their path to thwart those desires. It’s the clash of highly active characters with diametrically opposed intentions, and obstacles as obstructive as they can possibly be, that makes for great drama.
Moreover, dramatists know that when a play or screenplay is truly unified, every character’s intention—even that of the smallest walk-on roles—bears some relation to, or mimics, everyone else’s intentions. The “spine” of a work of art, in other words, becomes the definition of unity, and so it plays out in The Social Network.
“Everyone in this movie,” Sorkin explains, “wants to be a member of some invisible club that doesn’t have a name or walls. There’s something out there that they want to be a part of but don’t know what it is or how to get there.”
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