There was a lot of hearsay around who would end up making the new Steve Jobs biopic. The Aaron Sorkin script, based on Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, had Christian Bale, David Fincher and initially Sony attached. Eventually, they all ended up leaving the project. There was much anticipation surrounding who would take the reins.
In November of last year, it landed with Universal with Danny Boyle directing, Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak. With Sorkin’s sharp script illuminating Jobs’ journey as a father and mastermind in an enlightening approach, the final team is wonderfully harmonious. Boyle is known recently for winning the Academy Award for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire and garnering extensive critical praise for 127 Hours. He’s an incredibly visual director, providing a necessary juxtaposition to Sorkin’s fiercely dialogue-driven script. Boyle makes something that could read as a play on paper; appear as a kinetic work of cinema.
Steve Jobs, which opened October 23rd, explores three product launches in Job’s career, culminating in the reveal of the iMac in 1988. The story surrounds Jobs with some of his most influential relationships—Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Steve Wozniak (Rogen), his wife Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterson) and daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo). The interconnection of these three influential launches with the maze of Job’s complex relationships provides a keyhole view into his existence. As Boyle puts it, “You want your heroes, your anti-heroes, to be humanized because we’ve all got stuff like that that we need to work on.”
Paste had a chat with Boyle this past week about taking on Sorkin’s script and the challenge of bringing the characters to life through dialogue. He reveals techniques in the editing room, finding the human moments within Jobs and why he’s drawn to telling stories about struggle and survival.
Paste: I’m a theater nerd, and I know you’ve done a bit of theater yourself! I love to see you take on such a theatrical, dialogue-heavy film!
Boyle:It’s unusual in cinema to use words in a cinematic way. Everyone says, “cinematic” and they think not words. Words are cinematic, as well. They define all our communication. It’s a wonderful opportunity when it’s uncompromising like this is. You can literally capture the restlessness of [Job’s] mind and his body. Genius is really difficult to depict, I think. Mathematics, algorithms, all that—to actually materialize it in front of you rather than people just saying the whole time, “Oh you’re brilliant. Oh, you’re amazing.” [Sorkin] does it through language, which is something we all relate to because we all share it.
Paste: What’s so fascinating is there’s not a lot of subtext in the script. It’s all text. It feels similar to what happens with writers like Shakespeare and Chekov—the characters just say everything. Was it a challenge to bring the script to life when there is no subtext?
Boyle: It was actually. You cannot approach it with any hesitancy—worrying about is there any room? What are we going to do? There isn’t any subtext! There’s no room for being held in silence or just to explore that thought process because in fact the language is everything. It’s the subtext, as well. In a way, it’s kind of like we move towards silence towards the end of the film. [Jobs] finally shuts up, basically. What more can you do with a Sorkin script than in the end you find you have nothing left to say. All he can do is hold his hand up and say, “I’m sorry,” to her.
Paste: You definitely earn that moment. To do so, you have to really focus on the rhythm of that three-act structure. How did you handle that structure with the actors?
Boyle: We wanted the actors to have the ability to run the scene as though it was on stage. There was no safety net. They had to do it in one, but we didn’t want the film to feel like it was shot in one take—it’s not that kind of film. We shot them doing it many, many different ways so you could take it into the editing room and shape it—different camera angles, different perspectives, basically speeding it up. When you’re doing takes, actors have to breathe. They’re human beings obviously. In editing, you can cut that out. It creates a feeling of breathlessness throughout the scene. Then there was the second thing. We began to accumulate other material other than what was scripted. Aaron just writes the scenes. He doesn’t tell you how to do them or any of the inter-laps, but we would collect the inter-laps in the scenes—his girlfriend and their child, Lisa, waiting outside in the other room on the sofa while he bangs on inside about how he doesn’t want to see them. In the editing, you begin to shape perspective and humanize these people who he’s talking about in such a dismissive way. You can begin to illustrate many other things other than the direct language.
Paste: Even if the performances were changed in post, I never felt like they were manipulated in the moment. There are beats. I think of the moment Jobs leans over his desk, alone, after he finds out that Andy has been giving Lisa money for college. How did you find these human moments, moments where you had to take a breath?
Boyle: They naturally emerge as you’re doing the scene when you’ve got good actors who respond to the writing, circumstances and things they know about the characters. It’s not like Aaron writes scenes like, takes a long pause and considers. Those pauses, because there were so few of them, would be enormously powerful when they came. One of the things Michael does as an actor—he’s very uncompromising. He takes you on a journey. You’re not witnessing those silences. You’re feeling them. You feel him begin to be pulled apart as all the death charges that have been laid throughout begin to kind of accumulate as they ignite. There were certain key ones—the one you point out is probably detonated most when Andy H. leaves and [Jobs is] trying to focus his mind on this fucking launch when in fact he’s being told that he’s not a father figure. He wants to be a leader, but he’s not a father figure. You begin to see him come apart at the seams, which is what you want in drama. You want your heroes, your anti-heroes to be humanized because we’ve all got stuff like that that we need to work on. Sometimes these success people, the story of their success and the challenge to get to that success, is so overpowering that you no longer think of them as one of us. Actually, they are all of us. They come out of us. That’s where the dreams and visions come from. They belong with us.
Paste: I really drew parallels with this film and Trainspotting. Although one’s about a genius and then a drug addict, to me, you’re telling the same story. It’s someone fighting and trying to overcome something. Did you approach this film in a similar way?
Boyle: Yeah! One of the ambitions you have is that all of your films will be completely different. In truth, they all end up being completely the same. It’s weird, a couple years ago I had this extensive interview with this journalist and she’d really done her work. She said, “Basically the films are all the same.” And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, “they’re always a guy and he’s got to overcome insurmountable odds and he does.” I said, “Oh, right okay.” [He laughs] There is some truth in that. It’s obviously what you get drawn to. You obviously like that struggle. It gives a sense of redemption at the end or hope because you feel that you can overcome whatever those odds are or you can achieve. In [Job’s case], it’s that you achieve success against the odds, but you also find some personal redemption with your daughter. I’ve got two daughters, so it was very personal for me as well. Aaron also has a daughter!
Paste: Where does that come from personally? Why are you drawn to people trying to achieve something against all odds?
Boyle: It’s true—I think it makes compelling drama! You want to see a journey that’s partly a struggle. I think also there is a sense in cinema where you want that journey to be vindicated ultimately whether that’s in terms of success or in terms of personal reconciliation or the finding of love, true love. Then you can make the journey as vivid and comprising as you want. If you’re going to take the audience on a journey, they deserve resolution that gives them a spring in their step. That can be literally a physical thing like it was in Slumdog Millionaire, to get up, or it can be an intellectual one, a mental one. There’s sadness at the end of [ Steve Jobs] as well, and obviously he passed away and there’s a daughter. She’s lost her dad. Aside from all the world politics blah blah blah there’s a daughter, and her dad’s gone and you’ve got to kind of respect that really but also give people a feeling that they’ve seen a journey that’s held them, and let them think about themselves, think about this guy that they thought they knew a bit about. Maybe there’s another side of it as well—people are complicated. Usually you really find out about them in their family relationships. We all have those families, and we can all relate to it.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.