Brow Beat

Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs, The Social Network, and “Owning” Sorkin’s Dialogue

Danny Boyle on the set of Steve Jobs.

Photo by Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures.

In the four years since Steve Jobs’ death, there has been no shortage of literature mythologizing him, and the latest incarnation arrives on Friday surrounded by plenty of Oscar buzz. With a cast that includes Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Kate Winslet (original Mac team member Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogen (Steve Wozniak), and Jeff Daniels (former Apple CEO John Sculley), Steve Jobs stages behind-the-scenes drama around three critical tech launches: the 1984 announcement of the Macintosh, the 1988 introduction of NeXT, and the 1998 unveiling of the iMac.

On the eve of its screening at the New York Film Festival last weekend, I spoke with director Danny Boyle about what it’s like to work with Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, the act of mythologizing powerful figures, and what Jobs’ troubled relationship with his daughter, Lisa, means to him.

Sorkin’s script is partially based on Walter Isaacson’s book of the same name. Had you read the biography before you got involved?

I’ve got to be honest, I hadn’t read the book, I hadn’t seen that other film, so my first experience of it was reading this script, which is a great way into it.

How familiar were you with Jobs before you became involved in the film?

I guess everybody would have that sort of common knowledge of him with a bit of a reputation (and the products obviously), and then some visual knowledge of the launches, really, which of course was one of many industries that he literally revolutionized and mythologized … It was an extraordinary deep-end conversion or experience of him through the script and Sorkin’s approach, which was Shakespearean, really. It was factual, it’s true. But a lot has been jettisoned in order to penetrate as far as possible through three kinds of light areas, three microscopes, rather than skim the surface of as much detail as possible …

I mean I [eventually] read the book, and it was a terrific book—a great piece of journalistic reportage of gathering all the stuff, because there are so many opinions about him and facts and controversy and disagreement about stuff. But Sorkin put his marker down, and that fills you with confidence because you think this is the way to go—we’re not gonna try to cover everybody’s opinion. This is our take on him and there will be many others and different ones but this is ours, you know?

In previous conversations, you’ve zeroed in on an idea of filmmaking: that it doesn’t always have to be about facts, but rather, truthfulness. What sort of truthfulness were you hoping to communicate in the movie?

I suppose in the end it’s hopeful. Because what you’re doing is you’re moving him from the position that is not contested, it is acknowledged by pretty much everyone involved of his attitude to his daughter and his concentration of his work at the expense of that. You really move from that towards some kind of redemption I suppose, where he recognizes both—how he has not behaved with sufficient grace towards her, and within that, this is what we’re trying to do, is some self-recognition then of how that has resulted from his own insecurities about his own adoption.

It is incredible. His parents, his biological parents were 23 when they put him up for adoption, and he was 23 when he was the father of Lisa. Yet he repeated a pattern of behavior that he imagined more than he actually felt—because he acknowledged that his adopted parents were brilliant parents, were wonderful parents. But he was unable to leave that behind, so he begins to understand that his problem is obviously with father figures and that [John] Sculley [former CEO of Apple in the ’80s and early ’90s, played by Jeff Daniels] has been a huge let down for him as a father figure. And he feels a betrayal that he links to his own biological father, and he begins to see through that wreckage—his own insufficiency despite the success, despite the fact that he has made the most beautiful products in the world … You move toward a kind of understanding of something that brings him back to all of us. These people who are out of sight achievement wise, they’re influence on the world, the way they shape the world is so extraordinary and fundamental.

But actually you lose sight of the fact that just like the rest of us they have stuff to work on – that we’re full of flaws. And that’s the idea of it, really. And I feel that it’s truthful. I believe in that as much as I believe in facts. And so that kind of movement to a kind of redemption is something that’s available to all of us and actually connects all of us in a way … And the problem with facts of course, as we know, is they’re just utterly fucking contradictory! They just don’t make any sense at all sometimes. I’d hate to be a documentary filmmaker—I don’t know how you do it! You just have to depend on these facts because they change all the time as well. But as a dramatist I think there’s a truthfulness that’s available to you if you are honest enough with what is available to you—the facts, and then analysis or interpretation of those facts.

One of the things you’ve also mentioned is that you see Steve Jobs as a kind of Part II for The Social Network. What ideas did you take away from Fincher’s film that you then applied to this?

Just a brilliant film. I loved that film before I got this script. Big fan of Fincher’s, he has a big reputation but I don’t think he is acknowledged as much as he should be. He’s a great classical director. Everyone said to me, oh don’t watch The Social Network, we don’t want to be compared to [it]. But I said, it’s not a question of compare—this is like the second part. And there will be a third part—[Sorkin] hasn’t written it yet, he probably doesn’t know what it’ll be, but I’m sure there will be. And they said oh yeah watch West Wing rather than Social Network. [But] I did watch Social Network and learned a lot from how David owned the material. You gotta own Sorkin’s material—he’s a provocation to you, which can be very intimidating if you let it be …

And seriously these are very important films to make about these people. Because these people shape our lives and are almost out of sight in terms of success and power. They literally dominate governments now, as we know … They’re richer than most nations on earth. And they have enormous power. And you can see it with the whole Uber thing. Suddenly huge cities like London are going like, Uber, oh what do we do, what do we do?!? And so it’s important to keep brining these people to account in different ways, and film is one way of doing it. Novels, Dave Eggers’ The Circle is another one. Write about them, because you gotta keep them in sight because there is this benign sense about them changing the world. And it may well be benign and that’s a great thing but let’s make sure it is. Let’s make sure it’s always coming from a good place and all that kind of stuff. So yeah it felt like—I was very proud to make the second part of this and I think there’ll be a third part.

What do you think the third part will be?

I don’t know. It’ll be interesting just to see. You can’t prescribe it, it’s got to come naturally. He—Aaron—does have a wonderful way of using language as a way of representing genius. Because genius is really difficult to do on film, isn’t it? How many times can you see people do algorithms or doing equations endlessly at a computer? It’s just very difficult. So what he does is he uses the nature of drama, language … and he represents their genius.

There are people I admire more than those guys, to be honest. There are people like Tim Berners-Lee who in part developed the World Wide Web but entrusted it so that no cooperation could own it. And the Wikipedia guys who regard knowledge not as an asset to be monetized but as a human thing that belongs to all of us like oxygen. And that knowledge is power as we know, information is power and it should be available to all of us. But they are all part of the equation of a world, because we’re all living in it, I don’t think we realize how fundamental the shift is. Which is why we put Arthur C. Clarke at the beginning [of the film]. To actually say, guys this is really, really gonna change, and we’re just all kind of living through it.

Each act of the film was shot in a different format: grainy 16mm for the 1984 launch, 35mm for the 1988 launch, and digital for 1998. Were you at all inspired by Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, which used different aspect ratios across various time periods?

It didn’t come consciously from Grand Budapest Hotel, though I loved [it]. It came out of really wanting to make the film feel like it was forward momentum, because obviously you were repeating three events with the same people, there’s a very cyclical nature at work there … It felt wonderful to be able to try and represent that through the formats. Especially as you get to the iMac and the digital world, it felt like a real turning point. In 1998 the ALEXA [digital camera] wasn’t available, really … But then that’s very Jobs in his nature—he was trying to see the future and imagine it. They say that if you wanna see what the future looks like you got to invent it … so that felt like a good thing to do.

Two years before that 1998 launch, he launched with his own money, virtually, Toy Story, and I remember seeing it and thinking, “Holy shit everything’s changed.” Because the look of it was so different. And I took my kids along for a sleepy Sunday morning matinee—I knew nothing about it—and I was just pinned back in my seat by like, here’s the future. And he’s doing it through the kids! And it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because in the film, the thing that delights Jobs more than anything is that the kids understand it more than anyone. And that was true, supposedly: he took it to John Lennon’s house, who didn’t understand it, and Mick Jagger’s house, who didn’t understand it. But their kids did. And that gave him more satisfaction than anything because he’s looking forward, and these are going to be digital natives who are going to be able to really use the idea of personal computer power.

Read more in Slate about Steve Jobs: