Those Four Walls
Aaron Sorkin talks The Trial of the Chicago 7, the origins of his career, and the kinds of stories he likes best.
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Hollywood would be a very different place if Aaron Sorkin had decided to pursue his earliest show business dreams. Taken with the stage since childhood, he long harbored notions of becoming a performer, maybe even a song-and-dance man on Broadway. By the time he realized that acting might not be his calling, he’d already begun flirting with life as a different sort of storyteller.“I wrote a one-act play, submitted it to a one-act play festival, and it was accepted,” Sorkin recalls. “I cast myself opposite Nathan Lane. I was onstage one night doing the play, and with my playwright’s eyes I was just watching Nathan, saying, This guy is great. Wouldn’t it be great if all the actors in my play were as good as Nathan? That was the last time I acted.”Sorkin, of course, became one of the most lauded writers in contemporary film, television, and theater, known for the indelible rhythms of his impeccably scripted dialogue. His work is sophisticated, substantial. He tells stories for adults, about adults who find themselves in the throes of obsession or in the grips of crisis. The Trial of the Chicago 7, which he both wrote and directed, is no exception.Starring Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen as real-life antiwar activists Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, the drama centers on the legal battle that arose in the wake of the 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It’s the sort of terrain that Sorkin likes best: a tale rooted in American history, about clashing ideals and outsized personalities willing to give their lives for a cause.
Queue’s Krista Smith spoke with Sorkin for her podcast Present Company.Krista Smith: You are a master at stories about American ideals and institutions and ambitions. What is it about an idea or a character that gets you hooked? How do you know when you have something?
It was Friday night. I didn’t have $3 in my pocket . . .”
You originally wanted to be an actor. Talk to me about that moment when you finally put a piece of paper in that typewriter and decided, This is it.
AS: There was an exact Friday night when it happened. I went to college to study theater. I got a B.F.A. in musical theater from Syracuse University. After graduation, I came to New York, and I was living in my ex-girlfriend’s studio apartment. For $250 a month, I got to pull a futon out of her closet and sleep on the floor. There was a friend of mine from high school who had just moved to New York, who was trying to make his way as a journalist. He had with him his grandfather’s semi-automatic typewriter, a typewriter with electric keys and a manual return. He was going out of town for the weekend with his girlfriend and he didn’t want to schlep it with him, so he asked me if I would hang on to this typewriter for him.
You can say that now, years later, but I imagine at the time . . .
AS: No, I promise you. It was every playwright’s first play. I would say that it’s in my drawer, but I won’t even let it in my drawer.
I love those four walls.”
It’s funny how that never leaves. I’ve found that with the talented people I’ve been around in my career, it is something that is true for every single one of them.
AS: I don’t know, maybe you need that as a motivator. I feel like I could be plenty motivated without it. I wouldn’t mind not feeling the anxiety. But again, when I think about it, you should feel anxiety. It’s a big deal. You made a movie. You’re asking people to come see it. It should be important enough that it makes you nervous.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 : Clearly, you still love a courtroom.
AS: I love those four walls. Watch as I compare myself to an adorable animal: They say that when you bring home a new puppy, you should get a crate that’s just big enough for the puppy to be able to turn around in, but no bigger, because they really like the comfort of that tight space, of those four walls. I’m the same way. That’s why practically everything I write is people talking in offices. If it can be a courtroom, that’s best because the intention and the obstacle are clear. The jury is a stand-in for the audience; they know as little as the audience does. The stakes are so high. There’s a scoreboard. I love being in a courtroom. Being outside in a giant park and staging a riot? That’s terrifying. Not even staging it, just writing the three letters “E – X – T” — which means exterior — I start to shake.
Watch The Trial of the Chicago 7
on Netflix now.
Listen to Aaron Sorkin
on Present Company now.