With the parameters of TV continuing to explode, most movie directors are finding their way to the small screen. But that format’s maestro, Aaron Sorkin, is finally making his mark as a director on the big screen with his feature adaptation of the book Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom. While some believe low budget dramas are bound to be boxed out by event films on the big screen, Sorkin’s fingerprints are proof that there’s no greater place than the cinema when it comes to high stakes, stylized drama. “I’m in denial about the business changing. I only know how to write the way I write and I hope I don’t outlive my usefulness,” says Sorkin. The STXfilms/eOne/Mark Gordon Company film goes wide tomorrow in 1,608 theaters after a limited Christmas Day debut that has grossed close to $7M.
You’ve written some iconic movies with riveting protagonists: The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs and now Molly’s Game. For you what’s the through-line between Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Beane, Steve Jobs and Molly Bloom?
I had never thought about that. Zuckerberg was an anti-hero, so was Steve Jobs. Billy Beane was a genuine movie hero and so is Molly Bloom. I knew that from the moment I met her. An entertainment lawyer I knew socially asked me to read the book and it was a fantastic ride. But when I went to meet Molly, she wasn’t the person I was expecting. The person I met was brilliant, strong as a tree, sly sense of humor, and built of integrity. The book was just the tip of the iceberg and she left the breadcrumbs of a great story. But there would be hundreds of hours [of discussion] after that.
After I met her, I got a call from [producer] Mark Gordon who heard I was interested in the book as well. So we decided to work together to option it. We set it up at Sony at the time when Amy Pascal was head. She bought the book and attached me to write. When Sony changed hands, Mark wanted to finance the movie himself.
When did it become evident to you that Molly’s broken relationship with her father was the crux of a film about a glamorous poker room host?
That wouldn’t become evident in the first hour of our meeting. It wasn’t until we became comfortable with each other. She only spent a few pages on him in the book. He drove the kids hard in regards to academic and athletic excellence. What became fascinating to me was how and why she didn’t tell her full story about him in the book. What ended up in the movie were two stories married: her story from the book as the world’s biggest poker game runner, and the present day story of Idris Elba’s lawyer-character trying to keep her out of jail. “I’m going to figure you out,” he says. In their second scene together, he’s asking the same types of questions I was asking her through that research period. I wanted that dramatic journey I took where I wasn’t expecting much from the meeting to believing she’s a real life movie heroine.
There always seems to be a lot of development drama when it comes to bringing your films to the screen. Steven Soderbergh was attached to Moneyball and dropped out. Steve Jobs went through a number of cast attachments and budget changes with Sony attached before the film moved to Universal. Why is this?
First of all, there aren’t a lot of movies written by anyone anymore that have a smooth no problem path to the big screen. Social Network had no problem getting to the screen, but you’re right about the others. The scripts I write aren’t no brainers to green light. I don’t write a straight down the middle movie; there’s a slight knuckle ball aspect, like the three-act structure in Steve Jobs or the voiceover dialogue in Molly’s Game. It isn’t an easy movie to label exactly: It’s not Wolf of Wall Street and it’s not Rounders. So while some studio heads get excited after they read a great script, they get nervous when their marketing departments say, “We don’t know how to sell this.” Studios are more comfortable with making $100 million movies than $30 million. That said, I’m incredibly lucky that every one of my movies has been made.
Why direct now? You even stayed away from directing your own TV shows. Did Amy Pascal ever lobby you to direct at Sony?
When I write a script, I always want the best director. As far as West Wing goes, I had Tommy Schlamme and his crew of great directors. I was never thinking of directing episodes because that meant not writing an episode or two. You need to prep and do post. The only other time I thought about directing was The Social Network. Amy and Scott [Rudin] wanted me to direct. I was about to say OK when it was decided that David Fincher would take a look. I thought once he passes, I’ll direct. David didn’t pass, and good thing for me because he made the best possible version of The Social Network. My reasons for saying yes to Molly’s Game was because there’s a gravitational pull with the project toward the shiny decadence of its glamour and Hollywood names. I wanted to tell a story against the backdrop of this, with a bigger, deeper emotional story at the forefront. The first time I met Molly, I thought in this case, I might be the best director.
Your films deal with power struggles. The industry has been rocked by sexual harassment allegations and purging itself of men who’ve been awful to a number of women. As a tale of female empowerment, how does Molly’s Game add to the conversation?
Molly has to navigate a world filled with powerful men, many who feel as though she’s not respecting their power enough, and they feel the need to punish her in a big way. That feels relevant to today. I’d gladly trade a fortunate time for the movie to be released in a world where these things haven’t happened. I doubt they will stop happening and the only incidents we get to hear about are those in Hollywood, politics and the media where we know the names of the perpetrators and the victims. When a senior partner in an investment bank sexually harasses a junior partner, or a manager of restaurant harasses a waitress, the media isn’t going to cover those victims. So, I think that Molly’s Game is going to resonate.