If you want to speak truth to power, then write a story. That was Aaron Sorkin’s message at the 2017 WGA Awards when he picked up his Paddy Chayefsky honor. In his speech, he took aim at then U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration and climate change policies, among others. So, it’s no shock to see him address our freedoms with his Netflix film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which today picked up a WGA nom in the original screenplay category, his 15th scribe guild nomination after winning three. The movie follows protestors, including Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, who were charged with inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Steven Spielberg first assigned Sorkin to write the story, and the 2020 election hastened Sorkin to finally make the movie. To date, Trial of the Chicago 7 counts five Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture Picture – Drama, and Sorkin in the Director and Screenplay categories.
DEADLINE: How does it feel to have Chicago 7 as part of the conversation in the wake of everything that went on in January, including the swearing in of Joe Biden as President?
AARON SORKIN: I watched what happened on January 6, horrified, like everyone else. Horrified by what I was seeing and how it was enabled by the President and by powerful leaders like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. Then the inauguration, it was just like a cool breeze. It was like just having a drink of water after being in a desert for four years. The sight and the sound of normalcy. Not just the inauguration, but Jen Psaki’s first press briefing; the sight and the sound of questions being answered as best they can. Listen, there’s plenty of work to do and a long way to go. I love what Amanda Gorman, the poet, said. But one of the things she said was, “We’re not broken. We’re unfinished.” That idea gives you hope.
So, what does this all have to do with Chicago 7? Well, first of all, Donald Trump did exactly what the Chicago 7 were on trial for. He incited a riot. Not just a riot, an insurrection. Let’s be clear, this wasn’t a protest that went wrong. It was an attack on the U.S. Capitol. They did what they went there to do. I was struck by that in terms of how this relates to the movie. I think that the obvious parallels remain of the protests of the last year, really since May. Legitimate protests and protestors in cities across America being met by police violence, riot clubs, and how much it looked like 1968 and how much it felt like we had just kind of, like a rubber band, just snapped right back to 1968.
DEADLINE: While the 2020 election was a catalyst to get this movie made, what was the eureka moment in your 14-year writing process?
SORKIN: It’s not like I went from a third draft that wasn’t working to a fourth draft that was what you saw on the screen. It was a slow process, a gradual process of writing somewhere between 20 and 30 drafts of the script. At no point was I rewriting so that the script would mirror what was going on in the world. The opposite was happening. The events were suddenly mirroring what was going on in the script. I was just trying to make the screenplay better with each pass and more focused.
I’ll tell you about an early eureka moment that never could have happened when I started this. Tom Hayden was still alive. I got to spend time with him, and there was important stuff I got from Hayden that you would not be able to find in any of the many books written about the Chicago 7 or the 21,000-page trial transcript. It was that personal tension between Tom and Abbie. But it was also ‘our’ that he told me: that he meant to say, “If our blood is going to spill, let it spill all over the city,” which is different from “If blood is going to spill, let it spill all over the city,” which does sound like a command to start violence. That was, for a dramatist, an incredible secret to have in your pocket that you can release in the third act.
DEADLINE: Abbie Hoffman was known for his sarcasm and threatened to put LSD in Chicago’s water supply to protest the Vietnam war. The movie portrays him rather coherently and eloquently, especially when he’s on the stand. Tell us about that.
SORKIN: I was really struck by the very first time I saw a piece of news footage from a press conference that Abbie and Jerry [Rubin] gave early on in the trial. They gave a lot of press conferences, but this one we actually see a moment of in the movie, and it’s when Abbie is asked…it’s after the whole, would you call the whole thing off for $100,000 testimony, which Abbie was joking about. “Give me $100,000 and I’ll call the whole thing off.” In this press conference, a reporter kind of presses him on that and says “What’s your price?” Abbie asked, “To call off the revolution?” The reporter says, “Yeah.” Abbie says, “My life.” Okay. Watching that during the research phase for this whole thing, I suddenly saw, because I had seen tons and tons of footage of Abbie the clown…In this moment, all the clownishness just in an instant drained from his face and he said, “My life.” It was authentic and it was powerful, and I was very interested in that, in Abbie and those moments of transformation.
Even in his big blow-up with Tom Hayden when he tries to make him understand, “I’ve got to put on all these stunts because we don’t have any money and that’s what gets the cameras there,” I knew that the Abbie Hoffman that people were aware of was a lunatic. I thought that there was a lot of value in showing the contrast.
DEADLINE: We often hear stories about screenwriters whose work isn’t properly envisioned by the director who is overseeing it. Did your decision to direct stem from not wanting to be edited?
SORKIN: I’ve had great experiences with the directors that I’ve worked with. I haven’t had that Barton Fink experience that screenwriters are known for, and I’m not done wanting to work with great directors, having that collaboration. With Molly’s Game, Chicago 7, and now with Being the Ricardos, I still haven’t written a screenplay knowing that I was going to direct it. I became the director after I wrote it. It’s never been, “I need to protect this script from a director.” A director is my closest collaborator. With Chicago 7, Steven Spielberg basically threw it at my head. He said, “The time to make this movie is now.” He had seen Molly’s Game, and said, “You should direct it.” And the thing that had been the budget problem for 14 years, the two riot sequences were budget-busters, and he said, “Now the riot is your problem”. So, that’s how that happened. Then with Being the Ricardos, again, I turned in the draft and the producer, Todd Black and I started meeting with directors. And then Todd was able to see a cut of Chicago 7 and he said, “Direct this.” So, my point is, no, I have not had at all the ‘director is ruining my baby’ experience. Just the opposite. My experiences have been, look what Danny Boyle, look what Mike Nichols, look what David Fincher, look what Tommy Schlamme did with this thing I wrote.
DEADLINE: Do you think there’s a sequel in The Social Network, given everything that Mark Zuckerberg has gone through since?
SORKIN: There’s no question that there is a story. Whether you want to call it a sequel or not, there’s a story there. Whether I’m the guy to tell it or not, I’m not sure. What I mean is right now, as we speak, I would not be able to write. I don’t know quite how to tell the story, and I think it’s probably also something I wouldn’t want to do without David Fincher.