Overcoming Obstacles: An Interview with Aaron Sorkin
Script contributor Sonya Alexander interviews award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin about his new film 'Being the Ricardos', his approach to writing characters, overcoming writer's block, his research process, and so much more
In A Few Good Men (1992), Jack Nicholson delivers one of the most iconic lines in cinema history: “You can’t handle the truth!” In all forms of storytelling, whether it be film, music, poetry or a play, ineluctable, universal truths are frequently delivered. When the writing is clear and concise, those truths are more visible and reach a wider audience. While some artists strive to be niche or indie, most filmmakers want to reach the widest audience they can because that not only means healthy returns at the box office, it also means their art is embraced by the masses.
Inarguably, Aaron Sorkin is a heavyweight champ when it comes to writing. He’s tackled and mastered television and film, with roots in stage plays. That theatre background is certainly what shines through in his ability to write razor-sharp dialogue.
He can’t be pegged with doing a certain genre. From The West Wing to The Trial of the Chicago 7, the scope of the topics he covers is vast. What’s the secret to his writing success? There is no secret. It’s just a matter of putting in the work.
His latest film, Being the Ricardos, is a glimpse at a week in the life of larger-than-life legendary comedian Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz. The film is an ode to a bygone era, to a time when television was King. It was released in theaters on December 10 and will be streaming on Amazon Prime December 21. With its limited locations and emphasis on dialogue, Being the Ricardos has the aura of a play, an environment that Sorkin is incredibly comfortable in. The amazing performances he’s able to get out of the actors is proof that he was in his element directing this.
How much research did you do for Being the Ricardos?
As much as could be done. First, it took me about eighteen months to say yes. Todd Black met with me in 2015 about the project. Directing it wasn’t mentioned at the time. That didn’t come up until after the script. I’ve never written a screenplay that I knew I was directing. Read all the books about Lucy and Desi. Most were not very good. Then I came across Desi's autobiography, A Book. He’s a fantastic storyteller. Once I figured out the structure I wanted for the story, setting it during that one week, I needed to find someone who worked on I Love Lucy. Couldn't find anyone at first. Everyone has passed. I did hear from one person, though. Ron Howard called me. They used to shoot Andy Griffith on the stage next door. He liked going over to the I Love Lucy set because he got to hear adults curse.
What was the most interesting thing you learned about Lucille Ball that you didn't know?
I didn’t know that she'd been accused of being a communist. Also, it seemed she yearned for domesticity. She hadn’t had it, wanted it. It hit me that the most iconic line in I Love Lucy is when Ricky says, “Honey, I’m home” and she’s setting the table. I knew that was how I had to end the movie.
What's your research process for television vs film or does it just depend on the project?
Research depends on the project, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. At the beginning of a project, you don't know what questions to ask. I start talking to people and doing research. But at some point, you have to leave the research behind and start writing.
What excites you about taking on a new project?
When I’m looking for a new project, I’m not looking for a theme or genre. What I ask myself is, ‘Do I have a chance of writing a good screenplay?’ If the answer is ‘Yes, there’s a chance,’ my excitement turns to angst in three minutes…!
What do you do to overcome writer's block?
Writer’s block is my default position! Peppered by ‘I have a thing now.’ I allow myself to be miserable for a bit. I like driving around, listening to music I listened to in high school. I talk out loud to myself. Start arguments with myself. When I was doing The West Wing, I received a delivery from Scott Sassa. It was a headset. He told me he was next to me at a light one time and I looked like a madman talking to myself.
Did you use the headset?
Yes, I did…!
You wrote A Few Good Men as a play on cocktail napkins. What inspired the story?
Yes, I wrote it during intermissions at the Palace Theatre. My sister graduated from law school and went into the Navy. She was sent to Guantanamo Bay. She told me about something that happened down there and that inspired it.
What's been your most difficult script to write and why?
None of them are easy. I’d have to say series television is the most difficult. I’ve had four different shows. With a movie or a play, when you get stuck, you can call the producer or director and talk about delaying the deadline. With a TV series, you have airdates to meet. You have to write, even when you’re not writing well. For me, the most difficult script is always the last one I wrote.
Do you have a different approach to writing female characters as opposed to male?
No. I focus on the characters intentions and obstacles and what tactics they use to overcome those obstacles. Do they succeed or not?
How long did it take you to write the first draft for The Trial of the Chicago 7?
Fifteen years…! What I’ve discovered is a shark will get as big as its tank. Screenplays aren't finished, they're confiscated…!
How do you approach a second draft?
With the first draft, I try to get to the end. Then I’m able to see what the movie is about. If I’ve only fixed one scene, I’ll type the whole thing over again. A five percent change in a story can make a big difference.
Does a screenwriter have to live in Los Angeles to get work?
No. You need to get your work read by people. Whatever way you can, get it in front of them.
Do you outline?
No. I use index cards. I get an idea for the opening scene. I put three index cards on the board. Creating the story is like using a flashlight.
What are you currently working on?
For the first time in a long time, I don’t know what I’m doing next.
Do you find writing exhilarating or exhausting?
Both. It’s ninety percent agonizing. But that ten percent where it all falls into place makes it worth that ninety percent agonizing.
Being the Ricardos is now in theaters and on Prime Video on December 21.