Last year, the “zeitgeist film of the year” was Up in the Air, Jason Reitman’s saga about a lonely man played by George Clooney who travels around the country firing people when companies downsize in bad financial times.
This year, the “zeitgeist film of the year” being heralded is The Social Network, writer Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s compelling look at the 2003 creation of the internet socializing sensation Facebook by young Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and a group of associates who lay claim to his invention.
With the esteemed Fight Club/Zodiac/Se7en director Fincher at the helm working on a much-discussed script by Sorkin (A Few Good Men, TV’s The West Wing) and boasting a cast that includes bright young actors such as Eisenberg (Zombieland), Andrew Garfield (the new Spider Man), singer-actor Justin Timberlake and Rooney Mara (the lead in Fincher’s upcoming American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), it’s no wonder the film is getting early Oscar buzz. Lots of it.
Even though Facebook has topped 500 million users, the studio is wondering if a film about the complexities of its conception—featuring a cast of generally unlikable characters played by generally unknown but well-regarded actors often engaged in courtroom depositions on screen—can really draw an audience?
It is that question that has its studio, Columbia Pictures, sending some of The Social Network’s principals on a barnstorming cross-country publicity tour, targeting cities with big college populations. And it’s that tour that has brought Sorkin, Eisenberg and Armie Hammer, who plays the dual roles (sometimes) of the identical Winklevoss twins (who also laid claim to Facebook’s invention), to a Philadelphia hotel for a day’s worth of interviews, heavy on the college press.
Neither Sorkin, Eisenberg nor Hammer met computer whiz kid Zuckerberg, the film’s main focus, so they had to rely on other methods to make the mercurial character come to life.
“I was unable to meet him,” says the enthusiastic, curly-haired Eisenberg, 27, also known for key roles in The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland. “I only had Aaron Sorkin’s script as a resource. When I auditioned for the movie I felt I had enough to go on based on the wonderful script.
“During rehearsals for the movie, I got every audio clip I could find, every video clip I could find, every article that could help me in the preparation process. But the script is so wonderful, that that was enough.
“I put the audio clips on my iPod and his (Zuckerberg’s) garage band audio on my iPod. Listened to it between takes. It was helpful so I could get into the spirit of him. It was interesting to listen to somebody so successful at an early age who has to do these interviews yet he’s so disengaged at the same time. And he’s doing these interviews and he has to be personable yet you can tell he doesn’t want to be there.”
The Emmy-winning Sorkin based part of his script on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, which told the Facebook story through Zuckerberg associate Eduardo Saverin’s viewpoint.
“There’s a Rashomon quality to the film,” says Sorkin, 49, referring the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film that shows four varying views on two heinous crimes. “I would do that through depositions which would feel like one long day’s journey into night.
“You see Mark at two different stages of his life. You see him as a sophomore when he’s inventing Facebook and you see him in depositions where he’s five years older. He’s been through fire and he’s the underdog being attacked by high-priced lawyers and he has to defend himself. He’s a movie protagonist. What I liked is we got to have our cake and eat it too.
“I want to make it clear that I never met or have spoken with Mark Zuckerberg. I understand the social awkwardness. There’s a real anger there that’s difficult to get past.
“The character of Mark wouldn’t like me even without having met me. I think he is part of a subset of tech geniuses who are extremely angry because the cheerleader is still going out with the quarterback and not them. Nothing has changed from the days he was getting stuffed in his locker. I had to find the parts of Mark that were like me and the parts of me that were like Mark. And then, I had to jump off.”
Sorkin believes the primary reason Zuckerberg created Facebook is simple—and may be surprising to audiences.
“There’s been a variety of reactions to the character, but it (Facebook’s creation) comes out of loneliness. It’s what led him to create Facebook and he goes to parties but he’s in the corner looking at the party and he doesn’t feel part of it and that’s upsetting. At the same time, he’s figuring out how to throw the best party, which is Facebook and how to connect the most people through the tool he created by feeling like an outsider.”
From most accounts, working with Fincher was not a walk in the park. Like Stanley Kubrick, the filmmaker is known for being demanding and likes to do multiple takes using multiple cameras.
“The opening scene—the first film they shot—is a 10-page scene, which is unheard of,” says Eisenberg of a scene in which Zuckerberg has an extended, fast-paced dialogue with a fellow college student played by Mora. “This was incredibly unique, but my background is theater, so I was thrilled because a 10-page scene is short in theater.
“We filmed that scene over two nights and we did it 99 times. I asked if we could do it again just to round out the number, but he (Fincher) said, ‘No, we’re good.’
Hammer, meanwhile, played a huge part in the director of CGI-heavy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s visual wizardry: The 24-year-old grandson of business tycoon/philanthropist Armand Hammer had his head electronically morphed onto the body of another actor. The shoot, he says, was pretty grueling.
“Fincher shoots all day, every day, and I had to do it double (because of my two roles)” recalls Hammer, who was a regular on the TV show Reaper and once was set to play Batman in George Miller’s cancelled Justice League of America motion-capture movie. “There were long days where you film 15 hours and you don’t remember your name. Fincher would shoot things to death so he would get everything. He would have cameras all over the room. For the deposition scenes we shot 12-13 hours a day.
“I never dealt with somebody so voraciously intelligent. It was like going to film school and getting the best Cliff’s Notes ever from the professor. So he and Sorkin are the two brightest minds in Hollywood and they accentuate each other’s positives and turned out something amazing.”
Hammer claims he had manic experiences working on The Social Network. “It’s a definite high signing on,” he says. “Wrapping the film was a low. I had a week or two after I got the part where I am going around saying ‘I am going to be in a Fincher film—this is nuts!’ Then I realized how much work was involved. I knew I had to focus.”
According to Sorkin, who produced the film with the likes of heavy hitters Kevin Spacey, Scott Rudin and Michael De Luca, the decision to make The Social Network took place in almost record time for a major Hollywood studio production.
“This all happened very fast. When it was offered to David (Fincher) he said ‘yes’ on two conditions. One was we have to do it right away. We have the make the movie now and not a year from now.
“I think he had a fear that because technology changes so fast that something was going to happen to make this movie obsolete.
“The other condition is that a team of lawyers was needed right away. David would come to my office and we’d work on a script on the tiniest of things. We shot the first draft I turned in with the smallest changes, like a few words here or there. “
According to Eisenberg, Sorkin—whose credits also include The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and the upcoming The Politician, about Senator John Edwards—has a unique ability to write scripts that both actors and studio executives appreciate.
“When you write for an actor, they get offended when a writer writes they tear up or are torn up by this because they feel like that’s their job,” explains Eisenberg, who also recently appeared in Solitary Man with Michael Douglas and just wrapped 20 Minutes or Less, in which he plays a pizza delivery man. “The studio executive reads the thing and if he doesn’t see ‘torn up by this,’ he moves into another room because they need a place to frame the emotional experience of watching the movie.
“And Aaron has the ability to appease both: You understand the experience yet there’s nothing there to tell you how to play it. So, to me it’s immediately clear how it should be played and what his (Zuckerberg’s) loneliness was and how sad he was even though his behavior appears angry. I was able to explore that for six months and find the details. That’s the actor’s job, and that was all there.”
As an executive producer, Sorkin was heavily involved in the filmmaking process as well. For Eisenberg, this led to a different form of preparation for a movie than he was used to.
“The rehearsal process was unique,” relates Eisenberg. “It was David and Aaron going over each scene and each word so specifically. I would sit there with Andrew (co-star Garfield) and after we’d walk out of rehearsal, we’d say ‘We didn’t run the scenes at all.’ I don’t know what he motive was. But it got me in the spirit of the movie. That was helpful and they changed so little of the script. It was almost 100% of what Aaron had written.”
In fact, it was Sorkin’s desire from the beginning to partake in the film’s production.
“I see it (his work) as writing a movie,” Sorkin says, speaking deliberately. “I think of myself not as a screenwriter or a television writer but as a playwright, which is all I ever wanted to be. I don’t write plays as often as I’d like to but as a playwright you don’t write the play and then go away.
“You write the play and you cast the play and you are there every day during rehearsal and you’re there during rehearsals and you’re pacing around in the back of the theater. I don’t see my role as any different when it’s a movie or if I am writing and producing a TV show.”
“I’m not at all indifferent to box-office success because I want the people who bet on me to be glad that they did,” he says. “Personally, I am less interested in how many people come to see the movie but those who come to see the movie, like the movie. The second thing is I am very bad at guessing what people are going to like.
“Asking by a show of hands to see what people want is a bad recipe for writing a movie, writing a song or whatever. When I write, I write what I like, what my friends would like, and what my father would like. And I hope that if enough people like it, I can earn a living. And that’s what I am doing here.”
Here’s Movie Irv’s review of the film: