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Danny Boyle on ‘Steve Jobs,’ Sorkin and the Fassbender Effect

“Tech folks are our leaders now, more than government is,” biopic directors says.

"Tech folks are our leaders now, more than government is," biopic directors says.

Danny Boyle is smiling and talking very, very, very excitedly. This is not unusual; in fact, an infectiously enthusiastic state combined with a mile-a-minute manner of speaking appears to be the 58-year-old filmmaker’s default mode. He’s just been asked a stock question, yet he’s positively beaming as he winds his way through tangents about Silicon Valley, Shakespeare, Seth Rogen’s sense of humor, and why it’s easier to get extras to show up in San Francisco “for the price of a sandwich.” Eventually, he arrives at an answer, somehow perfectly sticking the landing. He’ll do this countless times over the next 40 minutes. And suddenly, you understand why the man best known for having Ewan McGregor sprint down the street to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life was hired to helm a uniquely structured biography about a cultural icon conceived by the most dauntingly verbose screenwriter working today.

Originally earmarked as a return-engagement collaboration between The Social Network duo David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs breaks down the story of the Apple founder-cum-generational-iPhilosopher into three distinct movements, each taking place before the launch of three key Jobs-overseen products: the Macintosh, the NeXT computer, and the iMac. When the former opted out of the project, the Slumdog Millionaire Oscar-winner stepped in and quickly found himself wrestling with a typically Sorkinesque script, full of dense dialogue and more walk-and-talk scenes than you could shake a West Wing box set at. It also didn’t play down the tech visionary’s less than laudable characteristics, emphasizing his paternity denials regarding his daughter Lisa, his refusal to credit Steve Wozniak for the company’s success, and his overall sense that genius meant you could be a raging asshole. This was the Steve Jobs story, reduced down and rendered as the ultimate let-us-now-praise-famous-dickwads biopic.

Most directors would have run for shelter or the comparative ease of making a superhero blockbuster. For someone who turned the story of a man trapped by a boulder into something cinematic (127 Hours) and organized the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, however, this was manna. “So I have to make this for under $20 million, we have to cover a life in three long sequences with six recurring characters, it’s a suffocating script that’s wall-to-wall dialogue, and there’s no indication on how to do it?” Boyle recalls thinking. “Great, I’m in!” After assembling a dream cast — Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeff Daniels and, as the late Jobs, a jaw-dropping Michael Fassbender — the filmmaker got to work. The result is garnering deafening praise for its lead actor and hosannas for Boyle’s ability to translate a theatrical gambit into something that pops and crackles on a screen.

Gearing up for the film’s centrepiece screening at the New York Film Festival (ahead of its Australian cinema release in January), Boyle sat down and discussed — sometimes breathlessly, always at warp speed — why the movie needed a three-act structure, why this is really the second part of a trilogy and how Fassbender ended up mirroring Jobs’ evolution. (For his comments on the upcoming Trainspotting sequel and the prospect of a third 28 Days Later movie, read here.)

It’s easy to see the pitfalls of trying to chronicle Steve Jobs’ life in three specific moments — what were the benefits?
Weirdly enough, I think that the less you depict, the more you tell. So if you limit it to key moments, you can say a lot about somebody. The idea of telling a story in three acts — a beginning, a middle and an end — is really buried deep within in us as a species. I’m not saying that those three moments that we focus on are Jobs’ beginning, middle and end, of course. But the fact that you’re not trying to touch on too much or are just skimming across the whole life — what Aaron calls the “greatest hits” way of making biopics — I find you get more out on concentrating on a few things. 127 Hours was the same: Through that one incident, a bunch of stuff comes out of it.

Sure, but tackling Aron Ralston’s traumatic experience and looking at the life and times of Steve Jobs are two fairly different things, aren’t they?
Of course. And the latter was a huge challenge, yeah — not just for me, but for the actors. I’m sure they were thinking, “Are we going to get to do any acting in between all this talking?!?” [Laughs] But personally, I love having restrictions put on me. I love having limitations. I remember thinking, “So I have to make this for under $20 million, we have to cover a life in three long sequences with six recurring characters, it’s a suffocating script that’s wall-to-wall dialogue, and there’s no indication on how to do it? Great, I’m in!” The imagination kicks in. It frees you, in an odd way. It keeps you from being conventional.

Can you give some examples of how these limitations sparked you creatively?
Well, so we have this very traditional three-act structure — let’s not make them seem like it’s just static points but make each section feel progressive. Okay, you shoot the first act in 16mm, and give it a soundtrack that sounds like the early days of personal computers. Then you shoot the second act in 35mm, and that has a different score and feel; it’s much more traditional, like a movie you’d see in 1988. And then the last section we use a digital camera, the Alexa — we’re now mirroring the infinite digital world that was Jobs’ dream, the score is sparse and everything is stripped back. He has everything he wants, but there’s sort of a hole at the center of it.

I honestly don’t think I would have come up with those choices if it hadn’t been for the fact that we were working with restrictions that made us think outside the norm. Usually, you’re looking for a script that allows for a lot of visual storytelling and gives the actors a lot of recognizable breakout moments. This was different, so we had to make it differently. That’s exciting.

Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen in ‘Steve Jobs.’ François Duhamel

You’ve said that you felt that this movie was part of an unofficial trilogy, which starts with The Social Network. Was this something you discussed with Aaron Sorkin?
I’d always said to him that this feels like the continuation of something that he’d started with Social. Weirdly enough, I’d just finished reading The Circle by Dave Eggers [his novel about tech companies] right before I got the script, and it synced up to this idea I’d been having about us being at a turning point in our history right now. Because we’re living through it, I think we slightly underestimate how fundamental tech people have been to facilitating it. They’re bringing change and prosperity, and you have to make movies about them — like this, like the documentaries that have come out, like The Social Network. Tech folks are absolutely our leaders now, more than government is. We didn’t elect them, but they are leading. Look at the way Uber has developed; you have mayors in cities are like, “Should I oppose them? I’d better not, they’re Uber!” [Laughs] It’s like they’re in awe of them!

So it does feel like this is the second part of something that Aaron started poking into, and that Steve Jobs is tapping into something that’s still ongoing. As to what that third part will be, I don’t think it’s revealed itself to him yet, but it’s not like a huge amount of change isn’t coming. There will be plenty to write about.

How was the experience of working with him?
Unlike what his reputation would suggest, he’s actually amazing to collaborate with. He’s not above changing lines for the actors; we did a bit of work on that early on. But Aaron is up for it, so long as it’s done proper — that’s really what he cares about. You’d see him listening to the rhythm of the dialogue, and you’d see him annoyed when people got it wrong. But our actors rarely did.

He does seem oddly well-suited for making movies about tech pioneers.
There are only so many things you can do to capture the intelligence and appetite of the people who are running that industry; there are limits to what you can on a geek level, showing algorithms and mathematical charts or people tapping away at laptops. And Aaron has figured out how to nail all that with language — a rhythm and pace that mirrors the speed of thought. My producer and I would read through the script and say, “That’s the sound of Jobs’ mind.” The slashing-and-burning, seductively charming, incredibly demanding thing about the character — it’s all in the way he wrote it.

So how do you balance the impressionistic take of what Sorkin is doing with a sense of fidelity to the life story of a real person?
You try to balance it as much as possible, and aim to make cosmetic changes rather than foundational ones. For example, the first act and the third act…in reality, those two events both took place at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California; Jobs wanted to go back to that place to launch the iMac there, which had a nice elegance about it. But we needed three different theatres, because we wanted it to feel as if things were moving forward, so we changed it. We already had enough cyclical things to deal with, having the same six characters come back 40 minutes before a product launch three times. So we switched that and will be asking people’s forgiveness for it. That, and a few other things, I’m sure [laughs].

Go on.
There were a few scenes that we moved outdoors; the sequence with Woz near the end, the “you can be decent and gifted at the same time; it’s not binary” one? That exchange actually took place in a dressing room. Because we thought Woz keeps coming back to the same argument continually, about giving people the credit they’re due, we went to let him have a public space in front of these acolytes of Jobs. All these young folks are wearing branded t-shirts…they’re essentially telegraphing the rise of the Apple store! And Woz represents the past, so we wanted to have two collide. It was changes like that.

Michael Stuhlbarg, MIchael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in ‘Steve Jobs.’ François Duhamel

The idea was never to have Michael Fassbender do an impersonation of Jobs, right?
No, never. I mean, we used a few wigs and we did a few things with eyes, because I wanted him to have the same color eyes as the three actresses who played his daughter, Lisa. You need to see the lineage. But I mean what, use prosthetics? No way. That was decided early on.

Look, Michael looks nothing like Jobs at all — and yet by the end of the production, you’d swear he did. That was what was so weird about the whole thing. It was an odd mirroring where Michael was like a fighter in the first part, trying to get it down — which helped him get a handle on the character in his scrappy phase. He becomes deceitful and cunning in Act Two, which echoes trying to find this new phase of him, I think. And then the struggle is gone by Act Three, and he has him. Steve had found peace with himself by that point…and Michael had found peace with Steve. He just stepped right in to this guy. We called it a gestural performance. Not a slavish imitation. Something gestural.

Did you two have a lot of discussions about Jobs prior to his research, or before he stepped on the set?
I know Michael prepped a lot for the part, talking to everybody, studying footage, reading about him. He’s said that he essentially lived with him for months. I’d gone to see him in Australia and his plan was to stay down there and have a proper break. He was just going to do nothing for a while, and then he read this, and, well…there went that. [Laughs] We read it through together there, and there were a few back and forth, but mostly it was him going off on his own.

Then we went in to rehearsals, and occasionally we’d discuss the intentions of the scene, or you’d do the contrarian dance you do with most actors: You suggest one thing, and they suggest the exact opposite. We broke each act into it’s own separate thing, and we rehearsed each of the three on its own, two weeks each. We filmed sequentially, which I’d never done before. We’d run the entire act and film it one way, with a Steadicam or whatnot, then start again and film it all the way through in one long take again.

That sounds intense.
The idea was to make it feel like a theatre piece for them but not for the audience; I’ve never thought stage plays on film have worked. I just don’t think it translates. But yes, it drove the actors mad! They needed a Jobs-ian challenge. We all did.