Steve Jobs was by all accounts a complicated man. Apple’s cofounder and former CEO was a technology genius who didn’t code and a visionary leader who commanded great respect from his employees despite a volatile temper. These traits have all been described in biographies, one of which Jobs authorized while he was alive, and in films, like the one opening this Friday in select cities.
Steve Jobs is the latest movie about the late icon. Penned by The Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and directed by Slumdog Millionaire Academy Award winner Danny Boyle, the film is based on Walter Isaacson’s biography of the same name. Jobs collaborated with Isaacson on the book before his death, but its depiction of the late CEO was considered by many to be less-than-kind. People who were close to Jobs have leveled the same criticism against this film that they lobbed at Isaacson’s biography, claiming that these portraits of Jobs paint him in a cruel light. Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, reportedly tried to block the film from being made at all.
Sorkin and Boyle sat down for a panel discussion about Steve Jobs after a screening of the film this week in Manhattan. They addressed the controversy surrounding the movie’s portrayal of Jobs, and why the world needs even more movies about Apple. (These quotes from that discussion have been edited for length and clarity.)
“You can be decent and gifted”
Boyle: One of the things that’s really interesting about the film is this idea that Woz actually says [in the movie]: “You can be decent and gifted at the same time. It’s not binary.” That idea hangs over the whole film in a way. Everybody knows how [Jobs] did behave, that he was a difficult guy, especially to some people. For reasons you see in the film, he explains why he’s like that: that he wants A players, and B players discourage the A players. He was brutal in explaining it, and also brutal on himself. It’s not like he was swanning off. He pushed himself, clearly.
Why Jobs was the way he was
Sorkin: When you’re writing a character like this, it’s important for the writer not to judge the character. I have to be able to defend the character. I like to write the character as if they’re making their case to God as to why they should be allowed into heaven. I think that for whatever reason, deep down Steve felt that he was irreparably damaged in some way and was not worthy of being liked or loved.
Steve had this talent to wrangle other talented people to make these devices and machines that were not only successful commercially, but we have an emotional relationship with them. We love these things. That’s why it was important to him that rectangles have rounded corners and that money be spent on fonts and things like that. For Steve, mission accomplished in that regard. The only person that that wasn’t going to work on was his own daughter [Lisa Brennan-Jobs]. From a father, you’re looking for something else. That was what the movie was about.
Not your average biopic
Sorkin: I didn’t want to do a biopic. I didn’t want to do the cradle-to-grave story where we land on the greatest hits along the way. I didn’t think I’d be able to do that well. It’s a structure that’s familiar to audiences. All of you come into the theater assuming the first scene will be between a boy and his father and they’re looking in the window of an electronics store. Then Steve’s gonna meet Woz. Even if you didn’t know the story, and you do know that story, but if you didn’t, you know the structure of it.
On the controversy surrounding the film
Sorkin: Mrs. Jobs, Tim Cook, Bill Campbell—they have not seen the movie and have not read the screenplay. I don’t begrudge Laurene Jobs any of what she’s feeling right now, especially on the anniversary of her husband’s death. From what I’ve read that they’re assuming of what’s in the movie, that it’s a hit job, I think if they do see the movie they’ll be pleasantly surprised. But I can’t emphasize this enough: They haven’t seen the movie.
Boyle: You respect the personal grief. This guy is one of the most important figures in our lives, and these people [tech executives], I’m afraid, they have to be written about. They have to be examined. There will be many, many more films made about them. The world is changing beyond recognition. Apple is pretty good on issues like data and privacy, but we have to examine these people in a big political way or in a personal way, like this film tries to do.
On Steve Wozniak, the “sweetest man”
Sorkin: Woz is a very nice guy who I’ve never understood a word that comes out of his mouth. I told the studio early on when I signed up for this that I don’t know anything about computers. It always takes me a couple minutes to find the power button on my computer. I’m going to need an adviser who can tutor me a little bit. They said, “We’ll get you Steve Wozniak.” I said, “That’s great, I can’t do anything better than that.” After five minutes, I had to say, “I need a sixth grade science teacher to do this.” He is the sweetest man in the world but I have never understood a word he’s said.
Boyle: He does magic tricks now. He doesn’t really want to talk about computers anymore. We went to dinner, and there’s about 8 or 10 of us, and he brought a plastic bag with him. We had the first course and he went for the plastic bag. I sat next to his wife, and she said to me, “He’s going to do his magic tricks now.” He did these magic tricks. He didn’t do them particularly well, certainly not as well as he built computers, but she betrayed everything that he did just before he did it. She said, “The deck is all 2s,” and went on and on like that.
Sorkin: He’s a terribly nice guy, who in his early meetings with me, tried very hard to be the guy we would all want to be, to have no ego about this at all, “No, I don’t mind being Garfunkel, no, I don’t mind that maybe Steve got credit for things that maybe he shouldn’t have gotten credit for.” Then in the 31st minute of the conversation, you start to see that it does start to hurt him a little bit, and maybe some of it he’s angry about. I wanted to write to that in some way.
What Steve Jobs would think about the movie
Sorkin: I don’t know. I like to think that if this movie was about someone else, that he would like it.
Check back on Friday for the Macworld review of Steve Jobs, which opens in New York City and Los Angeles on Oct. 9 and in theaters nationwide Oct. 23.