Aaron Sorkin: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

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Director, Aaron Sorkin behind the scenes in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7.' Photo by Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Oscar-winning writer and director Aaron Sorkin, whose newest project is Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which he wrote and directed. Sorkin won an Academy Award for his screenplay for “The Social Network,” and his many other works include “The West Wing,” “A Few Good Men,” and “Molly’s Game.” Sorkin discusses how his writing is often at the intersection of screwball comedy and drama. He talks about how “Chicago 7” has become even more relevant over the last several months of protests and political friction. And he tells The Treatment why he loves to drop audiences in his movies while they’re already at full speed.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: It's The Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest today is writer and director Aaron Sorkin, whose works include "The West Wing," “Sports Night," "Charlie Wilson's War," and "Moneyball. His latest project is the Netflix film "The Trial of the Chicago 7."  Both in "Chicago 7" and in other works, you're writing for a balance of a room and the way people occupy a room. Often, it's people going toe to toe in that room, but also people surrounding that, being a kind of de facto Greek chorus audience. Talk about how you worked it out for "Chicago 7," given that you're dealing with real people.

Aaron Sorkin: As far as the real people go, you mentioned "Charlie Wilson's War." That was the first nonfiction that I wrote, and I swore after "Charlie Wilson's War," on which I had a terrific experience, but I swore I was never going to write nonfiction again, that the constraints of real people and real facts, who needed it? I'll make up a story. And then I wrote five nonfiction films in a row. In fact, I haven't written fiction since.  They've just been good stories that I wanted to tell. 

The ensemble in "Chicago 7:" there are a lot of dials and gauges to keep your eye on, but you're always aware of what's the conflict that you're dramatizing right now, in this scene. Is it between Tom and Abbie? Is it between Bobby and the judge? Or Fred Hampton and the guys? Kunstler and the guys? Then as far as the Greek chorus goes, yes, you have these other players like Froines and Weiner, who are kind of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the group. Dellinger, who rolls his eyes at the antics of these other guys, but certainly as passionate as they are, about the cause. I love movies that have a posse, that have a gang, just a group of misfits who have to break into the safe and get the jewels. I like that in any movie, and there are eight members of the Chicago Seven, so I had plenty of it.

KCRW: There's somebody who, so often, speaks so much common sense that they become In fact, a kind of comic foil for everybody else.

Sorkin: That's right; like, Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, the straightest of the group, almost buttoned down. Yes, he is a comic foil for Abbie and for Jerry. Abbie and Jerry are comic foils for each other. But in "Chicago 7," there's no question about it; the crazy guys are running the show, and the buttoned down guys are just trying to get through it.

KCRW: You write dramas, as if they were screwball comedies. There's that great thing of American screwball comedy, where people are constantly explaining themselves and the comedy of that, the comedy of narcissism really, because there seems to be for you a fine line between narcissism and solipsism. And those are usually the bad guys, or the people we look upon as being bad guys, such as the judge in this case. Your interest in writing about people who have that kind of self absorption is always fascinating.

Sorkin: Well, listen, I take your point, and you're not wrong. You're right. It is self absorption. I don't call it that. I am not as fast as the characters that I write, as articulate as the characters that I write, not nearly as smart as the characters I write. But that also isn't unusual. Writers write characters that are cooler than they are, can shoot a gun better than they can, drive a car faster than they can, get the women when they can't. That's what writers do.

KCRW: The thing I would say I see in your characters that is a big part of you is there's this aggressive curiosity that they have, and this need to probe, and that's I think the thing that makes a lot of these pieces for me, kind of autobiographical.

Sorkin: Well, let me address the first part first: the probity. Yes, you and I know that drama is conflict; it's intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something; something’s standing in their way of getting it. It's the friction of conflict. Most often, not always, but most often, with what I write, it's a friction of ideas is the problem, and so you're going to get curious characters and characters who will take the time to take a deeper dive than most of us usually would. I don't believe I've ever written autobiographically or ever done it intentionally, at any rate. I don't use the character as delivery systems for something that I'm trying to say. With a few exceptions. I'll come clean. There have been a few exceptions.

KCRW: Well, yeah, I was gonna say, I would disagree with almost all of that last sentence.  But I think that element of this interest that intersects with passion, that is really at the heart of the work, is who you are as a person.

Sorkin: You may be right about that. Listen, I think that's who my father was as a person, to be sure. If you'd had a chance to meet my father--he passed away a few years ago--but if you'd had a chance to meet my father and spent a little time with him, I think that you would say, oh, this is what happened. This man is Bartlett; he is Kunstler, so I'll give him the credit.

KCRW: I would say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and I would guess that a lot of the conversations that took place at the dinner table around your house, were this kind of pushing and feretting for information because everything you've written, even "To Kill a Mockingbird," at a certain point becomes about the pursuit and exchange of information and turning that into suspense.

Sorkin: First of all, as far as my family dinner table goes: growing up, I'm the youngest in my family and the youngest in a family of lawyers. My mother was a schoolteacher; everybody else was a lawyer, and then me at our dinner table. Anyone who used one word when they could have used 10 just wasn't trying hard enough, and I loved listening to the sound of these devil's advocate conversations. Well, have you looked at it this way? What about this? I was rarely ever able to participate in the conversations. I just really liked the sound of them. Becoming a writer, I wanted to imitate that sound. Same thing I'd say with my friends. In high school, my friend group, they were all just objectively smarter than I was in any way that you can measure smarts: SAT scores, GPA, that kind of thing. And I think I was their mascot. But you know, Friday nights playing poker with these guys, I loved listening to them talk, too. So a little bit is just phonetic, the sound of being smart.

KCRW: Well, that's also a part of screwball comedy, too: the sound of being smart. Sometimes people aren't being smart. I mean, we see that early on the incoming Attorney General, in "Chicago 7."

Sorkin: No doubt about it. Just because they can talk doesn't mean that they're smart, and it certainly doesn't mean that they're virtuous. But listen, you keep invoking screwball comedy, and I'm complimented by that. I love screwball comedies. You know, obviously, I'm someone who's seen "The Front Page" a million times. And I think that any time you can tell a serious story with a sense of humor, you're doing yourself a favor. You're not asking people to eat their vegetables. You get to sneak up on the audience a little bit. You can have sort of a screwball run that ends with a kneecapping, an emotional kneecapping.

KCRW: I want to bring up Ben Hecht because I even think to some extent of "Scarface" as being a screwball comedy, that kind of intent, that push, the kneecapping you just mentioned. The way Hecht operated as a writer, that division, I think, is a hard balance for a lot of people to strike: writing people who are talking, who think they're smart, and people who are actually are smart, who are looking for the exchange of ideas. 

Sorkin: Ben Hecht had a whole spectrum there of hyper-articulate characters, who went from nutty to very brilliant. You mentioned "Scarface;" I was gonna move to Scorsese, because if you saw "Goodfellas" in a theater, there were a lot of laughs in "Goodfellas," laughs at stuff that should repel us, and it wasn't unintentional. Scorsese knew that there was something inherently funny about the way these guys lived, even though they were sociopathic murderers. Quentin does the same thing.

KCRW: You bring up Tarantino and then Scorsese. I'm bringing up Ben Hecht. A lot of this has to do with velocity, which is something I mentioned to you before. We can even go back to the opening of pretty much anything you've done to "A Few Good Men," certainly the pilot of "West Wing," where it's about alacrity. The presumption that the audience is there to pay attention, and you're going to feed that curiosity because it's when the audience is going to be the freshest they ever are. I think some part of you instinctively recognizes that. So why not grab them when they're sitting down, and they're ready to pay attention, and give them something to pay attention to and also set the tone?

Sorkin: Yes. What I like to do when I can, is drop the audience into the movie while it's going 65 miles an hour and make them sit forward. If you make the audience a participant in the event, which, by the way, is much easier to do when it's an audience in a theater, when it's a group of people, rather than one person watching something on a streamer. Now, let me be clear, I'm incredibly grateful, not only that Netflix came along to save "Chicago 7" but that everybody came along to save all the films that were coming out this year. But I am clinging to the belief that once it's safe, audiences will go back to theaters just because we want that experience of being part of an audience, being a part of a group that laughs at the same time and is silent at the same time, gasps at the same time, cries at the same time. 

Let me go into the weeds for a second and talk about the protagonist in "Sunday in the Park with George," perhaps Stephen Sondheim's best musical.  George Seurat, the 19th century French pointillist, who painted instead of using a brush stroke, he painted with the edge of the brush dot dot dot dot... And in the case of his most famous painting: "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," which hangs at the Chicago Institute of Art and also in everybody's dorm room, he used two brushes in his hand: red, blue, red, blue, red, blue, red, blue, very, very close together because he knew that if the viewer stood back from the painting, which is what he wanted them to do, 10-15 feet back from the painting, that the human eye would mix that red and blue into a violet more vibrant than he could mix on his palate. 

So when you're making a film or television show, you want to use the audience the same way. You want them to be involved, too. So if you can get them sitting forward and trying to catch up to you and what's going on here, it will energize the audience. It'll make their experience better. So I do try to do that. I do try to go fast at the start.

KCRW: That thing that I think really links melodrama and comedy is speed and introducing a lot of things that, given the audience's point of view, can either be tragic or comic. The undercurrent in your work is always that of this tragedy just below the surface. I think your presumption is that in real life, people don't take the time to declare drama in the way they do in movies, and you're looking for a way to fuse those things. 

Sorkin: That's correct. Listen, what I'm always starting with before I get to the graduate level writing, which is what you're talking about, I have to do the freshman 101 work, which is just intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something, something standing in their way of getting it, right? If you don't have that, you don't have drama; that's what drama is. So you got to figure that out. And then you can begin to lay in the meal. 

You mentioned melodrama, and I wanted to say something else, and it's sort of a speech I've begun giving casts right before we start rehearsal, and it's this: my style of writing, for better or worse, I tend to write romantically and idealistically and in the course of a piece, of a two-hour film, or two and a half hour play, the writing will start to flirt with melodrama. It'll kind of walk right up to it, walk right up to the edge, and so I am counting on the actors, or the director, if I'm not directing it, to, in those moments, when it's about to flirt with melodrama, completely casualize it, to throw it away, or it's going to be opera, and it's going to be unbearable.

KCRW: You have an eye for the way people occupy space in the room, and when you're dealing with as many personalities and points of view, as in "Chicago 7," you've got to be really aware of that kind of balance. And does that become part of the idea of obstacle and intention, too, of how you're placing people in the room so that we are aware of point of view being articulated in a way that keeps us involved rather than just listen to declamatory stuff?

Sorkin: Yes, absolutely. Look, in the courtroom, it's easy. You know, everybody has their seat; everybody has their place. Staging those scenes isn't terribly hard. In other scenes: the conspiracy office, in their little holding room that they had at the courthouse, things like that, I would always want the two people who were going to be at each other in this scene, I put them on a diagonal, usually on either end of the room, so that everybody else was between them, so that everybody else was still alive in the scene. It brings everybody into a scene that's really just about two people in this moment.

KCRW: I was thinking about the scene in the park just before the riot breaks out, which is to me all about this kind of balance, because again, almost everybody is there. And you've also got a song being played to offer that idea of real life going on, but also what the song has to offer. Rather than picking a contemporary song from that moment, it's a song that had been performed years earlier, so there's playing with the idea past and present, even in that music, and also the threat of violence, physical violence, emotional violence is happening. All the things you're talking about, to me, really seem to have risen to the fore in that sequence.

Sorkin: I was aware going into this that the two riot sequences, what we call the first riot and the real riot, I would talk about them with the staff, as if they were the shark in "Jaws." Being aware I was holding off on showing this until about an hour into the movie, before we see this thing that we've been hearing about for a long time. Not always over the past 14 years that I've been working on the film was I confident that that was the right thing to do. But I stuck to my guns anyway.

KCRW: As you're saying that, I'm thinking about the way the fire is used in the park almost like the fire on the beach in "Jaws."

Sorkin: Those were the scenes that we did first, actually, because we went to Chicago first and shot those scenes in Grant Park on Michigan Avenue where those things actually took place. I, as a writer, and my one outing before this as a director, I'm most comfortable with four walls. I'm most comfortable when I'm in a room, because I'm basically a playwright faking my way through movies and television. 

KCRW: What about the scene in "Molly's Game," where it's Molly and her father on the skating rink? I mean, that's outside. It reminds me of the scene in Grant Park in "Chicago, 7." 

Sorkin: I know I was nervous about that scene. I was certainly nervous about the opening sequence in "Molly's Game," the ski crash, but at least the scene in the park that you're talking about, I could turn to Costner and say, am I doing anything right here?  There were no Academy Award winning directors on "Chicago 7."

KCRW: I imagine you must have gotten this--I hate to use this word, forgive me--note from NBC on "The West Wing" pilot script. This is too much going on. There are too many people, and everybody has a different point of view, and we don't know what it is you're talking about. 

Sorkin: Here are my two favorite notes that I got from NBC early on. Once we were into our second season, and the show had established itself as a hit, you get fewer, if any, notes from the network. This was a show where people were expressing political opinions that not all of NBC's viewers are going to agree with. But here are my two favorite NBC notes on "The West Wing." The first had to do with the pilot. One of the things going on in the pilot is that a number of Cuban refugees are making their way on...even to call them rafts would be generous. They're making their way to Florida, and they're not going to make it; they're going to drown. And so, Josh, Bradley Whitford, is trying to urge Leo, please can we send the Coast Guard up there? Can we do something? And I got a note from NBC saying, Listen, what if Josh, Brad Whitford, like got the boat and went out and saved them himself? That's a much different show you guys are talking about.

My second favorite note that I got: in the second episode of the series, we hear about a US Air Force jet. It's carrying some doctors and medical personnel to somewhere in the Middle East, but the Air Force jet has accidentally wandered into Syrian airspace and been shot down. That episode aired, and NBC got a letter from the Arab-American Anti-defamation League saying you know, we don't like what you did there. That's not nice. And they have a point. However, two episodes later, Richard Schiff, as Toby, had just a throwaway line about Hebrew slaves in Egypt 5000 years ago. And NBC legal sent me a note saying: please show your research. I didn't know what to do. I just sent them "Exodus." 

I wanted to mention something else. You and I have talked about this before: how we all felt "Chicago 7" was plenty relevant when we were making it last winter. We didn't need it to get more relevant. But, obviously in May, with the shooting of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, protests in cities all over America and a number of those cities, those protests are once again being met by riot clubs and tear gas, and fists. That was eerie enough, looking at CNN coverage and thinking, you know, if you just degraded the color a little bit, it would look exactly like the footage we use from 1968. You wouldn't think the film was gonna get more relevant than that. And then a week ago Wednesday, Trump went and did exactly what the Chicago Seven were on trial for doing. 

KCRW: One of the reasons I want to have you on at this juncture, in our history--I should say we're recording this on the 15th of January--it's feeling a lot like Guantanamo Bay right now. With a week's distance, it seems actually more of an abstraction, but a really dangerous one than it did last week because it doesn't seem like it's going to go away. 

Sorkin: First, let me preface this by saying I don't have any wisdom that other people don't have on this subject or really any subject. Right at the outset, it seemed like a mob that got out of control and somehow made their way inside the Capitol and didn't really know what they were gonna do when they got there. And that was bad enough, like they were the dog that finally caught the car. But then with each day that goes by, we find out, no, there were many of them who did know what they were going to do. They were carrying those plastic zip tie handcuffs; they were going to take people hostage; they were going to kill some people. 

You and I both know that if they hadn't been chanting, you know, "Trump, Trump, Trump," if they'd been chanting Allahu Akbar, we would be having a much different conversation about these people. Instead of having the MAGA caps, had BLM hats, we'd be having a much different conversation about these people. So I am glad that it feels like America is taking it as seriously as it should be taken.

KCRW: To have this movie feel as if it were lifted from the news, even more so now than it did five months ago, or a year ago, as you're shooting it, what does it make you feel about the future of the country now?

Sorkin: It is depressing. You feel like there are episodes in American history that we will never return to because they were awful, and we learned from it and sort of made a near escape as a nation and moved forward. I don't know what to do, Elvis, when tens of millions of people believe things that aren't true and refuse to believe things that are. 

You know, after 9-11, we said, OK, that's it; this world can no longer survive with a whole region of people living in the ninth century and the rest of us living in the 21st. And I say America can no longer survive with this many people living in an alternate reality that simply isn't based in any kind of fact or truth. I don't know what to do about that. 



Rebecca Mooney