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Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talks his directorial debut 'Molly's Game' and killing his darlings

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Molly’s Game tells the true story of “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom, who built up a poker empire from scratch, and ended up becoming the biggest game runner in the world. The film is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and stars Idris Elba, alongside Jessica Chastain in the titular role. 

Here is what Sorkin had to say about his directorial debut, his writing process, and the gender politics of the film:

This film wasn’t a question of adapting Molly Bloom’s memoir, which was written in 2014 - you took it somewhere else.

Yeah, I was sent the book by an entertainment lawyer who I know socially a little, who said, “Would you please do me a favour and read this book, and then meet with my client, Molly Bloom.” I then googled her, read a few tabloid things about her, but I read the book - the book is a wild ride - I went and I met with Molly, and thats when I was hooked. What I discovered was two things: one, that the book was just the very tip of the iceberg - there was much more to this story, it was a much bigger, deeper, more emotional story, than just how she became the biggest game runner in the world; and the second thing was Molly herself.

That first meeting was just an hour long and it would be followed by many hours of meetings after that, but she immediately struck me as brilliant, as strong as a tree, she's got a very sly sense of humour, its very winning, and she's built out of integrity. The more I heard of the real story, the more I knew I wanted to write this right now; that this was a unique heroine found in an unlikely place and this was a story about many things, including doing the right thing, and it appealed to my sense of romanticism and idealism. And one of the many very appealing things about Molly was that she didn’t see herself as a movie heroine the way I did. She was surprised to be painted that way.

At what stage of writing did you think it might become about gender politics?

You know, I think that I let it be about that. When I’m writing, I really try to stick to intention and obstacle as much as I can. There are going to be themes that are going to emerge, and when you do your second draft, you start to take away things that aren't that, and leave it at that. But I think I knew it was going to be about gender politics before I started writing it, just from talking to Molly.

One of the things we never really talked about was - it occurred to me in hour 73 or something of talking to Molly, that what if every woman in the course of her life meets 5 rotten guys? And what if a particular woman, what if those were the first five men that she met? She met them all in a row - it would kind of knock you in a certain way. So I was thinking about that when I was writing it, but I was also thinking about the fact that she had to navigate a world of very powerful men, men who, if they felt that Molly wasn't paying sufficient respect to their power, or Molly was paying more attention to someone else than she was paying to them, they had to finish her, they had to ruin her.

The relationship between Molly and her lawyer is absolutely the spine of much of the film’s narrative, and the rapport between the two of them is so key. How did that come about?

There were two stories that I wanted to tell that were married to each other. One is the story that Molly tells in the book, which is the story of how she became the biggest game runner in the world. And then the other was the story that I was learning as I was talking to her: the idea that I went to this meeting without very high expectations, because I was, of the little that I read from the tabloids, because of my own narrow mind, what I assumed after reading this book, that Molly was someone who was just going to be cashing in on her decade long brush with celebrity.

And little by little as we got more comfortable with each other I discovered who she really was. I wanted to dramatise that as well. So while Molly of course did have a criminal defence lawyer, someone she holds in very high regard, I never spoke to him, or met him, and didn’t want to, because I needed that character for my own purposes. I wanted someone who was taking the journey with Molly who was going from where Charlie goes, from not having respect for her, you know, “You don’t need me you need a publicist,” that kind of thing, to the point where he’s saying “You’re my daughter’s role model, and I’m good with that.”  

And the decision, I mean around the memoir there’s a lot of discussion about who the people were around the poker table, what was your attitude towards who you name and who you don’t? 

I didn’t want to name anybody and I did everything could to - I knew there was going to be no completely avoiding the question of “who’s this supposed to be” and “who’s that supposed to be,” but I was hoping to minimise the detective hunt because it’s just not what the movie’s about. As far as naming anybody - that’s not something I would want to do under any circumstances. I’m not up for gossip, but certainly in a movie where your heroine is heroic because she's unwilling to name people, the movie that she's in can’t then go ahead and name people.

In which sense do you think that the movie has special resonance in the Me Too year, and to what extent is the game we see on the table the game of Hollywood itself?

I think Jessica should answer that, but I’ll say this - the movie, it turns out, is even more relevant than we expected it to be. I would happily trade the fortuitous timing of this for a world in which it wasn’t as relevant.

As a first time feature director, what it was like being on set on the first day, compared to being on set as a show runner or just as a writer?

It was great. I made sure that the first day was a relatively easy day. There was no such thing as an easy day on this movie. It would be the second through eleventh days that we did all the Molly Charlie scenes. I’ll say I was surrounded by a fantastic group of people.  I went into this saying “Don’t pretend that you know more than you do - you'll be figured out. These people are smart. But, you do know what you want. You’re not at sea with this - you know what you're looking for, so project that confidence. Believe, and people will follow.” And in Jessica and Idris I had real partners on the stage. So there were a lot of butterflies that first day, and really every day, but once we got into it and we were doing it, you’d just get lost in it.

I was hoping you could take us through your writing process from initial idea through to screen, as well as how you work with dialogue and how that slots in to your whole process.

Sure, I mean, the process is whatever it needs to be for whatever I’m doing. I envy people who talk about how they go to the office at 9am and write 20 pages then go home at 6 o’clock and spend time with their families. My life is nothing like that. Most of the time writing is spent not writing - its spent climbing the walls trying to figure out what to do. Molly’s Game came a little bit easier than others have - I’m not sure why - but even with that, it was months and months before I began what actually looked like writing.

I’ve never written an outline - I’ll write index cards, but only maybe three or four or five in a row. It’s like walking ahead in the dark with a flashlight - you can only really see as far as you go, but the further you walk, the further you can see. Then once you have the ending, it’s something to write toward. 

About dialogue, that’s the part that there’s a lot of thinking that goes in, theres a lot of planning that goes in. I cling to intention and obstacle - those Aristotelian elements, that somebody has got to want something and something’s got to be standing in the way of them getting it in every scene. But once you’re loaded up, once you know what the scene is going to be - like the scene on the bench with Kevin Costner - once you know what that scene is going to be from beginning to end, I like to try and write is in the same amount of time it takes to type it.

And you can - when you know what you’re doing, that’s how fast, and that’s when you know that it’s good and right. If it’s coming out like ketchup out of a bottle, stop! You’re doing something wrong. But dialogue is the part of writing that just takes a while for you to find your voice. It’s like playing the violin, it takes practice.

As a director, has it made you a better writer? Are you more philosophical about rewrites? And killing your own chicks?

We call it killing our darlings … I mean, killing baby chickens seems unnecessarily harsh … I’d rather cut one of my own lines! First of all, I won’t be able to answer the questions “has it made me a better writer” until the next thing that I write, but I have to say there were a number of times, generally in prep, when I would be asked by the producers or the studios, where I would be asked to “take off your writer cap and put on you director cap now” … I only have one hat.

I don’t know how to take off the writer cap. I would see the necessity of cutting a scene that I like. In post production the editors would do a good job of showing me that a scene would work better without this line, or that at this moment it got a little eggy, a little sappy, a little too much - that I was doing work the actors could do for me. I’m glad that when I was writing the screenplay, I didn’t know that I was going to be directing it. Because I probably would have been very conscious of that while I was writing it - I wouldn't have just let myself write at that moment I was talking about, when “you just know what you’re going to do, now go!” 

And there’s more action in the first eight minutes of this movie than there is in every other movie I’ve written combined! So I don’t think I would have [put that in] - I generally write something like that and think, “well, the director will worry about it, how this crash is going to work bit by bit.” But I was glad that I didn’t hold myself back. 

Molly's Game is out 1st January 2018, distributed by Entertainment One.

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