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Facebook movie The Social Network tells a Shakespearean tale of money, power and betrayal

Does the movie of the year come from the pen of West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin?

He said yes very quickly. In fact he said yes more quickly than at any other time in his life, and his life has brimmed with important decisions.

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“I was given a 14-page book proposal from Ben Mezrich, on The Accidental Billionaires,” begins Aaron Sorkin, the Emmy-winning writer best known for inking the sizzling political TV drama The West Wing. “Even before Ben started to write the book, the publisher was shopping around the film rights and on page three of the proposal, I called my agent and said, ‘I badly want to write this as a screenplay.’ It was the fastest I have ever said yes to anything.”

Mezrich’s book – The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius And Betrayal – was published in 2009, charting the explosion of the world’s most ubiquitous social networking website and the legal wrangle that ensued. The central character is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s youngest-ever billionaire. “I found this character fascinating and the story that was unfolding right before me ... honestly, I felt if I waited another 10 minutes I would lose out. What was especially interesting, though, was that Ben was writing the book at the same time that I was writing the screenplay. Ordinarily, there’s a book and then you adapt it, or at the earliest you are adapting a rough outline, but Ben and I started our work at the same time, so we got to share research.”

The book was published last year, and Sorkin’s script hits cinemas next week as the foundation of David Fincher’s eighth directorial offering, The Social Network. The film explores the moment at which Facebook, the most revolutionary social phenomenon of the century, was invented, employing the warring perspectives of the young men who each claimed to be there at its inception.

The result is a drama rife with creation and destruction; one that purposefully avoids a singular point of view and, instead, by tracking duelling narratives, mirrors the clashing truths and constantly morphing social relationships that define our time. Think of it as a modern-day Rashomon, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s film which offers conflicting accounts of a murder from four different characters. “That’s a good analogy,” Sorkin affirms. “This a true story based on a number of people’s version of the truth, and I think I have gotten some juice out of that.”

Sorkin’s script opens with Zuckerberg’s girlfriend dumping him for being too arrogant, and then cuts to a deposition room four years later with Zuckerberg saying, “That is not what happened.” Sorkin smiles. “So again we start to see that Rashomon quality. But the truth of the matter is that in any non-fiction story, whether it is Lawrence Of Arabia or All The President’s Men or The Social Network, the writer wasn’t in the room when these things were happening. So for that reason we are inventing dialogue, simply for the reason that the properties of characters are completely different from the properties of people. Even when I am writing non-fiction I start to think of these people as characters and not as people. I am not a journalist and I am not a documentarian. And while in a story in like this I don’t want to make anything up, my fidelity is more to storytelling.”

Drawn from multiple sources, The Social Network moves from the halls of Harvard to the cubicles of Palo Alto as it captures the visceral thrill of the heady early days of a culture-changing phenomenon in the making – and the way it pulled a group of young men together and then split them apart. In the midst of the chaos are Zuckerberg (played by Adventureland and Zombieland star Jesse Eisenberg), the Harvard student who conceived a website that seemed to redefine our social fabric overnight; Eduardo Saverin (played by the new Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield), once Zuckerberg’s close friend, who provided the seed money for the company and then sued his mate; Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who brought Facebook to Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists; and the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), the Harvard classmates who claimed that Zuckerberg stole their idea and then sued him for ownership.

“The themes of the movie are as old as storytelling itself: loyalty, friendship, power, money, envy, social status, jealousy,” Sorkin notes. “It’s a story that, if Aeschylus were alive today, he’d have written; Shakespeare would have written; Paddy Chayefsky would have written. Fortunately for me, none of those people were available, so I got to write it. And when I am writing a character who, very generally speaking, you would think is a bad guy, I try to write them as though they are trying to make their case to God as to why they should be allowed into Heaven. One of the things that David Fincher did in directing each scene was to say to each actor that they must remember they are in the right.”

Each character has his own narrative, his own version of the Facebook story, but these accounts add up to more than the sum of their parts in what becomes a multi-level portrait of 21st-century success. That a film about a website and two lawsuits proves so compelling is testament to Sorkin’s razor-sharp dialogue.

“I love writing movies and I love writing plays and I love writing television series,” he says. “The first movie I wrote was A Few Good Men, and there is a scene in it where Tom Cruise pulls his car over to the kerb, he hops out at a news stand and he buys a copy of the magazine Sports Illustrated, gets back in his car and drives away. That’s my action sequence. That is the closest I come to writing action. I remember seeing Jim Brook’s movie, Broadcast News, and sitting in the theatre and thinking, ‘Movies can be like this too. They can be stories told through language.’ So I wanted to do that as well.”

The 49-year-old New Yorker has fulfilled his ambition: along with his script for A Few Good Men (1992), his CV includes screenplays for the movies Malice (1993), The American President (1995) and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). He’s also written numerous stage plays – including 2007’s The Farnsworth Experiment – while between 1999 and 2006 he wrote 86 episodes of The West Wing, the political drama that reintroduced the world to Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe, winning three Golden Globes and 27 Emmys in the process. He followed that for a single season by dramatising the behind-the-scenes antics of a network TV show in Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.

“I don’t want to analyse myself or anything,” he says, “but I enter the world through what I write. I grew up believing, and continue to believe, that I am a screw-up, that growing up with my family and friends, I had nothing to offer in any conversation.” Born and raised in New York City by his school teacher mother and copyright lawyer father, he saw both his older sister and brother go on to become lawyers; hence he always felt the dumbest sibling in the room. “But when I started writing, suddenly there was something that I brought to the party that was at a high-enough level.”

His parents took him to the theatre from an early age, and during these years he thought he might be an actor. “That was a long, long time ago,” he smiles. “When I was little I wanted to be an actor. I studied acting. My parents took me to see plays all the time. Just as a matter of habit – they weren’t in showbusiness or anything like that – but a lot of the plays they took me to see I was too young to understand what was going on up there. They took me to see Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? when I was nine and things like that, but I fell in love with the sound of dialogue. Dialogue just sounded like music to me, and I just wanted to imitate that sound when I became a writer.”

Not all his writing is immediately apparent; Sorkin has worked as a script doctor, improving other people’s work. He wrote some quips for Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in The Rock. He worked on Excess Baggage, a comedy about a girl who stages her own kidnapping to get her father’s attention, and rewrote some of Will Smith’s scenes in Enemy Of The State. Sorkin also collaborated with Warren Beatty on Bulworth.

“With the script doctoring, I did it for [uber-producer] Jerry Bruckheimer for a while,” he says, referencing The Rock and Enemy Of The State, “because I was just going through a period where I was having a very difficult time coming up with my own ideas and I was climbing the walls. So I did what is called ‘the production polish’, where you are brought into the last two weeks on something that you are not emotionally invested in, where it is not your job to break the story, to come up with the moving parts and plot points. Basically, they just wanted some snappy dialogue for Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage.

“The first time I did it, actually, was for Schindler’s List where no-one is looking for snappy dialogue, but the writer of that movie had gone on to direct a picture and there was a little more work that Spielberg wanted done before it went to Poland to begin shooting. He asked me to come in and do that, but you are obviously more interested in your own thing.”

Sorkin’s own thing took flight with The West Wing, which ran for seven years. “There’s a great tradition in storytelling that’s thousands of years old, telling stories about kings and their palaces, and that’s really what I wanted to do with that series,” he explains. He was creator, writer and executive producer. “Obviously it’s a fascinating world. There really isn’t a story that you can’t tell inside of it. It’s very much a clearing-house for anything that goes on in the world. So you’re not at all limited. It’s populated by people who have terrific communication skills. Every day is an extraordinary day. For me, it was just a great area for storytelling.

“We could show you the two minutes before and after what you see on the news channels. By and large, if you’re American, what you’re going to see on the news, what you’re going to read in the newspaper, is the result of something that’s happened at the White House, and there isn’t much of an opportunity to see how they arrived at that. And that behind-the-scenes element was vitally important to the show.”

Such was the show’s acclaim, that Sorkin became something of a celebrity himself. He indulged in narcotic abuse during his younger years and, in 2001, was arrested when guards at a security checkpoint at the Burbank Airport in LA allegedly found hallucinogenic mushrooms, marijuana and crack cocaine in his carry-on bag when a metal crack pipe set off the metal detector. He must regard his success as a double-edged sword.

“It is,” he concedes, “and part of the other edge of the sword is the one where I have brought some unwanted attention to myself. It’s my own fault, plainly, and not the fault of showbusiness or the world. I think you know what I am talking about. I made that bed and I lie in it and I am very happy that now there is some time between that period and me. It’s almost 10 years ago and I am proud of that.”

Sorkin has plenty to feel proud about, and his latest offering is sure to attract a deafening buzz when it comes to Oscar season – The Social Network really is that good. If he wins a gong for his screenplay, he’ll deserve it. He’ll also thank the heavens that he said yes to the job so very quickly.

The Social Network is released on Friday

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