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Aaron Sorkin finds just the right words for 'The Social Network'

The scribe of 'The West Wing' and 'A Few Good Men' also found a good working mate in director David Fincher.

December 09, 2010

Aaron Sorkin chain-smokes, often stammers when he speaks but loves to tell a good story, as you would expect. The 49-year-old screenwriter behind such television shows and movies as "The West Wing," "A Few Good Men" and this year's "The Social Network" is a complicated mix of humility and egoism — at once a self-deprecating goofball who struggles with insecurities and a confident titan of his field who recognizes that his name is itself a brand, one that melds fiction and reality into whip-smart dialogue delivered at breakneck speed.

Sorkin has become something of an ambassador for "The Social Network's" Oscar campaign. It's only early December and the former playwright has already dazzled more than 40 distinct audiences who've attended screenings of director David Fincher's well-regarded film that tracks the complicated founding of Facebook, the world's largest social media website. He keeps reminding audiences that although Fincher is revered for his visual stylings, the pairing of him with Sorkin's dense dialogue isn't as much of an odd match as you might think. "David is most known for being peerless as a visual director, and I write people talking in rooms," says Sorkin. "But he did bring a very distinctive visual style to this. He made scenes of people talking about typing look like bank robberies." Fincher may, in fact, be the perfect director to work with Sorkin, who doesn't appreciate when actors "make up your own words, even if it's just to get you across the stage," he adds.

But where he gives no leeway on the wording, he leaves the interpretation wide open, says Eisenberg. "Most scripts end with 'frustrated, John exits the room.' And Aaron puts none of those emotional indicators into his scripts. So much so, that when you read it, you don't understand the full impact of the drama until it's performed. It allowed us to be very creative," the actor says.

To Sorkin's delight, the actors spent three weeks rehearsing his script, a rare first draft that Sony Pictures greenlighted without requiring revisions. At Fincher's behest, cast members went round and round a table with the dense 162-page tome, familiarizing themselves with Sorkin's rat-a-tat language patterns until they could be delivered as simply as "tossing off your telephone number," says the writer. Then Fincher, as he is notorious for doing, required the actors to deliver each scene a countless number of times. The first scene of the movie — a bar conversation between Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara — went 99 takes over two nights before Fincherdecided to move on. "There were a lot of reasons for all those takes," says Sorkin, puffing on his second cigarette at an outdoor patio. "The one I like the most was that the actors were able to casualize the language, so it doesn't become operatic. It's a 9½-page scene that they've memorized, rehearsed in the shower, and it's very easy to get Shakespearean with it. But when you do it over and over again, it has the same effect as doing previews for a play, they own the language."

Sorkin owns his language too. At this point, he is practically living his own Fincher-directed movie. Between all the screenings, the interviews and the glad-handing on the road for Oscar recognition, he has perfected his anecdotes down to the phrasing. During the two evenings this writer spent with Sorkin, he was able to tell the same stories with the same enthusiasm, jokes and creative wordplay. "I had heard of Facebook the way I've heard of a carburetor. I can't pop the hood of my car and point to it and tell you what it is." Or, "I really like that there were three different versions of the same story. I love courtroom dramas. I really like 'Rashomon.'"

It's as if he's done those same 99 takes, just over a longer period of time. But none of it seems to diminish Sorkin's enthusiasm for "The Social Network," or for Fincher, whom he seems to truly adore. "David can't mask the fact that in addition to being jaw-droppingly artful, both as a shooter and someone who can get performances out of actors, he is really just the sweetest guy in the world. He badly doesn't want you to know that."

One thing Sorkin may not want you to know is how much he related to his creation of Mark Zuckerberg, the antihero of "The Social Network." "I had to find the parts of Mark that are like me," he says. "It wasn't hard. I'm awkward socially. I'm shy. And there have been a lot of times when I've felt like an outsider."

It's a little hard to buy that Sorkin, who's been writing television and films for close to 20 years, could feel like an outsider. But he insists. "I'll sometimes watch 'Entourage,' a show about how fun it is to work in Hollywood, and I'll think, 'God, it does seem like it would be fun to work in Hollywood.' Well, not only do I work in Hollywood, I play myself on 'Entourage.' That's how disconnected from myself I can feel."

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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