One of the challenges that Michael Fassbender faced in playing Steve Jobs is that he doesn’t particularly look like Steve Jobs. Unlike, say, Tom Cruise, whose name came up early in the casting process, Fassbender lacks the silicon-black hair, the intense eyebrows, that long power nose. “We decided that I didn’t look anything like him, and that we weren’t going to try to make me look anything like him,” Fassbender says. “We just wanted to try to encapsulate the spirit and make our own thing of it.” His performance is very much not an impression. High-definition fidelity was not the goal. “It’s a portrait. That’s what we always said right from the get-go,” says Danny Boyle, who directed Steve Jobs. “Whatever it is that a portraitist does, it’s that we’re after, rather than a photograph.”
They did keep the clothing accurate, though Fassbender doesn’t don Jobs’ iconic black turtleneck until the third act. For the Macintosh launch in 1984, Jobs wore a profoundly unflattering, slightly hilarious candy-striped bow tie and a double-breasted blue blazer. “It is quite funny,” says Fassbender, who does actually sound like Jobs when he drops his natural Irish accent for the role. “It’s almost like he’s trying to do something, or be something, that he’s not.”
Steve Jobs, scheduled to arrive in theaters Oct. 9, was written by Aaron Sorkin and based in part on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling authorized biography of the same name. (Full disclosure: Isaacson was the managing editor of TIME from 1996 to 2000.) There have been movies about Jobs before, but Steve Jobs is by far the most authoritatively credentialed depiction of the man who drove the transformation of at least four entire industries–personal computers, movies, music and phones–before he died in 2011 at 56. But Sorkin wants to be very clear that just as Fassbender isn’t doing an impersonation, he did not set out to write a biopic. “It’s not an origin story, it’s not an invention story, it’s not how the Mac was invented,” he says. “I thought the audience would be coming in expecting to see a little boy and his father, and he’s staring in the window of an electronics shop. Then we would view the greatest hits of Steve Jobs’ life. And I didn’t think I’d be good at that.”
Instead Sorkin structured the movie as three massive set pieces, each depicting one of Jobs’ major product launches: the Macintosh, the disastrous NeXT in 1988 and finally the triumphant debut of the iMac in 1998. We don’t see the launch events themselves: the matter of Steve Jobs is in the backstage chaos right before them. The camera shadows Jobs as he paces restlessly through greenrooms and back hallways, hectoring, agonizing, reminiscing, settling scores and at one point–oddly but entirely plausibly for Jobs–washing his feet in a toilet. There’s a manic, claustrophobic Noises Off feel to it. “As a writer, I’m really a playwright who’s pretending to be a screenwriter,” Sorkin says. “I’m most comfortable in enclosed spaces.”
As Jobs preps to go onstage, the principal players in his drama buzz around him. All of them want something. Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen), the brilliant bearded beta to Jobs’ eternal alpha, wants credit for himself and his co-workers. Former Apple CEO and Jobs father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) wants to be exonerated for firing him. Jobs’ coldly furious ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who’s on welfare even as Jobs’ net worth spikes into the hundreds of millions, wants Jobs to acknowledge their sweet, bright daughter Lisa. Long-suffering marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and programmer–whipping boy Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) just want Jobs to act like a human being for five minutes.
But if he did that he wouldn’t be Jobs, and Sorkin wouldn’t have a movie. In The Social Network, for which he won an Oscar, Sorkin had to work hard to gin up drama in the life of Mark Zuckerberg, whose personal affairs are nowhere near that complicated in reality. But Jobs gave him plenty of the real stuff to work with. “It’s Shakespearean extremes, isn’t it?” says Boyle. “You have tremendous, unbelievable ambition, thwarted and failed, and then you have this comeback. And that is the stuff of drama.”
In researching the movie, Sorkin went beyond just reading the biography. He tracked down and talked to people who knew Jobs, including all the movie’s major characters. “I was very lucky to be able to talk to John Sculley, who after he left Apple kind of went into hiding a bit in Florida,” he says. “There were parts of the record that he wanted to set straight.” Sorkin also met with Lisa Brennan-Jobs, which was important because she had declined to participate in Isaacson’s biography: “I don’t want to put words or thoughts in her mouth, but my sense was that she was reluctant to do anything that might alienate her father or mother or stepmother. But once I started writing the movie, Steve had already passed away.” Brennan-Jobs wound up becoming a major figure in the movie–an essential humanizing influence on her father.
In the movie, Jobs is so off-the-charts smart and aggressive, he runs roughshod over everybody within range–he’s a character in search of somebody, anybody, who can stand up to him. “Don’t try to play dumb,” Sculley snaps at him. “You can’t pull it off!” You can see why Sorkin is drawn to geniuses like Jobs and Zuckerberg: they’re the kind of people who can plausibly utter his high-velocity, high-IQ lines. But Jobs is brilliant only north-by-northwest: he’s a genius at telling people what they want–“I guarantee you,” he says, “whoever said the customer is always right was a customer”–but he has no idea what he himself wants or how to make himself happy.
Jobs is a tough role, not least because Fassbender is onscreen and talking a mile a minute for almost the whole movie and thus was responsible for uttering huge quantities of dialogue. “There was 197 pages of it,” he says, “so the real challenge was just getting all of that in my head.” Partly for that reason, Boyle shot the movie in three stages, one for each launch event, with a week or two of rehearsal in between. He also insisted on shooting in San Francisco, even though the movie is mostly interiors. “The financiers are going, ‘Well, you could film this in Prague, save $5 million!'” he says. “Which you’d just waste on something else. I mean, this place is the birthplace of the modern world. Unless something else happens, the world for the next 50 years is going to be living through the consequences of this work.”
The other thing that makes Jobs a tough part is that he has to be made likable, or at least sympathetic, which is something even Jobs didn’t always succeed at. He could be cruel to those close to him. He browbeat his colleagues and sometimes found controlling people to be emotionally safer than sharing his real feelings with them. The success of the movie hangs on people wanting to spend two hours in the same room with him.
Steve Jobs pries its subject open far enough to give us a glimpse of the pain he’s guarding so tightly. “I did worry about that,” Sorkin says. “I happen to be the father of a daughter too, and I had a hard time getting past his very early treatment of Lisa. Then that turned into the opposite: it was really a way in.” It’s not lost on Sorkin that Jobs, in denying his child, is echoing a trauma of his own: he was given up for adoption as a baby. “I never really saw him as nasty,” Fassbender says. “I couldn’t represent him with that perspective on him. I just saw somebody who basically made seismic shifts in the world, and in order to do that you might have quite an abrasive personality to go with it. Here’s somebody who was holding on tight to a vision for basically a good 20 years before he was actually allowed to bring it to the forefront.”
The Jobs of Steve Jobs is a slightly Sorkinized, Fassbent version: funnier and more self-aware and more vulnerable. But he’s still recognizably authentic. Fassbender specializes in that layered look, a controlled outer smoothness beneath which furious engines churn–silently, but you never forget they’re there. He pulled off the same magic trick in Prometheus as an android with dark secrets. (His character could itself pass for a future Apple product.) There is at least one additional point of contact between Fassbender and Jobs. “If you’re trying to say, What’s the thing about him that is Jobsian?, you get in Michael an uncompromisingness about his acting that’s probably the same as what Jobs was like about his work,” Boyle says. “Michael is incredibly relaxed and charming off camera, but on camera–I’ve never worked with anybody who is quite that demanding of himself.” It’s something Fassbender recognizes about himself, as well as the price one pays for that level of obsessive commitment. “After Prometheus I think I did six films back-to-back, and it’s fine while you’re doing them–O.K., that’s cool, I’ll just go on to the next one–but it’s actually in that downtime period where you stop and think, What’s going on with me?”
The resemblance, however, doesn’t extend to a mastery of computers: like Sorkin, Fassbender insists that he’s hopeless. “I’m terrible with technology,” he says. “It behaves strangely around me. Things crash all the time. I rejected the mobile phone for so long, until people were like, ‘We can’t get in touch with you. This can’t go on.'”
This is the second movie about Jobs since his death in 2011, following Ashton Kutcher’s 2013 turn in Jobs, which was widely faulted for failing to offer any deeper insight into its subject. In September, they’ll be joined by the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine–the tagline: “Bold. Brilliant. Brutal”–by Alex Gibney, who also directed films about Scientology and Enron. In summer 2017, the Santa Fe Opera will stage an original work called The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.
In addition to everything he did to shape modern life and culture, Jobs’ life story has become a part of modern mythology. That’s because it’s not over yet: he continues to play a part in the lives of all of us, for good and ill. In his struggle to resolve the conflicting elements within him, Jobs writ them large across the technosphere that we inhabit: the struggles between freedom and control, open and closed, connection and distraction that we see going on every day. “What he achieved is now fundamental to discussions about freedom, our place in the world, moral choices going forward about power, and information and data,” Boyle says. To the extent that Steve Jobs sheds light on the enigma of Jobs, it helps us think through those conflicts in our own lives. “I don’t believe that Steve Jobs was a bad person,” Sorkin says. “I have to write the character as if the character is making the case to God why he should be allowed into heaven.” And if anybody could talk his way past God himself, it was Steve Jobs.
This appears in the September 07, 2015 issue of TIME.
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