The Making of the Facebook Movie: A TIME Roundtable

11 minute read
Lev Grossman

There are a lot of reasons, pretty good ones, why Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher might have chosen not to make The Social Network. For example, it’s a movie about a website. Or to be specific, it’s a movie about the creation of a website, Facebook, and how founder Mark Zuckerberg was sued by Eduardo Saverin, his best friend and the company’s original CFO, and separately by three Harvard classmates who claimed he stole their idea.

Also, the events in question are only a few years old and are still in dispute. Zuckerberg, a programming genius with famously limited social skills, isn’t an especially relatable character. Sorkin (The West Wing) and Fincher (Zodiac) are powerfully idiosyncratic talents who’d never worked together before. And a lot of the action consists of kids typing at computers and lawyers sitting around tables.

(See TIME’s Fall Entertainment Preview 2010.)

But Sorkin and Fincher did make The Social Network, which opens Oct. 1. They sat down with TIME’s Lev Grossman to talk about it.

TIME: What made you decide that this was the story you wanted to tell right now?

Sorkin: What came to me was a 14-page book proposal that Ben Mezrich [author of The Accidental Billionaires, on which the movie is loosely based] had written for his publisher. I read it, and I said yes very quickly. Faster than I’ve ever said yes to anything.

It really didn’t have much at all to do with Facebook itself. I wasn’t on Facebook. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet, and social networking wasn’t really part of my life. But the story itself! There are elements of it that are as old as storytelling: friendship and loyalty, class, jealousy, betrayal — all those kinds of things that were being written about 4,000 years ago. It struck me as a great big classic story. And those classic elements were being applied to something incredibly contemporary.

(See how Facebook is redefining Internet privacy.)

TIME: It’s almost like a Greek myth. There’s something tragic about Zuckerberg. He created a new kind of personal connection for everybody else, and yet he cannot himself connect with other people.

Fincher: That was the thing that fascinated us in doing the research about Zuckerberg. I think in a weird way his inability to connect with those next to him — who better to have invented this technology than somebody who needs it?

Sorkin: The first thing I did when I signed up for this movie was, I got a Facebook page. And the thing that struck me most was how much people were enjoying reinventing themselves on the Internet. That if you write a simple post like “Went out to this restaurant with the girls last night, had a seven-course meal, three appletinis, better hit the gym today,” you’re trying to be Ally McBeal. You sound like a sitcom person, like Mary Richards or Carrie Bradshaw.

And that struck me as something familiar. I also am not terribly comfortable socially. I have a lot of social anxiety. If I could just be in a room by myself and just write and sort of slip the pages under the door to somebody and have them slip me a meal in return, I’d be very happy.

Fincher: I hope that people understand that I have an enormous amount of empathy for Mark Zuckerberg. I know what it is to be in a room, as a 21-year-old, with a bunch of grownups. You’re hawking your wares, and they’re all looking at you like, “Isn’t it cute how passionate he is?” So I really understood his frustration.

(See what Facebook users think about the social-networking site.)

TIME: And you guys had never worked together before?

Both: Nope.

Sorkin: It was, for me at least, a very interesting and counterintuitive marriage of director and material, because what he is most known for is that he’s peerless as a visual director. And I write people talking in rooms. So you wouldn’t necessarily think of David first for this.

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TIME: It must have been a challenge to make the computer stuff visually exciting — people hunched over keyboards.

Fincher: You show shots of someone typing that are as short as you can possibly make them. But it was contextualized interestingly, in that here is somebody hard at work f___ing with the fabric of the outside world, and here’s his fantasy of what the outside world is going through. So you could ping-pong back and forth between those two ideas. But part of it is a fantasy. It extends to the casting of Justin Timberlake. A lot of people said, “That’s not who [Napster co-founder] Sean Parker is.” And I kept fighting for this. It doesn’t matter who Sean Parker is; this character of Zuckerberg has to see him as this. He’s got to see him as the guy who’s got it wired.

It’s not just about the people involved. It’s the people involved showing us a bigger truth about the last seven years, and a bigger truth about what it is to be youthful and have a dream and enthusiasm, and how once money gets injected into something it tears up the fabric of all of those idealistic good intentions.

(See the top 10 Facebook stories of 2009.)

TIME: It’s a balancing act with the Zuckerberg character. At the beginning of the movie, he’s not really all that likable.

Sorkin: I think he spends the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie being an antihero and the last five minutes of the movie being a tragic hero. And I know that by the end of the movie, I kind of want to give him a hug, and I think that people are going to feel that way too.

I also think that we understand, pretty quickly, how he got there. He’s 19 years old for most of the movie, and if you’re somebody who has spent so much time with your nose pressed up against the window of social life, who has been told that you’re a loser over and over — I have a hunch we all get told that we’re a loser, and how healthy you are as an adult depends on how much you believed it when you were growing up.

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Fincher: I really doubt that Mark Zuckerberg was ever told he was a loser. I think he’s probably been told he’s a f___ing genius for most of his life.

But what does that mean? That’s what Harvard is. You’re either getting the people who know how to behave, who were genetically created to be in that environment, or you’re getting the superfreaks who spiked the graph on one thing. And they’re being thrust into this garden party that they never quite signed up for. And I think he’s probably the latter.

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TIME: What kind of research did you do to create Zuckerberg’s character?

Sorkin: [Producer] Scott Rudin made as aggressive an effort as you can make to get the cooperation of Mark and of Facebook. In the end, they decided not to participate, which is easy to understand. And to be honest with you, I’m grateful that it worked out that way. I wouldn’t want the movie to be perceived as a Facebook production. I was able to meet with, speak with and e-mail with a number of the principals. It was all on the condition of anonymity, so I can’t get too far into that.

TIME: Did you know from the start that you wanted Jesse Eisenberg for the part?

Fincher: We saw a lot of people, and one day I got a clip from Jesse’s manager of him doing the first scene in the movie, and Aaron and I were working, and I said, “Come here, you’ve got to see this.” I mean, it’s not Mark Zuckerberg. Mark Zuckerberg in none of the file footage that I’ve found talks anywhere near that fast or has that kind of facility. But it was the perfect representation of the character.

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TIME: Mezrich’s book was criticized for being too sympathetic to co-founder Eduardo Saverin. Did you worry about that?

Sorkin: There were a number of different versions of the truth coming from three or four or five people. And rather than pick one and dramatize that, I wanted to dramatize the fact that there are three or four or five different versions of the truth. Everybody has their own version, and everybody is right, and everybody is wrong.

Fincher: And when you really get down in it, when I’m directing a scene where there’s four people on this side of the table and there’s four people on that side, when I’m talking to people over here, I’m saying, “Look at that little asshole! Look what he’s done to you! You gave him the germ of this thing, and he fleeced you!” And on the other side, I’m going, “Look at these privileged, entitled guys who couldn’t even begin to conceive of what it actually took. If not for you, there isn’t $15 billion or $25 billion to divide!”

(See a Q&A with Ben Mezrich on his Facebook book.)

Sorkin: By the way, I’ve been that guy. I’ve been the Mark Zuckerberg in that situation, and I have absolute empathy for him. With The West Wing, you’ll get somebody who says, “But 10 years ago, I wrote a script about the President, and look at all the similarities! There are scenes that take place in the White House!”

Fincher: “Look at all this stuff in the Oval Office! Page after page!”

Sorkin: Frankly, the line “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook” — it’s what I always want to say to these people. So I had a lot of empathy for Mark. And I will be clear and say I didn’t speak to Eduardo at all either. So I’m not just batting from his side of the plate.

TIME: Last question —

Sorkin: Is it about my tie? I’m very concerned I chose the wrong tie this morning.

Fincher: I didn’t want to say anything.

(See how Facebook is affecting school reunions.)

TIME: Does this movie mean that Hollywood is catching up to the galloping digitization of our daily lives? Doing things on Facebook, friending people, checking your news feed — these are so much a part of our daily routines now. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen them onscreen before.

Sorkin: David did kind of a cool thing: it’s not indicated in the script that this is the way it should be, but it’s not until the last scene, when Mark himself goes onto Facebook, that we see the logo, that we see a Facebook page.

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Fincher: You’re talking about something so ubiquitous. It was like — you know, look, we’re not making a Linda Blair roller-disco movie. We’re not here to capitalize on Facebook.

Sorkin: I badly wanted to make a Linda Blair roller-disco movie. And I lost that argument.

Fincher: I know it still hurts.

TIME: So is the sequel the Twitter movie? Am I the 18th person to make that joke?

Sorkin: It’s not a joke anymore. I just read yesterday, they’re making a movie about the guys who invented Google.

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