The complex story behind the creation of Facebook was a challenge, even for Aaron Sorkin. He tells John Hazelton how his moral compass met Sony’s lawyers

It wasn’t a fascination with Facebook itself that made Aaron Sorkin want to write The Social Network, Sony’s critically lauded hit drama directed by David Fincher, about the clashing personalities behind the birth of the phenomenally popular social media website.

“I wasn’t very interested in Facebook,” says Sorkin, whose attitude is that “socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality”.

“What I was interested in was that set against this very modern backdrop was a story that’s as old as storytelling itself,” says the multiple Emmy-winning writer behind The West Wing and A Few Good Men. “The themes of friendship and loyalty, betrayal, class, jealousy are the kinds of things that Aeschylus or Shakespeare would write about, or just a few decades ago Paddy Chayefsky. And it was just lucky for me that none of those guys were available so I got to write about it.”

When he began work on the script — already Golden Globe nominated and named best adapted screenplay by -several critics’ associations — Sorkin had only a 14-page proposal for The Accidental Billionaire, Ben Mezrich’s book about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to work with. 

Sorkin shared notes with Mezrich as both continued their work and he made use of such public sources as Zuckerberg’s blog and legal documents related to the lawsuits filed over the origins and ownership of Facebook.

But his most important research, he says, was “speaking directly to people who were present when these events were taking place”. Those sources included some of the people portrayed in the film, though Sorkin says he can’t name names. 

What resulted was a tightly structured screenplay that jumps in time between two deposition hearings and the original events being described there. “I really liked that there were three different versions of the story,” Sorkin explains. “I like courtroom -dramas, I like Rashomon, so I came up with the structure of the two deposition rooms.” 

For the sake of accuracy, any facts about the birth of Facebook that are in dispute were presented that way to the audience. 

Sorkin says: “You have a moral compass that says you can’t play fast and loose with people’s lives. And if for some reason your moral compass isn’t working you have the Sony legal department. The script was vetted to within an inch of its life by a legal team that couldn’t fit inside the Theatre Royal Haymarket.”

He also made an effort to avoid clear moral distinctions between characters: “One of the things that I enjoyed about writing the movie, and I think one of the things that people are enjoying about watching it, is that it doesn’t take a position on who’s good and who’s bad, who’s telling the truth and who’s lying.”

Even the screen version of Zuckerberg, Sorkin claims, is “an antihero for the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie and a tragic hero for the final five minutes”. Most Hollywood studios, Sorkin adds, prefer more defined heroes and villains, “but I think that we would all do well to think more of our audience than we do.  I have no reason to believe that the people who watch movies are dumber than the people who make movies.”

Another unusual element of the film is Sorkin’s trademark dense dialogue, often delivered at break-neck speed by stars Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake. But the writer credits his director with creating the momentum that keeps the talkier scenes moving.

“You can thank David Fincher for that,” he says. “It’s David who was able to make scenes of typing — and sometimes just scenes of people talking about typing — look like bank robberies.”

Although Sorkin has recently been most visible in the feature film world, he remains active in television and the -theatre as well, and has announcements coming soon, he says, about a TV series and a new play. 

Upcoming feature projects include the Brad Pitt baseball drama Moneyball and Sorkin’s own feature directing debut, based on Andrew Young’s book The Politician, about the rise and fall of US politician John Edwards.   

That both films, like 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, are fact-based is just a coincidence, Sorkin insists.

“Every time I do non-fiction I say this’ll be the last  non-fiction I’ll do, because even when it’s a great story, like the one we have with The Social Network,  your hands are tied by the truth. But as soon as I decide [that] along comes an irresistible non-fiction story that I can’t pass up.”