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Danny Boyle: Tech giants like Steve Jobs 'are terrifying' and artists must 'bring them to account'

Director Danny Boyle (left) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on the set of
Director Danny Boyle (left) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on the set of "Steve Jobs."
Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures

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Apple is one of the world’s best-known brands and its late co-founder, Steve Jobs, was much better known that your average corporate CEO. But that doesn’t mean a feature film about Jobs would be a guaranteed success.

Still, Sony wrote a big check for Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, and the film — which opens Oct. 9 — has an A-list cast. The film features Michael Fassbender as Jobs, and also includes Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels. (Universal Pictures is distributing the film after obtaining the rights from Sony.) 

Steve Jobs trailer

But the film has not been without its problems. In recent days, Apple CEO Tim Cook called the filmmakers “opportunistic,” which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin took exception to. There have also been reports that Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, tried to prevent the film from being made.

But the film got made, with input from Jobs’ daughter from another relationship, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. The Frame's John Horn interviewed director Danny Boyle at last month's Telluride Film festival. Boyle spoke about drawing the line between fact and fiction for "Steve Jobs," how this film is equally about screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and the big shoes he had to fill after the original director, David Fincher, left the project: 


What did you and Aaron Sorkin do to get around the facts of Steve Jobs life?

You trust yourself and the people you're working with. There's so much myth as well as so many stories. There's so much gossip, there's so many witnesses with so many different stories to tell and with so many inclinations to tell their stories in a particular way. There's a documentary that's been released about him. I wouldn't be that confident about making a documentary about him, but what I was confident about was making something where you recognize the feel of it. 

It feels truthful and something [Stanley] Kubrick said: "It's the feel of it, not the fact of it, that you trust." And obviously you could go hideously wrong with that, but that's [where] you base your judgement. You trust the artist, really. And [playwright Aaron] Sorkin is an artist, not a journalist, and he wants to express something about human life. Actually, truthfully, [to] also express something about himself. He'll never acknowledge this, but the film is clearly about him. 

In what ways? 

Well, I always said that the film is the sound of this guy's mind. 

Of Aaron Sorkin's mind or of Steve Jobs' mind? 

Both, clearly. Look at the fundamentals of the film: an incredible creationist who's carving a path and changing the way you see television drama, film drama — and he also has a young daughter. It's clearly Aaron Sorkin, and in a way, it becomes Michael Fassbender as well and it becomes me. I did the film because it is a father-daughter film and I have two daughters and it's about them. When I showed them the film, that's more meaningful to me than anything really.  

I hope you have a better relationship with your daughters than Steve Jobs has with his. 

I hope I do as well, but there's also elements of what Aaron suggested from his conversations with Lisa Brennan-Jobs about their relationship, which are things that I've inflicted on my daughters [because of] my concentration on my work. 

Did making this film change the way you saw yourself as a parent? 

Oh god, yeah. Every film changes you, really. That's the point of making them is that you're not trying to confirm your worldview, you're trying to find out what you're worldview is about the world and about you. 

Steve Jobs began his career as an entrepreneur and by the time of his death he was the head of a multi-billion dollar company. As a filmmaker, you started off of in the independent film world and now you're making a movie for a billion dollar corporation, NBCUniversal. Is there's a fundamental difference from moving from one to the other? 

Well, we had $25 million to spend. I mean the cost of the film is $35 million, but $10 million were historical costs that we inherited. So you have $25 million, which is not too different than the $20 million that we normally work [with]. So you try and maintain your principles. Universal had been very good and they let us make the film that we wanted to make. There were no problems at all about that and I'm very grateful for them for picking up the film when Sony dropped. So you bounce around these corporations and you try and maintain your work ethic and not let it be affected by the glamour, scale [and] muscle of these corporations. 

You talk about the $10 million in carrying costs you inherited. A lot of that was development at Sony and a lot of that was attached to David Fincher, who was going to direct it, and different actors who were going to be in it. Do you separate yourself from that completely, or do you call up David Fincher and say, "I'm going to take this movie on. Can we have a conversation?" 

Oh no, I didn't call David 'cause he — I'm a huge fan of his — dropped out of the movie, and that was a clean break. That's what I was told. So it was really a question of, Did I want to take on the film? And a number of people thought, You're crazy, stepping into Fincher's shoes. They are big shoes. I admire them greatly and I'm quite proud to step into them, actually. I thought [Fincher's] "The Social Network" was brilliantly directed — not just well-directed, brilliantly directed. And I could still say that now having been through the process of directing a Sorkin script, which are very particular. [Fincher] did such a magnificent job on that and I tried to replicate it in so many ways here. I feel it is part two of a trilogy that I hope Sorkin will complete at some point. 

"Social Network" being the first film. 

People [like Jobs], they're the rulers of our lives now and you must make films about them. You must address art about them because they are taking over governments, as we know. They're more powerful than governments. They're certainly more powerful than banks and they appear to buy and sell countries and they appear to not be interested in cash. They're not driven in a way that the banks or the oil companies were driven by those principles. So you go, What is going on? What's behind this? Is it all going to be benign or is there gonna be a price to pay? So to look at the creators — the instigators of these extraordinary changes in the way that we communicate with each other and the way that world knowledge is held — is incredible. 

I mean, I'd love [Sorkin] to do a film about Wikipedia, you know, about [Jimmy Wales], who's not doing it for the money. He's actually doing it on the principle that this is bigger than all of us and it deserves to be shared by all of us. It's amazing territory that we have to occupy and it's also because I think governments and the law are frightened of the power of these new corporations. They are terrifying because they bring with them such progress instantly for a country or a region. Everybody is terrified of calling them to account. So it must be artists, writers, painters, filmmakers who bring them to account in some way. 

Do you think your film brings [Jobs] to account? 

It's not like a political answer, but it actually asks: What were these people like who've created these extraordinary streamlined products that seem so perfect, and yet there's such imperfection in the individuals? We recognize in them the faults that we all carry, and that's important because the myth of these things can make you think that this is a paradise that you should aspire to and that you could join just buying [their products]. And in fact, it's full of faults and problems. 

"Steve Jobs" is in theaters on Oct. 9

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