Aaron Sorkin (‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’) on the ‘difference between art and journalism’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Aaron Sorkin is the writer and director behind “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which tells the real-life story of the anti-Vietnam War protestors who were arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The film just earned six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, with Sorkin himself earning his fourth career bid for writing the screenplay.

Sorkin recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Charlie Bright about when he first learned about the real Chicago 7, the casting process for the film and his experience recently winning a Golden Globe at a virtual ceremony. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: The first question that I wanted to ask is about when these events actually happened. I know you were very young when the ’68 convention happened, but were you aware of what was happening when it was actually happening? And if not, when did you first become aware of these protests and the subsequent trial? 

Aaron Sorkin: No, I was not aware. I was in first grade when they were happening. I was not aware that they were happening. Later in my life… well, I can fast forward more than that. In 2006, I was, on a Saturday morning, asked to come over to Steven Spielberg‘s house, which I just want to be clear, that’s not common. I don’t hang out with Steven Spielberg on Saturdays at his house. And he told me he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago Seven and I said, “The Chicago Seven? Count me in. That sounds great. It’ll be a great movie.” I left his house, called my father, and asked him who the Chicago Seven were. Even then, I had a vague sense that there had been civil unrest at the convention in Chicago in ’68. I had a vague sense that Abbie Hoffman was a counterculture figure. Pretty sure all I knew about Tom Hayden was that he’d been married to Jane Fonda for a time. So I had a lot of research to do. There are a dozen or so good books, some of them written by the defendants, written about the Chicago Seven. There’s a 21,000-page trial transcript. But most critically, I got to spend time with Tom Hayden, who was still alive then. He passed away in 2016, 10 years after I said yes to doing “Chicago 7.” But I got to spend time with Hayden and that’s what gave me a look into the tension between Tom and Abbie. 

Gold Derby: It’s so crazy that this is only your second film that you’ve directed because there are so many intense scenes in there, probably no more intense than the rioting scenes and I’m curious as to what were some of the obstacles that you faced in trying to shoot those scenes? 

AS: Yeah, listen, for me, even as a writer, when I write EXT., exterior, I get nervous, even as a writer. They say when you bring home a new puppy, that you should get a crate that’s just big enough for the dog to be able to turn around, but no bigger because a puppy likes the security of that kind of claustrophobic space, and so do I. That’s why mostly I write people talking in rooms. So the riot scenes were probably the biggest reason why it took so long to make the film. Those riot scenes were budget busters. A film like “Chicago 7,” you’re not gonna have a lot of money. You’re not gonna be given a lot of money to make it and whether it was Steven or there were a number of directors after Steven, every time someone sat down to budget it, they get to the riots and the whole thing would blow up.

Well, Donald Trump started running for president and then he got elected and at his rallies, there’d be a protester and Trump would get nostalgic about the old days when they’d carry that guy out of here on a stretcher and punch him right in the face and beat the crap out of him and Steven decided that the time to make the film was now. By then, I had directed for the first time. I directed “Molly’s Game,” and Steven was pleased enough with it that he thought I should direct “Chicago 7,” and he said, “Now the riots are your problem.” So I had to figure out how to do it and how to do it on a budget, and with the help of our DP, Phedon Papamichael, our editor, Alan Baumgarten, what I came up with was, first of all, we lucked out. We were able to shoot in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue where the riots really took place and not much has changed architecturally around there. Looks exactly the same, which meant we were going to be able to employ archival footage.

So I was going to use three things to kind of compose these riots. Wide shots taking advantage of the tear gas, taking advantage of that smoke and kind of shooting through it, I could have people at the perimeter, at the edge of the smoke, giving the impression that there were many, many more people behind them. So it was a few of those wide shots, many, many very tight shots, a pair of eyes right before a police baton smashed into them, blood coming down the side of someone’s face, a tear gas canister being loaded, the wide shots, the very tight shots, and then, after looking at many, many, many hours of archival footage, choosing the footage that we wanted there, never wanting to pretend that that was in-camera footage, that that was original footage, we made it black and white and that was the recipe for the riots. It was early on in the schedule. Our first two weeks were in Chicago just shooting those outdoor scenes, so it was a recipe for being very nervous. It’s also the kind of sequence that you really don’t know if you did it successfully until you get into post, until you start putting it together. Looking at dailies is only going to get you so far. 

Gold Derby: So, to another area of this film, one of my favorite stories about when you were first casting “The West Wing” was when you were talking about the part of Leo McGarry and you were like, “I want to John Spencer type,” and then someone suggested, “Well, why don’t we try and get John Spencer?”

AS: I said there’s no chance we’re going to get John Spencer (laughs). 

Gold Derby: I’m curious if you had any experiences of having someone in mind for one of the roles of the movie and thinking, “Could we get someone like this.” and then someone says, “Well, why don’t we just try to get them?”

AS: Yeah, it was pretty much like that with everybody, as a matter of fact. Sacha [Baron Cohen] had been cast already. Spielberg cast Sacha and when Sacha got word that the film was finally happening, he got in touch with me to say that the role was still his, he hasn’t given it up, and that I would not be considering any other actors for the part. And he didn’t need to say that. I wouldn’t have wanted to consider another actor for the part. There was never a second choice. But yeah, when you say, “Can we get someone like Frank Langella,” and your casting director, Francine Maisler, says, “Well, let’s go for Frank,” well, we’re not gonna be able to get Frank Langella. And we did.

Everybody knew that everybody was getting scale and that this was an ensemble piece and that most days, it wasn’t gonna be your big scene that we were doing. Everybody was up for that. It became sort of, “Raise your hand, take one step forward if you want to be in ‘Chicago 7.’” So that’s how we ended up with this incredible cast. Michael Keaton saying, “Is anyone playing Ramsey Clark yet? I want to play Ramsey Clark,” that kind of thing. That’s how we got this group. To me, it felt like every morning when I got to the set, like somebody was tossing me the keys to a Formula 1 race car, and as long as I didn’t put the car in the wall, these actors were gonna win the race. 

GD: We both share a love of a certain screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, and a lot of the films that you’ve written recently have been based on true stories. But I was curious, one of the things that Chayefsky was so great with was writing these savage satires of modern times, whether it be “Network,” which I think is probably the greatest movie ever made or “The Hospital,” and I was curious as to whether or not you’ve wanted to try tackling that sort of satire for a feature film, similar to what Chayefsky did in his days. 

AS: Yeah, by the way, yes, Paddy Chayefsky is a hero of mine and three films that he won Oscars for, “Marty,” “Hospital” and “Network,” are three tremendous films. In terms of movies that I love, I divide them into two categories: movies that I love and movies I wish I’d written. I’d have given anything to have written “The Sting” and I’d have given anything to have written “Network.” 

GD: One of the other things that I wanted to ask about is I know that you have to make certain choices with regards to accuracy, in terms of creative license and just what you’re able to fit in there. But one thing that I found out was with the ending of the movie, when Tom Hayden is reading the names of American soldiers who have perished in Vietnam, when he did that, he also included the names of the Vietnamese casualties. I was wondering why you, for whatever reason, did not include that part in there? 

AS: Sure. Let me just first quickly speak more broadly to the issue of accuracy in nonfiction and then I’ll specifically answer the question that you asked about Hayden and the reading of the names. When I’m doing nonfiction, and I’m sure every writer has a different compass about these kinds of things, I tell everyone I’m working with — if I’m not the director, I tell the director, if I am the director, then it’s the department heads that I’m talking to, it’s the actors that I’m talking to — that this is a painting, it’s not a photograph, that there’s a difference between art and journalism and that when you’re doing nonfiction, the truth is incredibly important. What isn’t incredibly important is accuracy. Accuracy is important in journalism and here’s another example from “Chicago 7.” I’m assuming spoilers are OK for your audience? 

GD: Absolutely. If they haven’t lived through it, I’m sure they’ve read about it. 

AS: OK, Bobby Seale gets bound and gagged in the courtroom when the judge has had enough and it’s an astonishing moment, a defendant, a Black defendant, actually gets shackled, bound and gagged in an American courtroom and in that moment, the prosecutor, [Joseph Gordon-]Levitt, asked the judge for a mistrial in Bobby’s case. He knows the Bobby Seale thing has just gone off the rails and whether it was to his benefit or just in the interest of justice, he asked the judge to let Bobby go. That happened but it happened four days later. Bobby Seale sat in that courtroom bound and gagged for four days. So why did I have it happen immediately? Because the drama of the moment would dissipate over four days. We’d be sitting there with Bobby bound and gagged, doing other stuff when obviously the most important thing that happened in that courtroom was that Bobby Seale is bound and gagged. So I don’t mind making a change like that.

Tom Hayden read the names of both American and Vietnamese soldiers who had died in the war and he didn’t do it on the day of the sentencing, which he does in the film. He did it earlier on. Truth vs. accuracy. The truth that I was going for was that Tom Hayden did a very brave thing. He did something, and this is unlike Tom Hayden, he did something the judge specifically told him not to do. But by this point, Tom had had it with doing what the judge was telling him to do. He was finally one of the Chicago Seven now and protesting. That’s the truth. The accuracy is less important. The reason I didn’t have him naming Vietnamese soldiers is that I would have, at the worst possible moment in the film, had to explain to the audience that that’s what he’s doing. You can’t, at the end of a film, you can’t in the third act, and you certainly can’t in the final scene be explaining things to the audience anymore. You better be done with exposition. It’s gotta be all payoff. So that’s what it was with Tom. Just all payoff.

I just also want to mention the names. Those names that we used were real names of fallen soldiers who had been killed during the dates of the trial and those names were so solemn to Eddie [Redmayne], to all of us, really, but it was Eddie’s idea and he led, we followed. When we were rehearsing the scene or when the camera wasn’t on him, when we were getting coverage of everybody you get coverage of during that scene, there was a whole different list of names that I gave him, fake names, dummy names. That’s how seriously we took the real names, that he was only ever going to say them when they had to be said. 

GD: So you just had a bit of a milestone this past Sunday. You won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. Congratulations, first of all.

AS: Thanks very much!

GD: And I believe this actually ties you with Robert Bolt as the biggest winner in that category. 

AS: Can you believe it? And Quentin [Tarantino]…?

GD: He’s only won twice, though. He’s only won twice. 

AS: Are you sure? 

GD: Yes, I’m absolutely sure. He won for “Pulp Fiction” and “Django.” He did not win for “Inglourious Basterds.” 

AS: He did not. What about “Once Upon a Time [in Hollywood]?” 

GD: Oh, my goodness. You’re right. You’re absolutely right. So now you’re tied with him as well. 

AS: And Robert Bolt. I am aware of that and believe me, it is something.

GD: And so I was curious, this winning experience was very unique in that you were at your home with your family and I was curious as to what that experience was like of winning in these virtual ceremonies. 

AS: Listen, you miss the socializing a little bit that happens this time of year, especially if you’re a writer. Writers, we don’t get to work with each other, so we don’t really see each other that much. So you miss that. But on the other hand, it’s intimate. I was there with my family and a couple of friends and it was intimate. It was kind of nice. I realize it wasn’t as good a television show for the TV audience, but as far as people suffering during the COVID crisis, I would say we’re pretty far down the list.

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