The Social Network: How The Facebook Movie Was Built
Late last week, director David Fincher’s The Social Network screened for a theater packed full of journalists in Manhattan covering the New York Film Festival. Fittingly for an event of this size, the film’s key players gathered for a post-screening question and answer session. It turned out to be a deep dive discussion of the movie, with a great deal said on how the script came together, what went into each performance and, at one point, what to expect from Justin Timberlake’s role in the December release, Yogi Bear.
Read on for a lengthy examination of The Social Network with director David Fincher, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake.
Moderator: I’ll just begin by asking—Aaron, I think you’ve expressed your earlier distaste for the electronic communications world. What is it that made you overcome that and made you want to write this script?
Sorkin: My feelings about the Internet are actually irrelevant to anybody’s enjoyment of the movie. What made me overcome it was, I didn’t think it was a movie about Facebook really. I thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself, of friendship and loyalty, and class, jealousy, power… these things that Escalus would write about or Shakespeare would write about or [Network writer] Paddy Chayefsky would write about. Luckily for me, none of those people were available so I got to write about it. David really agreed that—[points to director David Fincher]—you should talk about it, that this wasn’t…
Fincher: Obviously there was a lot of Internet chatter when it was announced we were gonna make this movie. I think people thought we were making a sequel to The Net, or we were trying to do some kind of fad-hopping. I really didn’t know anything about the origins of Facebook, I just had a dry read of a script that had a bunch of people in it that I felt I knew, and knew intimately and could relate to and empathize with, and I thought it was a lovely two hours.
Aaron, I just want to ask you, because the opening scene, number one, is so great, but number two, it so instantly pulls you right in – I mean there’s no question that you get on board with the film right away – how long did it take you to figure out where to begin the film?
Sorkin: Once I had Mark’s blog, which you see in the movie and which is pretty much verbatim—I made it a little bit shorter—but it was clear that he had just got his heart broken by a girl and that this was going to be a night of drinking and blogging and this revenge stunt of Facemash. I knew that I wanted to… see him get his heart broken by a girl, I wanted to see that scene. But since you brought up that it was nine pages, that it was two people sitting in a bar… a lot of directors would’ve come along and said, particularly—listen, David, what he’s most known for is being peerless as a visual director. So intuitively, this is an unusual marriage of director and material because I write people talking in rooms. And you would think that the director would come along and say, “Listen, I just don’t know what I’m going to point the camera at. I can’t begin a movie like this, with a nine page scene of two people talking at a table.” And I’m just gonna throw back to David—
Fincher: It’s a good scene. There’s no problem in sublimating your desire to show off if what you’re presenting is something that you think is what it’s going to take to steep the audience [in your story]. Originally, the script began and [the movie] was in black and you would hear voices over the black. And I kind of wondered, well why don’t we just see the Columbia logo and start hearing them then and hear the jukebox and hear all the people talking, let people know, “Pin your ears, man. You’ve gotta pay attention.” If we could start over the trailers for other movies, that’s what I want. Actually, at one point we talked about the notion of putting the credits over that opening scene so it was just like, jukebox, cacaophony, people dropping burger plates, two people talking right over the top of each other and… unit production manager. You know, just information overload. I just felt that the scene teed up exactly who this guy was, exactly what the stakes were, exactly what the world was, and it taught you how to watch the movie. And also, when Aaron read it, it was four and a half minutes, it was nine pages in four and a half minutes. So the whole thing was, let’s get everybody used to the idea that it was nine pages in four and a half minutes.
I’d like to ask Jesse, Andrew and Justin… if your research or just your approach to the role involved much actual research into the people you were playing or if you took more of your inspiration just from what was in the script?
Eisenberg: I did a lot of research during the rehearsal process, but if I didn’t and only had Aaron’s script that would have been perfectly sufficient. I auditioned for the movie prior to looking up Mark Zuckerberg online. I didn’t know what he looked like, I had never heard him speak. All I had was Aaron’s incredible characterization, and felt that was more than sufficient to make the audition tape. Then we had about a month and a half of rehearsal. In order to feel more prepared and to understand who this guy was, I found every interview and watched every video that was online and got every picture that I could find of him.
But really, as Aaron said, it was not really a movie about Facebook as much as it is about these more substantive themes. And in the same way it was not a traditional biography picture where I’m trying to do an imitation of… Mark Zuckerberg, so I was really just focused on playing Aaron’s characterization of Mark Zuckerberg.
Andrew: I think Jesse put it very well, I don’t know how much I have to add to that outside of my own personal experience. Which was I had a photo to go from.
Fincher: Two photos: the drunk one and the non-drunk one.
Timberlake: What more do you need, actually? It says so much about a person.
Fincher: Two facets.
Garfield: The drunk one helped because I’ve never been drunk before, so it was good to see someone drunk and know what face that looks like. But that was great in its own way because I could just invent something from an inspiration. And I immediately saw that he—and maybe this is my own projection—but he seemed very warm, but yet kind of reserved. I kind of had minimal to go from, which was actually quite liberating. I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way, but it would have been really interesting [to meet him] because of course when you’re playing someone who exists and is living and breathing somewhere, you kind of feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen, because we’re all human. You know, when you have empathy for other humans it’s difficult to do that.
Timberlake: I feel like you’re looking at me and want me to add to what they just said as well. I also have empathy for human beings, thank you. I think there was kind of a collective movement with Jesse and Andrew and myself that, like they said before, we all kind of felt like everything, so much [of] what we needed was there on the paper. And then moving into the wonderful mind of David to find out exactly where this film was going to go. But I think just for playing my character, I actually stayed as far away from anything on the Internet as I could. You meet my character—you meet him when he meets Facebook, pretty much. So I wanted to be excited by that. But like they said, the themes and the ideas are so much bigger than what the actual invention of Facebook in the film services.
Fincher: It was also, we had conversations about… if it’s a biopic—a biopic is essentially there to tell you why someone did what they did. I wasn’t interested in that at all. I was interested in what they did and, because we saw it from the multiple points of view and all of those points of view are of course were polarized by intents and litigation… you know, I don’t know whether Mark was Eduardo’s best friend. I know that Eduardo stated that he was his best friend and I know that Mark stated the exact opposite. So we had to find a happy medium in there where both of them could walk away from the scenes that we see them in and then one could righteously say, “I was your best friend” and the other one could look and be aghast by that. So I wanted to stay away from mimicry. I mean, we cast the actors that we cast because of what they brought to it and we wanted to unleash them with as much freedom to make each of the parts of the movie, the things that they were supporting, the story that they were supporting, be as human as possible and give them the leeway to be human and not to trap them.
You mentioned the month and a half of rehearsal, which strikes me as extremely unusual for a Hollywood film these days. I’m wondering, what did that month and a half consist of and is that something you’ve done in your previous films?
Eisenberg: Sorry, I said a month and a half. I just want to clarify: we had about three weeks of rehearsal. I had a month and a half before we started shooting; I was just talking about my own preparation.
Fincher: Yeah, we did about three weeks and most of those three weeks were not [about staging the scenes]. We didn’t really do that at all.
Timberlake: We never really got it off the table, I feel like. We all sat at the table.
Fincher: It was really about just tearing at the fabric of the text and saying, “I understand that this chronologically happens here on the page. Is it better being aligned earlier or aligned later?” Just asking those questions. And Sorkinese, as I like to refer to it, it’s a different kind of way of communicating because these are characters who are thinking aloud. So you need to know… what inspired them to get on this roll. I like to describe it as, it’s not a character presenting a wall of bricks, it’s a character with a dump truck dumping a ton of bricks in the audience’s lap. What made these guys special and what made it obvious that there was no one else to play these roles was, you could see that they could talk about one, two, three things simultaneously and be thinking about a fourth and a fifth. And that’s what it required. So the rehearsal was really about, mostly, how do we dovetail all these words.
[The audience is invited to ask questions.]
Audience Question: I want to ask Jesse and Justin, what were the challenges in playing people that people may think are big assholes? And also, for Justin, are you going to be singing with Yogi Bear this December?
Timberlake: I was hoping you were gonna ask me about Yogi Bear. I’m glad that we can just get that out of the way with the first question.
Eisenberg: Well it’s impossible to play a role and look at it, not only in the way you described but look at it objectively at all. My main responsibility was not only to understand where my character was coming from but be able to defend all of his positions and his behavior, and ultimately sympathize with him. Over the course of the movie, and really over the course of this publicity experience, I’ve developed an even greater affection for my character. You have no choice. It’s impossible to disagree with the character you’re portraying. We shot the movie over five and a half months and over very long days and you’re spending a lot of time working hard to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with all of that behavior. It’s just impossible to play it any other way.
Timberlake: Just to add to what Jesse said, I think it’s fundamentally the same application for myself. It became clear to me after my first reading of the script that there was going to be a version of this person, my character in the film, that he wasn’t the hero, so to speak. Obviously, you never play anything sitting behind a laptop, twirling your moustache. That’s the beauty of this film to me, that you really get to pick who you side with. I had a friend who recently screened the film and… as soon as we walked out he said, ‘I don’t agree with anyone in this movie, but I don’t disagree with anyone in this movie,’ speaking about all the characters. I think that’s what makes the dynamic of these three characters tick. I feel like you defend your character; no one believes that what they’re doing is wrong in life, and so I feel like you need to attack it that way.
Fincher: Also, “The character is an asshole” is such a reductive and overly simplistic way [of framing these people]. I have no problem saying that I think Eduardo Saverin had a failure of imagination. And I think at some point there was going to be a fork in the road for those two guys, and I don’t think that Sean Parker was overly Machiavellian. I think what he was saying and how he presents himself is a perfectly reasonable, as somebody who’s been through it and has had a Napster and lost a Napster, here’s a guy who’s saying, “This is the big leagues. And it’s great that you have friends from your dorm, and it’s great that you have college buddies, and it’s great that you have somebody you can turn to and borrow $19,000 from. But this is the bigs, and you have to now realize that if you want to protect what it is that you’ve invested… so much of your energy [into], if you want to protect that, you’ve gotta have the support of people who know what they’re doing, who can navigate these waters.”
And we’re very conscious in the scenes that Sean never advocates himself as “the guy.” He comes to say, “I’m a fan. I’ve come to say hi and I’m saying watch your back. These guys, they don’t want you, they don’t want some 21-year-old kid telling them where the future is. They want your idea and they want to sideline you. That’s what it is.” So you can say that he’s charming, I think all of these facets are true of the situation. I can’t imagine that Mark Zuckerberg ever said, “Well, how do I screw Eduardo out of this?” I think what he probably said was, “I am up to my eyeballs trying to figure out how to make this thing work, how to get it on 60 million laptops.” And a bunch of guys came to him and said, “Hey, your buddy, who put up $19,000, he can own 30% of something that’s worth a million dollars or he can own .03% of something that’s worth ten billion dollars. Do him a favor.”
I was just wonder if any of you maintained personal Facebook pages and, if so, how addicted to them are you?
Sorkin: I put up a Facebook page the day that I signed up for the movie. I didn’t have one before. Honestly, I didn’t know that much about Facebook. I’d heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of a carbeurator, but I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it and tell you what it does. The first thing I did was start a Facebook account. I kept it up all during research, during writing, during photography, and then took it down.
Eisenberg: I had a similar experience. I signed up for Facebook the first day of rehearsal so I could understand what my character was talking about. And when we started shooting and I had to learn all of those lines, I stopped using it.
Fincher: I’ve seen it. Over someone’s shoulder. No, I don’t have a Facebook.
Garfield: I was your usual kind of general Facebook user, I’m sad to admit. I’ve been three months clean. I’m proud of myself too. It’s okay, it’s no big deal… I’m on the third step. But no, I don’t use it, because it was just negative for me, as it is for most people.
Timberlake: I don’t have a personal Facebook page, but it is nice to know through the world of philanthropy, for instance, that you can send out a message and, for instance, raise money for free health care for kids. So it is a fantastic thing even though I don’t have a Facebook page. It’s hard enough to do voice work in animated films at the same time that you’re—I just didn’t have time to look at pictures of my friends.
I saw from the Mark Harris piece in New York Magazine that you guys had 160 pages [in the script] and the studio said, ‘You’ve got to cut it down because it’s going to be too long.’ And you said, ‘Well let’s read it together’ and it turned out to be a lot faster than that. I got the idea that it was the studio threatening to cut that made it fast. Or did you intend it to be His Girl Friday all from the get-go?
Fincher: No, it was written to be fast. When you have the guy who wrote it and you say, “Read it for me,” and you time it out at two hours, then you call the studio and say, “We don’t really need to worry about this, it’s going to be two hours.” Contractually, for me to have final cut, I had to deliver a movie that was two hours and 19 minutes or less and I was able to come in way under the wire.
The way the script was constructed, is that the way it was originally written? Did you tamper with that?
Sorkin: No, that was the way it was originally written. Once research revealed that two separate lawsuits were brought against Facebook at roughly the same time, the defendant, the plaintiffs, the witnesses, they all came into the deposition rooms, they all swore out an oath. And what we ended up with were three very different versions of a story. Instead of choosing one and deciding that one’s the truth, I’m gonna run with that or choosing one and deciding, that one’s the sexiest, I’m gonna run with that, what I really liked was that there were three different versions of the story. That there was [Akira Kurosawa’s] Rashomon. It didn’t come to me instantly, there was a period of climbing the walls and pacing around like there always is, but I came up with the structure of the deposition rooms and that everything was gonna come out of that, which would give everyone an ability to say, “That’s not true, that’s not what happened,” and would also have the added benefit of putting Mark just a few feet away from his accusers. When we go to those deposition rooms, Mark’s actually an underdog in there. He’s got to defend himself against a team of very high-priced lawyers. But the structure worked mostly for the Rashomon quality.
After two hours of Trent Reznor’s score, it’s a little jarring to hear The Beatles [over the closing credits]. I’m wondering why that song was chosen and also why Reznor’s music was used throughout the movie in general?
Fincher: I wanted to work with Trent and we had tempted a lot of the movie with Nine Inch Nails’ [album] Ghosts, which was a sort of conceptual studio album that they did in two weeks. I remember when we were shooting the final deposition scene… I was listening to my iPod and had a Beatles compilation on and thought, “I might be able to get away with this.” And when we were shooting the deposition scene I played it for Jesse and he nodded his head, which is approval. Then when we laid it up underneath—it was funny, because we did lay it under the scene and play just the scene, we laid it under the scene and played the whole movie—I remember going, “Yeah, I think that’s going to work.”
A lot of people who are in the tech community comment on Zuckerberg’s personality as being somewhat of an Asperger’s personality. Was that some of the thought process in your performance for the movie?
Eisenberg: I certainly don’t want to diagnose him, but in Aaron’s script and in watching these interviews there’s a certain kind of disengagement that you see. It’s frankly not dissimilar from some of the disengagement I express when I’m doing interviews, because they can be incredibly uncomfortable. So to attribute to some kind of extreme diagnosis doesn’t feel right to me. There was a really interesting quality that I wanted to bring out, which was this difficulty connecting with others.
Of course, this makes his invention much more ironic and fitting that he would create something that connects everybody else. It was certainly something that we tried to bring out. It makes the character far more interesting to play, that he has trouble connecting with others and yet he feels comfortable connecting everybody else and perfectly comfortable in the social environment of Facebook. It was also something to make me feel the character was a full person. So even though he appears enigmatically or reserved or detached, there’s still something happening beneath that. Among our many other conflicting emotions is [that he’s] feeling lonely. At the end of the movie he’s a billionaire, he’s created something really out of nothing, almost by himself, and he feels still alone. So even though he maybe appears mysterious, it’s always coming from a real place.
Did you guys encounter any problems from Facebook the company? And Zuckerberg, do you know if he’s seen the film and what his thoughts are about it?
Fincher: I know that [producer] Scott Rudin had conversations with Facebook, I know that Aaron, you were privy to—
Sorkin: Scott Rudin and me, a little bit, aggressively courted Facebook and Mark’s cooperation in the film. Mark would end up doing exactly what I would have done, which was decline. We also told them at the time that, whether they participated or not, we would show them the script when the script was done and we would welcome any notes that they had. We did give them the script and their notes largely had to do with hacking. There was a little bit of hacking terminology that I’d gotten wrong, unsurprisingly. I know that there was a rumor a day or two ago that Mark had been spotted at a screening. I doubt it.
Fincher: No, we have it on good authority that he owns a print. He purchased a print. [pauses] No, I’m kidding.
Sorkin: Listen, I get it. I don’t think there are any of us who would want a movie made out of the things we did when we were 19 years old. If Mark is going through an uncomfortable moment, that doesn’t give me any joy at all. I understand, I doubt he’s going to be first in line [this] Friday to buy a ticket.
A lot has been made of the embellishment and sexualization of certain scenes in this film, and I was wondering if you could talk about which scenes in particular?
Sorkin: I’ll talk about it for a moment before I hand it over to David. None. And I don’t know where this has come from. I’m not going to sell any tickets by making this statement, but I’m telling you that there is less sex in this movie than there is in any two minutes of Gossip Girl. Nothing in the movie was invented for the sake of Hollywood-izing it or sensationalizing it. There are, as I explained, because of the three different versions of the story that we’re given, not just in the deposition rooms but there was a lot of first-person research that I did with people who are characters in the movie and people who are close to the event, most of whom were speaking to me on the condition of anonymity, and there were a lot of conflicting takes, so there are going to be a lot of people saying, “That’s not true, that didn’t happen,” as they’ve been saying that since 2003. The work that I did is exactly the same as any screenwriter does on any non-fiction film.
When Peter Morgan writes The Queen, he’s going from fact to fact to fact. But Peter Morgan wasn’t in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when she was talking to her husband about their daughter-in-law. Moreover and more important, people don’t speak in dialogue and life doesn’t play out in scenes. There’s work that the dramatist does. But nothing was invented, certainly nothing was sexualized in order to amp up the temperature in the movie.
Fincher: You have to keep in mind that there is a point of view, there is a perspective. Certainly we could do a lot of research—there were stories that were told to us that were far worse, far more salacious, far more demeaning to the participants than the stuff that we actually chose to show and we had to temper it. We were trying to tell a story about somebody who’s sitting at home and doing something and going, “Everybody else is having far more fun that I am.” And that is the narrative purpose [of the early college party scenes].
Director David Fincher’s The Social Network arrives in theaters this Friday, October 1.