By the time Danny Boyle agreed to direct "Steve Jobs," the entire project seemed ill-fated. David Fincher had dropped out over disputes with Sony, and months later, the studio's hack exposed the movie's contentious development process. Meanwhile, the lead role shuffled from one potential actor to the next, with Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bradley Cooper attached before Michael Fassbender signed on. Sony dropped the project altogether and Universal picked it up. Now, less than a year later, in typical biopic fashion, "Steve Jobs" is facing detractors familiar with the Apple co-founder, including CEO Tim Cook, who called it "opportunistic," and Jobs' widow, who attempted to block the movie's distribution. Oh, and none of this accounts for the fact that Ashton Kutcher played Jobs in a ridiculed 2013 biopic and Alex Gibney released a documentary about the tech titan just last month.
By some Hollywood miracle, none of that matters. The predominant sentiment surrounding "Steve Jobs" concerns the critical praise and impressive box-office haul it has seen ahead of Friday's wide release. A front-runner in the 2016 Oscar race, the film is split into three acts, each revolving around a product launch: 1984's Macintosh, 1988's NeXTcube and 1998's iMac. That approach is the brainchild of Aaron Sorkin, who based his script on Walter Isaacson's 2011 biography and incorporated Jobs' tumultuous relationship with his ex-girlfriend and daughter as a recurring thread throughout the triad. Now that the wild ride is over, The Huffington Post hopped on the phone with Boyle, whose directing credits include "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Trainspotting," to discuss the film.
It's a feat that this movie has changed hands, had its development process made public and seen a fair share of naysayers, and yet it's emerged relatively unscathed.
Yeah, it was amazing because if you’ve had a checkered arrival schedule where you swap studios and all that kind of stuff, it's wonderful to finally get it out there. Making [movies] is very crazy and intense, especially this one, given its reductive nature into these three scenes behind the scenes, if you like. So it didn’t really feel very public at all and then it has to become public. But we got a wonderful reception at Telluride; it was really fantastic. We made a few small little tweaks after that because it’s nice to have that kind of audience for it -- you learn a few things and then you plow on.
What did you learn from that Telluride audience?
We made the very end of the film a little more personal. It was huge, the ending, at one stage. We got these amazing shots of the [crowd at the iMac launch] and we cut them, actually, because we just wanted to focus on the father and daughter moment at the end of the film to make it a bit more personal. That was a big thing. What else did we do? I took out some glitches that I’d put in which were trying to be too clever -- just little tiny things. And then lots of timing things to fine-tune it.
After taking over, did you speak with Fincher at any point about his vision for the movie?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t. No. I’m a big fan of Fincher -- I mean, I don’t know him very well, but I’ve met him a couple of times and I’m an enormous fan. The only thing I would say is that everybody said to me, “Don’t mention ‘The Social Network.’” I was like, "No! One of the reasons I did the job was that it was exciting because it felt like a lineage from ‘Social Network.’" It does feel like Part 2 to me. And there’s a third part, but we don’t know what it will be yet. Who knows? And obviously there are substantial differences in the types of films that they are technically, but it was wonderful to know that David had been through it, done it and come out of it with a dazzling film that isn’t a play, because obviously the thing about Aaron’s writing is that it’s very, very dialogue-driven. So I was very inspired by taking over from Fincher on it. It was none of my business why. I was just told that he dropped out and they decided they weren’t going to go forward together.
It’s nothing but a compliment to replace David Fincher on a project, anyway.
Absolutely. I agree.
You mention Sorkin’s writing being like a play, very theatrical …
No, I meant that there’s just so much dialogue. If you did it in a particular way, I think it obviously could be done as a play. But I never really thought of it like that. He tried to develop a language with it that would get the best out of a theatrical preparation, which means a lot of rehearsal time with the actors and then actually producing it as cinematically as possible, particularly gathering so much material that you had a lot of freedom in the edit to emphasize different aspects of the performances and the variation that’s possible even within quite restricted scenarios. In fact, I think that was the biggest thing I learned, and I found it to be true in a lot of cases, actually -- what can appear from one perspective to be incredibly restrictive is actually quite liberating in some weird contradictory way.
Does part of that liberation come from your own theater background? The three-act structure, at least, must feel pretty comfortable for you after having directed so much on the stage.
I had a kind of confidence with the actors, which you get if you work in the theater. Theater is very much an actor’s medium, and you can find a shorthand and confidence working with them. That was hugely to my advantage, I think. Secondly, a love of good writing. You know, normally films are made inch by motherfucking inch, as Oliver Stone once said. You literally take them apart and incrementally construct tiny little bits of them and then put them all together. We did it slightly different here: We left that approach until the editing because we did long, extraordinary takes where the actors could really explore, with momentum, the full scene. And then we’d shoot it many, many, many, many different ways so that when you came to edit it you could make it feel like it was being built from constructed pieces. But they were deconstructed pieces, in reality, put together in a different way. That was a very exciting process.
Let’s talk about Bob Dylan, who has a heavy presence in this movie. Jobs was a Dylan disciple, so what did it mean to you to feature his music?
Well, obviously a lot of Jobs’ public persona -- certainly a lot of his presentational work -- was about championing the free thinkers, the rebels, as he called them, or the misfits, and the people who broke through and did not follow the herd, but really stood alone. Obviously Dylan, for everyone, is a prime example, but for Steve himself, he was a particular favorite, I think. So it made a lot of sense to use a bit of Bob.
Was it easy to get those song rights?
Oh yeah, he was helpful, God bless him. We did not have that help from everyone, I have to tell you. I never got to meet him; I’d love to meet him, but it was wonderful to feature a couple of his songs, of course, and also there’s a sequence where we feature a tribute to the first pop video ever made, which is the index-card video [for “Subterranean Homesick Blues."]
There are lots of pop-culture references throughout "Steve Jobs," actually. Another is the famous 1984 Apple ad that was directed by Ridley Scott. I assume he's aware his commercial is in the movie?
Yes, I rang him up and told him that we were using it, obviously just out of respect, and we give him a credit in the final credits. He was lovely.
What's refreshing about Fassbender's performance is that it's not a direct impression like in most biopics, and yet it effectively channels Jobs anyway. How did the two of you collaborate to discover that approach together?
You work on the scenes and you have various guiding principles, which we established early on because when you’re working with someone like that, they’re a partner on the film. I met him in Australia, where he’d just finished a film. He was staying down there for Christmas and he’d invited all his family to visit him. So we set out the parameters there for the way that we would approach it, and we would approach it in breaking the pieces into three and rehearsing and then shooting sequentially, which again is very unusual to do. Each part we’d shoot sequentially, so we knew that he would be able to have an ongoing momentum and discovery through it, which is a huge help for an actor. They very rarely get that. They usually have to make decisions based on certain scenes, but it gave him handlebars on how to guide it three separate times. It made it manageable. Then I came back to San Francisco to prep and he began his prep.
Something I thought was extraordinary about what he’d done was that he didn’t learn the lines. Michael doesn’t really learn lines. He is so precise that he never went wrong. He kind of absorbs them all the time slowly. I think what he does is he reads it to himself aloud every day, two or three times. So he never sits down to learn where he covers the page and asks, “Do I know it?” like you do for an exam. He just reached a point where he had ownership of it. You might have thought he’d written it. And I never saw him on set look at the script ever. We’d discuss the scenes and what we wanted to do with them and how we would approach them, and it was very pressurized for him, especially the first two parts. But I think when he got in the third section he was so relieved that he had no more to do after this one that he just floated into it, and he was extraordinary in the third part.
"Steve Jobs" is now playing in limited release. It opens nationwide on Oct. 23.
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