Interview: Director Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs

It's been just over four years since legendary Apple founder Steve Jobs passed away, but in the intervening years his mystique has lived on and even grown. The latest attempt to peel away the layers of the enigmatic Jobs comes via Steve Jobs, a new film from a veritable varsity team of cinematic heavy-hitters: Michael Fassbender playing the title role, a script by Academy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin, and direction by Danny Boyle.

The film avoids the standard bio pic tropes by depicting three key product launches in Jobs's career, and dramatizing some of his personal and professional struggles surrounding them. I was enraptured for the entirety of the film's 122 minutes, so much so that I wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over. This was a sentiment I conveyed to director Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) when I chatted with him in San Francisco last week. What follows are some highlights from that conversation:

So, I saw the film yesterday, and after the screening ended, I was just sitting there hoping they'd show it again. I wanted to watch it again right away.

You can watch it again. There's so much in it that you can watch it again. It can easily take a second viewing, no problem.

Now, you came into the process after the script had already been written.

Yeah, they were originally going to do it with [David] Fincher, because they'd made Social Network together, and I don't know what happened there. But they sent it to me, and I didn't want to really replace David Fincher. I'm a big fan of his, but I just thought it was wonderful, and I also thought it was in a direct lineage from Social Network, a film that I'd admired enormously. I don't think he got the credit he deserved for that, Fincher.

And yet, there were enough differences that it wouldn't look like a copy. It was a different stylistic approach to it, but it's the same film. It's these extraordinary changes, these shifts in the axis of the world created by these individuals. And [I was] kind of like, alright, okay, let's look at them. Let's see what they amount to. Let's see what we know, what people say. How do we make drama to this, so we can better understand the origins, and also his place amongst us, really.

Because they're so successful, these companies. They can shoot out of sight, these people. They're almost like gods. And their own companies would like them to be that. They protect the myth and stuff like that, so it's really important to ask this. Like Sorkin, Dave Eggers, people like that are writing about these companies and these people. I think it's absolutely crucial for our good health because governments are frightened of them, or certainly intimidated by them.

It's a paradigm shift that they're unprepared for.

Yeah, and they're so powerful. There's so much money that they can, as we know, the law -- how answerable to the law they are. There's a big case going on at the moment about Facebook in Europe and the opt-in/opt-out thing, which two states in America -- Illinois and Texas, I think -- you have to decide to opt in, whereas Facebook, I think, want you to just not have to be asked.

You're just going to opt in, anyway, and the European court is standing up against them for this, but there's not many places are doing because they are so successful and apparently so benign at the moment, but that could change. And so, it's important stuff like this is written about them, I think.

Speaking of the paradigm shift, the film starts with the archival footage of Arthur C. Clarke talking about what computers will do one day, and it's what we use the Internet for now. But back then, it's like, "Oh, wow, this is science fiction! This is 2001!"

People forget that. There's no way you can remember. I remember, because it used to be on the news, these computers were rooms of steel gray monsters with blinking lights on the top of them, and huge reels going around, and they were incomprehensible, but they were frightening because their computing power was suddenly, like, they could beat a chess master. And now, you wake up in the morning with it.

It sometimes feels like Steve Jobs has been sanctified in death. He never had to compete with his own legend. From now on, whenever an Apple product doesn't do well, it'll always be, "Well, things would have been different if Steve Jobs was around."

Yes, you're right, but they did have lots of failures. You just don't know about them because when he had a success, he was so good at creating a frenzy that fed off itself -- the publicity. It was all-consuming, and part of the process of that was that you forgot the failures. So it was very clever, and that's great, for us to be able to feature a failure.

I mean, the Macintosh wasn't a success at the beginning, and the NeXT was not a success at all, although it had the first digital book in it. Which he wasn't shy about comparing himself to Gutenberg and the printing press. And in many ways, he was right.

It had the annotated copies of Shakespeare in it, and it's the first digital book. That was in the NeXT, and supposedly -- I don't know enough about it -- there are elements of the OS that we still use on the phones that was in that NeXT machine that Avi Tevanian created, supposedly.

Can you talk about the decision-making that went into the three product reveals that you chose to depict? Specifically, I'm thinking about the iMac. You could've picked the iPod. You could've picked the iPhone. What was it about the iMac that made it sort of a juncture point?

For me -- for Aaron, as well -- that is the sea change because it was a hit. Before it came out, they knew: this is going to work. Everybody wants it, whereas it wasn't the case with the Macintosh, and obviously, you get that parallel between that because Joanna literally spends the first scene telling him, "We're not going to sell a million copies in the first nine months," and then she goes in the same room and says, "We are going to sell a million in the first nine months."

But I think also it was the first step on the road to something truly personal. He says at one point, "Look at the Macintosh. Do you see how its face resembles a goofy grin?" And you go, I'm not quite sure it does, actually, to be absolutely honest, and that's the reality distortion field, but I can see when he revealed that computer, and I remember that computer, thinking, "F***, this is cool. I want that. I don't really understand it, but I want it."

And that desire, that sense of it being something that you're attracted to, and want it to belong to you and you to belong to it, began. And it was a bit bulky to take to bed, obviously, but that was the beginning of the process, and now we do take them to bed.

Can you talk about working with Michael Fassbender, and how you shaped this character?

Yeah. I mean, he's an extraordinary actor. He's so uncompromising in what he does. He doesn't go for easy options, and he puts himself under intense pressure, and yet he also is effortlessly relaxed, which you need to be to be a film actor, as well; astonishingly prepared and yet free, and considering the pressure he was under, it's astonishing what he's done. I mean, because it's an enormous part. It's beyond big, and of course, it's got a whole mythology around it as well. You know, you're not just playing anybody.

Everybody's going to have an opinion about you because everybody's got an opinion about you, so he's under staggering pressure. But that's the kind of boldness he has as an actor, and when you combine that with Aaron's boldness of approach, in terms of the three-act structure rather than a bio pic, and everybody's encouraged, at each stage of it, to be bold, and to try and do it boldly, and to take risks - because he did.

I mean, that's something that you do admire him for, hugely. He would not settle for the easy path. He was contrary to a fault, of course, and also inspirationally so. He would always be looking for something different, and for you to think differently.


Steve Jobs is playing in select theaters now, and it's one of my favorites of the year. For more movie talk, including our thoughts on The Martian and the latest Hollywood Headlines, be sure to check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: