The Social Network may be a film about real people and real events, but its star, Jesse Eisenberg, and screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) are the first to say that it can't be taken as gospel. The two sat down with Rolling Stone recently and dug deep into the making of the film, their perceptions of Eisenberg's character — Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — and the irony of the fact that the world's greatest social breakthrough was largely created by people with awkward social skills.
AARON SORKIN [to Eisenberg]: When we were out with my friend the other night, she said she liked you in Juno, and I wanted you to know that after you left, she was just mortified [for confusing Eisenberg with Michael Cera, who actually starred in Juno].
JESSE EISENBERG: The way she said it, she could have played it off. She said, "I loved Zombieland, that's the kind of movie I could just watch all the time." Pause. "And Juno." So it could have been that she likes those two movies, and I happen to be in one of them, which is fine.
How much interaction did the two of you have before filming began?
SORKIN: Our interaction began when Jesse auditioned for the movie, which he first did on tape from New York, [where] he lives. His head is going to explode when I say this, but he had the part at that point. That didn't stop us from making him drag his ass and read another four or nine times or something.
What made it obvious that he was the right guy?
SORKIN: To begin with, pure talent, acting talent. It was helpful that he looks right for the part, and that he was playing a guy who, on paper, is not unlikeable, he's just more difficult to like. When [Eisenberg] inhabits a character, you don't turn him off and say, "This guy is a prick and I don't care if he lives or dies." We very much care what happens to him. A woman wrote a very positive review of the movie that ended by saying, "This movie made me want to egg Mark Zuckerberg's house and then help him clean up," and I thought that was perfect.
EISENBERG: I think it's important to add to that that the role was as interesting to read as it was to play. My sense was that I didn't have to do that much — if you played these scenes honestly, it would be compelling. I appreciate [Sorkin] attributing some of that to me, but that was in there when I read it. I didn't view the character in a way that wanted me to egg his house; I only saw the cleaning-up-after-it part of him.
SORKIN: And frankly, so did I. You can't write a bad guy — I guess you can, but it's not very interesting. I never saw Mark as a bad guy, I saw him as an extremely complicated guy. It isn't until the last scene of the movie that Mark says the line, "I'm not a bad guy." That's the only time that a moment like that happens, it's like a cymbal crash in that scene, and Rashida [Jones]'s character, simply by saying, "I know," gives the audience permission to say, "Thank you, that's how we've been feeling too, and we've been waiting for somebody to validate this feeling that he's not a bad guy." He's been attacked for two hours in this thing, and he is a young guy, he is an awkward guy, he had way too much weight on his shoulders at way too young an age, and he made mistakes.
How much did you use the public record on Zuckerberg to prepare?
EISENBERG: It's important to note we were kind of discouraged from doing impressions of the character, so after I knew that was not the goal, I took all of the resources available and used them to prepare. So I got every picture I could find of Mark and every video that was available — I even got his college application, which I guess, unfortunately, is public. I had his voice on my iPod, so every day, driving to work, I'd listen to him. But the most important thing to look at was Aaron's script and his characterization of Mark, because that's what I was playing.
Everyone seems to be taking this movie as saying something about this decade and where we are now as a society. In your mind, what is that?
SORKIN: People are going to have different opinions about what the movie says, and people are going to have different opinions about who was right and who was wrong at various points in the story. I'm all for that. It's not important to me that everyone agree on what the movie was about — who was right, did Facebook get stolen, what does this say about this generation, what does it say about America today? I'm all for those arguments happening in the parking lot.
Jesse, what do you think?
EISENBERG: For me, I kind of filter those themes through my character's experience, and my character's experience was one of feeling excluded by these 100-year-old clubs at Harvard, these very exclusive clubs which were designed seemingly for the purpose of being exclusive. My character feels rejected and I think a little bit disgusted by those. It's fair to say I share some of those feelings about groups like that, so he creates this thing that arguably is a more democratic way to socialize, which is Facebook, and I think he kind of creates that out of feeling like those other groups are really frustrating to him.
SORKIN: Mark has created a social situation, a social structure, that's more democratic, and he would certainly say that he's created something that brings us all closer together. But what he's also done is given people something that a lot of people really want, and that's a way to reinvent themselves socially. If you can socialize from the privacy of your desk at night in a dark room, you can be a smoother, cooler, funnier, sexy, more everything person than you actually are in real life. That's a feeling I understand well: I would love for people to think that I am as quick, clever, smart and heroic as the characters that I write, but those characters are characters. And whether you hate social networking or love social networking, whether you're on Facebook five times a day or have never heard of Facebook, all of that is absolutely irrelevant to you enjoyment of the movie.
The creation of Facebook is presented by Fincher almost as a horror movie, like something terrible is happening.
SORKIN: That's David getting his shoulder into it, because he shoots and edits it like it's an action sequence: The hacking/blogging/drinking face-mash going viral and cutting back and forth to this party, which, in Mark's mind, must be what it's like. That's what's on the other side of the glass that he's got his nose pressed up against.
What, in your mind, is wrong with Mark, as you played him? What's missing in his interaction with people?
EISENBERG: I don't want to diagnose him. It's the character, not the real person.
SORKIN: I think this should be made clear: When we talk about Mark, we're talking about the character of Mark. Neither Jesse nor I know Mark Zuckerberg at all, and neither Jesse nor I have any education in psychology or anything like that. It would be grossly unfair for anyone involved in this movie — or anyone at all, really — to comment on the person.
EISENBERG: For me, the really interesting thing to explore was this kind of detachment that Aaron had written. It was endlessly exciting for me and challenging, in the best way, to explore that terse dialogue he created for my character, the kind of detached persona that seems enigmatic, but to me, is understandable. I think a lot of times he kind of knows too much what to say — I don't think he's ever at a loss for what to say; I think sometimes he has competing thoughts. In a lot of the deposition room scenes, he kind of remains quiet until he unleashes these very eloquently aggressive monologues, because he doesn't really know how to address these people, because they couldn't be more wrong and he couldn't be more irritated. So I think he kind of stores up his feelings until he finally unleashes something wonderful. I think that detachment that maybe appears enigmatic, for me, comes from a place of either not knowing what to do or kind of letting the other person squirm as a defense mechanism.
As far as Rooney Mara, Fincher has said he was looking for an actress that could scare him. You can see in this movie why she could — what did you see in her?
EISENBERG: She's incredible, and she's very difficult to impress — and I spent a few days trying to! That's part of what made her perfect for Erica, as well. She's sitting with the smartest guy in the world and she doesn't appreciate what's sitting across from her.
SORKIN: I was around when David fought for her for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which they're shooting right now — that's why David's not here. Every actress that would come to mind wanted the part, people with higher profiles than Rooney has right now — though Rooney's profile is about to change considerably. But David knew what he wanted, and damn the torpedoes.
What do you have in common with the character of Mark, and what do you not?
EISENBERG: I think I prioritize other people's opinions of me very highly, which is not necessarily a good thing — it's a thing that causes a lot of anxiety. That was the challenge for me, to understand how someone could prioritize [Facebook] over interpersonal relationships. Andrew Garfield, who plays Eduardo [Saverin] in the movie, we were discussing our characters' relationship, and we realized towards the end of the movie that we both had a completely different idea of what our characters' relationship was. I saw him as a guy who was kind of always around, who would occasionally talk to me, and he saw me as his brother. It's because we were both looking at it through the lens of our characters.
This social networking system that so much of the world uses, the movie shows it being put together by people who have no idea how to interact socially. What are we to draw from that?
SORKIN: One thing you can draw from it is that the title is ironic. Perhaps something like Facebook couldn't have been invented by somebody who goes out five nights a week and has a ton of friends and makes friends really easily. I think the people who get the most out of it — and I promise you I'm not saying that all 500 million people who are on Facebook are as socially nervous as I am — are not quite comfortable with themselves. Here is an opportunity to completely reinvent yourself, and everybody can do that now.
Some things in the movie are perhaps not exactly true to life — like maybe Zuckerberg didn't want to get into the clubs, or so he claims.
SORKIN: I haven't heard him contest that.
You have other reasons to think that?
SORKIN: Yes. Let's get to this issue of fact versus fiction, because I have to believe Facebook and their PR team are every bit as good as our PR team, and I don't want to be at war with Mark or Facebook, so let's be really clear: There were two lawsuits brought against Facebook at roughly the same time, the defendant, plaintiffs and witnesses all came into the deposition room, they swore an oath, and what came out of it were three very different versions of the same story that often directly contradicted each other, where in order for one thing to be true, somebody else would have to be lying. And instead of picking one and deciding, "I think that's the truth, that's the story I'm going to tell," or picking one and saying, "I think that's the juiciest," I decided to tell them all and embrace the idea that there's a Rashomon quality to this, that nobody is telling the same story. Throughout the movie, we're telling the audience that the narrators here are unreliable. And any time you go to see a movie with the words, "The following is a true story," I would look at the movie the way you'd look at a painting, and not a photograph.