It’s challenging to condense the life of a complex individual into a two-hour-long film. So it’s no wonder that the filmmakers of Steve Jobs have earned both praise and criticism for their portrayal of the Apple co-founder. The real Steve Jobs generated differing emotions from those who knew him or those who viewed his life from the outside. To tackle that dilemma screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War) and director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later) set out to create a “painting instead of a photograph”.
Steve Jobs with Michael Fassbender in the central role uses a classic Shakespearean three-act structure, focusing on three key product launches. Act 1 depicts the unveiling of the first Macintosh computer (1984); Act 2 is the introduction of the NeXT computer (1988); Act 3 is the reveal of the original iMac (1998). These three acts cover the narrative arc of Jobs’ rise, humiliation/revenge, and his ultimate return to prominence at Apple. All of the action takes place backstage at these launch events, but is intercut with flashbacks. The emotional thread that ties the three acts together is Jobs’ relationship with his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs.
An action film of words
Aaron Sorkin’s scripts are known for their rapid fire dialogue and Steve Jobs is no exception. Clocking in at close to 190 script pages, the task of whittling that down to a two-hour movie fell to editor Elliot Graham (Milk, 21, Superman Returns). I recently spoke with Graham about how he connected with this project and some of the challenges the team faced. He explains, “I’ve been a fan of Danny’s and his regular editor wasn’t available to cut this film. So I reached out and met with them and I joined the team.”
“When I read the script, I characterized it as an ‘action film of words.’ Early on we talked about the dialogue and the need to get to two hours. I’ve never talked about the film’s final length with a director at the start of the project, but we knew the information would come fast and we didn’t want the audience to feel pummeled. We needed to create a tide of energy from beginning to end that takes the viewer through this dialogue as these characters travel from room to room. It’s our responsibility to keep each entrance into a different room or hallway revelatory in some fashion – so that the viewer stays with the ideas and the language. Thank goodness we had sound recordist Lisa Pinero on hand – she really helped the cast stay true to the musicality of the writing. The script is full of intentional overlaps, and Danny didn’t want to stop them from happening. Lisa captured it so that I could edit it. We knew we wanted very little ADR in this film, so we let the actors play out the scene. That was pivotal in capturing Aaron’s language.”
“Each act is a little different, both in production design and in the format. [Director of photography] Alwin Küchler (Divergent, R.I.P.D., Hanna) filmed Act 1 on 16mm, Act 2 on 35mm, and Act 3 digitally with the ARRI Alexa. We also added visuals in the form of flashbacks and other intercutting to make it more cinematic. Danny would keep rolling past the normal end of a take and would get some great emotions from the actors that I could use elsewhere. Also when the audience arrives to take their seats at these launch events, Danny would record that, which gave us additional material to work with. In one scene with Jobs and Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Danny kept rolling on Kate after Michael left the room. In that moment we got an exquisite emotional performance from her that was never in the script. In another example, he got this great abstract close-up of Michael that we were able to use to intercut with the boardroom scene later. This really puts the audience into Steve’s head and is a pay-off for the revenge concept.”
Elliot Graham likes to make his initial cut tight and have a first presentation that’s reasonably finished. His first cut was approximately 147 minutes long compared with a final length of 117 minutes plus credits. He continues, “In the case of this film, cutting tight was beneficial, because we needed to know whether or not the pace would work. The good news is that this leaves you more time to experiment, because less time is spent in cutting it down for time. We needed to make sure the viewer would stay engaged, because the film is really three separate stories. To avoid the ‘stage play’ feeling and move from one act into the next, we added some interstitial visual elements to move between acts. In our experimenting and trimming, we opted to cut out part of the start of Act 2 and Act 3 and join the walking-talking dialogue ‘in progress.’ This becomes a bit of a montage, but it serves the purpose of quickly bringing the viewer along even though they might have to mentally fill in some of the gaps. That way it didn’t feel like Act 2 and Act 3 were the start of new films and kept the single narrative intact.”
“At the start, the only way to really ascertain the success of our efforts was to see Act 1, as close to screen-ready as we could come. So I put together an assemblage and Danny, the producers, and I viewed it. Not only did we want to see how it all worked together before moving on, we wanted to see that we had achieved the tone and quality we were after, because each act needed to feel completely different. And since Danny was shooting each piece a bit differently, I was cutting each one differently. For example, there’s a lot of energy, almost frenetic, to the camera movements in Act 1, plus it was shot on 16mm, so it gives it this cinema verité feel and harkens back to a less technically-savvy time. Act 2 has a more classical technique to it, so the cutting becomes a little slower in pacing. By getting a sense of what was working and maybe what wasn’t, it helped define how we were going to shoot the subsequent two acts and ensure we were creating an evolution for the character and the story. We would not have been able to do this if we had shot this film chronologically out of order, the way most features are.”
It’s common for a film’s scene structure to be re-arranged during the edit, but that’s harder to do with a film like Steve Jobs. There’s walking-talking dialogue that moves from one room to the next, which means the written script forces a certain linear progression. It’s a bit like the challenge faced in Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), except without the need to present the story as a continuous, single take. Graham says, “We did drop some scenes, but it was tricky, because you have to bridge the gap without people noticing. One of the scenes that was altered a lot from how it was written was the fight between John Scully (Jeff Daniels) and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender). This scene runs about eleven minutes and Danny and I felt it lost momentum. So we spent about 48 hours recutting the scene. Instead of following the script literally, we followed the change in emotion of the actors’ performances. This led to a better emotional climax, which made the scene work.”
From San Francisco to London
Steve Jobs was shot in San Francisco from January to April of this year and then post shifted to London from April until October. The editorial team worked with two Avid Media Composers connected to Avid ISIS shared storage. The film elements were scanned and then all media transcoded to Avid DNxHD for the editing team. Graham explains, “From the standpoint of the edit, it didn’t matter whether it was shot on film or digitally – the different formats didn’t change our workflow. But it was still exciting to have part of this on film, because that’s so rare these days. Danny likes a very collaborative process, so Aaron and the producers were all involved in reviewing the cuts and providing their creative input. As a director, Danny is very involved with the edit. He’d go home and review all the dailies again on DVD just to make sure we weren’t missing anything. This wasn’t an effects-heavy film like a superhero film, yet there were still several hundred visual effects. These were mostly clean-ups, like make-up fixes, boom removals, but also composites, like wall projections.”
Various film editors have differing attitudes about how much sound they include in their cut. For Elliot Graham it’s an essential part of the process. He says, “I love working with sound and temp music, because it changes your perception and affects how you approach the cut. For Steve Jobs, music was a huge part of the process from the beginning. Unlike other films, we received a lot of pieces of music from Daniel Pemberton (composer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Cuban Fury, The Counselor) right at the start. He had composed a number of options based on his reading of the script. We tried different test pieces even before the shoot. Once some selections were made, Daniel gave us stems so that I could really tailor the music to the scene. This helped to define the flashbacks musically. The process was much more collaborative between the director and composer than on other films and it was a really unique way to work.”
Getting the emotion right
Elliot Graham joined the project after Michael Fassbender was signed to play Steve Jobs. Graham comments, “I’ve always thought Michael was a brilliant actor and I’d much rather have that to work with than someone who just looks like Jobs. Steve Wozniak (who is played by actor Seth Rogan in the film) watched the film several times and he commented that although the actual events were slightly different, the feeling behind what’s in the film was right. He’s said that to him, it was like seeing the real Steve. So Michael was in some way capturing the essence of this guy. I’m biased, of course, but Danny’s aim was to get the emotional approach right and I think he succeeded.”
“I’m a big Apple fan, so the whole process felt a bit strange – like I was in some sort of wonderful Charlie Kaufman wormhole. Here I was working on a Mac and using an iPhone to communicate while cutting a film about the first Mac and the person who so impacted the world through these innovations. I felt that by working on this film, I could understand Jobs just a little bit better. You get a sense of Jobs through his coming into contact with all of these people and his playing out whatever conflicts that existed. I think it’s more of a ‘why’ and ‘who’ story – rather than a point for point biography – why this person, whose impact on our lives is immeasurable, was the way he was. It’s my feeling that we were trying to look at his soul much more than track his life story.”
©2016 Oliver Peters