Steve Jobs: Interview with Director Danny Boyle

Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Danny Boyle, opens on Friday, October 9, 2015.

Appeal of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay?

I read the script and felt I’d be crazy not to do it. It took my breath away. I felt I’d never done anything like it before.  The challenges of it—how self-contained it was, what a breathless exercise in language it was—were immensely appealing to me. At the same time, the character of Steve Jobs that Aaron created—the Steve who exists in the script, who overlaps in some ways with the historical figure and in other ways doesn’t—was hugely appealing to me. He’s a character of Shakespearian proportions.  He’s mesmerizing and brutalizing and entertaining. I saw in Sorkin’s screenplay a lot of people in orbit around this extraordinary planet, which is the character of Steve Jobs. There are people like that in life who we end up orbiting around; our lives are lived in their reflection in some way, and we’re unable to break away from them. They have a gravitational pull. They are people who inspire devotion. That’s a fascinating kind of character to examine.  There are people in this character’s life who are clearly deeply devoted to him. Other characters regard him as a monster. And, in a sense, he is a monster made beautiful by language–and by two women

The film is not a conventional biopic

It is not an attempt to recount a rigidly factual history of Jobs’ life, but you still depict actual, real-life figures. We’re deeply indebted to Walter Isaacson’s book and the depth of his research, but we wanted the movie to be a different kind of journey. Sorkin describes the film as an “impressionistic portrait.” There are ideas that clearly come out of real life, but the film is an abstraction. It takes events—some of them real, some of them imagined—and pushes them into three acts, structured around the launches of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1988, and the iMac in 1998.  Six characters turn up three times, 40 minutes before each product is launched, and just bang on each other. That’s not real life; it’s a heightened version of real life.

Sorkin’s script is about so much more than Steve Jobs as a person. Jobs has changed one of the most precious and vital things in our lives, which is the way we communicate, the way we interact with each other—and yet many of his personal interactions were deeply dysfunctional. The movie is about teams as well—and by that, I mean it’s about a person who was able to propel individuals and groups to create. There’s a wit and humor to our character of Steve, and an understanding of how people love finding someone who inspires them to push themselves. He was almost crazy in his determination to transform people.


Rehearsing and shoting each act separately, in sequence.

One of the extraordinary things about Sorkin’s language is the rhythm of it, the propulsion of it, and I was excited to see actors speak the language, but I also knew that it would be very challenging for them. Because there are three launches, we concentrated on one part at a time, rehearsing and then filming each act separately, and in sequence. It’s very rare in film of course to shoot in sequence. But it ultimately lent the performances and the story a kind of momentum. It allowed the actors to commit themselves to that one act and to concentrate on the way they would look, sound and feel at that period in their character’s life. It allowed them to take pause and take stock.

The actors are always in motion, through each of these acts. That’s partly because these people are in the midst of final preparations for a launch, and there is last-minute business to be taken care of, but it is also very intentional because it was part of Jobs’ philosophy. He would walk and talk.  Jobs didn’t want to sit around having boring meetings. He always wanted to walk and talk because it lent a certain momentum to the undertaking, whatever it may have been. We approached rehearsal and filming in a way that I hoped would liberate the actors physically; I didn’t want to create spaces on set that were confined, but rather provide a sense of freedom and openness. I didn’t want the actors to have to worry too much about where they were standing, where they were going. At the beginning of rehearsal, we let everyone move where they wanted. Gradually, as we approached the day of shooting, we found our way into blocking the scenes. The freedom of movement that we were going for was also helped hugely by our use of Steadicam, which is usually reserved for action sequences or chase scenes. The Steadicam lent itself to that sense of perpetual motion and freedom. Our Steadicam operator, Geoff Healey, is an artist, and along with Alwin Küchler’s lighting, his work allowed us to build wonderful, flowing scenes as the actors moved through the three spaces and acts.


Shooting in San Francisco

San Francisco is the Bethlehem of the Digital Age, the home of the second Industrial Revolution. I come from the north of Britain, Manchester, which is known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. And just like that place, San Francisco is saturated with its own history and its own myth. I identified immediately with the idea of making this film in San Francisco. You hope the film, by some kind of osmosis, picks something up from that. I’ve long felt that if you honour the place you’re making the film about, it will reward you…through your own and the actors’ understanding and  appreciation of it. There were also people who were at the original three launches that we met by arrangement or by accident during production.

Differentiating the three spaces in the three acts

Yes. What was appealing to me about the script in the first place was the challenge of how do I present these three backstage scenes as dynamically, and with as much tension, as possible? And we decided on three different locations, each of which lent something particular—some particular feeling, a particular story—to each of the acts.

The Flint Auditorium as location for the Macintosh launch in Act One?

The Flint Auditorium at De Anza Community College, in the heart of Cupertino, was where the actual Macintosh launch in 1984 took place. That stage was where Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh that day. So we were standing in his footsteps, literally. We filmed the first act on 16mm because it felt rough-edged, homemade and basic in what is a simple, functional theatre. It has almost a punk-ish energy to it…the early days of the launches. Act One, the Mac launch, is our modern day creation-myth. It’s Steve Jobs conjuring the future of computing—the first truly personal computer, the first humane computer—out of nothing. For the first time, someone thought to create a computer that felt a part of you. As Steve says in the movie, up to that point, in 1984, Hollywood had made computers scary things, but he wanted to make them feel like they belonged to you. Though clearly the time was not ready for that, because it didn’t work yet; he only achieved that later.


San Francisco Opera House as location for the second act, the NeXT launch?

You can debate to what extent Steve Jobs, in real life, set out to make the NeXT computer as an act of revenge against Apple, but ultimately the NeXT operating system was his way back into Apple. He was able to sell NeXT to Apple when Apple was in need of a new operating system, and an operating system is exactly what NeXT had to offer. Jobs was able to take something from NeXT that is still at the core of the operating systems of all Apple products out there now.  We wanted the location to reflect this feeling of operatic revenge, which is why we chose the Opera House, with its velvet curtains and gilt edges. Act Two demanded a more indulgent, almost romantic, feel. We shot this act on 35mm, which is kind of liquid, beautiful, smooth—certainly compared to the 16mm of the first part. The design, the camera movement, the score—all of it is meant to describe a kind of revenge play. We wanted the audience to gradually wake up to the sort of clockwork of Steve’s revenge plan, as it reveals itself in the course of the act. Everything builds toward revenge in this act; that is what’s underneath every move in it, up to the climactic confrontation between Steve and John Sculley at the act curtain. What considerations—in the design, the cinematography—went into your strategy for the third act, around the iMac launch?

The third act is much more about the future, the clean lines of communication and our modern control of data. The iMac truly introduced the Internet into our daily lives. We shot this act at the futuristic Davies Symphony Hall in downtown San Francisco. And we shot it on the ALEXA—a modern, digital camera, which has almost infinite pixels and resolution. We’re moving into endless possibilities in the third act, which is what Jobs’ return to Apple, and the iMac—the inaugural product of his return—signified.

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs

I’ve never worked with an actor who went on such a journey as Michael did or had such ferocity of commitment. Not once did I see him look at a script or sides, and he had Hamlet-, Lear-like lines to recite every single day. He absorbed the script in a way that had nothing to do with rote learning. It was never a question of remembering, “Do I say this now?” He knew that script like he’d written it, which lent his performance a force that made it seem he was capable of creating something in front of you out of virtually nothing. I always thought there is something very Jobsian in Michael. He has that quality in him, which is this incredible intensity about the application of what he’s doing. He’s an intimidating actor, truly. But he has great wit, thank God. Because it is a witty script and Michael mines the humor of it with incredible detail and comedy when he wants to. But he’s ferociously intimidating in his application, and he showed that in his preparation. I was lucky that I could bring together Sorkin’s script with an actor like that; my job was to make sure that nothing hindered it. Kate Winslet undergoes a transformation in her role as Joanna Hoffman.

Kate Winslet’s Approach to her role

Well, you get Fassbender, you better get someone equally gifted to work with him. And we did. Kate is extraordinary. She’s uniquely talented, of course, but I never realized how comprehensive her approach was. She is a great partner to have on a film set and is restlessly positive about all elements of the filmmaking, even reorganizing the extras between takes! Joanna Hoffman is the gatekeeper and the healer who tries to organize this impossible man, and Kate brilliantly lived that role in every detail—whether it was on the set or in the story.  Like Michael, Kate absorbed the language of the script with an avidity that made it look easy. Great actors—the musicality of Sorkin’s writing is just like flesh and blood to them. They just go for it; they can feel it straight away, and you can hear it straight away. It’s very like listening to a great musician—you just give them a bit of Mozart, and they’ll just run away with it. Sorkin was deeply influenced by his time and his conversations with the real Joanna Hoffman, and he made her character a pivotal person in the script, even though she only gets a few pages in Walter’s book. In our story, it’s her story, too. Joanna ultimately realises her own guilt for not having forced Steve to fix his relationship with Lisa before she goes off to college. That’s what makes it a moving piece of writing and a wonderful performance by Kate; she realizes her own complicity in that.

Seth Rogen’s approach to the role of Steve Wozniak?

It was beyond valuable having the real Steve Wozniak around during rehearsal to talk to us about his experience with Jobs, and with Apple. Seth had the essence of Woz, right from the beginning. I can’t verbalise it; there’s something in Seth’s performance that reaches to the root of Woz’s character. As you are sometimes lucky to find with very funny people, there’s a very serious and ambitious and instinctive and skilled actor in there as well. Woz believes that you can be decent and gifted at the same time, and that’s an idea that runs like a golden thread through the film. Woz’s cross to bear in the course of the story is that he’s trying to get Steve to acknowledge the importance of the past—he’s trying to get Steve to countenance that the past plays an important role in the process of creation, just as innovation does. But Steve only has a mind for one thing: innovation. For Steve there is only the future, where he’s aiming. What Woz says is, yes, innovation has a role in creation, but creation also depends on the people who come before you. You are always standing on someone’s shoulders, and the grace to observe that allows you to count yourself amongst them. That his best friend in the world, and the man with whom he dreamt up the personal computer, cannot acknowledge this causes him tremendous conflict. Seth delivers the endless optimism and anguish of this friendship beautifully.


What story does the score by composer Daniel Pemberton tell in each act?

The first act was influenced by the early sounds of computers. The vast majority of the audience—and this is more and more the case with every year that passes—are digital natives. They don’t remember what it was like in the early days of the digital revolution, at the birth of a digital sound that—at that time—seemed almost futuristic. That notion interested me, and Daniel made use of that sort of retro sound beautifully.

There are two musical movements in the second act. One is a kind of light opera—the allegro at the beginning, which is lighthearted and almost whimsical. The second movement is also operatic, but has more weight as the act heads toward its muscular conclusion. This act is also intercut with a number of scenes that Sculley and Jobs had together over the intervening years. The third act is very sparse but elegant. It’s stripped back and simple, bit like Jobs’ products. Steve at one point in the film compares his role to that of a conductor, the analogy being that, while he’s not a musician and doesn’t play an instrument, his job isn’t to play an instrument—his job is to play the orchestra.

Jobs was not an engineer or programmer. His skills as an engineer were very basic, but he was able to synthesize all these other abilities. That’s what you do as a director, actually. I don’t understand cameras or lighting in the way a department head or a specialist in one of those fields understands those things. I certainly can’t make a costume, but I do (hopefully) synthesize the abilities of all these experts.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

I hope when audiences see the film they will see how the world has been changed by what this figure has been able to do through his ferocious drive, intelligence, insane dedication, and passion—but also the costs incurred on a personal level. For all his visionary genius, a measure of real self-knowledge and humanity arrives only when he comes to understand that he himself is poorly made. In the end, I can’t tell you what to make of our film any more than Steve Jobs can tell you what to write on your iPad! As a storyteller, you want to work on something beautiful if you can, and then you want to give it to people, and then the beauty and the terror of this job is it’s up to them what they find in it.