Every age has its visionaries who leave, in the wake of their genius, a changed world – but rarely without a battle over exactly what happened and who was there at the moment of creation. In The Social Network, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin explore the moment at which Facebook, the most revolutionary social phenomenon of the new century, was invented -- through the warring perspectives of the super-smart young men who each claimed to be there at its inception. The result is a drama rife with both creation and destruction; one that purposefully avoids a singular POV, but instead, by tracking dueling narratives, mirrors the clashing truths and constantly morphing social relationships that define our time.
Drawn from multiple sources, the film moves from the halls of Harvard to the cubicles of Palo Alto as it captures the visceral thrill of the heady early days of a culture-changing phenomenon in the making -- and the way it both pulled a group of young revolutionaries together and then split them apart. In the midst of the chaos are Mark Zuckerberg (JESSE EISENBERG), the brilliant Harvard student who conceived a website that seemed to redefine our social fabric overnight; Eduardo Saverin (ANDREW GARFIELD), once Zuckerberg’s close friend, who provided the seed money for the fledgling company; Napster founder Sean Parker (JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE) who brought Facebook to Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists; and the Winklevoss twins (ARMIE HAMMER and JOSH PENCE), the Harvard classmates who asserted that Zuckerberg stole their idea and then sued him for ownership of it.
Each has his own narrative, his own version of the Facebook story – but they add up to more than the sum of their parts in what becomes a multi-level portrait of 21st Century success – both the youthful fantasy of it and its finite realities as well.
One drunken night in October of 2003, having just broken up with his girlfriend, Mark hacks into the university’s computers to create a site that forms a database of all the women on campus, then lines up two pictures next to each other and asks the user to choose which is “hotter.” He calls the site Facemash, and it instantly goes viral, crashing the entire Harvard system and generating campus-wide controversy over the site’s purported misogyny, and charges that Mark, in creating Facemash, intentionally breached security, violated copyrights and violated individual privacy. Yet in that moment, the underlying framework for Facebook is born. Shortly after, Mark launches thefacebook.com, which will spread like wildfire from one screen to the next across Harvard, through the Ivy League to Silicon Valley, and then literally to the entire world.
But in the chaos of creation comes passionate conflict -- about how it all went down, and who deserves recognition for what is clearly developing into one of the century’s signal ideas –conflict that will divide friends and spur legal action.
To forge a palpable sense of that fog of creation, of history still being written, Sorkin and Fincher collaborated on a carefully constructed, non-aligned storytelling style that intentionally does not choose sides. Instead, the film presents a consortium of equally tricky narrators – each of whom believes he is in the right and that his particular memories are the truth of the matter – while leaving the larger questions of what really happened entirely open for the audience.
Columbia Pictures presents in association with Relativity Media a Scott Rudin / Michael De Luca / Trigger Street production of a David Fincher film, The Social Network. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Based upon the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich. Produced by Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, and Ceán Chaffin. Executive producer is Kevin Spacey. Director of Photography is Jeff Cronenweth, ASC. Production Designer is Donald Graham Burt. Editors are Angus Wall, A.C.E. and Kirk Baxter. Costume Designer is Jacqueline West. Music by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross.
The Social Network has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for Sexual Content, Drug and Alcohol Use and Language. The film will be released in theaters nationwide on October 1, 2010.
THE FILMMMAKERS’ APPROACH
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War) never said “yes” faster to any project than he did to The Social Network. It began when he received the initial proposal for Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaire, a 14-page précis that would instantly spark Sorkin’s own intensive investigation into the history of Facebook. Sorkin was taken with the accelerated trajectory of the characters – primarily that of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who turned from anarchistic hacker to era-defining webpreneur and CEO practically overnight.
Sorkin was equally engaged by the definitively American theme of invention – and the chance to dissect the friendships, rivalries and social maneuverings of the young iconoclasts who seem to come along in every era to create some astonishing new device that fundamentally alters everyday life.
In previous generations it has been the radio, the telephone, the car, the television, the computer. Today, it is the social network.
Says Sorkin: “The themes of the movie are as old as storytelling itself: loyalty, friendship, power, money, envy, social status, jealousy. It’s a story that if Aeschylus were alive today, he’d have written; Shakespeare would have written; Paddy Chayefsky would have written. Fortunately for me, none of those people were available, so I got to write it.”
The more he learned about Facebook’s highly disputed origins, the more Sorkin was intrigued by how it seemed to serve as a crisp, close-up snapshot of this very specific time in American life – and equally of such enduring human subjects as genius, power and emptiness. For as technologically brilliant and keyed-in to digital lifestyles as these young upstarts are, they are also, in Sorkin’s portrait, brash, angry and never quite emotionally fulfilled.
“I think there’s a construct in the movie, which is that you can look at all the multi-faceted aspects of Mark Zuckerberg that made him successful and perceive them completely differently depending on who you relate to in the story,” comments Sorkin. ”Mark is driven either by strength or weakness, fear or courage, vision or expedience – and the movie is constantly trafficking in the fine line between those things.”
He goes on: “Mark is an anti-hero who becomes a tragic hero by the end of the movie because he pays a price along the way. He is fundamentally a hacker, and hackers are, by nature, anarchists. It’s about thumbing your nose at the establishment, it’s about tearing down what you believe is in your way. And who is Mark revolting against? It’s the people who are somehow making the world a place that makes him unhappy. In Mark’s case, the idea of self-worth has alchemized itself into anger, very sharp-edged anger. But anger is fuel to him, it’s rocket fuel and then he has this Eureka idea, and his life seems made. But the very last thing he wants to do – and this is a huge part of the movie – is to kill Facebook by commoditizing it, by having it make money and not be anarchistic. That’s the story of the movie – the journey from hacker to CEO. The journey of the film is nothing less than a Horatio Alger story, but our version is this lonely kid in a dorm room who in a very short time becomes a very important figure in the world we live in right now.”
The story of Facebook begins in February of 2004, when the social rubric of everyday life was altered with the launch of what was then known as “thefacebook.com” at Harvard University, a site programmed by Zuckerberg, just 19 years old at the time. Within its first month, more than half of Harvard was registered to use it, and by December of 2005, the site had 5.5 million student users, who posted their most intimate personal details – everything from their favorite songs to who they were dating and more – for any and all to view.
As it spread beyond schools to the rest of the world, Facebook emerged as the globe’s digital public commons – a massive, radiating mesh of connections and relationships representing the social interactions of more than 500 million users (if Facebook were a country, it would now be more than 1.5 times as populous as the United States, and would be the third largest country in the world.)
In just six years, Facebook became a cultural force unto itself – a new mechanism for making friends in an increasingly isolated world and a heavy influence on a generation that has overturned old definitions of privacy. Facebook has helped to forge a brave new world of on-line lives in which everybody knows everyone else’s business, in which people construct their identities for public consumption, and in which many use Facebook as an archive for the entire breadth of their existence. Like other major technological revolutions before it, Facebook has already been both celebrated and excoriated for its impact – the full consequences of which even the savviest social analysts can’t quantify so early in the game.
Growing at a break-neck pace and with its potential still fundamentally un-charted, the company, though privately held, was recently valued north of $25 billion, and some estimates from Wall Street put its value considerably higher.
But even as it grew, major lawsuits embroiled the company, and its founders, in conflict -- and the early provenance of Facebook became a fascinating series of battles for ownership and recognition. A group of Zuckerberg’s former Harvard classmates, including the Winklevoss brothers, alleged that Zuckerberg had stolen their idea for a social network; while Zuckerberg’s one-time business partner and Facebook co-founder, Eduardo Saverin, alleged he had been frozen out of the company by Zuckerberg after financing its early growth.
To learn more about all these facts and about our popular understanding of (and response to) Facebook, Sorkin set up his own web page asking for people’s input and received some 10,000 visitors before he shut the page down. He pored through the reporting notes of Ben Mezrich (though not his book, which was written simultaneous to the screenplay, and which was not completed until Sorkin was nearly done with his script) and conducted his own research, making his way through numerous legal filings and interviews with many of the people depicted in the movie (and many who were present at the events described, although in some cases not depicted in the movie) that made clear the starkly contrasting views of Facebook’s early days.
All of these sources, integrated in a panoramic way, formed the structural backbone of the screenplay. Sorkin was refused access to Zuckerberg, which did not surprise him, but used many public sources, including reportage and legal filings, to incorporate his perspective. “Facebook is very protective of Mark, and they have good reason to be,” Sorkin says, adding, “I’m sure Facebook would have preferred that we told the story entirely from Mark’s point-of-view, but that wasn’t the movie we wanted to make.”
It became clear to Sorkin as he began to write, that as carefully sourced as the screenplay was, he would be juggling a series of equally “unreliable narrators,” each with a differing version of events, none of which, years later, anyone involved directly can come close to agreeing upon – and each of which needed to be integrated into the story in order to forge the broader picture.
“Because there were conflicting narratives, rather than decide on one ‘true’ one, I thought the more exciting thing to do would be to literally dramatize all of them – and to dramatize the fact that there are conflicting narratives,” explains Sorkin. ”I was so much more interested in shades of gray than I was in black-and-white. Also, the idea of a series of possible scenarios, possible realities even, seemed immediately to have so much more to do with Facebook itself -- what Facebook actually is -- than just a straight-ahead plot. One of the most compelling things to me about Facebook is the limitless possibilities it offers for reinvention and fabrication and putting forward a very subjective idea of the ‘truth’ about yourself - so it felt exciting and provocative to me that I could mirror that in building a story of how the thing itself was incepted.”
It was Sorkin’s way in to revealing all the friction and burgeoning enmity that led to the creation of the world’s most powerful social network. He made it work by putting his emphasis on uncovering the individual intentions and warring objectives of each of the characters.
“This is a movie that, whenever it can, turns the prism to show you another side of the story,” he says. ”I think the sign of a good movie is that you can argue for more than one side, but the basis of my ability to coherently make those arguments was an incredible amount of research. Without the research, without being steeped in facts, it’s all fiction – and this isn’t fiction.”
Sorkin found himself particularly intrigued by Mark Zuckerberg’s internal contradictions as a young man who demonstrates a certain amount of social awkwardness, and yet comes up with a brilliant way to transform the basics of the human social urge into pioneering computer code. Even at a time when he was an outsider at Harvard, Zuckerberg’s initial concept was to mathematically model what he has referred to as the “social graph,” the radiating, sustaining links every person has to all the other people they know.
“The fact that someone with enormous and almost inchoate social awkwardness creates a vision for this network of social interaction, a public commons, essentially, in which people never have to be in the same room to communicate – well, that was pretty irresistible,” says Sorkin. “Also, there’s a hugely dramatic idea, to me, in what makes Mark not only a creator but also a destroyer – and it’s a fantastic subject to write about, since most of our greatest creators are in some very basic way also destroyers. Our visionary builders are often equally adept at tearing down what came before them and what is in front of them as they start to understand what it takes to realize their vision. You can look at endless examples of this – it’s a great trope in what people mean when they describe ‘the American character’. Mark is like a 21st century iteration of a Fitzgerald character or a Dreiser character. Where was I ever going to find that again?”
For Sorkin, the opening scene to the film was key to setting the tone. ”I knew I wanted it to open up on a girl and a guy in a bar,” he says, “no pyrotechnics, just two people, Mark and his girlfriend, and she is going to break up with him by the end of the scene. Then he would go back to his dorm room, start drinking, blogging and create the website Facemash. Facemash would go viral and we would cut right to the deposition where the first words out of Mark’s mouth are ‘That’s not what happened.’ That moment, that one cut, essentially hands you the key to the structure of the movie.”
That structure purposefully keeps bumping up against the nature of the truth as a subjective construct, something that has only been magnified in the internet era, as instant, indelible communication can turn rumors and innuendo into globally accepted fact. As one of the characters in the film says to Zuckerberg, “The internet isn’t written in pencil, Mark. It’s written in ink.”
“There’s a certain ease with which an assertion now becomes known as truth,” says Sorkin. ”Early in the film, Mark, perhaps cavalierly, uses this when he creates Facemash, the precursor to Facebook that rated female students’ photos -- but by the end, he has also fallen victim to it himself.”
Ultimately, Sorkin’s screenplay defies the notion that there can be a single truth and he fully intends for this to provoke debate. Sums up the screenwriter: “I’ll be delighted if people have arguments in the theatre parking lot over it. With The Social Network, we took a set of facts, and we made a truth. In fact, more specifically, we made three truths. If you think of the facts that aren’t in dispute as dots that you have to connect, we connected those dots and we made a picture. But in between those dots are a) character, and b) the fact that you get to decide what the truth is. We don’t tell you ‘this is the only truth there is,’ we posit a handful of truths in pursuit of a larger true thing: the conditions that made all this possible.”
Bringing Sorkin’s screenplay to life is a director making a departure: David Fincher, perhaps best known as the dazzling visual stylist who forged the atmospheric worlds of Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Seven and Fight Club, but who in The Social Network focuses the camera more intimately on the human nature of the real-life young anarchists who came together – and flew apart – as they set in motion the Facebook phenomenon.
Fincher wasn’t certain at first he would be drawn to the story, but when he read the script, that instantly changed. ”Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal kept saying to me ‘you have to read this, it’s an amazing story and a brilliant script,’” he recalls. ”When I did read it, what I really liked is that it was tearing into the fabric of a myth that’s only a few years old – that was very intriguing to me.”
He goes on: “In some ways, The Social Network is an age-old story – a classic battle over whose contributions to an invention should be valued. But what makes it so interesting is that it avoids siding with anyone at all costs. You don’t do that by trying to recreate every detail. You do it by looking at events from different points of view – from the point of view of the person who was wrong and the point of view of the person who won. That’s the magilla of doing anything that is based on real events in the world – and the whole Rashomon thing of it was very interesting to me. The important thing is that the movie is about how a group of people set off to do the right thing by each other, and the right thing by an idea, and how they eventually decide they can’t, and that they won’t, complete this journey together. Our job was to take those facts and make a truth from it, or rather, three truths from it.”
Fincher, like Sorkin, perceived the film as operating in a gray zone, where heroes and anti-heroes switch places with each other as these youthful, barely formed college students turn, almost overnight, into the innovators the whole world is watching. He says that “truth” is a slippery concept when you’re dealing with so many diverging memories, tricky motivations and strong personalities.
“I don’t know that the truth is knowable,” says Fincher, “but what I do know is that a lot of people have gone out of their way to explain their version of it – and that the behavior and reactions of the people in Sorkin’s script felt true to me.”
He came at it knowing the consequences of treading into disputed territory. “I knew that if we did our job, if we did the story justice, everyone involved in the story would likely disown it,” the director comments.
Fincher’s approach to the film was grounded in crafting the worlds of Ivy League life and Silicon Valley start-ups in which Zuckerberg, Saverin, Parker and the Winklevoss twins moved as Facebook was launched and began growing algorithmically into the giant it is today.
“The time and the place had to be palpable,” he says. This was especially true of the Harvard dorms where Zuckerberg wrote the original code for Facebook and where it first went viral. “It’s a fascinating world where a kid could go into a room with a case of Red Bull and come out a few days later with something that would instantly be on 500 computers and then a few years later, on 500 million. I knew that I needed to make the surroundings of everything – where these people are, what they’re wearing, all those details – feel right for Harvard, and right for these kids and their expertise. The fun of it was not only to find a handful of really bright, incredibly watchable actors, but also to forge a world around them that makes them look like the kind of kids that would be saying this stuff. It builds the drama – the inevitability of the fact that these kids are one day going to have to divide the spoils – by seeing this place that they all come from, with its bad prefab furniture and scratchy sheets and fire alarms in the middle of the wall and fireplaces that don’t work.”
Though he does not come from that world, Fincher could clearly see elements of himself in the characters’ dissident attitudes and youthful ambition. ”I could relate to these sort of creative cliques and the way they are couched in intimate moments between friends and soon-to-be ex-friends. I could relate to being 20 or 21 and trying to sell yourself and your vision to the people you need to get money from in order to make your thing as grand as you know it can be, and that whole condescending thing of having to ask adults for permission because you’re too young to do it for yourself and all that frustration,” he explains. ”In some ways, what Mark does is no different than directing a movie: you grow something, and your job is to grow it well and to make sure it gets enhanced and to take care of it. That’s the subject of the movie. And if you have to hurt people’s feelings in order to protect that thing, then that’s what you have to do. It’s a responsibility. I also related to how Zuckerberg never pandered to anyone’s idea of who he should be – and I related to the irreverence of these characters and their disdain for authority, because without that, we wouldn’t be telling this story at all.”
He goes on: “I’ve been Mark Zuckerberg – there are times in my life where I’ve acted that way. There are times in my life where I’ve been Eduardo Saverin – where I’ve gone and made a scene and regretted it and where I’ve been emotional and felt silly and stupid. And there are times when I’ve felt self-righteous and I’ve acted out in that way.”
Fincher knew that creating these moments on screen would require assembling a tightly matched ensemble cast capable of collaborating and clashing in engaging and revealing ways. “The hope in putting together this cast was that you have people who can show both sides of the characters and who can make the relationships completely real,” he says. ”Everyone had to be equally part of the collision of billiard balls for this to happen. They had to be very distinct from each other but also work well together. I wanted to find something human about everybody, and I never saw Mark or Sean or the Winklevosses as the villain. I don’t see Eduardo’s lack of imagination as villainy. I look at them all and think, they’re kids, they’re going to make mistakes, they’re going to fall into the right things for the right reasons, they’re going to fall out of the right things for the wrong reasons. So the thing was to find a bunch of people who were willing to experiment, and not know what they were going to do. I wanted to be able to take them right to the edge and push them over so they would find this other thing that’s not the preconceived notion of who they are.”
His audition process was intensive. “First we put the word out and asked people to send us auditions on their phones or on tape,” he says. “Then we began bringing people in to talk about their backgrounds. Every person we cast had to come in and read several times. We were looking to form an ensemble, and every facet had to work in support of the others.”
Before production began, Fincher started rehearsing with the cast in small groups for several weeks, allowing them to get into the rhythms of the character’s unique speech patterns and to inhabit their relationships with a relaxed naturalism. Fincher would also ask for unusual flexibility from the actors, shoot as many as 200 different takes of a single scene, in order to shake things up and to later have a multiplicity of options in the editing room. He worked through Sorkin’s razor-sharp dialogue until it was completely organic to the actors.
Says Sorkin of Fincher’s directorial style: ”That kind of repetition takes the edge off the instinct towards operatic acting. It made the dialogue feel more casual and effortless. By using a lot of takes, David harvested great results. He completely embraced that the script was wall-to-wall language -- and he added a haunting visual style to it that really puts it head and shoulders above what it could have been had a less talented director been doing it. David also really understood how to get the best out of each actor. I loved the number of takes that he got – sometimes 70, 80, 90 takes -- simply in an effort to knock the acting out of them and to get them to casualize this language. For example, for the scene between Mark and Eduardo in the Palo Alto house, when Eduardo has come out in the middle of the night to San Francisco and they’re shouting at each other, we started around 7pm, but David wasn’t really happy with it until well after midnight when Jesse and Andrew were exhausted, and suddenly the scene really came alive.”
Fincher adds: “I wanted to get the actors to that point where they are talking with the speed and casualness of real life, where things overlap and people talk over one another. I also think the kind of hyper, righteous indignation of the characters in a lot of scenes necessitates a pace and rhythm. The first scene in the movie is a girl saying to Mark, ‘I’m really having a hard time keeping up with what you’re talking about.’ So he better be going pretty quick; otherwise, we’re not going to have any respect for her, and we do have a lot of respect for her – because she’s the one who comes back in and sets our stuff straight.”
To keep constant tension in the scenes, Fincher also would often wreak intentional havoc by taking each actor aside privately before shooting and telling him “you are the one who is right here.” Fincher elucidates: “For example, in directing the scenes at the deposition, I would literally say to one side of the table, ‘This little weasel ripped you off and he’s sitting in the chair that you should be sitting in, and without you, he’s nothing.’ And then I would walk to the other side of the table and go, ‘Do you really think that there’d be 15 billion dollars worth of Facebook if you had made the Harvard Connection? Look at those douche bags. There’s nothing, there are no spoils to divide if not for the hard work and brilliance of Mark Zuckerberg. So look at them standing over there in their Brooks Brothers suits all smug trying to get a place at your table.’”
While the actors were keenly aware they were portraying real-life people who are their contemporaries, Fincher did not want the performances to attempt mimicry. “I always felt that would be too constricting,” he says. ”Each performance needed to be an impression without being an impersonation. It would have been easy to go onto Youtube and watch clips of Mark Zuckerberg talking, but that didn’t reconcile with the best way to dramatize what happened between these people and to capture the spirit of their inventiveness and relationships. If you want a movie to have character, you can’t force it. You have to allow for the rough edges.”
Those raw, sometimes jagged edges become a part of the film’s intricate humanity. ”Multiple perspectives were essential to telling this story,” Fincher concludes. ”There was no other way to do it. There’s this idea that Aaron and I talked a lot about that ‘no person is only one thing.’ And the whole structure of the film became a way of saying that.”