Be my friend: Selling “The Social Network” to Japan

Sorkin & Eisenberg: One smiles, the other doesn't

When Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg came to Japan earlier this month to attend the Tokyo International Film Festival, whose opening film was The Social Network, which Sorkin wrote and Eisenberg stars in, they hung around and did a press conference since Sony is opening the film here in January. Despite the huge press the movie has received in the U.S. and Europe and its respectable box office returns, the turnout for the press conference was light. Eisenberg is not a star in Japan, and if anyone in the media knows Sorkin’s name it’s probably because of The West Wing, which NHK broadcast some years back, but only up to the fourth season. Those with longer memories might recall A Few Good Men, but the only previous Sorkin work that came up during the p.c. was the short-lived series Sports Night, which Eisenberg praised and no one in the audience was familiar with. It was never aired here.

In terms of promotion, January is practically forever and while Japanese distibutors of foreign films prefer long lead times in order to build up a head of publicity steam they usually want the press conferences to take place as close to the opening as possible. It’s unlikely that broadcast and print media are going to sit on this material until after New Years, and if they put it out now it will only receive cursory attention. Maybe if the director, David Fincher, showed up more reporters would have shown up as well. (Sorkin said Fincher was in Sweden filming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) After all, Fincher is tight with Brad Pitt. It would give them something to talk about.

In fact, it’s surprising that Sony splurged on a press conference. Fox, which has been having a bad year here, didn’t bother to hold one for Knight and Day last month even though both Cruise and Diaz came to Japan for the premiere. (They did a hell of a lot of TV, including dumb variety shows, which is better anyway) A press conference may be the only way to address the specific problems that a movie like The Social Network poses for publicists. The film’s success overseas is directly linked to the success of Facebook, whose origins the movie traces, and Facebook still hasn’t caught on in Japan. Of course, what Sony is counting on is Oscars: the nominations will be announced a week or two after The Social Network opens in Japan, and it seems to be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nod.

One good thing about the lack of media enthusiasm is that the press conference was relatively fluff-free. Though the two guests were given the required “How do you like Japan?” query (Sorkin: “This is my first time in Japan, and all I’ve seen so far is what I can see outside the window of my hotel. I love what’s outside my window”), for the most part the questions stuck to the movie, specifically the difficulties of making a narrative film about people who are not only alive but are still pretty young.

Sorkin’s response to this line of inquiry was misleading. “You have to be very aware that a Hollywood movie makes a big sound,” he said. “So you have a great responsibility in your hands. You have history, and you have somebody’s life, so you take that responsibility seriously. You have a moral compass that says you can’t make anything up, even if it would make the movie better or make a scene more sensational. You can’t make anything up that could harm this person.” Of course, Sorkin obviously made a lot of stuff up, and though I suppose what he was talking about is the facts of the case related to the lawsuits brought against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by three former fellow Harvard students who had a hand in the social network’s creation, the whole dramatic component of the film was certainly contrived. I would hazard a guess that while the impetus for Facebook–Zuckerberg’s resentment for being dumped by his girlfriend–happened, Sorkin probably invented the whole premise that the software entrepreneur harbored feelings for that GF for years to come. “The character of Mark Zuckerberg spends the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie being an antihero,” Sorkin said, “and the final 5 minutes of the movie being a tragic hero.”

Sorkin was also cagey about his reasons for wanting to bring this story to the screen. He started out saying that “what attracted me to the story wasn’t Facebook. I think it’s important for people to know that it doesn’t matter if you’re on Facebook or not, if you love Facebook, or if you’ve never heard of Facebook. That’s irrelevant to whether or not you’ll enjoy the movie. What attracted me to it were the ancient elements, the elements that are as old as storytelling itself: friendship, betrayal, loyalty, power, class, jealousy, things that would have been written about 4,000 years ago, set against a very modern backdrop.” Then later, when talking about Zuckerberg’s reported acceptance of the film, he seemed to backtrack: “Mark Zuckerberg has been a real class act during this period. I don’t think any of us would want a movie made about the things we did when we were 19 years old. This has to be a very uncomfortable time for him, and I think he’s been dealing with it with great good humor.” What this seems to mean is that Sorkin was compelled to write it, and though I wouldn’t call the movie a hatchet job, it seems obvious that Zuckerberg’s foibles rather than his business sense or technical skills are what drives the drama. No one asked about the movie’s infamous misogynistic tone, which Sorkin has defended elsewhere by saying that he was reflecting how these guys think. But it takes a certain amount of writing craft to set such a tone. In any case, all the females in the movie are one-dimensional plot devices.

In contrast, Eisenberg took the story at face value (no pun intended). Though Sorkin was the person who said that “you can’t judge your characters when you’re a writer, you have to empathize with them,” it was Eisenberg who seemed to take that credo for granted. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Sorkin obviously thinks that Zuckerberg at least acted like the asshole his girlfriend accuses him of being when he becomes rich and abandons his only real friend, Eduardo Saverin. He certainly looked like an asshole to me. To Eisenberg he was just doing what he had to do, which is probably closer to the truth once you strip away all the dramatic filigree. “I was speaking to a lawyer friend recently who specialized in intellectual property rights,” he explained when someone asked what his favorite line from the movie was, “and he said that my character’s best defense in the movie is the line in the trailer that people quoted, which is ‘If you guys were the inventors of Facebook you’d have invented Facebook.’ And my friend the lawyer said, ‘This is a great defense. Not only is it very clever and dramatic, but it also sums up Mark’s case.’ If they had done it, they would have done it. You cannot copyright the idea but you can copyright the manifestation of an idea, therefore his defense is that he has simply done it.”

This contrast could be a function of age. Sorkin’s a boomer whose “moral compass,” as he calls it, was set by the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s (it’s what The West Wing is all about). Eisenberg’s generation is less judgmental about societal change, and probably mistrusting of the boomer belief that everything can be reduced to an ethical imperative. “One of the motivating forces for Mark to look for this girl on Facebook at the end of the movie is this lingering guilt he had about how he handled that relationship,” Eisenberg said about his approach to the famous last scene. “Mark, in the film, goes through a terrible legal battle with his former friend and with former students at Harvard, and has had awful things said about him. He has sat in a room for a deposition and people have talked about him like he’s a monster. So at the end of the movie, while he may feel justified in his actions, he feels personally a little bad. So he looks up this girl in an attempt to make himself feel better and to right a four-year-old wrong.”

What really differentiated the two was their attitudes. Sorkin was articulate without always being coherent; while Eisenberg was the opposite. In trying to be as meticulous a speaker as he is a writer, he sometimes came across as pompous. When asked if Fincher changed anything in his script, he described the theme music the director chose for the credit sequence. “It’s lonely. It’s haunting. And it’s portentous,” he said, and then turned to his interpreter and added, “That’s portentous, not pretentious.” Though Eisenberg spoke in the halting, half-questioning diction of youth, his answers were more transparent, almost matter-of-fact. After Sorkin described how the real Mark Zuckerberg treated his employees to a screening of the movie the day it opened, Eisenberg added that “one of the employees who Mark took to this special screening was my cousin, who works for Mark and has been the liaison between any comments Mark has for me, and vice versa, I suppose. Mark was very sweet to my cousin and told him to tell me that I did a nice job in the movie. I was hoping for a more thorough review, but that’s all I got.”

In fact, the only thing the two men have in common is that neither is on Facebook, though their reasons for opting out are quite different. “One night several years ago I turned into my grandfather,” Sorkin said. “There was enough technology in my life and I didn’t want any more.” For Eisenberg it is simply a practical matter. “I’m on the Internet in other ways because I’m an actor and do things that are public,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable contributing more information about myself than that which is already on line.” But he “admires” Facebook. Practical to a fault.

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