Interview | Danny Boyle on the Politics of ‘Steve Jobs’

Danny Boyle is not the easiest filmmaker to quantify. The director of the zombie film 28 Days Later, the Christmas classic Millions and the Oscar-winning rags-to-riches drama Slumdog Millionaire has dipped his toe in a variety of genres, and just about the only thing they all have in common is Boyle’s uncommon enthusiasm. His motion pictures are so lively that you can practically dance to them, and his biographical film about Steve Jobs – titled, fittingly enough, Steve Jobs – is no exception.

Even though the story is told in only three scenes, and almost entirely conveyed via witty conversations written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Steve Jobs is a vibrant motion picture, one of the year’s best. It’s an impressive combination of smart dialogue, rich performances and spry direction, a recipe that keeps even the simplest conversations dynamic, mining genuine relevance out of the story of a man who… let’s face it… sold computers.

But that was enough to change the world. When I spoke to Danny Boyle he was eager to explain why the tale of Steve Jobs – his myth, if you will – speaks volumes about the state of the world today, and why it’s important to make films like Steve Jobs. It’s not just to commemorate their achievements, Boyle says. It’s equally important to point out their failings. I’ll let Boyle explain more.

Steve Jobs is currently in limited release and will expand to theaters nationwide later this month.

Universal Pictures

Related: Interview | Seth Rogen on ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘Preacher’

Crave: What is, in your eyes, the cultural obsession we have with Steve Jobs as an individual? As opposed to simply his products?

Danny Boyle: I think it’s partly, of course, he was a great mythologist. He created that interest partly. He was responsible for it. We’re responsible for it as well, but he was responsible for it [too]. He was a great storyteller, a great mythologizer. You know, he had a lot of products that didn’t work and he made sure everyone forgot about those to be able to sell you the ones that did. [Laughs.]

He also created great products, and he also was in the vanguard… and he wasn’t alone. This film I feel is very much a successor to [The Social Network]. He was not alone in this. There are a number of people out there who have literally created the world we are now living in, and he kind of shaped, reshaped, revolutionized four or five different industries, you know? The phone business, music business, computers, desktop publishing, journalism, [product] launches, these were all things he had a massive impact on, on these careers or these industries. 

Someone who has that kind of influence needs to have films made about him. Not only because he’s interesting, to see what they were like, but also it’s very important at a time when governments and the law are either too slow or too weak or too cowered by the power of these companies, it’s important that someone holds them to account. That’s artists, or the media if you can. 

But it’s so dominated by them now that it’s very difficult, and we struggled to get this film to the screen and it’s very important that it does get to the screen. They had problems with The Social Network as well because they wanted to control their mythology, these people, and it’s important that they’re not allowed to do that. Even though you might admire elements of what they’ve done, like some of the products they’ve launched.

“Power must always be answerable, and if governments or the law are not able to be swift enough or flexible enough to deal with that then artists need to make them answerable.” 

The fact that we make a film at all, about Steve Jobs or whomever, only builds on their mythology, does it not?

Yes, it adds to it. That’s what we always argue when they object. You always argue, you say, actually what did Social Network do for Facebook? Probably a great deal of good, you know? [Laughs.] But it wasn’t a very flattering portrait, nor is this. It’s complex, contradictory and challenging. I’m sure it will add to the mythology of Steve Jobs but I think the most important thing is that actually, although that’s an unintended consequence, the intention of what you’re doing is to bring these people back down to earth again. It’s to show some of these events, or some the reasons perhaps, or speculation about why these things happen… but also the fact, as he says himself, he may make some of the most beautiful things in the world but he himself is poorly made. That these people are the same as the rest of us; we’ve got fatal flaws and we need to work on them, always. So it brings him back to us, I think, in a way. 

But it’s important because their influence and power is phenomenal. They’ve replaced the banks, the petrochemical companies, the pharmaceutical industry, they’ve replaced all these things! Overnight almost! And they just create panic amongst anybody who has any problems with what they’re doing. Witness Uber and the whole Uber influence. Suddenly out of nowhere you get this billion dollar company, appearing overnight out of nowhere, and throwing into spasms of worry and anxiety [the] traditional industries. It’s happening again with them. 

So you need to be able to know more about this material, know more about these fields, these people. Where they come from, why they do what they do. Because it’s not all benign. It appears benign at times but it won’t necessarily be, you know?

Universal Pictures

I’m picking up on a lot of passion from you about this subject, of corporations and how they’re popping up overnight. Can you tell me a bit about that? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it mistrust? Where exactly is this coming from, from you personally?

No, it comes out of… I mean it’s some anxiety I feel about the way governments are allowing themselves to be dominated by these companies. The cash wealth of these companies is larger than most gross national products of a lot of countries. So that gives them a power over these countries which is phenomenal, and it may well be that their intention is to use that power benignly, but there’s a danger that it won’t work out like that in reality, and you need to keep an eye on it. On any kind of power like that. Power must always be answerable, and if governments or the law are not able to be swift enough or flexible enough to deal with that then artists need to make them answerable. 

It’s weird. It’s kind of weird because in the film of course that’s what he was doing when he filmed 1984 [the commercial for the first Macintosh computer]. He was trying to slash a hole in the dominance of IBM, which he regarded as being a malign influence! [Laughs.] Of course in just 40 years, less than 40 years, they’ve actually kind of completely replaced IBM. That’s ironic in the nature of things, I suppose. But there’s also real lessons always for us, that we need to be able to draw from the success of these companies.

It’s interesting to me that you’re trying to make these big… maybe “statements” isn’t the correct word… but convey these big ideas, and you’re doing it dramatically in microcosm. You’re doing it in only three scenes.

Yeah, sure.

“You need to be able to know more about this material, know more about these fields, these people. Where they come from, why they do what they do. Because it’s not all benign.”

Do you think that heightens the contrast between the big idea of Apple the corporation, and then the human beings who actually make it up?

Yes, I think so. I mean I think there are some great documentaries about this world. There’s a guy, a British filmmaker. Adam Curtis has made some wonderful documentaries about that. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is a wonderful series he [directed]. But obviously we’re dramatists and we wanted to do it through human emotion and human relationships, really. 

What’s brilliant about the script is the way [Aaron Sorkin] pulls he pulls the different characters, some of them from business – the relationship with Sculley – some of them from products – the relationship with Woz and Andy – and some are absolutely personal – the relationship with Lisa and Chrisann and Joanna. And he makes them all interlock because they all affect each other, because actually they’re all about… you know, his relationship with Sculley is as much about his disappointment in father figures, which is something that he’s visiting on his own child. 

So the whole thing begins to interlock and overlap and you try to express these ideas through human relationships, all the basis of drama. And of course he has a connection with the products, or the corporations if you like, they were communication. Their revolution is human communication. Then of course, how good at it were they themselves? [Laughs.] You know, they’re redrawing the map so extensively of the way we communicate with each other. How qualified are they? We know they are algorithmically, and engineering wise, but on a human basis? That’s ultimately he touchstone in the end, is that we keep it human. 

So that’s the idea of it I guess.

Universal Pictures

We talk about keeping them human, but by using this very rigid structure the script and even the staging really does have to work like clockwork, doesn’t it?

Yes, it’s a very interesting tension where you have these restrictions, and the script was 185 pages, three cyclical acts that repeated themselves, and you have no guide manual or indication of how to do it. No stage directions. He doesn’t really do that kind of stuff, Aaron. That could be very intimidating but actually, if you own it, if you kind or rise to it, it’s incredibly liberating, this restriction. It’s enormously enabling in some weird way and I learned that from watching carefully The Social Network, a film I was a big fan of. 

Because [David] Fincher did the same thing on that. It’s the same. It’s when you own it, and when the actors own it, that you actually feel that it’s their words. It’s not Sorkin’s words, it’s these characters’ words. And he is clever in his writing, because he actually does represent genius through language. Rather than watching them do lots of algorithms the whole time, or mathematics or engineering, kind of drawings, opening up the backs of machines and stuff like that… [it’s] just the way they talk to each other. 

It’s so brilliant. You know these people have phenomenal ability, and then it’s of course what are they doing with it? And they’re just as inadequate as any of us at the human relationship stuff. [Laughs.] And they’ve got to work on it. That’s the idea of it, yeah.

“You know these people have phenomenal ability, and then it’s of course what are they doing with it? And they’re just as inadequate as any of us at the human relationship stuff.”

The thing with Aaron Sorkin is that he’s developed this reputation. He’s an excellent playwright and he’s got a very distinct voice. How do work on a script with Aaron Sorkin? How do you tell him a scene isn’t working?

Oh no, he’s terrific to work with. I don’t know where that reputation comes from. He’s incredibly helpful. If you’ve got problems with scenes or you want to suggest other things he’s hugely helpful. Both to me and Christian [Colson], the producer going in, because he had done a lot with Scott Rudin. Scott Rudin had done a lot of work on the script. 

But [Sorkin] was hugely flexible. And then with the actors, the stuff the actors wanted to change, stuff that confused them… there wasn’t very much, I have to say… but what there was he was hugely helpful, and loved being around. I think what he does is, we fortunately had a bunch of amazing actors, and I think when get it up and moving around, the rhythm of it… they find the rhythm straight away… and once they’ve found the rhythm he’s happy, because he knows that’s the ultimate thing. 

Because that’s what he’s working [on]; he’s building meaning through rhythm, in a way. Incrementally he’s building it. There’s this wonderful beguiling rhythm. He knows once the actors find that, then he’ll do anything for you. So he was terrific to work with.

Universal Pictures

I guess what I’m getting at is, in some ways some people might look at Steve Jobs as an Aaron Sorkin film because his language is so recognizable. And yet in terms of the energy of it, and cinematic style, obviously it’s very Danny Boyle. I’m looking at how Steve Jobs fits into your oeuvre when you’re working with someone else so closely.

Yeah. [Thinks.] I mean, part of your work, with writing like this, it’s to clear the path for the actors really. Then you also want to empower them, and you empower through finding a rehearsal technique and a way of doing the film that gives them ownership of it. 

But you’re also empowering them by turning it into cinema, you know? Because it’s not a play and it’s not a filmed theater piece. It actually is a piece of cinema and that’s what you want to provide. Obviously you should be judged on that, whether you provide that and harness that, and the ultimate harnessing you can do is when it organically feels like they’re all in the same thing. They feel like they’re together and they’re inseparable, really, the approaches. 

So that’s what we tried to do, really, and sometimes people are aware of you doing that and other times, because films are made in the editing room, you’re doing it in the editing room as well. We had a wonderful editor on this, Elliot Graham, in which he turned this piece into a piece of cinema. Really, that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s quite the same as any film, really. You’re building ingredients, which you’re taking to the editing room. 

In fact most of the ingredients of this are obviously these conversations between people, these debates, or these battles actually is what they were, between the people. That’s the biggest ingredient but all the other ingredients are there as well and occasionally you bring them to the fore and occasionally you let them just sit at the back, but they’re always there.

Top Photo: Getty Images / FilmMagic 

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.