How ‘Steve Jobs’ Survived the Sony Hack
Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle opens up how his excellent biopic on the late Apple co-founder and product visionary beat the odds to see the light of day.
Danny Boyle thought he’d seen it all.
Back in May 2008, the plug was pulled on Warner Independent Pictures, owing to the art house shingle’s financial insolvency. All of the specialty division’s assets were then transferred to parent company Warner Bros., including a relatively modest $15 million film, Slumdog Millionaire. The bigwigs over at Warners couldn’t wrap their heads around Boyle’s vibrant, India-set romance, and, severely doubting its commercial prospects, “thought about releasing it as a TV movie or straight to DVD,” recalls Boyle. Thankfully, distributor Fox Searchlight stepped in to save it, and the film became a bona fide phenomenon, grossing $378 million worldwide and taking home eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
But that’s nothing compared to the drama surrounding Steve Jobs.
In late November 2014, Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked by a group that called itself Guardians of Peace, who released a large cache of internal company documents online, including the emails of several top executives. And the emails of Sony Pictures CEO Amy Pascal, who’s since been “reassigned,” revealed just how fraught with drama the making of Steve Jobs was.
As the story goes, in January 2014, Sony was plotting a spiritual companion piece of sorts to The Social Network—a biopic of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs penned by Aaron Sorkin, directed by David Fincher, and starring Christian Bale as the fastidious product wizard. But by April, Fincher had left the project when his considerable demands were not met, e.g. $10 million up front in fees, as well as control over the film’s marketing. The studio was nervous about the latter stipulation, since Fincher had exerted considerable control over the marketing of his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, which ended up underperforming stateside. Fincher was swiftly replaced by Boyle.
Then the casting drama began. Bale backed out, and Sony pursued a number of A-list replacements, e.g. Bradley Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, and Leonardo DiCaprio—Leo the most aggressively, showering the star with sycophantic emails touting their desire to “help bring you the Academy Award you so richly deserve.” But Leo balked, and Bale signed back on briefly only to abandon the role once more, with Pascal writing, “[Bale] has been doing endless research and he is coming up empty in figuring out part.”
The Jobs team landed on Michael Fassbender, the immensely talented Irish actor, for the part, and soon thereafter, producer Scott Rudin began shopping the troubled project to other studios.
Boyle chuckles when I mention the Sony hack and casting carousel, exclaiming, “It was very, very strange! We had a similar situation happen with Warner Independent [on Slumdog] where the company had problems, and then it was going to be a TV movie, and then Fox picked it up. But this was completely surreal. We had to go and pitch the movie to all the studios again, which was great because you should be able to do that, and it made us closer to the material. And Universal picked it up, and they’ve been great partners—although they’ve had a really fantastic year!”
As for the casting of Fassbender—who, despite bearing very little physical similarity to early-era Jobs, is absolutely riveting—Boyle believes he ended up with the right man for the part.
“Women do think he’s very sexy,” Boyle says of Fassbender, “but I just don’t see it with him. What I saw in Michael was, aside from him being a great actor, this obsessive dedication to his craft, which I felt made him perfect for Jobs. Even though he doesn’t look exactly like him, by the end of the film, you believe it’s him.”
Steve Jobs operates like a three-act play, set behind the scenes of three product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984; the NeXT Computer in 1988, after being fired from Apple; and the iMac in 1998, after being rehired at Apple. The film paints a portrait of Jobs as a tragic hero whose relentless pursuit of perfection laid waste to those around him, including his estranged daughter Lisa Brennan, whose paternity he denied for many years; his longtime friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, played by Seth Rogen; and his right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), an Apple and NeXT marketing expert with the patience of a saint, all of whom converge in scenes of heightened reality.
“Yes, it does take dramatic license in pursuit of an epic, Shakespearean quality—even though its set in these rooms backstage,” says Boyle. “Jobs was a product genius, so one of the areas he revolutionized was product launches. The Macintosh was not a success to begin with, but it was an attempt to change the world, and he is the young, rebellious visionary against IBM and against the power of these great machines. He wanted to make the computer personal, and intuitive. And the NeXT one is a Trojan Horse, and a way back into Apple. Whether it was that or not, I’m not sure, but dramatically, that’s how we use it. And the iMac is where everything changed. That’s where computers were cool, and introduced into people’s homes. So it was a great place to stop before getting into illness and the phones.”
The main thrust of the film is Jobs’ relationship—or lack thereof—with Lisa, the daughter he cruelly denied for so long.
“Jobs saw these rooms of intimidating machines, and he had a vision that these things were going to be friendly. So no wonder he’s so unacceptable in that first act! Denying his daughter, and denying anything in favor of making people rethink this relationship with the machine,” says Boyle.
“I do think some people will take it a different way,” he continues. “I wouldn’t even pretend to say that this is a definitive portrait of Jobs. We tried to show as much of him as possible in this. As Raymond Chandler said, in any work of art there’s a sense of redemption. He clearly achieves that in his other family, which we don’t touch on. He did move towards knowing that even though he did make the most beautiful things in the world, he himself was poorly made. The ability to recognize that is a big step. He is our hero, if you want to call him that.”
Sorkin consulted with the real-life Hoffman, Jobs’ high school girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Mac developer Andy Hertzfeld, ex-Apple CEO John Sculley, and Wozniak, who’s since given the film a glowing review.
One person who he didn’t speak with: Jobs’ longtime pal and successor at Apple, Tim Cook. The CEO famously branded the film “opportunistic” sight unseen, leading Sorkin to fire a vicious response: “If you’ve got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour you’ve got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic.” (He’s since apologized.)
When I spoke to Ridley Scott recently, who directed Apple’s iconic “1984” Super Bowl commercial introducing the Macintosh, the filmmaker alluded to a behind-the-scenes battle between Apple and the makers of Jobs over what content they could include in the film.
“They wanted to play ‘1984’ in [Jobs], but of course Apple wouldn’t agree because they’re not happy about the direction that the film takes,” said Scott. “It’s about his daughter, which is an odd choice because he was a genius designer and visionary.” Apple did not respond to multiple requests for comment, though a source at Universal did inform me that the tech giant was not very helpful in the making of Jobs.
Scott’s “1984” commercial did make it into the movie against Apple’s apparent wishes—a development that could lead to a further row between Apple and Universal. When I mention Scott’s comments and how the “1984” ad ended up in Jobs, Boyle cites “fair use,” claiming that the ad is “extraordinary” and “part of the culture now.”
When I ask Boyle about whether Apple tried to obstruct the making of the film, he laughs nervously. “Well…,” he says, his voice crescendoing towards the affirmative. “Interesting. We’ve had our struggles and we’re gonna get the film out there, and once we get the film out there, I’m sure we can talk about all that.”
While Jobs requires ample suspension of disbelief, the film is ultimately a triumph—an operatic saga that captures the obsessive essence of Jobs. It is neither hagiography nor hatchet job, instead providing a complex portrayal of an endlessly complex man.
“I don’t think the film is slanderous or untrue, nor is it a series of indisputable facts,” says Boyle. “Sometimes geniuses sacrifice a tremendous amount, and it’s an unpleasant sacrifice as well. People get wounded and hurt by them in the pursuit of their vision.”