Danny Boyle’s Portrait of a Man

Published October 19, 2015

ABOVE: MICHAEL FASSBENDER (LEFT) AND DANNY BOYLE ON THE SET OF STEVE JOBS. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL.

It is 30 minutes before the official launch of the first Mac computer in January of 1984, and things are not going smoothly for Steve Jobs. His five-year-old daughter, whose paternity he has yet to acknowledge, is waiting for him in his dressing room with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan; the Mac, which is supposed to say “Hello” to a live audience, keeps crashing; and someone has decided to distribute copies of the Time magazine issue featuring a PC on the cover to audience members.

“What was happening in Jobs’s mind just before he went on stage?”  wonders British director Danny Boyle.

Directed by Boyle, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Michael Fassbender, Universal’s Steve Jobs explores Apple’s enigmatic co-founder through three distinct episodes: the introduction of the first Mac in 1984, the NeXTcube in 1990, and the iMac in 1998. As the film’s aesthetics evolve—from the costumes to the venues to the grain of film—Boyle maintains a constant sense of unbearable anticipation. Through this energy, we get a sense of Jobs-the-genius. Through his interactions with those closest to him, we begin to understand Jobs-the-man.

“One of the conceits of the whole piece is that it’s not about appearance,” Boyle jovially explains over the phone. “It’s at three product launches, which is the appearance, but you never go to the launch; as soon as you set on stage, you cut,” the 58-year-old continues. “If you want to watch the product launches, you can just go on YouTube and there are millions of hits.”

Steve Jobs, which co-stars Kate Winslet as Jobs’s right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman, Jeff Daniels as his father figure John Sculley, and Seth Rogan as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, recently premiered at the New York Film Festival and is already in the running for Best Picture. This week, it expands its release across the U.S.

EMMA BROWN: I read that there were no stage directions included in the Steve Jobs script, it was just dialogue. Is that true?

DANNY BOYLE: It is, basically. [Aaron Sorkin] has mentioned himself that he works through dialogue, but everything is there. That’s what you don’t realize about it. It is like Shakespeare, which I know is probably not a very sexy recommendation. Most of the stage directions in Shakespeare have been added later. You can uncover it, because the character and the situation and the tension are all in the dialogue. At first it looks intimidating, but it’s a wonderful invitation. [Sorkin] is provoking you as a director. It’s a grand act—what do you do with that? I loved it. It’s like nothing I’d ever done before and it’s an extraordinary opportunity for actors. You’ve got to get great actors who have the right attitude and can sense his rhythm. Once you get his rhythm—and I hesitate to say this—it does itself. They are brilliant actors, Winslet and Fassbender. They got it and then they were off exploring it and it was wonderful to watch. I felt like I was just watching sometimes. Then you think, “What can we do with it? What can we add to that? What can we embellish it with or paint it with?” And there are lots and lots of opportunities. It was an interesting place to end up when you started with 185 pages of dialogue.

BROWN: When you first got the script, how did you begin to break it down? Did you think about who was going to play the main parts or was it more about underlining certain lines?

BOYLE: It’s simultaneous. Obviously the most important decision of all is who is going to play the part. You start to assemble your cast, and you can only start with Jobs, really. Then simultaneously you’re making decisions about the three-act structure. It is broken into three parts and you’ve got to decide how different to make those pieces. We decided to make them very, very different. That was one of the opportunities I took by [Sorkin’s] provocation: to actually separate the acts as much as possible by the look of the actors, the look of the venues, the way that we used sound. If that wasn’t enough, we shot it on three different formats: 16 mm, 35 mm, and digital. It makes cutting together the trailer a bit tricky. [laughs] You think, “What the bloody hell are they doing?” But when you see it, it’s progressive. It feels like it evolves into a digital present. Although it’s 1998, the arrival of the iMac was really a huge turning point. And in cinema terms, Jobs had already launched Toy Story in ’96, so he was there digitally; the live cinema wasn’t quite there yet. It took a few more years. But that different look, that high-definition look, had arrived with Toy Story, so we wanted to evolve to that. The first act is quite rough. It’s 16 mil, which everyone used to work on donkey’s years ago. Now everybody’s going, “It’s soft focus” “No, it’s not. It’s sharp, look.” “But it looks really soft!” “Yeah, that’s 16 mil.” And of course Kate Winslet said, “Can we shoot the whole thing on 16 mil, it makes me look 25.” [laughs]

It was good fun for everyone, working in those different ways, because celluloid is being lost. There are a few powerful characters trying to hang on, but it’s going, which is sad, but that’s progress. It was nice to honor it by using it.

BROWN: I saw the Steve Jobs screening at the New York Film Festival and Michael Fassbender made a joke that when you approached him, he asked you if you were sure you wanted to cast him, because “Christian Bale looks a lot more like Jobs.”

BOYLE: [laughs] Bless him.

BROWN: What made you decide on Michael?

BOYLE: There’s something very Jobsian about Michael. He’s a very nice guy, but when he works, there’s something very intense about him. Michael’s approach is uncompromising; he will not accept second best or lazy thinking or easy approaches. He doesn’t really look like Jobs, but that didn’t matter. You’ve got to get a great actor with a part like that. You can get a lookalike—there’s a few of them—but you’re dead, I’m afraid, after a few minutes. They’ve got to be able to take you on this journey, which isn’t just about appearance; it’s the opposite. That’s why the looks weren’t as important as the understanding and the similarities in the people. There were some with Michael for sure.

BROWN: Do you think the similarities between Michael and Jobs existed before the film? Or was it that, as part of Michael’s style of acting, he took on Jobsian aspects when he accepted the role?  

BOYLE: With good actors, of course, you can never tell the difference. They generate an energy, which lasts for the whole time you’re filming. Winslet’s the same. She became the enabler. She’s playing this woman Joanna Hoffman who is basically the enabler; she does everything for Jobs and is the equal of him, and Winslet became that. She did everything on set—sorted all the problems; any tension, she’d heal. I think she’s a bit like that anyway, but I realized that what she was doing was what she was playing as well. They’re not quite doing the Daniel Day Lewis where they go and live in the woods and be a hunter for nine months, but in some way, they become the character, or emphasize things within them that are likely for these character, and that makes you feel like it is truthful and extreme at the same time. They are pushing emotions, but they don’t feel like they’re straining to reach them. It’s a slightly invisible process that you can never quite fully understand. I’m not sure that they understand it. It happens with the nature of acting.

BROWN: When you’re doing press, do the actors fall back into how they were on set?

BOYLE: If they do, it’s a pastiche. [laughs] They do it as a joke. They’re actually good fun, the lot of them. There’s a very funny guy in there, Seth Rogen. But the rest of them have got a sense of humor. Thank god, because holy shit, when you’re doing the kind of workload they were doing—we didn’t have much time really, it’s not a huge budget—you need a sense of humor to get you through.

BROWN: I felt bad for Walter Isaacson, who wrote Jobs’s biography, but I did laugh when he called Seth Rogen Josh at the New York Film Festival screening.

BOYLE: [laughs] Oh yes, of course. He did, didn’t he. We got a message from Josh Gad. A very, very lovely message from him—bless him—saying how much he enjoyed it, which was really sweet.

BROWN: Did you film the three parts in sequence? Did you start with the 1984 launch?

BOYLE: Yes, we did. Within the parts—and I’ve never done this before—we were also lucky to stay pretty much in sequence with one or two tiny exceptions, which helped the actors build towards the mini crescendos or denouements that end each part. But more importantly, because we separated the parts, once they’d done part one, the actors started part two with a different energy. They wanted to do it differently—good actors will never want to repeat themselves. That was welcome, because I wanted each part to be very distinctive. The hope was that the film would accumulate into something bigger than the sum of its parts, which is a portrait of a guy’s mind and what’s involved in forging something new, the sacrifices that are made, and how you can’t really achieve full success. He achieves success, but it’s nothing really unless you have the healing of the relationship with his daughter.

BROWN: When you wrapped an act, was it a relief because you felt ready to move onto something else? Or was it frustrating because you felt like you’d just gotten into the swing of a certain act?

BOYLE: It’s a bit of both. There are things where you think, “Fuck, I never got to do this.” Then there’s a part of you that thinks, “Wow. Okay, here we are.” I think it was different for Michael; he was learning so much material. The way he did it was he learnt the whole thing and then polished Act One just before we started. Then, when we were doing Part One, he was polishing Act Two at home in the evenings, so he was under tremendous pressure. When we were doing Act Two, he was polishing Act Three at home and at weekends. When we got the Part Three, he had nothing to polish in the evenings and I think you can see it in his performance. He’s so relaxed in that third part, whereas in the early parts, he’s kind of battling. It suits the character as well, because he’s battling everyone who stands in his way. There’s an aggression, a punkishness about him, which is horrible and also dynamic. When he gets to the third part, and success comes knocking on the door, and he can relax a bit except, of course, that there are debt charges that have been lain and now start to resonate.

BROWN: You mentioned that Michael, as an actor, would never accept a job half done. Are you somebody who is also a bit of a perfectionist?

BOYLE: You have to be as a director. It’s a mixture of compromise and perfectionism. When you lose the judgment of which is more important at any particular moment, you’re time is over. They find you out and send you packing. I’m sure Jobs compromised as well. He would never want to admit it or to be seen to be admitting it, but I’ll bet he did.

BROWN: Is that balance something that you knew instinctively or something that you had to learn through working?

BOYLE: You learn that through working. [laughs] When you haven’t compromised at all, and you’re three days behind and you’ve only been shooting for two days, you learn pretty quickly. [laughs] It’s a pretty brutal business. If you fall too far behind, all of the perfectionism in the world won’t save you.

BROWN: Do you feel like you’re still learning now, or do you feel like you’ve reach a happy level where you’re comfortable with your style and what you are doing?

BOYLE: I have thought that a couple of times about different projects, where you go, “I know how to do this. I’ve done this before.” But you’re finished. It’s terrible. You should be in an enforced and permanent state of naïvité. Within that naïvité, there is an essential dose of cunning that’s necessary—animal cunning—to be a director. But the naïvité is really crucial too. You need to have big eyes about things, otherwise you feel like a know-it-all or a cynic and I hate that. You’ve got to look at stuff afresh constantly and learning all the time. It sounds like a cliché, and it is a cliché, but I mean it.

BROWN: Now that you’re releasing the film, do you still feel like you’re in the thick of it, or does the experience feel more far removed?

BOYLE: We just finished editing it, so there is a kind of release from that. The anxiety just moves elsewhere though, Emma. It just shifts about, finds a new home. We had an amazing time in New York and L.A., so the anxiety just moves somewhere else. You think, “Yeah, but how’s it going to do in Germany? How are they going to do subtitles—185 pages of dialogue for Germany, it’s not going to be possible!”

BROWN: You’ve got an advantage there: “Fassbender, do it in German. Thanks.”

BOYLE: Fassbender doing it in German…I don’t think you’d get Michael back to have another go at the dialogue. I think he’s fully exhausted himself on it. They’ll just cut tons of it and never tell Sorkin. [laughs] If you spoke fluent German, you’d go and see about 90 pages in the dialogue, I think, in the German version. 

STEVE JOBS IS CURRENTLY PLAYING IN SELECT CINEMAS AND WILL OPEN IN WIDER RELEASE THIS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23.