Interview: Aaron Sorkin on his new film Molly's Game, starring Jessica Chastain

The veteran screenwriter tells Alistair Harkness why he decided to go all in on poker drama Molly's Game for his directorial debut
Kevin Costner and Jessica Chastain in Molly's GameKevin Costner and Jessica Chastain in Molly's Game
Kevin Costner and Jessica Chastain in Molly's Game

As one of the few screenwriters in the world with above-the-title name recognition, Aaron Sorkin decided to give the first-time director of his new film Molly’s Game some advice before arriving on set. “Don’t pretend you know more than you do; you’ll be figured out,” he cautioned. “These people are smart.” He had some words of encouragement too. “You know what you want. You’re not at sea here. Project that confidence. Lead and people will follow.”

The recipient wasn’t some confused industry neophyte, though. It was Sorkin himself. After 25 years in the industry, the creator of The West Wing, populariser of the “walk-and-talk” and writer of the most verbally dextrous scripts this side of Quentin Tarantino – among them A Few Good Men, Steve Jobs and the Oscar-winning The Social Network – had finally decided to make his directorial debut.

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“There were a lot of butterflies that first day,” remembers Sorkin now. “But once I got into it, it was easy to get lost in the work.”

Getting lost in the work is something it’s easy to imagine Sorkin doing. Though he manages to make his own writing process sound like a heartening-to-mere-mortals catalogue of wall-climbing frustration and crippling self-doubt (“Most of the time writing is spent not writing,” he says), his characters do tend to be ruthlessly efficient, intimidatingly voluble workaholics.

The heroine of Molly’s Game is no different. Inspired by the true story of Molly Bloom, a former US Olympic skiing prospect who built a multi-million-dollar business running high-stakes poker games for some of the richest and most famous people in the world (and some of the shadiest), she’s a Sorkin character turned up to eleven. “She didn’t see herself as a movie heroine the way I did,” says Sorkin of the real Molly, whose titular memoir was sent to him by a lawyer friend. “The book is a wild ride, but when I met with Molly that’s when I was hooked, because what I discovered was two things: one, that the book was the very tip of the iceberg – it was a much deeper, more emotional story. And the second thing was Molly herself.”

Specifically, he loved Molly’s strength and integrity. Caught up in an FBI sting operation involving the Russian mob, she was determined to clear her name without fuelling sales of the gossip rags by dishing dirt on the male stars who frequented her tables. Even though she was broke, even though some of these men sexually harassed her on a regular basis, she refused the legal and financial carrots dangled in front of her by both the justice department and the literary and Hollywood agents that desperately wanted her to cash in on her story. “It appealed to my sense of romanticism and idealism” says Sorkin of the noble way she transcended her tabloid cover-star status.

The film tries to do the same. Anyone with a public profile is referred to obliquely by their occupation while the Hollywood A-lister who was key to her early rise is known only as Player X. Of course the identity of Player X (played in the film by Michael Cera) is a Google search away, but Sorkin – who wanted to minimise the detective hunt (“That’s not what the film is about,” he says) – felt bound by his heroine’s attitude as well as his own beliefs. “As far as naming anybody, that’s not something I would want to do under any circumstances,” he says. “But certainly in a movie where your heroine is heroic because she’s unwilling to name people, the movie she’s in can’t then go ahead and name them.”

That suddenly places Molly’s Game in a curious position. It’s a film in which gender politics is at the forefront of the narrative and yet it’s at odds with the current post-Weinstein era. Naming and shaming the perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse is the very thing that has woken the world up to how deep and far-reaching a societal problem this really is.

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But if the moment has slightly over-taken the film’s exploration of it, that doesn’t invalidate it as a political movie with worthwhile things to say. Sorkin is full of admiration for #MeToo, praises Time magazine’s decision to name #MeToo’s silence breakers as its “Person of the Year” and says he’d happily trade any relevance Molly’s Game has “for a world in which it wasn’t as relevant as it is.”

In the end he circles back to Molly’s integrity, which reminded him of his late father. “He was a man who valued integrity, character, doing the right thing when no one was looking and doing the right thing when doing the wrong thing was easier and more profitable. Nowadays when you see that in someone it’s like a cold glass of water in the desert.” ■

Molly’s Game is released on 1 January