From the campus of Harvard to the campus of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has taken a wild ride. But for the co-founder and CEO of the Palo Alto-based Web giant Facebook, little could be more surreal than seeing his journey retold as a major motion-picture release touted for Oscar consideration.
"The Social Network" -- directed by David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and scripted by Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men") -- recounts the tale of Facebook's inception among Harvard undergrads and the social-networking website's growing pains on the way to achieving a benchmark of one million users in December 2004. Facebook's users now number more than 500 million.
Sony's publicity blitz for the film included a recent public-appearance tour that brought Sorkin and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Armie Hammer to Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, along with press duties that included quality time with the Palo Alto Weekly.
(Zuckerberg declined to work directly with the filmmakers, and has mostly let Facebook spokespeople do the talking about the unauthorized film.)
In an interview, Sorkin explained how he wrote the screenplay in parallel with Ben Mezrich's controversial semi-fictional non-fiction book "The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal." The "West Wing" creator took inspiration from a 14-page movie "treatment" by Mezrich, then traded intelligence with the author as the two gathered their own research.
"I had no idea what he was going to write. He had no idea what I was going to write," Sorkin said. "And we met two or three times to share some information. ... There was the available research out there that anybody could get their hands on, and then there was the first-person research: talking to the people who are characters in the movie, talking to people who aren't characters in the movie but were very close to the event and close to the subject."
The film includes several scenes set in Palo Alto, including Napster co-founder Sean Parker waking up in the bed of a Stanford coed, and some high drama that unfolds in Facebook's original downtown Palo Alto digs (the company has since relocated to Stanford Research Park).
Facebook executives are describing the picture as negative-minded "fiction," while last week Zuckerberg made a $100 million donation to the Newark public school system that some say was timed to balance the film's portrayal of Zuckerberg with some positive PR.
Meanwhile, Sorkin defends the film as accurate to the greatest possible degree: "There was nothing in the movie that was invented for the sake of making it sensational. There was nothing in the movie that was Hollywood-ized. ... The fact that we know what kind of beer he (Zuckerberg) was drinking on Tuesday night in October seven years ago should tell you something about how close our research sources were to the subject and the event."
"We were discouraged explicitly from doing a kind of impression," said Eisenberg, who plays Zuckerberg. "But before each role, I try to do as much preparation as possible, just so you kind of feel comfortable on set, like you've done everything you possibly could. ... So I read everything I could find about Mark. I took fencing lessons because he's a fencer. I had every video of him converted ... so I could have him on my iPod before each scene. This was all to help me focus."
Likewise, Garfield researched Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin's personality, informed by his bicontinental upbringing, family dynamic and hobbies, including the Afro-Brazilian dance form Capoeira.
For all this, the actors are quick to point out that their performances were speculative, designed to understand and serve the characters Sorkin conjured in his script; as Eisenberg says, "It was my job to defend that person" on the page.
The cast has taken to calling Sorkin's technique of giving voice to different sides of the argument over Facebook's provenance "the 'Rashomon' effect," in reference to Akira Kurosawa's seminal film that tells one story from multiple perspectives. As an actor, each is beholden to his character's way of seeing events. And so the process of making the film (and of watching it) inevitably leads to armchair psychology.
Given that Zuckerberg's one-time friend Saverin sued for recognition as a co-founder of Facebook, Garfield's angle is that "The Social Network" is a story of tragically misplaced trust.
"From my perspective, Eduardo is this big-brother figure to Mark, and he's a caring presence. And a warm, Latin, inclusive, family-oriented kind of presence," Garfield said. "I see something in Mark that no one else sees, I feel. I see a warmth in him; I see a goodness in him; I see a potential and a sweetness. Maybe I was wrong to. I don't know; it's interesting."
With feigned embarrassment, he offers another perspective on the relationship. "It's a love affair, yeah. I'm his girlfriend," Garfield half-joked, likening the rift between the two to a confusing, emotional breakup.
Sorkin confessed, "I don't think there's any of us who would want a movie made about things we did when we were 19 years old." But he summed up his intentions thusly: "Have the movie not take a position on what the truth was and let those arguments happen in the parking lot." Consider yourself poked.