Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs: 'I'm Not Trying to Tread on Anybody's Grave'
Image: Universal Pictures


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Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs: 'I'm Not Trying to Tread on Anybody's Grave'

"But this stuff is really, really, really crucial for us all."

Next to Aaron Sorkin's rapid-fire script, Danny Boyle's direction of Steve Jobs is mostly invisible. But look closely, and you'll see a pretty big Easter egg. He wisely filmed each act—each one set at an important product launch—in a different format: documentary-like 16mm, 35mm, and shiny big-studio digital. (And thanks to composer Daniel Pemberton, each era takes its own approach to the main musical theme, starting with '80s era synths and modernizing from there.) These tricks convey the movement of time, the mythical ascendance of its subject, and the technological transition that Jobs helped bring about.


Otherwise, Boyle's direction is elegant and unobtrusive, drawing attention to the old-fashioned human drama at its center. His and Sorkin's theater backgrounds, combined with the operatic nature of the action, give the film the feeling of a classic Hollywood backstage musical, in which the producers and talent are preparing to stage a musical show amidst all manner of obstacles. But the film's intimate scenes and snappy dialogue also, I thought, felt like a play.

Boyle isn't so sure. "I don't think this it is like a play personally, but the forces of backstage musical and scene-long dialogue is definitely in Aaron Sorkin's DNA," Boyle told me by telephone this week. "And as a director, when good actors get up and start working it, you know it's going to be rat-a-tat."

Image: Universal Pictures

Boyle didn't just capture the actors' rat-a-tat, which echoes the pacing of Sorkin's The Social Network: he turned it up in the editing room (and most likely, on an Apple computer) by removing breaths between sentences and words.

"These actors have these incredible scenes, and they're proper actors so they're driving the scene, and when they take a breath you barely notice it," he said. "But when you're editing, you can take out that second it takes to breathe—you can rip it out so it accelerates the scene. If you go back and watch the movie, it's impossible for actors to speak like that without breathing. It's amazing, and we've got a whole file of breaths."


Theater "is a thing you observe," said Boyle, who directed Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, and the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. "It can be incredible and it can be incredibly dull, but you observe even in the greatest of stuff. I went to see Hamlet the other night with Benedict Cumberbatch, and you observe it."

"Film is different," he said. "Even a quite poor film you can become quite immersed in it. It shouldn't be so but it is, because it feeds our fancy to get lost in something."

"I'm not trying to tread on anybody's grave but this stuff is really, really, really crucial for us all."

That's why Sorkin relishes the medium, Boyle mused. "He's begging the director, the producers and the collaborators to make it into a piece of cinema that you can get lost in it. You get immersed in character more than plot, but I think that's what it's all about."

The immersion into three days in the life of Jobs poses the film's overriding question: can a great but exacting innovator and revolutionary still be a good person?

In one scene, and in one breath, Fassbender's young, Dylan-quoting Jobs tells then-soon-to-be Apple CEO John Scully (played by Jeff Daniels) that the Mac will be a "bicycle for the mind"—that it will revolutionize the world by making people more efficient in whichever way they use it. In another breath, Jobs antsily muses to Scully—now over a decade later—about how people could ever think about giving up control. Jobs sings of both liberation and control, not realizing where his revolution will lead us. And it will get the viewer who spends at least some time thinking about who controls our data (corporations and the state) wondering what Jobs thought of these issues.


"That's the bread and butter of Steve Jobs there," said Boyle. "He's literally smashing through IBM because he thinks they're controlling, and yet his own power will only come when he gets end-to-end proper control."

Sorkin's script and Fassbinder's acting locate a crucial motivation in Jobs' adoption, which plays a small role in the psychology of Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs. "It would be laughable if you made it up as fiction, but it's true—that while he had this success and was brought up by these really great, perfect parents, he could not forget being given away," Boyle said. "It manifests in this obsession and control, and more than that, I think it manifests itself in the love that he was unable to feel personally, with people's devotion to the products."

Image: Universal Pictures

The "obsession and love" people feel for Apple products, said Boyle, "is still a manifestation of what he wanted but was incapable of receiving himself."

While Sorkin and Boyle do much to illuminate the irony of Jobs—liberating the masses with home computing, only to then corral them inside end-to-end Apple systems—something's noticeably missing from the film. That is, the digital network that the iMac and later the iPhone brought home to us: the hardware that essentially plugged us into a mass data mining machine.

But while the film is most interested in Jobs' relationships—business and personal—Boyle argued that the film does reckon with data mining, at least indirectly, by examining the psychology of closed, end-to-end systems.


"We used to use personal diaries, but now the stuff we put in these things is beyond any personal diary stuff—it's everything about us," he said. Still, "to give him his due, [Jobs was] actually one of the better ones on privacy control, and Apple are still not in the vanguard of wanting to monetize that data."

Boyle's unflattering portrait has earned him and his fellow filmmakers angry criticism. Though he didn't name names, those close to Jobs have spoken out. Apple's chief designer Jonathan Ive said the film "hijacked" Jobs and was "ever so sad" for his family and friends. Steve Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs, current Apple CEO Tim Cook and longtime Apple board member Bill Campbell also attacked Boyle and Sorkin. "I think a lot of people are trying to be opportunistic and I hate this," Cook told Stephen Colbert.

"I say, 'Hold on, I'm not trying to tread on anybody's grave but this stuff is really, really, really crucial for us all," Boyle said. "Any manifestation of it is going to be helpful in the conversation that is going on about where we're going."

Image: Universal Pictures

"We need more films like this," he continued, "we need to make our versions, like Social Network or even Dave Eggers' book The Circle, because more and more of these people are forming the world in front of us. They are literally forming it in their image. That's what you do when you make something. These obsessionalists are making it in their image, and we need to understand what that image is, what it's born out of, how it develops, who it hurts because the big questions we are all going to face are about control and who is in control of that data."


Boyle pointed to new privacy battles, like the European Union forcing Facebook to take out its automatic opt-in for Moments, a photo app that uses facial recognition technology. "It's easy to extemporize that into the politics of how we communicate," he says. "And then you look at Russia and China" as far as their tight grips on their respective domestic internet.

"When you combine the power of Google and Apple you're going to produce something where there's no point in rebelling anymore and it's going to be too inevitable. It's going to be an automatic opt-in."

Boyle pointed to internet "heroes" like the Wikipedia founders, Tim Berners-Lee and others who try to ensure that information needn't go through a corporation and be monetized. "Because obviously the worry is always that if it goes through a corporation then you will end up like IBM," Boyle said.

The information age has produced "pirates and rebels, like Steve Jobs originally was," he added, but the rebellion can only last so long. Now, tech companies seek to play a greater role in our lives, and to command the data that the marriage of hardware and software and person produces.

"At some point you're going to produce what Eggers is warning about in The Circle—when you combine the power of Google and Apple you're going to produce something where there's no point in rebelling anymore and it's going to be too inevitable," Boyle said. "It's going to be an automatic opt-in."

Of course, not if he can have anything to do with it.

Steve Jobs opens in wide release Friday.