Aaron Sorkin knew he had a good story on his hands. Molly Bloom was a competitive skier, Olympic hopeful, and future Harvard Law student who somehow found herself running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game — and got indicted along the way. “I saw her as a very unique movie heroine,” Sorkin says, “and thought there was an interesting way to tell her story.”
His producers agreed — and they wanted Sorkin to direct it, something the award-winning screenwriter had never done. “God knows I was scared going into it,” Sorkin admits. “But I felt like there was a chance I could be good at it. I don’t mean good at directing, I mean good at directing this movie.”
EW spoke to Sorkin about the process of filming his directorial debut, casting star Jessica Chastain, and his first ever experience at a nightclub (for research, of course).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what drew you to this story in the first place?
AARON SORKIN: A friend of mine, a lawyer I know socially, represented Molly Bloom and asked me to read her book and then meet with her. I read the book and I liked it a lot. It was interesting and, mostly, I thought she was a really good writer, so I was happy to meet her. It wasn’t until after meeting her — and it was right after meeting her, that first time we just met for an hour — that I really wanted to write the movie, because I saw the real story was so much bigger than what she had put into the book. She didn’t write the whole story in the book, and I saw her as a very unique movie heroine, and I thought that there was an interesting way to tell this story. I struggle with ideas a lot, they don’t come to me quickly, but you know, in the parking lot, it was coming to me — and it was that moment about three years ago.
So what is the real story? What was it that you gleaned from her that wasn’t in the book?
Well, here’s the real story. Molly Bloom came about 200 yards from making the Olympic team as a skier, but wiped out, and she was headed to a prestigious law school, she was an excellent student at the University of Colorado. She decided to take a year off before law school. She came to Los Angeles. Got a job as an office assistant, and helped her boss run his poker game. She ended up becoming the biggest game runner in the world, running the world’s most exclusive high stakes poker game. I’m talking about millions of dollars changing hands every few minutes. She inadvertently let into the game a few members of the Russian Mafia, and so the FBI became very interested in her as someone they could turn to rat on these guys. The rest I won’t tell you. It’s her story of how she went from really having a gold-plated future — she was going to Harvard Law School with an Olympic medal around her neck — so how she went from that to being under a RICO indictment.
What are some of the larger themes or ideas that the movie explores?
There are a lot of things in the movie, but the big thing really is character and integrity. She has them both. There was a test screening the week before last, and one of my favorite comments I overheard was, “She’s like Wonder Woman without the super powers.” And she is. She’s a really exceptional woman. Strong as an oak tree. She has bit of Wile E. Coyote in her. When she runs into walls, she runs into them full speed, but she has a great deal of integrity. That’s the thing that’s most important thing to her. Today, that is a unique and a very heroic quality.
How much of the movie is divided between being about poker itself and being about her life outside the game?
Listen, if you’re a poker player, you’ll enjoy the poker scenes — but it’s not a poker movie. No, we never care who wins or loses a game. The movie is about her and what happened to her. And particularly two relationships in her life: the relationship she has with her criminal lawyer, played by Idris Elba, and her relationship with her father, Kevin Costner.
Talk about casting Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom — why was she the right person for this role?
I’m crazy about Jessica and Jessica is really sensational in the movie. She straps the movie on her back and carries it all the way.
Jessica is smart and funny and dry, and doesn’t have to act strong. She is strong. And she’s really…as soon as I got done writing it, she’s who I saw and who I wanted. I’m thrilled we were able to get her. Our first six days of shooting were six different scenes with just Jessica and Idris, and they were all seven, eight, nine pages long of just dialogue. We had extremely limited rehearsal time, and these are the kinds of scenes you [normally] have two, three, four weeks of rehearsal for — and we had a day. If either of them had been even a little bit less prepared when they came to the sets, we wouldn’t have been able to do it, but they hit it out the park.
Obviously, you been a prolific writer throughout your career, but this is your first time directing. What was it about this story? Why was this the movie you decided to make your directorial debut?
I’ve known for a while that I was going to need a succinct and coherent answer to that question, and I still don’t have one. I didn’t write this movie in order to direct it. I wrote it the same way I’ve written other things that I have written and I got together one night with the producers, Mark Gordon and Amy Pascal, to go through a list of possible directors. We went through the whole list and we talked about each one, and at the end Mark and Amy said, “But we think that you should direct it.” They gave me about three weeks to think about it, and I really can’t give you a succinct or a coherent answer, except to say that I felt and still very strongly about this movie. God knows I was scared going into it, but I just felt like if I was ever going to do it, it was going to be this. I felt like there was a chance I could be good at it. I don’t mean good at directing. I mean good at directing this movie. And of course, I was surrounded by the very best DP, first AD, line producer, editor, department heads. That is how we pulled it off. It was really a triumph of collaboration. I’m not done wanting to work with great directors, but I was glad we did this one the way we did it.
Did you learn something new about your writing when you had to direct it?
Yeah. There is nowhere for the actors to breathe. [Laughs]
But you knew that before, right?
I knew that before, from being a showrunner on all the television shows. Listen, as a screenwriter, I’m very active in production. I’m on set every day, I’m in casting. I would say I learned 10 new things on the set every day about filmmaking and it would have been better if I learned 20.
Overall, did you enjoy the experience of directing? Is it something you’d want to do more of in the future?
I loved it. I loved it, but I think…I’m glad David Fincher directed The Social Network. I’m glad that Mike Nichols directed Charlie Wilson’s War. I’m glad Bennett Miller directed Moneyball. I’m glad Danny Boyle directed Steve Jobs. I’m glad I directed Molly’s Game, and in the future, I’d like to do both.
Jessica mentioned that for research, she went to a few high stakes games herself. Did you do the same thing?
I didn’t. Almost all of my research was first person research with Molly, just being debriefed by her, so I never went to any poker games. I went to…there’s two scenes that take place in a club. You know 1 Oak? I’d never been to a club before, so just knowing I’d have to film a scene at one, I had to know what one looks like and what went on there. So I went and sat in 1 Oak for about half an hour.
How did that go?
That was the extent of my research into that.
I assume you didn’t have the best time?
Oh no, it seemed like a perfectly fine place. I’m not really…I learned everything I needed to know in that 30 minutes. If I had of been out with friends, I would have stayed longer. It’s a terrific place. Fine time at 1 Oak. I don’t want to flag 1 Oak. I had a fine time at 1 Oak, but I was really… I was there by myself and I just needed to see what went on there.
Some people might familiar with this story thanks to the Vanity Fair excerpt, which got a lot of notoriety thanks to the A-list celebrities that were involved in this story. Have any of the more famous people involved in the games reached out to you, or have you reached out to them?
Anybody who’s heard of the story, what they know about it is that there was celebrity game with these movie stars that was run by this very attractive woman. That’s a small piece of the story. We tell that story in Molly’s Game. But that’s what I mean about the real story being bigger than that.
Have I spoken to any of the actual people, who were the real names that are in the book? Yes, but there’s no one in the movie is playing Tobey Maguire. No one in the movie is playing Matt Damon or anything like that. In fact, I’m trying to say this without giving away the ending… I won’t. But yes, I’ve been in touch with some of the real people. Molly says in a voice over in the beginning of the movie, I changed all the names with the exception of my own, and I’ve done my best to obscure identities — and that’s what we’ve done. Molly’s called Molly, but everyone else is a composite of some kind. There’s no point in playing the guessing game. Moreover, the heroic thing that she does, the thing that she does that has integrity, it that she refuses to dish on all of the famous and important people whose secret that she knows. She refuses to do that in exchange for either money or her own freedom. So, if she’s going to refuse to do it, then certainly the movie has to.