“I would never have told Nicole (Kidman) this before we started shooting that the success of this film was going to depend largely on her performance,” explained writer-director Aaron Sorkin as we discussed his latest film, Being the Ricardos. “But,” he continued, “She wouldn’t have been able to give a good performance if it was a lousy script or if it had been directed poorly.”
Unlike a traditional biopic, it focuses on a specific moment within the life and work of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, portrayed by Kidman and Javier Bardem, respectively. Accused of being a communist and with a question mark over her husband’s fidelity, the couple and their careers were in crisis. Being the Ricardos has already received rave reviews and a string of award nods, including several Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards nominations.
I caught up with Sorkin to discuss the Oscar winner’s latest project, the power, misuse, and misunderstanding of the word “communism,” and why he runs towards genres that others in Hollywood try to avoid.
Simon Thompson: Where did you feel the creative success or failure of Being the Ricardos would lie? Was it the script and the direction or the performances or something else?
Aaron Sorkin: When I was writing the script, I didn’t know I’d be directing the film. I’ve run the last three screenplays that I’ve written, and I still haven’t written a script knowing that I would be its director. That’s always come later. Because I’m a writer, I do like to think that the creative success or failure of something is going to be about the screenplay. In this case, we were going to all succeed or fail together. I would never have told Nicole this before we started shooting that the success of this film was going to depend largely on her performance, but she wouldn’t have been able to give a good performance if it was a lousy script or if it had been directed poorly. The same goes for the rest of the cast. Everybody had to be rowing the boat.
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Thompson: Was there a point where you knew you definitely wanted to helm Being the Ricardos? Where does that happen along the line for you?
Sorkin: It hasn’t been like that. With Molly’s Game, which was the first film I directed, I had no thought of directing it. I delivered the first draft and had dinner with the producer and the studio head a night or two later. We each had a shortlist of directors, we went through each name, the pros and cons, and when we got to the end, they said plainly that they had talked about it before I got there, they said they thought I should direct it and explained why. I needed some time to think about it, I needed to talk to people and get some advice, but I ended up doing it. The Trial of the Chicago 7 had gone from Steven Spielberg and through the hands of several directors, but when Steven saw Molly’s Game, he said to me, ‘You’re going to direct Chicago 7.’ When Todd Black, the producer of Being the Ricardos, saw Chicago 7, he said, ‘You’re going to direct Being the Ricardos.’ So it hasn’t so much been my decision.
Thompson: I guess that when Steven Spielberg says, ‘Aaron, you should direct this,’ you direct the damn thing, whatever it is, whether you agree with him or not, right?
Sorkin: (Laughs) Absolutely, and that’s how the thing got written. He called me over to his house one morning and said, ‘I want to make a movie about the Chicago 7, and I want you to write it, and I said, ‘Count me in. You bet. I’ve always wanted to write a movie about the Chicago 7.’ Anyway, I left his house, I called my father and asked him who the Chicago 7 was. I was purely saying yes to doing a movie with Steven Spielberg.
Thompson: You started filming this in March. It’s December when audiences are getting to see it. That’s quite a tight turnaround. How does that compare with your other stuff?
Sorkin: It’s a slightly tighter turnaround than the other stuff but only by a couple of weeks. I was worried about it, but it turned out that it didn’t feel tight. It never felt like, ‘Okay, we will need to stay up all night, every night this week to get this done, get the visual effects shot, and get it scored.’ Everything was on schedule, including the shooting itself, which, as you pointed out, happened during COVID. There were the strictest possible COVID protocols imaginable, yet we didn’t lose any time, and no one ever tested positive.
Thompson: I saw this at one of the first industry screenings in Brentwood. That was pretty much a whole month ahead of the release of Being the Ricardos. Something that many people talk about, especially on social media these days, is how tight the margin is between a film being locked and it being seen by audiences. Some people were freaking out about stories that two weeks ahead of the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, that movie might not be finished. How close to the wire were you with this?
Sorkin: (Laughs) First, let me suggest to social media that they have a drink and relax. Everything was always going to be okay. I’m 100 percent sure that a $200 million movie like Spider-Man: No Way Home would be finished in time to open in theaters. I had to start showing the film to people like the head of the studio long before it was finished. I have to start showing my films to people before the sound has been mixed, when there’s still a temp score, and any original score is being played on a Casio keyboard rather than an orchestra. I give a rough cut speech to people who are all rolling their eyes and nodding because they’ve seen 1,000 rough cuts and heard 1,000 rough cut speeches before, but I’m begging them to really pay attention to this one. I’m promising them that once the sound mix is done, the dialogue will be crisper, and that kind of thing. You have to show a film before it’s finished, which is not necessarily something you have to do when you’re writing. When I’m writing, I decide when to show a draft of the screenplay.
Thompson: Being the Ricardos was initially announced as a project back in 2015. It’s now 2021. Was there ever a point with this that you thought it might just languish on a shelf and not get made?
Sorkin: I don’t think that there was because Todd Black, our producer, was pretty tenacious. I never felt like it was in jeopardy, but I felt like COVID would bounce us around a little bit. Between Todd and our studio, Amazon, I was never nervous. That may be because there are people, like Stuart Besser, on the team. He’s our line producer and has had that job on the three movies I’ve directed. He throws his body in between problems and me, so it’s entirely possible that we came this close to the movie not happening, and I don’t know about it.
Thompson: The specific window of time in which Being the Ricardos takes place is fascinating. Many people might approach it and think it’s a broader picture of the life and work of Lucille Ball, but it’s not. It involves this specific period and her being accused of supporting communism. Since leaving my native UK and becoming a US citizen, I have noticed that word and label appear to be a bomb that you continue to be able to throw into any room, and everything stops. It’s the label that is thrown around and can stick. This incident happened decades ago, but it is still frighteningly relevant now.
Sorkin: Well, I’m glad to hear you say so. I remember a Zoom conversation that I had with another actress who I would say I met virtually. I met virtually with think four or five actresses for the role, and another actress, who also is not American, asked me about it during the conversation. They said, ‘Listen, I feel kind of stupid for asking this question, but why is it bad to be a communist?’ She wasn’t American, hadn’t lived through the Red Scare or anything like that, and yes, today, it has mostly become a word that the political right will use as kind of a catch-all and pervert its meaning beyond recognition. I always get the feeling that people who are using that word don’t actually know what that word means since nothing that’s happening in this country remotely resembles communism. The relevance comes for me because Lucy comes very close to being canceled. That would have been I Love Lucy being taken off the air and her career being done, and her husband’s career ending because of something she did 16 years earlier when that thing wasn’t considered a huge deal. She says in the film that it wasn’t considered much worse than being a Republican back then. Russia was our ally. We were five years away from joining them and fighting World War II and defeating the Nazis, and Lucy’s getting killed for it because now it’s bad? You don’t need much imagination to realize that that’s Twitter and other social media today.
Thompson: Streaming has served you very well in the last few years. Your first movie was a theatrical release. Chicago 7 did very well on Netflix
Sorkin: I understand why some filmmakers are uncomfortable with the streaming platforms. I am very grateful that Being the Ricardos has been in theaters for a couple of weeks before it’s available to stream. Streaming and Netflix saved our life on Chicago 7. We didn’t want to delay it a year. It felt like it should come out when it did, before the election, while everyone was talking about those things. Paramount was our distributor; they made money, but they very generously sold it to Netflix, and that was our lifeboat. We have a theatrical window with Being the Ricardos, but what I missed most about Chicago 7 not being in theaters wasn’t the big screen, it wasn’t the great sound system, but it was the audience experience. Many people saw Chicago 7 by themselves in different places at different times. The shared experience of being part of an audience, of everybody laughing at the same thing, gasping, crying, being silent, and ultimately cheering at the same thing, is part of the experience of watching a movie. With the screenings we’ve had of Being the Ricardos, the most thrilling part has been the sight and sound of an audience again.
Thompson: Biopics and musicals are two genres of movies that many people in Hollywood run from. While this is not a traditional biopic, are you just going to try and embrace genres now that other people don’t want to touch from now on?
Sorkin: (Laughs) I’m really not trying to poke anybody in the eye. What I will continue to embrace are good stories. I’m not one of these guys who’s got a million of them. My friends who do what I do, when they were kids, they were the ones sitting around the campfire telling the stories. I wasn’t. I don’t get ideas a lot, so when something comes along where I think I have a chance of writing it well, I’ll embrace that.
Thompson: Well, I am waiting for you to take a stab at writing horror. I’d love to see you and the likes of Blumhouse teaming up together.
Sorkin: (Laughs) I appreciate it. I appreciate it. Maybe text them, let them know, and we can talk.
Being the Ricardos is in theaters now and lands on Amazon’s Prime Video on Tuesday, December 21, 2021.