Molly's Game; or The Writer-Director Conundrum

After 25 years of writing screenplays, Aaron Sorkin finally makes his directorial debut with Molly's Game, the story of high stake underground celebrity poker games and the woman who ran them, Molly Bloom.

Sorkin's scripts are notoriously some of the most authorial in the business: precisely structured and with dialogue that works only when actors memorise it down to each punctuation mark. Over the years, he's worked with a number of directors from Danny Boyle to Rob Reiner, trusting them to get it right. So why now, with Molly's Game, would he choose to direct one himself? With such meticulous scripts, what could Sorkin hope to achieve by filling in the gaps himself?

When dealing with writers who direct their own script, there's two perspectives to consider: the writer's perspective and the director's perspective. The writer side tends to approach a film from a more personal attachment, having sweated over the screenplay for months, if not years. To hand over their baby to someone else would be madness. In the case of Molly's Game, Sorkin was concerned that another director may over-emphasise the celebrity gossip instead of the emotional core: "I knew that with this story there would be a natural gravitational pull toward the shiny objects in the story: the glamor, the decadence, the Hollywood boldface names. I wanted the story to be set against the backdrop of those things," he told IndieWire. This is ultimately the writer's perspective: the film only exists to give the screenplay life.

Meanwhile, the director's perspective is the polar opposite: the screenplay only exists to give the film life. The first step to making the film you really want to be involved from the very first word, to build the foundation of the film yourself. Picking up a script someone else wrote and starting from that is ceding control: even if it goes through fundamental rewrites, can the end result truly be said to be yours? In some cases, the script is essentially just a means to an end: Christopher Nolan, who largely writes by himself or with his brother Jonathan (now best known for showrunning HBO's Westworld), considered not even having a script for Dunkirk, knowing exactly what he wanted to achieve without it, telling The Hollywood Reporter "I said [to his producer], 'I don’t want a script. Because I just want to show it,' it’s almost like I want to just stage it. And film it."

But what of those directors who never, or rarely, write their own screenplays, instead opting to film someone else's? Why would you do that? For some, it's just not the part of the job they enjoy, preferring to focus on the world-building visually. Ridley Scott, for example, is an excellent director when given strong material to work with (see: Alien) but he cannot save a trainwreck of a screenplay (see: Prometheus, or rather, don't). For others, it's the variety it offers, allowing them to have that much more range to put their stamp on than their writing ability can offer. Steven Spielberg can go from war dramas to sci-fi to political thrillers and yet have all his films be distinctly his. Unencumbered by the repeated tropes and tics present in even the best writer's work, directors like Spielberg and Scott can bounce from writer to writer, never allowing audiences to catch up or get bored of the template.

Adherents of the auteur theory will insist that Spielberg and Scott are somehow less "pure" as directors, their vision diluted by not controlling the script. It's a reductive viewpoint that doesn't allow for a film to be greater than the sum of its parts. Take, for example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which finds Charlie Kaufman's script successfully marrying a high-concept structure with a heart-breaking emotional core better than he ever has or may ever do again, vividly and visually beautifully brought to life with a mix of world-weariness and child-like innocence by Michel Gondry. Kaufman is a fine director in his own right, and equally Gondry a fine writer, but whatever heights the pair's individual efforts may reach[1], I don't think either of them will achieve what they did here.

There's no objective answer to which approach is better, obviously. My two favourite Woody Allen films are Annie Hall and the namesake of this blog, Play It Again, Sam - the latter an Allen script directed by Herbert Ross, the former directed by the man himself. To consider my favourite directors, there's a strong tendency towards the writer-director model than not - Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, all steadfastly directing their own scripts. The outlier, for me, is David Fincher, a director whose work is always umistakeably his, yet always drawn from a different screenwriter. And of course, up there at the top of both Fincher's career and of cinema this decade, is The Social Network, written by none other than...

...Aaron Sorkin. Has his experimentation with directing paid off? Well, it can feel at points in Molly's Game like Sorkin's handed himself a less ambitious script by his standards - I don't believe for a second that he'd have given David Fincher a script with that much voiceover. Perhaps sub-conciously, directing his own script made him a bit lazier, knowing that he didn't have to get his full intent down on the page. That being said, Sorkin-the-screenwriter operating at only 90% is still knocking out better than almost anyone else working today. Meanwhile, Sorkin-the-first-time-director puts in a reasonably adept performance; a few really nice bits, a few pedestrian bits, but he generally gives a good showing. He gets a lot out of Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in the leads, and Michael Cera proves impressively able to deliver Sorkinese. Above all, though, Sorkin achieved his true aim: you're never distracted from Molly Bloom herself. Molly's Game ultimately succeeds because it was directed by someone who understood better than anyone that the direction it really needed was restraint. What better argument could there be?

  1. IMHO: The Science of Sleep for Gondry, Synecdoche, New York for Kaufman. ↩︎