Q&A with “The Trial of the Chicago 7” writer/director Aaron Sorkin and actor Sacha Baron Cohen

There are certain films that feel as if they were made for a particular time in history. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of those. It is also a film that almost didn’t happen. In 2006, film legend Steven Spielberg was set to direct; he recruited Aaron Sorkin to write the script, and he cast Sacha Baron Cohen as American social activist Abbie Hoffman. However, a writer’s strike put the project on a shelf, and they each moved on to other works. Nearly a decade and a half later the project was resurrected. After watching Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game (2017), Spielberg thought that it was appropriate to bring Chicago 7 back to life, and suggested that Sorkin serve as writer and director. Sorkin courageously took on the task of recreating the turbulent history of 1968 Chicago on screen, and surrounded himself with some amazing talent in front of and behind the camera.  

L-R: Writer/director Aaron Sorkin and Sacha Baron Cohen on the set of THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7.

Over the past few months, I’ve been able to engage in virtual roundtable interviews with some of those connected to this film. Today we share selections from interactions with writer/director Aaron Sorkin and actor Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman).

Noel T. Manning II: Sacha, you’re the only cast member who has been associated with this project since the beginning, and tied to the same character. So, you’ve had plenty of time, nearly a decade and a half, to get to know Abbie Hoffman. What were some of the most significant things you learned about Abbie along the way?

Sacha Baron Cohen: I fell in love with Abbie the more I read about him, the more I listened. It involved going down to archives and uncovering stuff that really hasn’t been made public. He was hilarious; he was amazingly witty; he was an incredibly exuberant charismatic character. But fundamentally, and this is something that changed from the first script to the latter ones, this guy was deadly serious underneath all the theatricality. Underneath his attempt to levitate the Pentagon (with psychic energy) with just a few thousand students, he was a protestor who was ready to risk his life to fight injustice and systemic racism.

Underneath Abbie’s theatricality, he understood the power of humor and comedy to expose the ills of society and to humble those in power. That’s what he’s doing in that courtroom. What Aaron so beautifully shows is that Abbie is the smartest guy out of the whole Chicago 7. He’s the guy who realizes that they will go to jail no matter what happens. Abbie realizes the purpose of that trial is that they (The Chicago 7) have a showcase in the living room of every family in America. They have to convince them that the war in Vietnam is fundamentally unjust, and the establishment is lying to them, and the establishment itself has to be undermined. That is symbolized by Judge Hoffman (played by Frank Langella).  

Aaron’s writing is brilliant. There’s a scene early when Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) says to Abbie and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) – “You’re ruining everything, what the F*#$’s going on?” This is where it becomes easy for an actor to have an Aaron Sorkin script. The beautiful thing about that scene is, Aaron knows what he’s doing. Tom Hayden accuses Abbie of not really caring about ending the war in Vietnam, and says “you don’t care about it.” Abbie doesn’t respond then (in that scene); the perfection of Aaron’s script is that Abbie responds to that question about an hour and twenty minutes later. There, he literally answers the question “What did you mean I didn’t want to end the war?” And by the beauty and subtle writing, you as an actor are given the information that Abbie is deeply sensitive and deeply hurt, so you know how to play it there, because you’ve got this incredible script.

L-R: Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7.

Aaron Sorkin: Sacha’s performance as Abbie … I can’t say enough about that.  Sometimes I’m able to leverage my own ignorance, my own narrowmindedness into a story. I began this thing 14+years ago having a very hard time getting on board with Abbie (the person). Everybody was telling me what a brilliant guy he was, and I just wasn’t seeing it. I was seeing what Tom Hayden sees, a clown fulfilling the caricature that “The Right” has of “The Left,” and someone who’s harming the movement; that’s what I saw. But then, years and years of research was able to turn me around on that thinking. There were a number of things in particular; including, and especially, Sacha’s performance as Abbie. In his final scene on the witness stand you are seeing a deadly serious guy who has shed any effect of clownishness. You actually get to see that a number of times throughout the film where everything goes away, and you know this is a deeply serious guy. But even in the clownish moments, in Sacha’s performance, the truth of the character (and person) comes through. On the first day of the trial, before it actually starts, Abbie and Jerry come into the room and they’re stoned. Abbie’s messing around with Mark Rylance (defense counsel William Kunster), and in that scene, I don’t see a clown, I see a guy who knows he’s going to lose. He decides he’s going to play it “his way” and not “their way.” It was very moving for me.         

Noel T. Manning II: During the 2020 – ‘21 awards season, this film is getting noticed (as it should) in numerous categories (writing, acting, editing, cinematography, directing). Can we talk about the collaborative aspect of this film?

Sacha Baron Cohen: Aaron Sorkin is an incredibly humble man; he is a fantastic director; he’s a wonderful collaborator. He’s not an ego coming on set; he’s an auteur, but he surrounds himself with these brilliant department heads. He has a complete vision as a director and an artist. Aaron truly is the Shakespeare of screenwriting.  

These people were so great, that from day one, I knew I was going to learn from them. I’ve only done a handful of movies that I haven’t written though. I did Hugo with (Martin) Scorsese and Sweeny Todd with Tim Burton and Les Misérables with Tom Hooper. So, I’m not experienced on a set like this. So, with these incredible actors, on this set, around me, I said “I’ve got to learn.” There was incredible comradery with all of these actors. These were huge actors and nobody was acting like a star; we were all sharing trailers; we were all travelling in a van to eat together. This was truly a sense of comradery; it was just incredible. The cast was so good that we would have about a hundred people (extras) who were watching from the viewer’s gallery in the courtroom scenes, and sometimes Aaron would rehearse a scene, and at the end (of the rehearsal) everyone would clap and cheer. It was like watching great theatre or a Broadway show. For me it was really about just learning, trying to get what I could from these great masters.    

It was a privilege being in this cast. These are some of the greatest actors in the world who were all drawn to this project because of the story and because of Aaron’s writing. Every day was a master class of letting go and being in the moment with your fellow actors. A lot of these actors are not only stars of screen but they are also some of the greatest stage actors in the world. I learned so much from all of them, particularly Frank Langella, who allowed me to sit backstage with him every day. It was like attending the Langella School of Acting. These actors really are some of the greatest in the world.  

Noel T. Manning II: Aaron, now with your second film as director under your belt, what are you continuing to learn about filmmaking?

Aaron Sorkin: To make a really good film there are 50-things you’ve got to do really well, and if you do 25 of them right, you’re a genius. I started directing pretty late in life; I served a long apprenticeship with Mike Nichols, David Fincher, Bennet Miller and Danny Boyle, and some great directors in television. Sacha has mentioned that I surround myself with great people and department heads, but I’ve got to talk about the casting. Somebody once said that casting is 90% of the battle; I think whoever said that was drastically underestimating the importance of casting.

(laughs from both Sacha and Aaron)

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin at the premiere screening of THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7.

Aaron Sorkin: So, with Chicago 7, every morning it was like I was getting tossed the keys to a Formula One race car. I knew that as long as I didn’t put the car into the wall, these actors were going to win for us. All I had to do was create a place for them, a place where they could do what they do. And they did, every single time. That’s why I wanted to cast them in the first place. There’s plenty that I’m learning, and I’ve never been particularly visually oriented. As a writer, I hear the story, and I rely on other people’s eyes to help create the frame.

Noel T. Manning II: Aaron, earlier, Sacha noted the research he poured into Abbie. You’re known as a meticulous researcher; you have always had command over dialogue, for television and for film, and your passion for narrative storytelling has inspired writers for nearly three decades. What was different for you this time in terms of screenwriting development as you put the Trial of the Chicago 7 to page?

Aaron Sorkin: Prior to this, I knew next to nothing about the Chicago 7. So, I had to learn. There were about a dozen or so books, a giant 21,000-page trial transcript, and most critically, the time I actually spent with (the real) Tom Hayden. I would also say part of the research process, part of the creative process, was talking to smart people who were around then (during that time in history) and who were conscious of the events and listening to different arguments of who was right and who was wrong, and the degrees of right and wrong. There were people who believed the police were protecting themselves from protesters with glass bottles and all sorts of things. There were others who said that was nonsense, that there were a couple of glass bottles. So, we got to hear those arguments and more philosophical arguments in the Tom and Abbie vein. I wanted to see how much of other people’s intelligence I could borrow and inject into the film.

The film formed itself into three stories; the courtroom drama, the evolution of the riot (that was supposed to be a peaceful protest that devolved into a violent clash between the mob, the police, and the National Guard). The third story was one I was only able to get from spending time with Tom. That one wasn’t in any of the books or the trial transcripts; it was the personal story between Tom and Abbie; it was two guys on the same side who can’t stand each other; each thinks the other one is doing harm to the movement, but in the end, they come to respect each other.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7.

Noel T. Manning II: Sacha, was there anything about Abbie that you learned from the research that didn’t make the cut?

Sacha Baron Cohen: It was Abbie’s depression; he battled that for a long time. Ultimately it led to him taking his life. My dialect coach prepared these sequential audio recordings (of Abbie) that were about six-hours long where I could hear how his voice changed over time. We listened intently to his voice, and what was interesting, was after he came out of jail, and it was like he was a broken man. I think that “jail” broke Abbie. You had the exuberance of the trial and the lightheartedness that went along with that, and then you listened to this interview, literally a few weeks after he’s come out of jail, and you sense the broken man. It was kind of heartbreaking, because we all knew how he was ultimately going to die. So, there was this tragic nature to playing Abbie. He’s this incredible character that you fall in love with. You just want to be around him; he’s so charismatic, yet you know it’s going to end in tragedy after the film closes. Depression is an illness that really needs to be taken seriously.

Noel T. Manning II: It’s been said that now was the perfect time for this film. Why do you feel that’s true? Why is it making people think and ask questions?

Sacha Baron Cohen: I think it’s such an important movie because it’s a tribute to anyone who dares to stand up against injustice. Look around the world in the last 12-months. The courage of those in Moscow, Myanmar – the protestors (largely female) in places like Belarus who risk physical violence … Kenosha, Portland … it is a tribute to those people and the courage that lies behind those who are willing to get physically attacked to fight systemic racism, to fight injustice, to fight for democracy. Right? One of the basic underpinnings of our democratic society is the right to protest peacefully, and that’s why I think it’s wonderful that this movie got made. I think it’s incredible that it got made prior to the huge Black Lives Matter movement. We are seeing today what will happen … once again the world is watching to see if America will live up to its ideals. It comes down to the politicians but it also comes down to the courage of these people who are ready to march on the streets and speak truth to power.      

The Trial of the Chicago 7  has earned over 30 awards and honors during awards season and received six Oscar nominations. It was in select theaters beginning September 25th, 2020 and has been available for streaming on Netflix since October 16th, 2020.

A portion of this Q&A was originally featured in Elements of Madness on February 6th, 2021.

Elements of Madness appreciates the opportunity to engage with filmmakers and the films they create through interviews, critical analysis, and topical engagement and open observation.

*Kathryn Manning supplied research and writing assistance to this piece.

Noel T. Manning is a member of the CCA, SEFCA and the NCFCA and is also the host of the television program and radio show Meet Me at the Movies. He’s the founder of the Real to Reel Film Fest and has served as an adjunct professor of film studies. When he’s not embracing mainstream, indie, international, documentary or art films, he’s digging into the world of cinema by chatting with the filmmakers who are making cinematic art a reality.

You can listen other interviews, as well as the audio from his television program Meet Me at the Movies on C19.TV and WGWG soundcloud stream

Find Noel T. Manning via FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube.

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