The Dropout Trilogy

The Dropout Trilogy


Why Bad Blood Should Reunite Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has expressed interest in making a sequel to The Social Network (2010), made his directorial debut with Molly’s Game (2017), a riveting but unlikely book adaptation chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom.1 Famous under the tabloid moniker “Poker Princess,” Bloom was a former skier who made headlines for her eventual arrest after facilitating illegal gambling in New York and Los Angeles. Explaining why he decided to direct for the first time after so many years as a screenwriter, Sorkin said that he worried other filmmakers might be attracted to the project for the wrong reasons, and that they would emphasize aspects of the script that could be stylized instead of focusing on dramatic conflict.2 Sorkin weighed directing his own script years earlier, however, after he wrote The Social Network, which has perhaps become his most widely-seen work. The position was first offered to director David Fincher, who Sorkin and the producers assumed would pass, because on paper it seemed far from “a Fincher film.” But Fincher eagerly accepted the job, and The Social Network went on to be one of the most successful and acclaimed films of 2010 and the twenty-first century.3

A decade later, The Social Network holds up not because of Facebook’s increasingly pervasive power and influence, but because of another unlikely pairing between director and subject. Because of his filmography (which includes Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and Zodiac (2007)), audiences and producers alike viewed Fincher, at least prior to 2010, as a director primarily interested in stories about violence and murder. Although Fincher himself would never argue that he’s an optimist, he’s not interested in cynicism for its own sake, and has pushed back against the misconceptions that arose from the thematic continuity of his earlier films. Fincher worked as a projectionist at a local movie theater while in high school, and credits going to the movies with his father as the catalyst for his proclamation at age eight that he wanted to be a director.4 As a cinephile first and foremost, Fincher values great drama above all else. Dramatic action drives every directorial decision Fincher makes, and his frequent collaborators share his deference to script and story. The Social Network’s director of photography Jeff Cronenweth stated that he and Fincher decided to take “an unassuming approach to the visuals” of the film because, as Fincher put it, “it’s essentially a movie about kids’ faces.”5 Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross stated that their approach to the score was similar, and that after viewing an early cut of the film they decided that their job was to create music that would “get out of the way” and let the drama play out through dialogue and shot composition.6 The Social Network worked so well that producers at Sony set out to reteam Sorkin and Fincher for Sorkin’s follow-up about another wildly successful college dropout: Steve Jobs. Fincher boarded Steve Jobs but later exited the project over budgetary disagreements, including his directing fee, for which he reportedly sought $10 million.

The Danny Boyle-directed Steve Jobs turned out to be a good but overall unremarkable movie, one that takes place over the lead-up to three Apple product launches over fourteen years. These parameters marked a return to Sorkin’s sensibility as a playwright, the vocation that earned him his first foray into writing for the screen when he adapted A Few Good Men for screen in 1992. But despite the fact that Sorkin’s whip-smart dialogue uniquely qualifies him to write engaging scenes that run dozens of pages longer than conventional screenwriting wisdom dictates, he couldn’t mine sufficient depth or drama from the situations he created for his protagonist in Steve Jobs. Ultimately, the tension between Jobs’s obligations in his professional and personal lives felt flimsy; the performances, as well as Boyle’s directorial effort, were all just good enough without achieving memorability. But this underwhelming follow-up has the potential to be redeemed if it is positioned as the second installment in a trilogy of films penned by Sorkin featuring “spiritual sequels” that build upon a common theme.

What I am suggesting is a Dropout Trilogy, beginning with The Social Network, and to be concluded with a Sorkin-penned and Fincher-directed adaptation of Bad Blood, based on John Carreyrou’s book of the same name. Bad Blood is currently being developed with Jennifer Lawrence attached to star as Elizabeth Holmes, the embattled founder and former CEO of the now-defunct biotech start-up Theranos. Vanessa Taylor is attached to write the script, and Adam McKay attached to direct.7 Given the power of Lawrence’s name and the consistent acclaim for her work, it’s safe to assume that she will remain attached and that this project would be dead in the water if she were to drop out. As for McKay, he is clearly keen to work with Lawrence, since he cast her in Don’t Look Up, the star-studded upcoming comedy for Netflix. But it is possible, since McKay currently has forty-five projects in development as a producer and is attached to six upcoming projects as a director (including Bad Blood) that scheduling conflicts may prompt him to pass the directing reins off to someone else while staying on as a producer. Given the common studio practice of hiring another writer to polish up a script as a project nears a greenlight, it also seems likely that at least one other screenwriter will revise Taylor’s draft of Bad Blood. Despite her Oscar nomination for The Shape of Water (2017), Taylor’s most recent credit, Hillbilly Elegy (2020), debuted at 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which may prompt Legendary Pictures (the production company behind Bad Blood, which also produced Steve Jobs) to bring in someone like Sorkin for rewrites. Sorkin has in the past been keen to jump onboard an already-established project, as demonstrated by his rewrite of Moneyball (2011), which earned him and co-writer Steve Zaillian a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 84th Academy Awards.8,9 

Bad Blood is a Silicon Valley story about Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO of Theranos, a start-up she founded after dropping out of Stanford at the age of nineteen. A fear of needles plagued Holmes her whole life, and as a college freshman taking engineering courses she came up with an idea: to build a device that could run diagnostic labs using only a few drops of blood. This would spare patients an invasive blood draw, and only require a fingertip pinprick. Holmes quickly sought the counsel of Dr. Phillis Gardner, a professor in Stanford’s medical school. Gardner had some bad news for Holmes. What she wanted to do was impossible. Gardner’s input didn’t deter Holmes, who over the course of the next twelve years founded a company that aspired to revolutionize medicine and managed to raise over four-hundred million dollars, with a peak valuation of nine billion dollars.10 Bad Blood the film will answer one question: How?

The short answer is fraud. But stories are not concerned with short answers, and of all people, Holmes knew this well. People commonly misconceive that entrepreneurs must be experts in their field, that they must possess a singular type of genius completely unique to them. But anyone who has achieved success in business knows that all you need is a really great story. The story that seduced Theranos investors and deceived the public worked because storytelling is about stakes, and Holmes made it clear that the stakes of her company’s mission were life and death. Storytelling and strategy worked in tandem throughout the rise and fall of Theranos because Holmes knew something else— an indisputable fact about America that is often criticized but rarely exploited by enterprising young women. That fact is that experts don’t get shit done. But rich and powerful men do. So Theranos’ board of directors eventually included three former cabinet members including Henry Kissinger.11

Sorkin, whose sophomore directorial effort, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), also underwhelmed audiences, works best when his writing is unburdened by morals. In The Newsroom, Chicago 7, and even parts of The West Wing (which Sorkin created, but did not direct) conflict and drama often play second fiddle to moralistic hero monologues. These scenes don’t present the audience with an interesting dilemma—instead we are tasked with listening, a passive process, rather than being invited to weigh counterarguments to the points made on screen, which is active. Sorkin excels at writing antiheroes, and has said that when writing an antihero protagonist, the writer must adopt the perspective of that character “making their case to God why they should be let into heaven.”12 Sorkin is a persuasive writer, which is exactly why he masterfully surmounted the challenge of depicting Mark Zuckerberg’s rapid ascent to wealth and power during Facebook’s early years. When it occurs to Mark to include a relationship status setting in Facebook profiles, Sorkin’s script reads: “Mark stops short right there. Because in his head, he’s just discovered the cure for cancer.”13 With the opportunity to dramatize Holmes’s goal, which speaks to a God complex similar to those of Zuckerberg and Jobs, Sorkin would marry his trademark wit with his mastery of protagonist-driven drama.

Unlike Sorkin, Fincher is not known for his morals or politics. He is, contrarily, known for “plumbing the darkest recesses of the soul,” as Variety’s Brent Lang recently put it.14 Sorkin’s deep commitment to empathetic characterization and Fincher’s acute skepticism about human nature combined with their unparalleled capacities to dramatize the human condition would make a collaboration between the two filmmakers on this project unforgettable. 

Fincher is of course as infamous for his work ethic as he is famous for his interest in dark subject matter, and this adaptation requires uncompromising talent at its helm. Fincher dedicates more time on set to each shot than any other director, and is subsequently able to dig deeper than the novelty of ping pong dialogue, weed out aspects of performances that are rooted in impressions or insecurity, and arrive at the truth behind each word. This is why dubbing Fincher a visualist is a reductive misnomer: Fincher is concerned with moving images as the most powerful tool to tell a story. While the director is meticulous about technical decisions, he operates with an equal attention to detail when it comes to the emotional beats of his films because he prioritizes not simply what his audience will see, but what they will feel. At a 2017 BAFTA Q&A, Fincher remarked:

It takes titanium and aluminum and steel and glass and lasers to do one thing: impart feeling. That’s all we do. . . . And we want to impart that feeling to everyone in the audience at the exact same time, and that’s the magic of cinema . . . Cinema is when you put an idea in somebody else’s head, when you put an idea in 700 people’s heads at the same time.15 

Jennifer Lawrence remains the most exciting star for this project in part because of her recent hiatus from acting, which has resulted in a three-year gap between starring roles. The last film audiences saw Lawrence lead was Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow (2018), which grossed over twice its budget but disappointed critics. Lawrence as Holmes would also be somewhat of a departure for the actress, whose most memorable screen moments exist on a plane of arrestingly believable melodrama—something most actors spend their careers trying and failing to achieve within star vehicles, the films that strategically position them on a launchpad aimed at the uppermost strata of celebrity. But of the films that made Lawrence a household name, Winter’s Bone (2010) and The Hunger Games franchise, remain some of her strongest work because Ree Dolly and Katniss Everdeen must suppress their internal conflict, whereas all of Lawrence’s roles in Academy-adored David O. Russel films feature her externalizing her characters’ conflicts. Lawrence is a consistently formidable presence on screen, but she possesses the charisma and warmth that lend themselves to longevity in a movie star’s career. Former Theranos employees have said on the record that when Holmes spoke to them, she made them feel like they were the only person in the room, and that she always made sure to emphasize their contributions to the company’s shared goal. Audiences would be riveted watching Lawrence, famous in large part for being relatable, manipulate her ability to come off as down to earth in order to embody Holmes’ deceitful ascent to success.

The Dropout Trilogy feels more urgent than ever in a time when America, and audiences around the world, need to renegotiate our relationship to entrepreneurs as celebrities. By concluding the trilogy with Bad Blood, we can retroactively shed a different light on the consequences of the contributions made by Mark Zuckerberg. Though a sequel to The Social Network could address the scandals Facebook has experienced in the wake of widespread and dangerous misinformation in the lead-up to the 2016 election, by exploring fraud through the story of Elizabeth Holmes, a woman who became a trailblazer not in spite of but because of the men who came before her, we can begin to examine what we allow the rich and powerful to do because of what they tell us. We can begin to deconstruct the narratives these figures have spun only through a stronger counternarrative.

  1. Gregory Lawrence, “Aaron Sorkin Wants to Write a ‘Social Network’ Sequel, But Only on One Condition,” Collider, October 7, 2020.
  2. Vanity Fair, “Aaron Sorkin Breaks Down His Career, from ‘The West Wing’ to ‘The Social Network’ | Vanity Fair,” video, 22:40, November 9, 2020.
  3. BAFTA Guru, “David Fincher: A Life In Pictures,” video, 23:20, August 4, 2017.
  4. BAFTA Guru, “David Fincher: A Life In Pictures.”
  5. The Social Network, directed by David Fincher (Columbia Pictures, 2010), DVD extras.
  6. The Social Network, DVD extras.
  7. Mike Fleming Jr., “‘Shape Of Water’s Vanessa Taylor To Script Theranos Scandal Pic ‘Bad Blood’ For Adam McKay & Jennifer Lawrence,” Deadline, May 14, 2018.
  8. Alex Ben Block, “Brad Pitt Reveals What He, Sony Did to Save ‘Moneyball,’” Hollywood Reporter, December 16, 2011.
  9. The 84th Academy Awards | 2012,” Oscars Ceremonies,
  10. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, directed by Alex Gibney (HBO, 2019).
  11. Tyler Shultz, Thicker Than Water, read by the author, (Audible Originals, 2020.)
  12. WIRED, “Aaron Sorkin Answers Screenwriting Questions From Twitter | Tech Support | WIRED,” video, 13:17, October 14, 2020.
  13. Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network screenplay, 2009.
  14. Brent Lang, “Magnificent Obsession: David Fincher on His Three-Decade Quest to Bring ‘Mank’ to Life,” Variety, 2020.
  15. BAFTA Guru, “David Fincher: A Life In Pictures.”
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