It’s Oscars night 2011, and author Ben Mezrich is certain he doesn’t belong here. Not on the red carpet, surrounded by Hollywood royalty. Nor when Aaron Sorkin wins Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network and thanks Mezrich first, prompting so many congratulatory texts that the author’s phone runs out of battery. And he sure doesn’t belong at Madonna’s afterparty, sitting next to his teenage crush, actress Molly Ringwald, while holding the Oscar that musician/composer Trent Reznor just won for Best Original Score.
Despite having written the book on which The Social Network was based (2009’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal), and having a previous book (Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions) turned into hit 2008 film 21, Mezrich sees himself as a Hollywood outsider.
But the 52-year-old Bostonian has just released his 12th novel, about the January 2021 stock-market rebellion by amateur online day traders that saw struggling US video-game retailer GameStop’s share price soar 30-fold in just over two weeks. MGM acquired the film rights to Mezrich’s book three days later.
You’re probably wondering how he ended up in this situation, so who better to tell the story than Mezrich himself…
The Red Bulletin: You have a knack for writing books that make hit films. What’s the secret?
Ben Mezrich: I started out writing thrillers. I wanted to be Michael Crichton – Jurassic Park is the ultimate story for me – and I wanted to tell stories in the biggest way possible. Usually I get a movie deal, then a book deal, then I write the book. I wouldn’t start a book if I didn’t think it could be a movie.
I’m the kind of journalist who is in the bar with you at 2am
What makes a cinematic story?
David versus Goliath. People beating something that’s supposed to be unbeatable, using their brains to do so, often operating in the grey area between right and wrong. There’s some element of a heist, assembling a team. There has to be an arc where someone’s life changes dramatically, and I want some worldwide phenomenon behind it, because my books sell in a lot of countries.
Is it difficult to get your real-life subjects to open up to you?
I’m the kind of journalist who is in the bar with you at 2am. I spent six months with the Winklevoss twins [who sued Mark Zuckerberg, claiming he stole their idea for Facebook while they were all studying at Harvard]. There are characters who aren’t happy with what you’re doing. Zuckerberg didn’t want to speak with me. I say, “Why did you do these things? Tell me and I can tell the world in your words.”
How do you find the heart in these often-complex tales?
With technical details about short selling or Facebook, I figure out a fun way to convey it, maybe through an active scene. There’s paper taped all over my office walls. I break the story down into three acts, like a screenplay. I know who the main character is, the bad guy, the beats… I don’t start writing until I know exactly what happens in each chapter.
Do you feel that Hollywood dumbs down your stories?
I’ve been lucky. When you get the call that Aaron Sorkin wants to adapt your book and David Fincher wants to direct, it’s a home run. You have the most control when deciding who to sell to – if it’s a hot project, you have multiple offers. Once it’s sold and they’re putting $100 million [around £73m] behind the movie, it’s not the best time to say you don’t like what they’re doing.
Zuckerberg has definitely done things that seem pretty bad
Such as recasting Asian American characters as white, as happened with the film 21…
It was a different time. I’d love to see that movie remade with an Asian American cast. As an author having your first movie made, it was like, “Yay, they’re making a movie.” But if done today, I’d hope it was representative of the people in the book.
Are your characters heroes or villains?
Zuckerberg has definitely done things that seem pretty bad. The bottom line is that he might have stolen things and have a megalomaniacal goal of subjugating the world, but he did invent Facebook. My role is to tell the story, not to judge. Nobody sees themselves as the villain.
Do you see yourself in the same vein as your ‘Robin Hood’ characters?
No, I’m terrified of everything. I’ve never taken on any system. In a revolution I wait to see who wins, and that’s the person I bow to. I live vicariously through these characters.
You’re good at spotting culture-shifting technological singularities. What’s next?
NFTs [non-fungible tokens] are pretty neat. That my kids would rather spend their allowance on clothing for their Fortnite characters than on real things is telling. The world is shifting online and we’re at the edge of what that means. That shift in the way we perceive things will be enormous.