“I wrote it as a thriller. It just happened to be true.”
This month marks the ten year anniversary of The Social Network, the David Fincher film that made a tense drama out of Facebook’s origin story. The movie is now a critically acclaimed and award-winning favorite, but it wasn’t always clear to everyone that Facebook’s founding had such an engaging story. That is, until author Ben Mezrich met with one Eduardo Saverin and wrote The Accidental Billionaires.
“I’m not really a journalist. I’m not looking to uncover something under a rock,” said Mezrich. “I’m attempting to tell a really cool story where someone’s done something amazing.”
Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction books are unique in that they read like novels, complete with dialogue and inner thoughts. While this format has drawn a fair amount of criticism, it’s also engaged thousands of readers and built the foundations for blockbuster films such as 21 and yes, The Social Network.
“I’m essentially handing Hollywood these ready-made movies with my books. Which is what I’m trying to do. I’m setting out to write movies in the form of books,” said Mezrich.
I recently got to speak further with Ben Mezrich on his book, the film, and the story’s lasting legacy. We also chatted about future projects and the potential for a wider social network cinematic universe. Below is a summary of our conversation.
Anhar Karim: So, were there certain parts of your book that you wish were adapted differently in The Social Network?
Ben Mezrich: You know, this is one of those moments where you write a book and they do such a phenomenal job with the movie that it’s hard to find fault. So Aaron Sorkin and I ended up working very closely together, because I was finishing the book while he was starting to write the screenplay. So, I was able to read the script very early on. And from the minute you started reading that thing it was spectacular. I mean the opening dialogue, and from there on, it just grabs you.
I think what Aaron did with all the scenes in the law firm, which were essentially additional, really did capture it. It just really hit all the beats of the book. I think if you sat down and read the book again you would see much of the movie in the book, and much of the book in the movie.
AK: Biographical works are most commonly done posthumously, but in your work you cover a lot of young people who are still out there. Was there ever any concern there? Knowing that they could come and critique you?
BM: It’s interesting. Obviously, they’re real people who are going to see the movie and they’re going to be involved in your life afterwards. You try and capture what the real story is as best as you can but in a dramatic and fun, thrilling fashion. You’re not out to get anybody. I’m not that sort of writer.
I’m not really a journalist. I’m not looking to uncover something under a rock. I’m attempting to tell a really cool story where someone’s done something amazing and there’s drama. So you know, there are instances where you write a book and afterwards people are not thrilled with what’s in it. But I’m usually pretty good about letting them know exactly what it is I’m trying to do here. And I try and collaborate to some extent.
So yes, there are moments where you have to be careful and not cross lines that maybe you don’t want to cross. But overall you try and tell a great story.
AK: Well you say you’re not a journalist, but in many ways I think you are. You’re reporting on factual, current events.
BM: I never set out to be a journalist or a non-fiction writer. I was a thriller writer. I was writing sci-fi and writing for The X-Files. And then I ran into the MIT blackjack team and I thought, this is a great story! And so I wrote it as a thriller. It just happened to be true.
I’m not trying to be a newspaper man. It just happened that my non-fiction became more successful than my fiction, and I became a nonfiction writer. But for me there’s not a big difference between writing a fictional thriller and writing a non-fictional thriller. When you write a non-fictional thriller, you want it to feel like a fictional thriller. And when you write a fictional thriller, you want it to feel like a non-fictional thriller. You want your fiction to feel as real as your non-fiction, and your non-fiction to be as fun as your fiction.
Now there are critics who dislike what I do. Janet Maslin at The New York Times has trashed every one of my books. But you know, I don’t worry about that. I’m trying to write a great story. And I’m very open about my process, so people reading know that they’re not getting an encyclopedia. It’s a thriller. And that’s also why I’ve had such success in Hollywood. Because I’m essentially handing Hollywood these ready-made movies with my books. Which is what I’m trying to do. I’m setting out to write movies in the form of books.
AK: Your stories often go in-depth into very complicated and arcane fields, such as tech. What’s your process for making these often confusing ideas approachable to a wider audience?
BM: I’m a layman. I’m not a scientist. I come from a family of scientists and mathematicians, but I’m not good at any of that stuff. The word blockchain, to me, just makes my eyes glaze over. And Facebook, similarly, I never wanted to have a lot of scenes where someone’s sitting there in front of a computer because it just makes my head hurt.
But I want to find a way into these topics that are very complicated or complex. Because I think like my readers. I’m someone who likes to watch TV. I like to sit down and enjoy something and not get boggled by getting too deep into how the sausage is made. But what’s interesting is you can take any topic, no matter how complicated it is, and find a simple way to explain it. You don’t have to be a programmer to understand Facebook, or even how Facebook was made. You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand Bitcoin.
That’s what I look for. I think it has to do with how simple I am actually. I’ve become a very simple-minded person. And so when I sit down with someone who knows and understands really complex things my goal is to find that straight line, to find that really simple way of explaining it.
AK: So you’ve written a follow up book, Bitcoin Billionaires, that tells the story of the Winklevoss twins after Facebook. And you’ve previously described the relation between the two stories here as similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s movies, where one film has everyone together and then solo stories branch out. As Bitcoin Billionaires is getting a movie now, do you see it having interconnected references like Marvel does?
BM: So that is really how I see it. The Social Network is The Avengers. And Bitcoin Billionaires is like Wolverine. It’s like the story of the Winklevoss twins. And then I would love to do a Sean Parker and a separate Eduardo. And you know Zuckerberg is really Iron Man. It really is this whole world. Each one of these guys’ backgrounds is really fascinating, and it goes back to a really interesting place.
So, I see The Social Network as the beginning of a franchise. I could see Sorkin being interested in doing a sequel to The Social Network, and Bitcoin Billionaires would live in that world. It would be a really interesting thing to turn it into a franchise like that. But you know that’s going to be up to bigger minds than me.
AK: Say you were writing the sequel to Accidental Billionaires. How would you open it?
BM: There’s a variety of ways you could go with that. So the Cambridge Analytica thing, you’d want to get into going in front of Congress. But you’d also want to go into Facebook becoming this much, much bigger thing than it was. I mean we ended The Social Network when Facebook was just sort of happening, before it becoming this billion, billion dollar company.
I think you would have to find where it unravels. You’d have to really sit down and think about where that moment would be. I like the idea of a year. A thriller that sort of starts somewhere and ends somewhere. So I don’t know. I haven’t really thought it through yet.
I think Mark should sit down with me and tell me his story. I really do. If Mark came to me, I think that would be the really cool book and the cool movie. Because I told one side. And if Mark would let me tell his side, I think that would be a really great sequel.
AK: You’ve said that you like to find these large-scale stories that people have heard about, but don’t know the full story. So, is there a new story out there that interests you?
BM: I don’t have my next big nonfiction story. I mean everything’s caught up in this whole political thing right now. The only political story I was looking into was Hunter Biden. I love the idea of this sort of troubled guy who’s caught up in this craziness and becomes the center of everything.
I love Elon Musk, and I think there’s still a place for a big story on him. I think Prince Harry would be a great story if you could tell it for real, about what’s really going on in that world. So I don’t know.
I wrote a serialized novel for The Boston Globe, which was very successful, and now I’m turning it into a movie and writing the script for Spielberg. But for my next nonfiction story, I don’t know. For me it’s got to be something we all kind of know, but we don’t really know. And I like the sort of young person pulling something off that’s huge and incredible and dramatic. So, it’s always tricky to find something big enough to tell.
This interview is part of a series commemorating the ten year anniversary of The Social Network by speaking with some of the key people who were involved in the project. To read the full series, follow my page on Forbes. You can also find me on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.