National Geographic is bringing American inventors to the forefront in its new hourlong docu-drama “American Genius.” The eight-part series includes competing innovators such as “Tesla v. Edison,” “The Wright Brothers v. Curtiss” and “Hearst v. Pulitzer.”
The show chronicles “Steve Jobs v. Bill Gates” in its premiere episode, including interviews from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and others about the nation’s biggest tech rivalry. During a conference call, the computer geek-turned-icon spoke with Variety and other outlets about his take on the upcoming “American Genius” showdown.
The idea of this show is Gates versus Jobs. How would you articulate, as you see it, the philosophical differences between the two — are they as different as we think they are even today?
The real differences between where Steve Jobs is portrayed compared to Bill Gates is Steve Jobs having a very futuristic forward vision, almost a bit of the science fiction, “Here’s what life could be.” But Bill Gates had more of an execution ability, to build the things that are needed now, to build a company now, make the profits now, in the short term.
TV now has HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” that’s based on the tech industry today, and AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” which is based on the tech industry during the time that you guys were coming up. Have you seen either of the two shows? If so, do you think they’re accurate?
“Silicon Valley,” I watched the entire first season. It fit into this thing where, when we started Apple there were companies that would spin off. Then along came groups like Bill Gates and Microsoft and Steve Jobs and myself and Apple and a lot of young, young people — Mark Zuckerberg working in a dorm — creating these great companies. So, it became very enamored by people and wanting to be an entrepreneur, wanting to know the formula.
“Halt and Catch Fire too.” Wow, I love the portrayal, but it’s more like a lot of the drama.
I know you knocked the previous “Jobs” movie, so how did “American Genius” compare?
I think that there were a lot of weaknesses about the “Jobs” movie, the one with Ashton Kutcher, from the screenwriting and all, but I gave it a chance. I was hoping it would be a great movie. It didn’t get into the inner thinking of Steve Jobs, which… the movie was about Steve Jobs.
I’m thinking that this one is going to turn out a lot better because first of all, you’re starting out with National Geographic and a lot of credibility and things on the line they can’t risk by trying to be overly dramatic or [taking] a side. I think it’s more searching for the truth when it comes from National Geographic.
Did they give you any sense of who was going to be playing you and do you ever feel like anybody’s gotten that right on film or otherwise?
They did not. But, the TV show is created just like a film. There’s a film being made [written by Aaron Sorkin]. It was originally Sony; now Universal with Seth Rogen playing me, and I would not want to go near the filming, the script, asking questions.
All you can do by being a principal in a movie is interfere with their work. It’s their art. So, pretty much I will contribute what I can and then I’ll sit back and see — they are the artists that are making the presentation.
Do you think that they have the capability of bringing forth that insight of capturing the essence of Steve Jobs, or do you think that that can only be captured through interview-style documentary films and series such as “American Genius”?
Yes. I absolutely feel that it can be captured and has been captured in drama style…. “Pirates of Silicon Valley” was intriguing, interesting. I loved watching it. Maybe because it was first, it caught more attention. I thought they did a better job [than “Jobs”] because everyone shown in there was portrayed very awkwardly because you don’t know the personalities of people in Apple like [former] CEO John Sculley. You just don’t know it because he wasn’t in the press enough and visible enough. So, you portray him wrong.
How exactly did you get involved with Nat Geo and “American Genius”?
I’ve actually worked with them before on projects and they contacted me. It was just that for this particular project, I mean, “Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates,” it’s obvious why I would be a tie-in to hear my ideas.
“American Genius” premieres June 1 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.