NY Times article:
Spike Jonze Discusses Evolution of ‘Her’ – A few small spoilers so beware!
“When I was 20 years old, I had no plans to ever be a filmmaker,” said the director Spike Jonze, cozy in a cotton button-down oxford shirt and a crew-neck sweatshirt, even on a stiff couch in a bland, beige Hell’s Kitchen video-editing suite. “Me and my friends had BMX magazines and skate magazines, and I was a photographer who made skate videos. There was just no way that would have ever even crossed my mind.”
In the two decades since Mr. Jonze, 44, burst onto the scene as arguably his generation’s most influential music video director with bands like Sonic Youth, Björk and the Beastie Boys, he has changed plenty, and not at all. Born Adam Spiegel, Mr. Jonze still has his boyish, tousled blond hair and short, scruffy beard, only it’s a bit neater, and there’s gray peppered through it. His warm, excitable voice still crackles like a teenager’s, even as he speaks about his executive roles as creative director of Vice Media and the inaugural YouTube Music Video Awards, airing Sunday night.
As a filmmaker, Mr. Jonze is still directing music videos and pulling puerile “Jackass” pranks with his longtime co-conspirator, Johnny Knoxville, in “Bad Grandpa.” But on Dec. 18, he graduates into midcareer maturity with “Her,” a near-future romance about a man who falls in love with his computer’s sentient operating system. (Think of: “Siri, check the weather. And what are you doing later?”) Mr. Jonze directed Charlie Kaufman’s pyrotechnic scripts for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” and he (and Dave Eggers) wrote the film “Where the Wild Things Are,” but “Her” is the first feature that Mr. Jonze has written and directed by himself.
“After ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ I guess I felt more confident as a writer,” Mr. Jonze said, shrugging, as ever, when asked about his motivations. “Probably? I don’t know. It just seemed like I wanted to keep going further with making things that were purely out of my own imagination.”
“Her” stars the typically tortured Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a brokenhearted, divorced middle-aged man who works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, writing moving correspondence for people who care to send the very best (and can pay someone else to do it). When lonely Theodore upgrades his computer’s operating system, the disembodied, husky voice of Scarlett Johansson says hello, and tells him to call “her” Samantha. She gamely cleans up his inbox, organizes his hard drive, books his appointments and, ultimately, steals his heart. He takes her (or at least his earpiece) on dinner dates, on long romantic walks and on an old-fashioned trip to a carnival. Theodore’s best friend (Amy Adams) is just happy that he’s happy. His ex-wife (Rooney Mara) is, well, not.
“Her” may sound like a dystopian, satirical treatise on digital culture, but it is not a farce and it is resolutely inconclusive. “I went in to meet with Spike and launched into this diatribe about artificial intelligence,” said the actress Olivia Wilde, whose character ends up on a painfully awkward blind date with Theodore. “He kept saying, ‘That’s cool, but, this is not a movie about technology.’ ”
Mr. Jonze said, “There’s definitely ways that technology brings us closer and ways that it makes us further apart — and that’s not what this movie is about. It really was about the way we relate to each other and long to connect: our inabilities to connect, fears of intimacy, all the stuff you bring up with any other human being.”
Though the film is essentially set in the “uncanny valley” where technology and human emotion intersect, Mr. Jonze aims for realism throughout. He shot in unfamiliar-looking locations in Los Angeles and Shanghai to give the film a lived-in feel. His production designer K. K. Barrett, working with the firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro, avoided the global, neon bazaars of “Bladerunner” and the kinky latex of “The Matrix” for high-waisted trousers, natural fabrics and exquisite wood furniture. The design of Theodore’s smartphone-like gadget was based on an antique Deco cigarette lighter.
“You know how you can order bespoke custom sneakers online that are just your size with just the colors you want? Everything’s like that,” said Mr. Jonze, wearing minimalist white sneakers of his own. “It was trying to make this world that’s really comfortable and very easy to live in. To feel isolated in that setting hits that much more.”
He shot many takes of every scene, playfully working his way toward something that felt right, often with only Mr. Phoenix on set, alone, speaking into an earpiece.
“All throughout shooting, we just bought it,” Mr. Phoenix said of the man-machine romance. “We didn’t question it. We just always approached it like a real relationship.”
Ms. Wilde said: “It’s not because he’s making some Hitchcockian attempt to try to fix something he has in his mind. It’s an exploration.” Mr. Jonze did not allow her to meet Mr. Phoenix until he unexpectedly sat down and spoke his first line. “Nobody said ‘action,’ ” Ms. Wilde said. “With Spike, there’s not a huge difference between what’s natural and acting. It’s kind of seamless.”
In that sense, the film is an apt match of man and plot machinery. From “Jackass” stunts to his fake, endearingly amateur Torrance County Dance Group, in which Mr. Jonze pretended to be an unskilled but enthusiastic break dancer, he has blurred the line between fiction and documentary. Over and over, Mr. Jonze has revealed himself to be a high-concept humanist: a director capable of narrative and visual spectacle, who is also able to pull naturalistic performances from Meryl Stre“I’ve never worked with anyone who has that brilliant balance between emotional feeling and technical grace, said Mr. Phoenix, who noted that Mr. Jonze was always right by the camera, instead of watching on the monitor from afar.
“Spike sympathizes so strongly, you can practically feel him silently repeating the dialogue alongside you,” Ms. Johansson said, perhaps appropriately, by email.
Her character, Samantha, poses questions about the singularity (the purported moment when computers will match human intelligence) but they always double as psychological queries. “Are these feelings real, or are they just programming?” Samantha asks, and it’s no wonder Theodore empathizes: Aren’t we all just batches of genetic code and parental programming? She could be talking to her therapist.
“Over the years, it’s always been about what’s going on underneath the plot, the devices, the weirdness and the fun locations,” Mr. Kaufman said. “All that’s just what the emotions or the relationships hang on. We’ve always had endless discussions — too endless! — when we work together: days and days and days of doing line-by-line discussions of the implications of everything everybody said or did.”
That concern for fidelity ultimately led Mr. Jonze to recast the role of Samantha, after the initial actress, Samantha Morton, had recorded most of her scenes, acting off set, while Mr. Phoenix, like Theodore, heard her voice by earpiece. “I love Samantha, and she gave the movie so much, but what we’d done together just wasn’t right for what I realized we needed,” Mr. Jonze said. “It was definitely not an easy thing to arrive at, and it was a painful, painful decision to have to come to.”
Mr. Jonze does not offer a specific reason for the casting change. “You have to keep listening to the movie, to what it is, and what it needs,” he said. “Loads of things end up on the cutting-room floor that I really love. It’s like a body sort of rejecting a splinter: Like, this is not organic to our system.”
In the final version of “Her,” Samantha became more forthright, and less apologetic, Ms. Johansson explained: “I would describe her as self-possessed, which is ironic, of course, as she doesn’t have a body. There are scenes in which, previously written, Samantha had a meeker voice.”
Though he is said to be quite open with friends and colleagues, Mr. Jonze is notoriously loath to talk about his private life or personal motivations. He has done interviews in costume and as various personae, and once taped a DVD extra feature, in which he pretended to vomit midway through a staged interview. He does not speak publicly about his high-profile relationships with Sofia Coppola, from whom he’s divorced, Karen O or Michelle Williams. On the negative impact of technology on his own life, he will only mention that he has lost infuriating hours to the smartphone app Candy Crush. And he declines to comment on why his most self-created projects have been shot through with such aching loneliness.
His films always seem to articulate some yearning for connection, whether with the mind of John Malkovich, an orchid hunter’s passion or a tribe of wild things. The pained tone of “Where the Wild Things Are” is such a far cry from the cheeriness of most children’s films that he had to battle the studio to release his cut. “I’m Here,” a 31-minute film from 2010, was another tragic technological romance, in which a smitten robot (Andrew Garfield) sacrifices all his body parts, one by one, for his lover. His short film “We Once Were a Fairytale” featured Kanye West as a lonely, self-flagellating mess of drunken self-destruction.
“There’s still that wildly playful, delightful side, but now there’s an emotional sadness that he’s showing,” said his close friend the director David O. Russell. “That’s true of him personally. He’ll be putting me in a headlock, or pranking me, and then, 10 minutes later, having some heartfelt conversation, where we’re practically crying. When you have that range inside you, it comes out, naturally, in how you see scenes and stories and characters.”
Mr. Kaufman said: “They’re all relationship movies, and all about how people interact or don’t interact or miss each other. I’d say there’s a melancholy in all of them, in everything Spike does, which is why we get along.”
In “Her,” subtitled “A Spike Jonze Love Story,” that melancholy is rooted in the ways technological or personal development can pull people together or push them apart, and, increasingly, seems to do both at the same time, in the most unsettling ways.
“Alan Watts talks about it,” said Mr. Jonze, referring to the Zen philosopher. “Everything’s in a constant state of change, and to try and be the same as you were the day before is painful. It’s in ‘Her,’ it’s in ‘Wild Things,’ too, actually. I think there’s truth to it. There’s truth to me, at least.”
Mr. Jonze has never relinquished his youthful passions — stunts, pranks, puppets, pop music, guys getting hit in the groin — even as he has evolved, moving from photography to skate videos to music videos to television, film and journalism. “Watching him over the years, he’s fearless about going into new things, whereas I’d be afraid,” Mr. Kaufman said. “That, along with his talent, explains his success. He’s obviously talented, and obviously game.”
Ms. Wilde has her own Zen theory of Mr. Jonze, based on watching him goof off on the set of “Her.” “Maybe it’s how he does all those stunts on his skateboard,” she said. “It takes a steady inner balance, but also kamikaze bravery.”
ep, John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, or 12-foot-tall wild things, even in the most absurd situations