The closing night selection of the 51st New York Film Festival, Spike Jonze’s hugely anticipated “Her” takes a look at love as we know it, fully absorbed in the realms of technology. The film, which takes place in a vaguely futuristic version of Los Angeles, stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a professional writer of handwritten letters (as in, he comes up with content for other people and their correspondences) who has suffered from bouts of loneliness and depression since divorcing his wife (Rooney Mara) almost a year ago. After seeing an advertisement, he promptly buys an OS1, an operating system that is personified by Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), a playful automated program that Theodore eventually finds himself falling in love with.
As humorous as it is deeply melancholy, the film positions its characters in a vision of the near future filled with pastel-colored plastic surfaces and automated, quantified emotional connection, where Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is even accepted by the equally technology-immersed fellow inhabitants. The constraints of their relationship do begin to take their inevitable toll, as Theodore struggles to move past the very human connection he had with his former wife while Samantha tries to make sense of her own burgeoning consciousness.
Following the film’s press screening, Jonze was joined by Phoenix as well as fellow co-stars Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde for a press conference moderated by Dennis Lim, where they discussed what inspired the film, its visual aesthetic and the character of Samantha. It should be noted that Phoenix was moderately more verbal compared to when he was at the NYFF press conference for “The Immigrant” last week but he remained his usually unusual self, even taking puffs from an electronic cigarette at one point during the discussion.
Below is a roundup of highlights from the talk.
Jonze on the inspiration behind the film:
“I guess the initial sort of spark was an artifice online which you could make into an instant message. You could have an instant message with the artificial intelligence, where you could send a message like, ‘Hey.’ It might be called Alicebot, or one of those from ten years ago. And I said, ‘Hello,’ and it said, ‘Hello,’ and I said, ‘How are you?’ and it would go, ‘Good, how are you?’ and I would go, ‘Oh, I’m not so good. I’m a little tired,’ and he goes, ‘Oh that’s too bad.’ We had this little exchange, and I had this buzz of ‘Wow, I’m talking to this thing!’ And then it quickly devolved into, you could tell it was just parroting things it had heard before, and it wasn’t intelligent, but it was a clever program. I didn’t really think about it for a long time, and then I thought of the idea of a man having a relationship with an entity like that with a fully-formed consciousness, and the idea of what would happen if you had a real relationship and use that a way to write a relationship movie and love story.”
Adams on what drew her to the project:
“I think I met with Spike before I read the script, so I was more into Spike’s vision. It was compelling, and it was at a time where I was really busy and I had a baby and I was like, ‘I just don’t have it in me to do a film right now.’ But every time I met with Spike I couldn’t say no, because his vision was so beautiful, and it so was in line with kind of issues I was dealing with. That’s the great thing about this film; I think everyone finds a piece of their own issues in it. I just couldn’t say no, and I had to work with Spike.”
Jonze on creating the film’s version of the future:
“I think the initial idea was to try and make this sort of future LA that felt nice to be in and nice to live in, and sort of playing off of just the fact our world is getting nicer and nicer to live in, especially in LA where the weather is so nice and there’s great food and the mountains and the ocean are there, but still even in that setting you feel very isolated and lonely. That seemed like an interesting setting. And actually, I met the architects that did the Lincoln Center and the Highline, Liz and Rick, and this was when I was still writing the script so I was trying to figure out what it was, and I had the opportunity to meet them and go to their office and talk to them. Liz had gone to film school before she became an architect, so she was interesting to talk to because she came from architecture but also storytelling. And I remember asking her what the future could look like, and she asked me the simple question, ‘Is it a utopian future or a dystopian future?’ And I sort of started saying what I was imagining, and I had this sort of idea of the colors from Jamba Juice. And she said, ‘Okay,’ and she started giving ideas and talking about stuff. And it was really that sort of basic question that she asked that sort of made it concrete in a way, like, ‘Okay this is what I’m making, this sort of utopian future, and even in this world, to feel lonely in that setting would kind of be the worst, because you’re supposed to be in this world where you’re getting everything you need, seemingly.”
Wilde on artificial intelligence versus baggage:
“[Spike] said something interesting yesterday about how artificial intelligence carries no baggage, and that’s something about Samantha. She’s pure, which makes her more of an ideal romantically, of course. But the difference between artificial intelligence and humans is baggage, so where as the blind date carries an enormous amount of pain and baggage and projection, projecting all of that onto what Theodore is saying, Samantha is so open-minded and always sees the best.”
Phoenix on having to act without another actor onscreen:
“I wanna say that I trained really hard and that I did a bunch of work. But I’m an actor, so I’m accustomed to walking around my house and kind of talking to myself. I mean, you rehearse all the time, so I don’t think it’s that dissimilar.”
Jonze on the decision to recast Samantha Morton as the character of Samantha with Scarlett Johansson:
“I think every movie I’ve worked on takes a long time to sort of find what it is, and that was part of the process of this movie, finding what it was. I’m hesitant to answer that question because what Samantha brought to the movie by being with us on set was huge, and what she gave me in the movie and Joaquin was huge, and also what Scarlett brought to the movie was huge. So I just kind of want to rather leave it at that.”
Wilde on not having the character of Samantha visually articulated:
“I would add that as a fan of that choice, she then becomes your ideal, it becomes your own experience. Even if people are familiar with Scarlett’s voice and can imagine her as an actress, it transforms and she becomes whatever you want her to become. I think if you would have defined her, you would have stopped people from being able to create that for themselves. That’s one cool effect of it.””
“Her” closed the New York Film Festival on October 12. It opens in limited release on December 18.