Since first premiering at the New York Film Festival, Spike Jonze’s future-set love story “Her” has gone to snag a slew of awards including the National Board of Review’s Best Picture and Director honors, and accolades. Indiewire’s Eric Kohn called it “one of the best studios movies of the year,” while New York Magazine’s David Edelstein proclaimed it to be “one of the best films in years” (it also topped his 10 Best Movies of 2013 list).
For Jonze, the adulation is nothing new. Since making his feature film debut with “Being John Malkovich,” the director — best known up to that point as one of the most innovative music video directors around — has continued to impress critics and audiences, while staying true to his voice, with his follow-ups “Adaptation” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” What is different this time around: “Her” marks his first solo writing credit.
In the film, Joaquin Phoenix gives a soulful performance as Theodore, a man living in Los Angeles who has a job writing cards and letters for other people. Following the disintegration of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), the lonely Theodore takes an especially personal liking to his new operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). What follows is a love story couldn’t be more of the moment.
Jonze sat down with Indiewire in New York to discuss “Her,” technology, love, and sex with a computer.
It’s been well documented that you were inspired to write “Her” after reading an article about our interaction with technology. Was it also inspired by some heartbreak you’ve experienced in your life?
Yeah. That initial idea was like 10 years ago, just that a guy has a relationship with an artificially intelligent operating system. I didn’t really think about it that much for a few years until I started thinking about it more terms of it being a relationship movie. Then it went from being a cool idea, that’s like a paragraph idea, to being this thing that kept growing and growing. My notes were extensive.
Can you break down your creative process on this film?
That’s a good question. I should look at my notes and see. I think it’s easier to talk about it after — not easier, but I feel like you can make yourself look smarter after the fact because you’re describing what you were doing. But when you’re doing it, it’s A), instinctual; B), you’re discovering it; C), it’s evolving the whole time.
I start with what the movie feels like to me. Then I’m always trying to stay true to that and that’s the thing I go back to. I think one of the things you’re pointing out is that I’ve realized more in hindsight; I always went towards the intimate. Now in hindsight I think I was using technology and society and the speed of our lives and the ways we use technology to connect or not to connect, I was using that as the setting for the story as opposed to what the movie is actually about. As you were pointing out, I think I was much more making a movie about relationships and the way we relate to each other and the things in us and the things in me that prevent intimacy or prevent connection. I think that is much more of what the movie is about.
Even in those initial notes before I wrote the script, there are probably a lot more things about operating systems in society. It was a super fun thing to write about. An operating system that was a character on a sitcom, all these different ideas that as soon as I started writing on page one I just realized, “Man, these ideas are never going to fit in this movie. That’s not really what this movie is about.” I just started with Theodore.
This marks the first time you’re solely credited for one of your screenplays. Did you seek out consultation from anyone during the writing process?
Always. Definitely. Not just on this movie but with every movie, I always show scripts and rough cuts to my friends and just talk to my friends.
On “Wild Things,” in fairness, I could have written that one by myself. When I went to Dave [Eggers], I had 60 pages of notes, I had the whole shape of it, but I just wasn’t ready to do it. I was too nervous and I needed his guidance and support and blessing. Also, he’s a full-time writer and besides just learning from him in terms of the substance of writing, the intellectual process of writing; the discipline, I guess, of a being a writer was really important. On this one, I was just ready.
Did writing “Her” come easy?
Easier because of “Wild Things,” for sure. I knew I could do it because with Dave, we wrote the first draft together every day, but as it went on I’d write a lot by myself and send him stuff and he’d send it back to me. It was like he was my dad, teaching me how to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time. That process and working with Dave gave me the confidence.
My favorite scene in “Her” is the one that in hindsight could have made or broke your film (it made it) — the first sex scene between Theodore and Samantha. It is so tender and erotically charged that it just demands that you submit to it. How did you go about handling that scene?
It’s interesting. You want to make movies that are going to connect with people, but the only way I know how to do that is first and foremost I have to believe it and I have to connect with it — that’s the gauge. Do I believe it? Does Joaquin believe it? Did our editors, Eric Zumbrunnen and Jeff Buchanan, believe it? That’s all we can go after.
I think that first sex scene, it works or doesn’t work, if you believe and feel the characters up to that point. Theodore and Samantha are revealing themselves in a way that creates intimacy and they’ve created that intimacy with each other by being vulnerable, honest and real. I think that’s what we needed to feel.
In terms of it being a sex scene or even if it’s just her being a computer, we never question any of it. Just what does it mean emotionally and what does it mean to make yourself vulnerable, to show that kind of desire to someone you’re close with? To feel that kind of excitement of being lost in that kind of ecstasy? And being amazed about being lost in that ecstasy? It was just playing it, being it. Catherine Keener said something that was interesting: “It’s all play. It doesn’t matter if the scene’s funny or if it’s tragic or it’s heartbreaking or erotic. Approach it with that same sort of play.”
All your films are off-kilter. You’re unlike any filmmaker working today. Are you ever surprised by the critical adulation your work receives, given that it is so different from the norm?
I can’t tell exactly…I know what you’re saying. Certainly with “Being John Malkovich,” nobody was more surprised that Charlie [Kaufman] and I. We thought we were just making this movie that we thought was funny and interesting. That was a real shock. I think the thing that is meaningful is when I can tell that someone’s been affected by the movie or by anything I made. When you walked in, I could tell you were affected by it — not only by what you said, but just by feeling what you felt. That’s the thing that’s the meaningful part to me.