While you’ve probably heard it described in simple ways, Spike Jonze’s “Her” is much, much more than the iPhone movie about falling love with Siri. And it’s hardly a film about technology and our future—though that obviously is an element. In many ways, “Her” is a traditional love story and relationship movie, but finds an ambitious concept to explore notions of connection, isolation, loneliness and loss.
Set in a not-too-distant future, “Her” takes place in a pleasant, soft-pasteled world where technology has made our personal operating systems artificially intelligent. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man dealing with the fallout of his impending divorce and life changes for him when his OS upgrade (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), turns out to be one of the most sensitive, dynamic and emotionally intuitive people, errr—A.I. devices—he’s ever met. Can you form a relationship with someone who technically doesn’t exist, at least not physically? And what happens when these two “people” fall in love? Jonze’s “Her” challenges our notions of love, but also expresses so much about the struggles of relationships, no matter what form they take. As he essentially suggests in our interview: anything that’s difficult is usually worthwhile.
Co-starring Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt and a bunch of fun voice cameos that you should listen for closely, we described the film in our review as “disarmingly funny, insightful and empathetic.” Nominated for three Golden Globes so far, it’s also a potential Oscar contender as well. We recently sat down with Jonze to discuss the challenges of creating “Her,” working with his voice actor Scarlett Johannson, the Arcade Fire, who wrote part of the score, his old screenwriting pal Charlie Kaufman and more. “Her” opens in limited release this weekend opens wide on January 10, 2014. Our conversation started sort of mid-sentence as Jonze was talking about the site’s taste.
Well, you think about it and a lot of [the director’s we like] were centered around Propaganda Films [a production company co-founded by David Fincher, Michael Bay and other Hollywood producers].
A lot of us, yeah. Fincher started it, I mean Mark Romanek was right next to me, Michel Gondry was around a lot, when he moved over from Paris he had an office down the hall. So many people came through there. [“Beginners” filmmaker] Mike Mills obviously. Even people that weren’t there like Roman Coppola. We also did a lot of stuff together. There were so many directors there now that I think about it, some that I didn’t even know that well: Michael Bay, Dominique Cena. I knew Antoine Fuqua, it was pretty wild.
A lot of friends were cross-pollinating. David O. Russell casting you for what was a major role in “Three Kings.” Did that help inform you when you’re directing other actors?
Definitely. I’ve only acted a few times but definitely. “Three Kings” was a huge—it was big in two ways for me. One: which was just on the base level of understanding how embarrassing it is to act and that gave me much more empathy to actors. Secondly, just getting to watch David work. Getting to watch any director work is interesting for another director but getting to watch a director who you love and respect and who is a genius was really exciting. I was there on and off for like four months.
And now you have a small role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
That came up because Ellen Lewis casts both our movies and she came to me and said, “Hey, do you want to be in Marty’s movie?” I said, “Count me in!” I didn’t even have to read it, I was just like, “Of course.” I get a day to be on the set and watch Martin Scorsese direct and be directed by him. Also I love that he and Leonardo [DiCaprio] are making movies together. Getting to watch their partnership…the shorthand and the respect and mutual admiration. And you can tell they both love making movies and making movies together. That’s something that’s awesome to be around.
You’ve never really had that kind of muse yet; repeat business with actors aside from Catherine Keener [in all of Jonze’s film so far minus “Her”].
I don’t know why it hasn’t worked out in that way. Every actor I’ve worked with I want to work with again. John Malkovich. Keener I got to work with now many times in many different ways. Chris Cooper I got to work with many times. He had a small role in “Her” that got cut out too. He’s amazing but, yeah everyone. Nicolas Cage, I would love to work with him again. He’s just a fearless madman. He’ll go anywhere you want to go. He would not say no to anything. I always liked that idea, but then when I’d get down to the casting and trying to figure out the essence of the character and what a character needs, it often sort of leads me to new places.
You’ve really given yourself all these crazy challenges in the last couple of years. Part CGI, part costumed monsters, children [“Where The Wild Things Are”], robots in love [the short “I’m Here”], now you’ve got an actor who isn’t on screen. Is that a conscious thing?
Well, it’s being drawn to ideas that you don’t know how you’re going to be able to pull off, but I think that’s exciting. Even “Being John Malkovich,” the movie was so absurd and trying to pull off the tone that was going to ground it, was a constant mystery whether it would work or not. “Adaptation” is so many thematic through lines, so many disparate ideas and Charlie Kaufman writing the script—his relationship with his “brother” and [Meryl Streep’s character] writing the book about “The Orchid Thief” and her sort of melancholy of her life that she’s lost in. [Chris Cooper’s character’s] life and the history of orchid hunting and the history and creation of life and the universe and the planet, there’s many different ideas. To make those all things fit… we edited that for 14 months trying to make that one fluid through line and those are the things that are the scariest. Many times in the course of making these things I didn’t know if they would work.
So some fear in the challenge helps?
It’s what makes it exciting because we don’t know if it’s ever going to work. There were times in “Adaptation” during the editing where I really thought, “Okay well this was a noble failure.” I tried to do something good but this is not going to work. Same on [“Her”]. There were many times in post production where—and I can laugh about it now because when I locked picture I feel like I got it to where I wanted it to be, but I can only laugh about it now. At the time it wasn’t that funny. I really thought I had to go to [producer] Megan Ellison and apologize to her and tell her maybe we shouldn’t try to make the movie. There would be dark days.
Your editing process on this one was long once again.
I mean, I’m exaggerating a little bit.
Getting the tone right on a movie strikes me as meaning everything to you.
Every inflection is important. When I’m working on a scene or a line or a word, tone is the most important thing in the world. The movie succeeds or fails on that being true.
I assume that’s part of what happened with Samantha Morton’s role; it didn’t quite 100% nail the inflection or tone you were after.
That was a really hard and sad realization to come to. Because I love Samantha, I love her as an actor, I love her as a friend.
That’s the risk you make when making these kinds of ambitious movies I take it. You can miscalculate with so many unknown variables.
You kind of don’t know how to make a movie until you’ve made it. That can be the case with everything that’s challenging or worthwhile; whether it’s a movie, or a relationship, a company or family or raising children, especially raising children. Everything that’s meaningful probably falls under the same rules.
I wanted to talk about the score; it sounds like you were talking The Arcade Fire really early on.
Yeah, when I didn’t know what I was going to do for the score, I would talk to them about it. I had a bunch of different ideas and I’ve been friends with the band for a long time. We’ve made many things together now. They were staying with me a lot that year and so as I was working on the script I would talk to them about it. I talked to Win [Butler] especially who loves film, loves science fiction, loves film score, is very thoughtful and knowledgeable in all of those subjects and I talked to him about it as a friend, bounced ideas around and we started talking about the script what it should be. I was initially thinking it would be a composer. Who was the right composer for it and what should my direction be? I had a few ideas. One was that I didn’t want it to be electronic but I wanted it to have electricity to it. Not representing technology but more the speed of our lives.
There’s definitely a pulsating current in the movie’s music.
It’s this quiet, simmering electricity. I knew it was a love story and I wanted the emotions to be very simple and strong. Very base and not intellectual. The score is loneliness, it’s excitement, it’s romance, the score is pain, her pain and her love and her disappointments and all—it was a love story and maybe even more so a relationship story.
As I was talking to Win about all of this and his knowledge of film score is way deeper than mine. I’d send him a song, and he’d play me a song; this back and forth. And the more I’d talk to him I’d say, “Wait a second, this guy is one of my favorite song writers, our sensibility is so in synch and he’s so unafraid to write from his heart.” And his music is so emotionally direct and cinematic. I was like, “Oh, you should just do this.”
And then it became the whole band and this whole other process. It started with me and Win, definitely. When it was the whole band, Win’s brother Will really took the lead on a lot of stuff, especially at the end when they were finishing their record and Win was having his baby. Will stepped up and guided and directed the band but it was a real group effort and a really wild way to make a score. It wasn’t just a director and a composer. It was me getting gang jumped into the band and the crazy, democratic organism that is Arcade Fire.
At one point it was said that you and Charlie Kaufman were going to reteam again in a Dr. Strangelove-esque movie about world leaders. Is that still happening?
It wasn’t exactly that, but we do have an idea and I don’t know when we’re going to do it. I talk to Charlie all the time, we talk about ideas all the time and I tell him what I’m working on and he gives me great ideas and tells me what he’s working on. He’s the kind of guy that has so many ideas that are amazing and the next week you’ll be like, “What are you doing with that [idea]?” And he’s like, “Oh, I’m over that.” The amount of incredible ideas that either are sitting in his drawer that he’s never going to do anything with or that he’s forgotten about already; there’s so many ideas, he’ll forget about and you’ll have to remind him! But anyways, at some point I’m sure we’ll do something together again. He’s my favorite writer.
Loneliness and longing is an emotional throughline that’s always been In your work, especially from ‘Wild Things’ until now. Will you keep exploring that? Does that come most natural to you?
I don’t know. I didn’t know I was going to explore anything. It’s not like I set out for that. And even things I haven’t written…. I don’t know if I work that way… it’s like I’m attracted to…
More intuitive than intellectualized?
Yeah, and it’s not just writing. I think it’s things that I make, I follow my intuition and later, maybe it makes sense or has more intellectual… I can understand it more or not. Like coming up with the idea for beautiful handwritten letters.com [in “Her”], it was just an idea that seemed fun, funny, correct, interesting. And then only as I started writing it started unveiling why it also made sense.
That wasn’t what broke your story though was it?
No, it was more like, “I have the story but now what does he do for a living?” I knew I wanted [Joaquin Phoenix’s character] to be a writer, but that didn’t come out of an intellectual place.
Scarlett Johansson’s performance is really something. Did you pull it out of her, or her out of you? It’s really terrific.
We just trusted each other. There’s something I love about her and I think we just wanted to go there and try to get there together. Watching her go to those emotional place was so exciting. I also think she’s in a period right now where she’s killing it. I saw “Don Jon,” I saw “Under the Skin,”—it’s really beautiful, strange, and creepy but she’s incredible in it. I saw the play she was in this spring, “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” She’s always been amazing, she has this incredible presence but she kicked it up into another gear.
It’s nice when you see actors going through a fruitful period.
I thought she was amazing in “Don Jon.”
If you had never seen her before you would think she was that girl.
Yeah. Who’s this Jersey girl they found? She played it really well in terms of being so charismatic and hiding all of her agenda and then slowly revealing it in a really smart way.
It’s funny, you take this beautiful woman, but you don’t even show her onscreen. Why Scarlett? Other than her voice which obviously has that sultry lower register.
Definitely. The timbre of her voice is beautiful. It’s the person inside the voice, it’s her intelligence, and it’s her wit. She’s the kind of person that can tease you and get right to your core but also it’s affectionate. You want to get teased by her. How do you define charisma, true charisma? She’s obviously beautiful, but you take that away and she’s just as captivating. She’s got that thing and combined with the emotional depth of where she’s willing to go—she really went there in this incredible way.
“Her” opens in limited release this weekend opens wide on January 10, 2014.