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by Bryce J. Renninger
September 10, 2013 10:06 AM
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Twelve Things We Learned about Spike Jonze at His TIFF Talk

Spike Jonze at the 2012 Sundance ShortsLab LA Kim Adelman

Though we have to wait until October for the World Premiere of his film "Her" when it premieres as the Closing Night film of the New York Film Festival, Spike Jonze was in town for a conversation with his friend Kelly Reichardt, who was in Toronto to premiere her new film "Night Moves."  While Reichardt proved a disorganized conversation partner (she did have a film premiere weighing on her mind, after all), the talk led to some interesting tidbits about the career of the prolific director of a handful of features ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation.," "Where the Wild Things Are"), shorts, and music videos.

The audience was also treated to select scenes from "Her," which stars Joaquain Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer operating system with a soothing voice (played by Scarlett Johansson).

Here are twelve things Indiewire learned from the chat:

1.  If you want to make something with Spike Jonze, you better be able to shoot the shit with the master filmmaker...

I work with people who I'm really close to.  It starts with an idea and a feeling, but I must talk to my friends and the people work with and my friends about ideas.  A lot of ideas come out of that.  The spontaneity of those conversations, starting with music videos...the videos that were most fun to make were the videos with the artists that I was closest with.

2.  The "Sabotage" video just came about because the Beastie Boys were especially good at goofing around with Jonze.

With the Beastie Boys, I became close with them.  Me and my friends had a magazine called Dirt Magazine and I shot photos of them and loved them...They had done License to Ill and Paul's Boutique, both records I loved, and I got to know them, and we started a magazine together and did videos together.  The videos came out of us cracking ourselves up - buying fake mustaches at the fake mustache store.  And so a lot of stuff happens that way.  It has a lack of a better word, an organic process to it, and...a work comes out of a feeling that feels like something. 

"I'm Here"

3.  Andrew Garfield worked with Jonze (on the short film "I Am Here," as the voice of the male robot in the robot love story) because Jonze had so much fun playing frisbee with him.

Andrew Garfield played the male robot.  Mark Romanek, who did a movie called "Never Let Me Go."  He was in London shooting "Never Let Me Go," and we were in London doing post on "Where the Wild Things Are."  One day, we all had the day off, and we went to the park, had a picnic and played frisbee.  And he brought Andrew, and I loved him, and I said "Do you want to play a robot in this film?"

4.  Though the voices of the monsters in "Where the Wild Things Are" -- among them James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker -- weren't in the suits, they did have to act out all the scenes when they were recording voices for the film. 

We had a mic and cameras on them all and we asked them to act out the whole movie with foam cubes that would be a big tree and foam cubes that would be a big cave.  It was just -- James Gandolfini would say "I'm an adult!  I can't believe I'm doing this for a living!"  He'd be screaming and throwing Paul Dano through foam cubes.  We shot the whole movie with them and the foam cubes, so there's a whole movie with them and we used that for the voice performance, but also for the guys in the suits to look at. 

5.  Mimicking Gandolfini's tense shoulders was crucial for the performer in the Carol suit.

The guy in the Carol suit had to try and emulate the movements of James Gandolfini.  I wanted the puppets to not be big, broad acting.  We basically just fed off what the voice actors did.  They're not just behind a microphone; they're acting it out.  James Gandolfini holds his anxiety in a certain way, in his shoulders, and so we'd try to take all of that and put it into the character, the subtlety in the way you'd think about things.

6.  Though "Her" is about falling in love with a computerized voice, Jonze doesn't want to say machines are good or bad.

These are all things I'm thinking about right now:  the way we connect, the way we long to connect, the way we use technology to connect...I think that the movie to me is about our desire to connect and our need to connect.  It is a big idea in terms of how quickly it's changed.  How quickly technology has changed our lives, in this newest incarnation of technology, the Internet and digital technology.  Those are big, but I was always trying to make a relationship movie about love.

7.  In "Where the Wild Things Are," though the actor who played Max, Max Records, didn't see the monsters doing everything in front of him, Jonze would do some things so that Max would have something to react to.

We gave him a lot to react to.  We'd give him different things, sometimes the people in the suits would do the lines.  We'd give him a lot of things to do to react to.  I would spray the costume designer with a fire extinguisher to give him something to laugh at. 

8. Jonze loved the seven-and-a-half floor in "Being John Malkovich" because it reminded him of his dad's old office.

Instead of overstylizing that, we had a New York, coffee-stained drop ceiling sort of office, it was sort of my dad's office.  He worked in Madison Avenue, and I'd go with him on weekends and sit in his office as he had meetings.  I like that it was more like my dad's office.  [When I'm creating environments with my designers, it's] really just trying to take all of these ideas and make them something that feels like people lived in, not only people but these specific people.

9.  The idea for "Her" came from instant messaging bots.

I think the idea initially -- I had this initial idea maybe 10 years ago when I saw some article linking to a website where I was linking to an artificial chat -- there was one like AliceBot and you could type in and they would respond right back to you.  For the first twenty seconds, it would be great, you'd have this little buzz.  I was like "Whoa, this is trippy!"  After twenty seconds, it would fall apart, and you would realize how it actually worked.

10.  Johansson wasn't the original voice for the operating system in "Her."

Initially, Samantha Morton was playing that role.  In post, we ended up realizing what Sam and I had done together wasn't working for where the movie was going.  We ended up recasting and casting Scarlett Johansson.  It's interesting.  I think that Samantha Morton is in the film in some ways, in the DNA of it.  We were evolving and finding the movie.  Every movie has its own rules, and we were going along as we were making it.

11.  Jonze feels lucky that he doesn't have to work that hard to find money for his films. 

I don't make movies that often, so I don't know.  This one happened really naturally, quickly, easily.  I met Megan Ellison.  Megan's our producer and financier, I met her earlier a couple of years ago.  when I had this script, I brought it to her.  Megan liked the script, and we went and did it.  We felt like I found somebody, who I connected with, and I can only say that for this movie, I was incredibly fortunate.  I know it is really hard to get movies made.  I've been talking to a lot of my friends and for the last five years it's gotten really challenging.   When we were trying to get "Being John Malkovich" made, it almost fell apart many many times. 

12.  Was it ever going to be anything but "Being John Malkovich"?

We had a lot of pressure from our producers and financiers to think of backups. 

Reichardt:  Did you know him personally?

No! No, and it's funny because it took a long time to meet him.  And when we did get to meet him, his first question was "Why 'Being John Malkovich'?  Why not 'Being Tom Cruise'?"  His first reaction when he first read it was that he had wronged Charlie [Kaufman], that he had slept with his wife or something.  I met with him, and then Charlie and I both met with him.  He understood what Charlie and I wanted to do.  The great thing is, once he met us, he was kind of like "I like these guys, I'm going to go through with this."  I don't know that if at this point I realized how brave this was... He said, "Either the movie's a bomb, and it's not only got my name above the title but also in the title, so I'm fucked that way, or it does well and I'm just forever associated with this character, but I don't know it was a good piece of writing, I just had to do it."

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3 Comments

  • Snowangelsweden | September 11, 2013 4:28 AMReply

    Interesting article! Enjoyed esp. the part about James Gandolfini. Hard to not get stuck on you not spelling the main male actors name right in the movie Her though...

  • parsyeb | September 10, 2013 11:18 AMReply

    Let's hope Reichardt is just trying to humor this clown for some cash. Filmmakers don't get much more mediocre than Jonze. He's the leader of a whole generation of hacks who use just enough production design to convince cine-illiterates to champion their brand of world-poisoning schlock.

  • Piotr | September 10, 2013 11:34 AM

    Wow! Tell us how you REALLY feel. Completely disagree, BTW.