Spike Jonze has a huge cult following that stems as much from his activities in the MTV arena – he even produces the Jackass movies and ventures – as from his cinema. Surprisingly, the 44-year-old has only made four feature films and has been as painstaking as ever with Her, his first film where he takes the full writing credit after two Charlie Kaufman-scripted movies, Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), and Where the Wild Things Are (2009), adapted by Jonze and Dave Eggers.
Set in the near future, Her sensationally features Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, a cyber-voice that Joaquin Phoenix's lonely soon-to-be-divorced online love-letter writer, Theodore Twombly, falls for head over heels. He talks to her on a small portable gadget as he walks around the house and even takes her on a picnic with his friends.
“The initial spark was an article I saw online 10 years ago where you could have an instant message with an artificial intelligence,” Jonze explains. “You could send a message and say 'Hey, hello,' and it would say 'Hey, how are you?' Initially I had this real buzz, 'Wow I'm talking to this thing and it's listening to me'. Then quickly you could just tell it was parroting things it had heard and it wasn't intelligent. But it was a clever program. I didn't think of it for a long time, then I had this idea of a man having a relationship with a thing like that, a fully formed consciousness, and what would happen. I used that as a way to write a relationship movie and a love story.”
Jonze had made a short film in 2010, I'm Here, starring Andrew Garfield, which was along the same lines, though focusing on young love. “It was another LA love story about robots where romantic and existential matters are connected, so I was definitely making notes for this movie,” Jonze admits. “It was after working for five years on Where the Wild Things Are, so the idea of doing a short film in a few months was really appealing.”
Incredibly, after shooting Her with Samantha Morton providing the voice in a soundproof booth on set – Jonze wanted the actors to remain physically separate – he replaced Morton's voice with Johansson's, even if the scenes we now see are those Phoenix filmed with Morton. Jonze was, and still is, a huge fan of the British actress, who had starred in Kaufman's directing debut 2008's Synecdoche, New York, which Jonze had produced and at one stage was going to direct.
“Every movie I've worked on takes a while to find what it is and that was part of process of this movie,” Jonze explains. “What Samantha brought to the movie by being on set was huge. What she gave me and the movie and Joaquin was huge. It's always a constant thing – even on the last day of work we were still figuring it out; just trying to find something else, like the moustache, the glasses, just trying stuff on. I wish I had a specific process, as it would be a lot easier. But I never know. For me, it's an impulsive process.”
Inspiration also came from Kaufman's writing approach for Synecdoche, New York. “Charlie said he wanted to try to write everything he was thinking about in that moment, all the ideas and feelings at that time, and put it into the script. I was very inspired by that, and tried to do that with Her. A lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory."
"Love and relationships take place a lot in your head already and that's part of the battle of being in the world and being in your head."
In Her, there are no alternative realities as in Avatar. Jonze likes the idea that Samantha exists more in Theodore's heart and psyche.
“The movie's about different things I've been thinking about and been confused about in terms of the way we live now and in terms of relationships and how we try to connect and fail to connect,” he says. “What we are saying is that love and relationships take place a lot in your head already and that's part of the battle of being in the world and being in your head. Samantha's somebody Theodore connects to much more in that way.”
Initially, Jonze had wanted to film amongst the skyscrapers of modern Shanghai, though without studio money – Her, like The Master and Zero Dark Thirty, was produced by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures – he compromised by filming mostly in Los Angeles and only for two weeks in Shanghai. The film marks the first time he hasn't worked with his long-time cinematographer, Lance Acord, and instead The Netherlands' Hoyte van Hoytema (Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shot the film in stunning fashion. However, he hired his regular designer K.K. Barrett (who also collaborates with Jonze's ex, Sophia Coppola and the similarities with Lost in Translation are palpable) and they cleverly combined Los Angeles with the exteriors of Shanghai.
“To me, the way the world is going in terms of how it feels – nice food, nice coffee combined with our new technology – everything comes easy to us. But there's still that loneliness and longing which makes life that much more painful.”
“We were trying to create a look for the near future world that felt very warm and nice, a very comfortable way to live,” notes Jonze. “To me, the way the world is going in terms of how it feels – nice food, nice coffee combined with our new technology – everything comes easy to us. But there's still that loneliness and longing which makes life that much more painful.”
Has it been difficult maintaining his creative identity over the past 20 years? “I guess I've been making a lot of mistakes, making things that didn't feel like it was me, things that felt inauthentic to me. I've been learning from those mistakes and trying to stick to things that feel true to me as opposed to trying to be somebody else.”
In order to learn from other directors, Jonze has taken acting roles – and he has considerable talent. Initially, he played a hayseed soldier in David O. Russell's Three Kings, in Bennet Miller's Moneyball he was a sleaze dating Brad Pitt's ex-wife, and in a surprise piece of (uncredited) casting, he's a small-time broker who teaches Leonardo DiCaprio's wolf a few early tricks in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.
“That happened because Ellen Lewis was the casting director for Her and she also cast The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jonze explains to Vulture.com. “When we were auditioning people for our movie, I would often read with the people we were auditioning, and she called me up later and said, 'Hey, you're actually an okay actor! You want to come do this thing?'”
Vulture also notes that Jonze can be heard voicing a foul-mouthed video game character in Her – the one calling Joaquin Phoenix a pussy. More likely they're two peas in a pod.
Tuesday 19 January, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt