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.