The New York Film Festival closed with the world premiere of Spike Jonze’s swooningly romantic “Her,” a futuristic love story involving a mild-mannered office worker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who falls for a sentient operating system (o.s.) named Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The picture touches on a number of issues in regards to contemporary life, particularly how the plugged-in nature of our society simply isolates some and subconsciously troubles others (read our NYFF review here). But Jonze told the audience during the film’s press conference that the fairly prescient idea came to him almost ten years ago, thanks to the simple wonder of instant messaging.
“The initial idea was an article I saw online where you could have an instant message with artificial intelligence,” he said. “It was something like AliceBot or something. You would say, Hello, it would say, hello. How are you, good, how are you? Oh, not so good, a little tired, oh, that’s too bad. And we had a little exchange there. And there was that buzz like, wow, this thing is talking to me! And quickly it sort of devolved, you could tell it was parroting things it had heard before, it wasn’t intelligent. But it was a clever program. Eventually I thought of the idea of a man having a relationship with an entity like that, with a fully-formed consciousness. And I thought about the idea that, what if you had a real relationship?”
He tinkered with the idea for years, but he was given the shove into making the picture thanks to a short film he shot called “I’m Here.” The story isn’t closely related, as Jonze noted, “It’s more about love in your early twenties.” But being an L.A. love story appealed to Jonze because of how the urban world is shifting. “I think the initial idea was to try to make this a future that was nice to be in,” Jonze said, claiming he was asked by futurists whether this would be a “utopian” or “dystopian” future. “Our world is getting nicer and nicer to live in, especially New York and Los Angeles. But even in that sort of setting, you feel very isolated.” Eventually Jonze opted for a world where he wanted to emphasize, in his words, the “colors of Jamba Juice.”
Samantha becomes an intriguing character because of how she evolves through the course of the film. Jonze wouldn’t really comment on original voice actor Samantha Morton who originally voiced the Samantha character and then was later replaced by Scarlett Johansson who ended up representing the sound and the soul of the character. Jonze had to make the same unfortunate decision on "Where The Wild Things Are" (voice actress Michelle Williams was replaced by Lauren Ambrose) and the filmmaker suggested finding the film in the editing room and capturing the right tone can be difficult. "I think every movie I've worked on takes a long time to sort of find what it is, and that was part of the process of this movie, finding what it was," he said. "I'm hesitant to answer that question because what Samantha brought to the movie by being with us on set was huge, and what she gave me in the movie and Joaquin was huge, and also what Scarlett brought to the movie was huge. So I just kind of want to rather leave it at that."
“Samantha is brand new to the world, she’s like a child that hasn’t learned any insecurities, any self-doubts,” Jonze said, happy to speak about the OS character herself. “She learns those over the course of the movie, she has these experiences that give her those painful situations that create this self-doubt.” Extra special credit for those keeping score, Chris Cooper also had a role in the movie, but his scenes were cut to scale the movie down to its two-hour running time.
Joaquin Phoenix was characteristically uncooperative and/or playful with questions (see the NYFF press conference for James Gray's "The Immigrant"), but when he was asked what it was like to act alongside an actor not on screen, he sort of answered the question. "I wanna say that I trained really hard and that I did a bunch of work. But I'm an actor, so I'm accustomed to walking around my house and kind of talking to myself," the actor mumbled. "I mean, you rehearse all the time, so I don't think it's that dissimilar."
Olivia Wilde, who plays a character who goes on an unfortunate blind date with Phoenix’s moony Theodore, added, “Artificial intelligence carries no baggage. There’s something about Samantha that she’s pure. Which makes her an ideal romantically of course. But the difference between humans and artificial intelligence is baggage.” The filmmakers opted to avoid even giving Samantha an avatar, or representing her physically at all, keeping her ethereal, immaterial. Ironically enough, the actress with the least amount of scenes, Olivia Wilde was perhaps the most articulate of all the actors who attended the press conference (including the mostly taciturn Rooney Mara who's only main sentiment was that she "begged" Jonze for the role). “I would add that as a fan of that choice," Wilde said of not embodying Samantha at all. "She then becomes your ideal, it becomes your own experience. Even if people are familiar with Scarlett's voice and can imagine her as an actress, it transforms and she becomes whatever you want her to become. I think if you would have defined her, you would have stopped people from being able to create that for themselves. That's one cool effect of it.” Jonze adds, “I like the idea of her existing in the ether, in his heart and psyche.”
This system ends up becoming the love of Theodore’s life, though it also reflects on a certain disconnect he has with the world. Amy Adams plays Amy, a woman from Theodore’s romantic past who has become a friendly confidant, but one who softens the blow of her own dissolving marriage by engaging with an o.s. of her own. Adams said, “Each person has their own reasons for why intimacy is hard. When you’re not expressing yourself as your true self you can never find true intimacy. And I think the relationship she has with Theodore is the most honest because she can always be herself.” The scenes between Theodore and Amy are some of the sweetest in the film, but also the ones that most seriously deal with what the o.s. might mean to regular relationships.
But Jonze didn’t allow himself to get bogged down in philosophical meanings. In making “Her,” Jonze claimed, “One of the movies I watched while I was writing was ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ That script was incredibly written. There’s a lot of talking about ideas, but mostly the characters are plowing through the story and thinking of their decisions, and that was really inspiring.” It helped Jonze tell the story he wanted to, but also to listening not to words, but to meanings. “That’s sort of inherent in everything we did,” he said of the film, where many scenes completely adopt Theodore’s perspective. “Not necessarily hearing what they said, but hearing what they mean.”
"Her" opens up in limited release on December 18. Photo courtesy of the New York Film Festival Facebook.