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Spike Jonze Previews 'Her' Before its New York Film Festival Unveiling

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 5, 2013 at 12:53PM

Spike Jonze did not have a completed film to show at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, even though he'd been working on his fourth feature "Her" for three years, and editing the film for 14 months. It was "a relentless process" he said at the TIFF Q & A. "I don't know what I'm making, I find it along the way." But he did provide a tantalizing preview of "Her," which was financed by Megan Ellison's Annapurna, via clips and a talk with his friend, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt.
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Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's 'Her'
Warner Bros. Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's 'Her'

Spike Jonze did not have a completed film to show at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, even though he'd been working on his fourth feature "Her" for three years, and editing the film for 14 months. It was "a relentless process" he said at the TIFF Q & A. "I don't know what I'm making, I find it along the way." 

Spike Jonze and Kelly Reichardt
Courtesy Ryan McNeil, The Matinee Spike Jonze and Kelly Reichardt

But he did provide a tantalizing preview of "Her," which was financed by Megan Ellison's Annapurna, via clips and a talk with his friend, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. (She screened her eco-radical film "Night Moves" at the fest; TOH review here.) 

Jonze spent a year writing his first produced screenplay for the romantic "Her," which portrays a man (Joaquin Phoenix) in love with his OS. In the world of the movie, it seems that this is not unusual: as people become increasingly intimate with their operating systems, more are taking the relationship to the next level. It's described in the film as "a form of socially acceptable insanity." 

The movie co-stars Amy Adams as his pal, a videogame developer, and Rooney Mara is his ex-wife. During filming, Samantha Morton played the voice of the OS. But in post-production Jonze recast the voice with Scarlett Johansson. "In post I was realizing that what Sam and I had done wasn't working with where the movie was going. She's in the DNA, she was with us when we shot it. Every movie has these things, it's evolving and finding the movie. This movie has its own set of rules, you don't know what they are when you're making it."

He had co-written the adaptation of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" with Dave Eggers, and learned a lot from his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation"), whose "Synechdoche New York" inspired him to put everything he was thinking about into a script. "I tired to do that in this movie, my contradictory feelings about relationships and technology." When iPhone's Siri came out after he was writing, he said, "that sucks." But "it didn't matter, because it was inevitable. This is so different than Siri."

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her'
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her'

Jonze told Reichardt that he likes to start out trying out his ideas on his friends. It's also true of making his music videos for the likes of Kanye West, Arcade Fire, Björk, the Beastie Boys, and Daft Punk; he has to like the music, for one thing. "There's an organic process to it," he said, "or it comes out of a feeling: I want to make something."

As Jonze wrote the script, he wondered: what if you replaced a real woman with a virtual woman? What if our urge to connect through technology prevents us from connecting? "The movie to me is about our desire and need to connect, separate togetherness," he told Reichardt. "It is a big idea, how quickly technology has changed our lives, the internet and global technology... I am also trying to make a relationship movie and love story that examines relationships and love... and the way we have technology be part of that story." 

Another first on "Her" is working with a new cinematographer, as his friend and regular D.P. Lance Accord was moving on to direct his own movie. This film is shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema ("Let the Right One In," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Fighter"). "he's amazing, gentle, he listens," he said. 

Jonze has learned a lot of his VFX savvy working on many music videos. "I learned that all these things are tools to capture a feeling," he says. As he edited "Her," "I wanted it to feel like an effortless flow of characters and stories." 

He made the robot short "I'm Here," the love story of two robots starring Andrew Garfield, as an antidote to all the painstaking, meticulous VFX work reanimating the faces in the long post-production process for "Where the Wild Things Are." "I wanted to make a movie that felt like falling in love in the early '80s," he said. 

During the audience Q & A Jonze added that on a film, costumes, production design are part of understanding the characters; "making sure it's alive is everything." Chemistry in casting is also "everything, because when you don't have it you can't manufacture it." On "Adaptation," for example, the way Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep admired each other was essential to making the audience care for them.

During every movie he spends weeks in rehearsals with the actors talking about movies, their lives, the things the movie is about. "It helps get everyone comfortable with each other." 

The finished Warner Bros. release will close the New York Film Festival next weekend before hitting theaters on November 20. I can't wait to see it. I am not alone: "Her" won a recent Indiewire awards poll asking people which fall film they weren't working on they would most like to see.  That was likely based on the trailer:

This article is related to: Her, Spike Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, Annapurna, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Festivals, Toronto International Film Festival, NYFF, New York Film Festival


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.