Sophie Monks Kaufman



Chris DeLorenzo

Spike Jonze: ‘I try to make everything I make personal’

LWLies gets up close and (too?) personal with the cherished Her director.

Spike Jonze is known for his colourful, melancholic, immaculately-edited directorial style which he formulated by making music videos for the likes of Bjork, The Beastie Boys and REM. He has long since graduated to the world of inventive narrative cinema. In Jonze’s previous key offerings (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Where the Wild Things Are) he toyed with the line between external realities and the depth of human imagination.

In Her, the voice in leading man Joaquin Phoenix’s head is artificial intelligence itself, making this film an ambitious exploration of the place where love meets future technology. When LWLies sat down to catch up with Jonze recently, we found the writer/director in a refreshingly candid mood.

LWLies: Rewatching Adaptation recently, I paused it to make coffee. While doing so I started having a conversation in my head with a man I am interested in. And then I joined the dots. Your films are about exactly that: the neurotic, fantastical voice in our heads. Is that a fair assessment?

Jonze: I’ve never thought about it like that but I love it. It’s more than fair, and it makes me aware of something I thought we all did anyways. I assumed we all live partially in our fantasy world or in the conversations we’re having in our head or the anxiety loops we get stuck in. Is that not true?

I would say so.

Well, at least there’s two of us then.

Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with somebody based purely on their perceived intelligence?

Of course, yeah. I don’t think there’s any definition, I mean there are societal definitions of love and relationships but those are limited by society and change. The fact that there’s not gay marriage right now is absurd. In 100 years it won’t create the bat of an eyelid. In the past there have been societies where gay relationships weren’t looked at any differently so a lot of it has to do with what forces in society want us to believe is a relationship or not a relationship. Harold and Maude is one of my favourite love stories. I love that movie. Is it wrong for this teenage boy to be in love with an 80-year-old woman? No, because it’s love.

Her seems very philosophical about love.

Philosophical in what way?

Amy Adams’ character says “Love is a socially accepted form of madness” and it seems Her is saying everyone who loves is mad, not just Theodore.

What did that make you think?

It made me wonder whether that was my interpretation or your belief. Do you think love is madness?

Yeah but I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative thing. It’s irrational, like insanity, but it’s part of being alive in the best possible way.

Conversations between Theodore and Samantha feel intimate even though she is just a voice. How did their interaction work on a technical level?

Initially a different actress, Samantha Morton, was playing Samantha. She was on set with us the entire time in a box in another room and spoke in Joaquin’s ear and he was in her ear. We didn’t shoot it like a special effects movie. We shot it like a love story between these two people who weren’t in the same room. So Samantha gave Joaquin everything to react to. Then in post-production we realised what Samantha and I had done wasn’t working for what the character needed so we ended up unfortunately and very painfully having to let Samantha go which was hard because she’s an old friend of mine and we’ve worked together before. I love her and we’ll work together again. She’s one of the best actresses in the world.

Did you call the character Samantha in tribute?

No, that was kind of a coincidence. Amy — Amy Adams’ character — is named Amy so that was a coincidence too. Or I’m psychic? But anyways, in post, we ended up having to make that change which wasn’t fun at all. And then we found Scarlett [Johansson].

How did you go about putting Scarlett into it all?

Months and months of recording. Nothing I do is straightforward. I don’t know how to paint so this metaphor might be horrible but, imagine
if you’re painting and trying to find the right colour. You add pale green then sit and watch it and you’re like, ‘This needs more shading’ and add this darker colour. Then you realise, ‘This colour’s too close to that colour’ so you have to darken the land to be darker than the ocean. You have to keep touching it and stepping back and touching it and stepping back. That’s what we do and that’s why our movies take a year to edit. I work very intimately with my editors Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen. We’re together 12 hours a day going through scenes and finessing and figuring out. We rewrite the dialogue all the time. That’s become part of editing, especially if you have a character that’s all voiceover.

So the immediacy between the characters is an illusion created by editing?

No because it wouldn’t work if Joaquin wasn’t connecting with Samantha on set to begin with and then six months later in a recording studio Scarlett was connecting to Joaquin. The connection is there. But all of filmmaking is a manipulation. As soon as you decide where to put the camera or where to cut out of a scene or to put a sound effect in the background that enhances a certain feeling. It’s manipulation but as long as it’s an honest manipulation. That’s my goal at least.

How do you ‘honestly manipulate’?

Through all of that, the movie’s finding itself and you’re finding it and I try to be open to it changing. But the thing I never waver about is what the movie’s about to me and the feeling I started with. Sometimes I just need to close my eyes and get quiet or close my eyes and go for a walk to remind myself, ‘What’s this scene about’? ‘What’s this moment about?’ ‘What’s this movie about?’ We might be in the middle of set with 100 extras and it’s really loud or we might have done a scene 50 times. I’ll just need to reconnect to what I started the movie with and why I’m doing it then I can always go back to exactly what the scene should be.

On that note, what is the movie about and why did you make it?

I don’t know if I can answer that! I guess maybe because I never answer that… And it’s usually not one thing. It’s many things. To me usually those are the most personal questions, like, if I was to answer them honestly they’d be too personal.

I love personal!

I’m sure you do! I do too! Of course I wanna ask you… you’re very revealing of yourself so I wanna just ask you more personal questions.

I thought if I was personally revealing then you might be personally revealing…

Yeah, that’s the hope as a journalist that you want that to happen.

It’s not just journalism. I write about films because they give life meaning.

I can tell! And I don’t think you’re being manipulative. I don’t think you’re insincere at all. I wasn’t saying that. And I really appreciate and can feel how sincere about everything you are… The story you were telling about what you thought as you made your coffee, I love that. I love that…

Could you give something like that back as a reciprocal thing?

I’ll try, I’ll try, it’s just a different thing. It’s not quite the same because… I don’t know if you…

Shall I steer things back to easier ground?

Yes, I want to be helpful! I guess I’ve always been private. I love making things and I love trying to find things and figure things out. I try to make everything I make personal but I’m not as comfortable or really as interested in revealing the stuff that happens outside of my work.

Understood. Going back to…

…But I would ask all the same questions if I were you so it’s not like you’re doing anything wrong.

Is it right that Her is inspired by the first meaningful interaction you had with a piece of technology?

Sort of. I saw a link to a website where you could IM with an artificial intelligent system, it might have been Alicebot. For the first 20 seconds I had this banter back and forth. I said, ‘Why are you so fat?’ And she was like, ‘Well that’s not very nice to say.’ And I was like, ‘Well, it’s true’ and she kept giving back to me and I was like ‘Wait a second!’ I had this buzz of her being funny and got a little excitement in the middle of my day. So that was an idea for a movie but it wasn’t really. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I thought about it again and started thinking about it as a relationship movie. That’s when it went from being like a paragraph that would sit on my hard drive forever to being a real thing that I could actually write about.

How did you scout Shanghai and LA as locations and decide how your future world would look?

The initial idea was to make a very warm, colourful soft world where everything just feels nice. Los Angeles can be really easy in a lot of ways because the weather’s always nice and there’s great food and the ocean and mountains are there and you go over to people’s houses
for barbecues. But in a world where everything feels like you should be happy and you’re still lonely, it hurts that much more. We’re creating this pop melancholy and that was sort of the premise for the look of the movie.

Her is dedicated to Harris Savides. How has he influenced you?

I’ve known him for a long time. When I first started making music videos, another director asked me to come onto a commercial to shoot some second unit and Harris was the DP and that was the first time I was ever on a job, ever had a walkie-talkie. Harris was warm. I was just some kid, like 22, and he was very unpretentious and welcoming and he always had the same spirit. I knew him for 20 years and he always had the same spirit. I got the most out of him the last time we worked together. It was two years ago and we did this video for Kanye West and Jay-Z. It was one of those last-minute things.

Kanye West called me and said ‘We wanna do this next week’ and I was focused on working on my script so I didn’t know. I talked to Harris and he was like, ‘Yeah, I think we could do it. It could be fun’. And he taught me this term called wu wei. It’s a Chinese term. Wu wei is basically the art of knowing when to take action and when not to take action, of knowing when to push and when not to push which is very Harris. He had such a vision without an ego. It’s a rare thing. Whenever he would push it wasn’t out of ego, it was fighting for the idea, the idea being this thing that doesn’t really have a voice of its own. He was very protective of the idea.

What is it about Arcade Fire that draws you to work with them repeatedly?

For one I just love their music. From their first record, ‘Funeral’, I felt some inherent aesthetic bond to how they were. In fact their first record was about childhood and I was writing about childhood. I wrote Where the Wild Things Are to ‘Funeral’ and ended up using ‘Wake Up’ in the trailer. As we were editing, I used it to cut to and it’s naturally part of the film’s music. Then on ‘Neon Bible’ I shot a bunch of their shows in a church and since then we really got to know each other a lot better. The way Win Butler writes is very cinematic and it’s also very emotional. Even though he’s coming from music and I’m coming from film, I think we both aspire to similar things.

Published 11 Feb 2014

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