Spike Jonze hopes the high-tech love story of Her will make you cry
Spike Jonze is earnest, calm, thoughtful, artistic, lonely, private and a bunch of other things that I don’t want from a trickster. From the skate-punk photographer who pretended he was the leader of a group of awful local breakdancers, who co-produces the Jackass movies, who is the creative director of the gonzo-bro news brand Vice, who made the greatest music videos of all time, who was a brilliant actor in Three Kings before deciding he was too cool for acting, who directed the weirdness that is Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, who fought bitterly with his studio to turn Where the Wild Things Are into a kid’s movie so true to what it feels like to be a kid that kids didn’t see it and who shares a name with the novelty-song big-band leader of the 1940s–I want a little bit of edge. He’s so kind that when I complain about how much of a letdown he is, he offers to stab me. “Do we have any large butcher knives or anything like that?” he asks his assistant. A few minutes later, he’s lifting my shirt, running the blade near my stomach, and instead of fear, all I’m thinking is that Jonze is going to think I’m fat. “What if I sneezed? What if I burped? What if I hiccupped?” he asks, just as disappointed by his own softness as I am.
He means well. After our long, earnest talk, Jonze agreed to run a therapy session for my lovely wife and me after we saw his new film, Her. He agreed to screen it for a short list of people whose opinions he values–Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Kanye West, Louis CK, George W. Bush–and let me interview them afterward. He agreed to write half this article, based on his perspective of our conversation. (“i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms,” he emailed me.) He bailed on all those things, possibly because he is exhausted from finishing and promoting his movie. But since I’m the only one giving his perspective, I get to posit a different theory: Spike Jonze is earnest. Spike Jonze is tired of gimmicks. Spike Jonze has become Adam Spiegel, the child of upper-class suburbanites from Bethesda, Md.
Her sounds like another meta trickster mind job–a recently divorced guy (Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer’s talking, artificial-intelligence-enabled operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) fall in love. But as the subtitle states, it’s not a sci-fi movie; it’s a “Spike Jonze Love Story”–though I believe it’s an Adam Spiegel love story. The high-concept premise fades far quicker than those in Jonze’s previous movies, and the small questions about technology are subsumed by big questions about loneliness. The film, which came out in limited release in December and opens nationwide on Jan. 10, was named Best Picture of 2013 by the National Board of Review and tied for first with Gravity on the Los Angeles Film Critics Association list. The Golden Globes, in a move that seems like a publicity stunt for the film, decided that Johansson’s disembodied voice was ineligible for a Best Supporting Actress award.
Like every other movie Jonze has made, Her is about loneliness and the nervous, tiny grasps we make to evade it. Because I thought I was interviewing Jonze and not Spiegel, who is divorced with no kids, I may have asked some questions that were more hurtful than I should have. Like if a man with so many projects and so many friends still has time to feel lonely. (“Yeah, I do,” he says in his gentle, slow, soft, slightly high-pitched voice, which makes him sound more like a small boy than a 44-year-old man.) And why the movie has so much baby fever–a pregnancy fetish, a video game called Perfect Mom, a hilarious, obscenity-spewing alien child video-game character voiced by Jonze that he plans to turn into a phone app–to which he says, “Well, there are a lot of kids in the world. People seem to keep having them.” And whether he asked Siri, the iPhone’s primitive version of the character Johansson plays, if she’d seen his movie:
Jonze: I hope she did.
Me: [To Siri] Have you seen the movie Her yet?
Siri: I did not.
Me: [To Jonze] How does that feel?
Jonze: It hurts. [To Siri] Why not?
Siri: Why not what?
Jonze: Never mind, Siri. [To me] Had you asked her that already?
Jonze: So you wanted to see my feelings hurt?
No. I wanted to be the trickster, to rile him up, to see him yell at Siri or beg her or anything other than just be sad in his small-boy voice.
The earnestness makes him seem relaxed, but Jonze can be tenacious and exacting: he has made only four movies in 15 years. This is the first one he has written on his own, having learned from Dave Eggers when they sat in a room together writing Where the Wild Things Are to accept imperfection, keep writing and go back later to fix it. But he will fix it. Cutting scenes is still painful for Jonze, so he sent a long version of the movie to the speedy Steven Soderbergh, who in just 24 hours sent back a 90-minute version that snapped Jonze out of his stasis. Jonze has a coterie of coolness he depends on, having talked through much of the story with his friend American Hustle director David O. Russell and shared it in sweat-soaked installments with clothing designer Humberto Leon during walks home from kung fu class in Tribeca. He also got input from director David Fincher (who lent him office space before he got an office), Charlie Kaufman (with whom he collaborated on Adaptation and Being John Malkovich) and Miranda July (a fellow eccentric filmmaker and writer).
He won’t discuss earlier versions of his ideas (Chris Cooper shot some kind of part in Her), but there’s one he can’t hide: He shot all of Her with Samantha Morton as the operating system. And Morton didn’t do it in voice-over but on the set, in real time, from a very uncomfortable-looking 4-by-4 black plywood box. He scrapped all that and rewrote and reshot the part, hoping to find an unknown actress or at least one willing to do the role uncredited so the audience wouldn’t picture anyone specific. But then he liked Johansson, who brings an earthy humanness to the operating system.
“He designed the whole thing to have a minimal crew to have it feel intimate and alone,” says Phoenix. “He talks very quietly. It’s almost whispering, some of the notes or thoughts he has. Each word is chosen carefully. It makes it feel so personal and important.” Phoenix adds that Jonze combines touchy-feely with demanding in a way he’d never seen before: “He will home in on the smallest details and work something over and over. He’s very certain of what he wants.”
Before she worked with him, Amy Adams, who plays Phoenix’s longtime friend in the film, saw Jonze as the kid at the cool table. “I always thought he was that brand of cool that I could never attain,” she says. “I was afraid I was going to have to say the right thing. But he’s much more interested in truth. Spike and I sat down and talked about my personal experience and how I deal with relationships. The experience of working with Spike made me look at myself and how I operated in my own relationship. That’s what people are going to experience watching Her–really being open and available. Not keeping your true self a secret from your partner.”
But I’m not here for a true self. I’m here for a story. So Jonze does do this: He takes me through the huge Hollywood Hills house where he spent a year shooting and editing Her–photo booth, quotes on papers taped to walls, large butcher knives, neighbors kicking them out since Larry Ellison’s producer daughter really shouldn’t have put her office in a neighborhood full of multimillion-dollar houses–and says, “I’m going to make this really hard on you. There are six questions I’ve answered so many times that you can’t ask any of those. If you ask any questions that you already know the answer to, I’m not going to answer any of those either.” So we talk about the philosopher Alan Watts, whose notion that a false belief in permanence–say, trying to be the same person you were the day before–causes pain is a key tenet of the film. It is, of course, an incredibly lonely notion, that we don’t even have a yesterday self to relate to.
When Jonze says, perhaps playfully, that George W. Bush is a person whose opinion of Her he’d be curious about, I discover that he’s unaware of Bush’s paintings. So I get Siri to show him some of Bush’s work. “His dog locked out of the White House? How symbolic. How heavy. That’s lonely. I wonder if he’s lonely,” Jonze says, examining the dog painting. “He’s got an interesting mind. That’s actually kind of cool. That’s kind of interesting.” Yes, but maybe not as interesting as Spike Jonze liking Bush’s artwork.
I ask Jonze about the minute of dark screen in Her, which I just spoiled for you. It occurs during a sex scene between man and operating system, which, despite my description, is not at all funny. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the screen go black for that long, maybe more than a minute, and I’m sitting there with my friend with nothing to look at, uncomfortable, listening to Johansson do a When Harry Met Sally that would have really freaked out Katz’s Deli. The blackout wasn’t written in the script but was added during editing. “I don’t think any of us knew until we watched it with the audience fully what it would be,” Jonze says. “I got really giddy when it got to that part.” It’s like a little bit of the trickster emerged. Then he went back to his veggie burrito and wondered if his pescatarianism is based on a lame moral justification that fish are dumb.
I ask him about the film’s vision of the near future. It’s the most believable depiction of the future I’ve seen in a movie. No stupid white genderless unitards. Instead, it’s Steve Jobs’ reimagining of hipsterdom, with a 1920s revival of mustaches, superhigh-waisted pants, bespoke furniture and names like Theodore. When a set designer asked Jonze if the film is set in a dystopia or a utopia, he paused before going with the latter. But that’s not quite right. It’s pleasant, and people are unfailingly nice. But they’re disconnected, talking to their earpieces, looking at screens and having conversations with anonymous Internet users. It’s shot in sunny Los Angeles with gleaming new Shanghai-style construction superimposed on downtown. Too kind to enforce his own rule about lazy questions, Jonze says, “Everything is getting nicer every year–all the design, the food, the coffee. Everything is easy now. You don’t get lost anymore. It’s that idea of a utopian future that is also full of isolation and loneliness in all this niceness.”
And then Spiegel asks me a question. He wants to know if I cried when I saw the movie. I didn’t, which I feel bad about. I ask him what part he was hoping I cried at. “Depending on what’s going on in someone’s relationship, there’s different points,” he says. “Like the divorce papers.” My arms, I appreciate for the first time in my life, are indeed long. As I exit this huge, quiet house, sad to leave him, unable to tell him I can’t accept the cool Her hoodie the skateboard company he co-owns has designed, I go to use my long arms to text my wife that I’m coming home. Instead, I just use them to drive home.
This appears in the January 20, 2014 issue of TIME.