Set in a stylized version of the not-too-distant future, where a very mainstream high-waisted pant and mustache revival appears in full bloom, Spike Jonze's new film, Her, revolves around the deepening relationship between a recently separated writer named Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and his new artificially intelligent operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore makes his living working for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, penning heartfelt letters for other people that are digitally produced to approximate the warm, personal effect of receiving a real handwritten letter from someone who actually cares about you. In loose flashbacks, we see scenes from his life with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), who has since filed for divorce, and watch as he—unsuccessfully—tries to move forward without the answers he so desperately seeks as to why their marriage fell apart. It's only the arrival of Samantha—who introduces herself, like most new software upgrades and installations, by asking him to tell her his preferences—that seems to awaken him, and Jonze sketches the quick evolution of their relationship almost like it's a long-distance phone romance-cum-metaphysical-exercise—except that Theodore lives in the material world (of George Harrison, not Madonna), and Samantha, who ostensibly just exists as code, is both everywhere and nowhere.
Despite the overarching conceit, though, Her is a film about technology only in the most literal sense. It's actually a movie much more concerned with notions of space, intimacy, and love, filled with voices coming out of devices that feel real and close, and, conversely, people who are physically present but feel worlds away, the question of what really constitutes the real thing always looming like a storm cloud over every human interaction.
Jonze worked off Charlie Kaufman's inventively twisted scripts on his first two films, Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), and collaborated on the screenplay for his third, an re-imagining of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (2009), with Dave Eggers. Her is his first full-fledged effort as a writer-director, and in keeping with his other movies, it has an off-kilter, fable-like quality to it. But for a filmmaker with such a strong (and great) affinity for absurdist humor, not to mention for coming off as a cipher himself, he very easily wears his heart on his sleeve. On some very basic level, Jonze is a skater and a poet who has worked with Meryl Streep, and those kinds of incongruous triangulating tent-poles are what very often make up the architecture of his movies (e.g., three people, one of them a puppeteer, become embroiled in a love triangle after finding a secret portal into John Malkovich's head; a writer writes a screenplay about a writer who is struggling to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief into a movie; a boy who is sent to his room without dinner finds refuge on an island of monsters who crown him king). There's an undeniable darkness that creeps and swirls beneath the colorful, breezy surfaces of Jonze's movies—in Her, it hovers around the fine line between love-as-devotion and love-as-delusion. But there is also a sort of unsuspecting optimism—that maybe, for example, deluding yourself is good, or important, or necessary, or the only way to go—and that, in the end, everyone will find a way to be okay or at least move on even if these kinds of quandaries of human experience never get answered or resolved.
Jonze started out as a photographer, shooting in the late '80s and early '90s for skate magazines (as well as Interview). He is, of course, also a prolific director of music videos and commercials (he had his own retrospective in 2009 at the Museum of Modern Art entitled "Spike JONZE: The First 80 Years"), and an occasional actor (David O. Russell's Three Kings, 1999; Martin Scorsese's latest, The Wolf of Wall Street), as well as a creative consigliere for Vice, and a producer on the Jackass franchise and its attendant offshoots.
Interestingly, Jonze, who real name isn't Spike Jonze (it's Adam Spiegel), shares his nom de guerre with Spike Jones, the bandleader of the '40s and '50s, who was known, among other things, for his satirical takes on popular favorites; one of his posthumous releases was even titled Spike Jones Is Murdering the Classics (1971). The extent to which that Spike Jones was operating in some overly self-conscious meta-capacity is unclear, but it's easy to imagine that he might have enjoyed this Spike Jonze's movies.
Nicole Holofcener recently spoke with the 44-year-old Jonze in Los Angeles.
NICOLE HOLOFCENER: I wrote down some questions for you. I'll read you some of them and you can tell me if you want to answer. Number one: are you an ass man?
SPIKE JONZE: Like a man who likes ass over breasts?
JONZE: I don't ... I don't know.
HOLOFCENER: Okay. I have more: How much money do you make? And do you shave your pubic hair?
JONZE: Wow, Nicole. These are great questions.
HOLOFCENER: I thought so. Four: Do you take antidepressants?
JONZE: These are all right to the core of the themes of the movie, too—especially the one about pubic hair.
HOLOFCENER: Totally. I have two more. Number five: Tell us in detail about a humiliating sexual experience. Number six: Do you ever wear makeup?
JONZE: Well, this all goes back to the one about the shaving of the pubic hair. If I answer that question, then that sort of answers all of them. And probably also explains some other things, too ...
HOLOFCENER: Everything will become so clear. You don't have to answer them now if you don't want to.
JONZE: Okay. I'll Twitter them to you.
HOLOFCENER: Oh, wait, I had two other questions. Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis?
JONZE: Why do I have to pick? They're both geniuses. Why does everything have to be, you know, hierarchied? Is that even a word, hierarchied?
HOLOFCENER: Because that's the way that the Academy Awards work. That's the paradigm. One more question: Marx Brothers or Three Stooges?
JONZE: I've got to say, I've probably seen a lot more of the Three Stooges than of the Marx Brothers. But I know that Charlie [Kaufman] loves the Marx Brothers, so that's probably the better answer.
HOLOFCENER: Totally. Charlie is very smart.
JONZE: Yeah, he's smart.
HOLOFCENER: I would encourage you to say the Marx Brothers, too.
JONZE: Even though I don't know their stuff that well?
JONZE: Okay ... [pause] Yeah, I would say that I prefer the Marx Brothers over the Three Stooges. I find their work incredibly strong, very funny, and to function on so many levels.
HOLOFCENER: It has inspired your career?
JONZE: It has inspired my career.
HOLOFCENER: So tell me about the role of technology in Her and your interest in it.
JONZE: For obvious reasons, every interviewer asks me about that, and, well, you've seen the movie—it definitely has a lot of ideas about technology and the way we live with technology, and the way technology helps us connect or not connect. But I think what I was really trying to write about was the way we long to connect with each other. I really tried to make more of a relationship movie—or a love story and a relationship movie in the context of right now.
HOLOFCENER: What's your own relationship with technology?
JONZE: It's nice.
HOLOFCENER: You really like all that stuff?
JONZE: I'm used to it. I mean, I definitely ... It's complicated, you know.
HOLOFCENER: Do you feel addicted to your phone?
JONZE: I definitely check my phone for texts a lot—like, "Did anyone text me? Is anyone thinking about me? Does anyone love me?" I have that sort of wrist action—you know, when you have your phone upside down on the table, and there's this little flip of the wrist you can do to look if there are any texts on the screen. It's a very specific wrist muscle that I think has only been developed in the last five or eight years.
HOLOFCENER: Some doctor should specialize in treating ailments related to it. They'd make a fortune.
JONZE: Yeah, I think people are just going to develop some sort of muscle injury. But, yeah, I definitely have that checking-the-texts thing. If I leave my phone in the car and go to dinner or something for a few hours, I'm very proud of myself.
HOLOFCENER: God ... That's so sad. [Jonze laughs] Do you think the world is a better place or a worse place because of these advances? Having seen your film, I also have very strong feelings myself. I would gather that you do, too.
JONZE: I have a lot of contradictory feelings about it. It's so complex, but I think maybe you saying that about me has more to do with your reaction to the film.
HOLOFCENER: Definitely. I came away with thinking, "I know how Spike feels."
JONZE: I think that the exciting thing so far has been that there have been many reactions to the film that are all contradictory.
HOLOFCENER: And you like that?
JONZE: Yeah. I'm sure you, too, as a filmmaker, hope that everyone has their own personal relationship with what you made.
HOLOFCENER: As long as they like it.
JONZE: If their personal reaction to it is totally unique and their own. But if they hate it, then is that not good?
HOLOFCENER: Then it's not valid. [both laugh] Talk a bit about working with Joaquin [Phoenix]. Did you rehearse with him?
JONZE: We rehearsed a lot. Not necessarily like rehearsal where we're acting out the scene, but rehearsal where we're just reading the script together and stopping and talking after each scene about what worked—or didn't work. It's a rehearsal that's more about both him understanding what my intention is, and me getting his reaction to the script and doing rewrites based on his comments—his gut instinct is so strong. So maybe he'll say, "This doesn't feel right," or "I don't know about that ..." I mean, he never says anything should be changed, but I can tell when he doesn't feel something or believe it, so I keep asking questions: "What did it feel like? What didn't feel right?" And he'll tell me what it feels like, and sometimes he has a suggestion on how to fix something, but usually not. Usually, he'll just say why it doesn't feel right.
HOLOFCENER: He doesn't rewrite himself.
JONZE: He doesn't rewrite it, but his intuition is so clear about when something in a scene feels forced or when it feels like we're missing something or when I've cheated that it becomes very clear what needs to be rewritten.
HOLOFCENER: His performance in Her killed me. I still think of his face out of nowhere sometimes.
JONZE: He really gave the movie so much heart.
HOLOFCENER: And when you shot the film, he was actually talking to Samantha [Morton], right?
JONZE: Yeah. [Jonze initially shot Her with Morton acting on set in the Samantha role, but decided to recast the part after principle photography wrapped, getting Scarlett Johansson to step in and reworking the film around Johansson's performance.]
HOLOFCENER: Did you have a similar process with Scarlett?
JONZE: Yes. Sometimes we recorded with Joaquin—we had a soundstage in L.A. and we did a lot of days. But you know my process. It's not simple. It's never like, "Okay, great, we got it." It's more like, "Hmmm ... Maybe we should go back and try that again," or "Maybe we should rewrite that again." Ren [Klyce], who does all of our sound design and music editing, always refers to "my process." I'm not sure that he means that in a positive way.
HOLOFCENER: Did Scarlett want to smack you?
JONZE: I want to smack me. Scarlett never smacked me, though. But I did definitely ask her to come back many, many times, and we did things many different ways. Sometimes she would record with Joaquin—he'd be in doing his parts off-camera for her. Then sometimes I'd do off-camera for her or sometimes she'd work to picture. It was many different processes.
HOLOFCENER: Her performance is so alive. Just like the actors in Where the Wild Things Are, she's very distinct in her presence. Even though we never actually see the actors in that film—or Scarlett in Her—it feels as though we have. It's a triumph, I think, to create that strong a character in just a voice. I wanted to ask you, though: Do you feel any connection between your movies and your music videos? Or is it all very compartmentalized in a way?
JONZE: I feel like they're probably the opposite of compartmentalized. Obviously, movies and music videos are different because they're different lengths, and in a movie, you have more time to explore an idea. But I feel like they're all the same really. Even if you're going somewhere heavy or sad or intense, it's playing in that sense of exploring an idea or exploring a feeling, and exploring some imaginative thing that excites you. I think the process is the same. I work with people I love who are really smart, who are talented, and who completely make me better, whether it's the actors or Eric Zumbrunnen, our editor, or Hoyte [Van Hoytema], our cinematographer, or Lance Acord, who shot all my movies up until this one, or the Beastie Boys or Charlie Kaufman. It's working with people that make me so much better. And I learn so much from having access to all of these ideas. You know, my job as a director is to encourage as many people to give their ideas as possible, and then to curate which ideas are actually right for what we're trying to do. So in that way, I think it's all the same.
HOLOFCENER: Was there a clear step between skateboarding and filmmaking?
JONZE: Yeah, I mean, looking back, it seems like how you end up somewhere always seems like it totally makes sense. But at the time, it's so completely random. I was taking skate photos and making skate videos, and Kim Gordon saw a skate video I did. Mark Gonzales, who is a skater, is a friend of mine, and we made this video called Blind—Video Days . It was with Mark, Jason Lee, Guy Mariano, Jordan Richter, and Rudy Johnson. And after a Sonic Youth show one night, Mark gave it to the band in the parking lot.
HOLOFCENER: Why them?
JONZE: Well, probably because he had it in his car, and he just saw the band and really liked them.
HOLOFCENER: "There is someone famous—let's give them this skateboard video."
JONZE: Who knows with Mark? You know, the fact is that he probably just had it in his pocket. That's the way Mark is. So then they saw this video and Kim called. She left a message at my house. I was living in Torrance with my friend, Megan Baltimore, who you met, and there was a message on our answering machine. This was when I was 22 or something, so it was pretty radical to get a message from Kim Gordon, saying, "Hey, we want you to come work on this music video we're doing." So I called her back and talked to her, and she introduced me to Tamra Davis, who at that point had just started doing movies, but she was a huge music-video director before that. She'd done all of these Tone-Loc and Young MC and Sonic Youth videos. So Tamra was directing the ["100%"] video for Sonic Youth and just asked me to shoot some skateboarding for it. They asked Jason Lee to be in it, too. It was the first time Jason had acted, actually.
HOLOFCENER: And the first time really you're directing professionally.
WAS REALLY TRYING TO WRITE ABOUT THE WAY WE LONG TO CONNECT WITH EACH OTHER. I REALLY TRIED TO MAKE MORE OF A RELATIONSHIP MOVIE. —Spike Jonze
JONZE: The first time I'd ever held a film camera. I'd only shot video at that point. So Tamra basically just let me hang out with her for three weeks as she prepped this video, and I got sort of a crash course in how to make a music video from her. She was like, "This is location scouting, this is casting, this is a cinematographer ..." We worked with this great cinematographer, Michael Spiller, who she had worked with on a bunch of stuff, and he let me use this 16-millimeter film camera. He showed me how to use it, and I shot Guy and Jason skating. At that point, when Tamra made videos, she would always rent an edit system, have it dropped off at her house, and edit herself. But she was working on a movie at the time, Guncrazy , and she was busy prepping, so she said, "Hey, if you want to edit, then you can just come over every day and I'll let you in and you can edit." So I went over to her house every morning, edited all day, and then showed her what I'd done and she'd give me notes. With the whole thing from the beginning to the end, she gave me a master class in music videos.
HOLOFCENER: So if not for Mark, you might be working at Nordstrom or something like that?
JONZE: Yes, exactly.
HOLOFCENER: You can credit him for giving you your career?
JONZE: Yes. Mark, Kim, and Tamra.
HOLOFCENER: Tell me about the scenes in Her with Rooney Mara. Were they scripted? How you show Theodore and Catherine characters falling in love with each other is, again, very distinct and powerful, which is why I'm asking.
JONZE: Well, Joaquin's character is going through a divorce, so there are a number of flashbacks to his relationship with his ex-wife, Catherine, who is played by Rooney. So I wrote about 20 scenes that sort of depicted very different and very specific small moments in a relationship. I wrote out what the scenes were about, what the characters were talking about. I didn't write specific dialogue, though. It kind of was inspired by the way Terrence Malick works, or at least the stories we've heard about how he works. So it was sort of about showing up on set and giving a scene—an intention of what a moment is about—and letting the actors go and find it.
HOLOFCENER: Were these two actors comfortable with that much freedom?
JONZE: Yeah. Joaquin and Rooney were really good in that kind of situation.
HOLOFCENER: Because some actors might freeze.
JONZE: We talked a lot about it in advance and they were really open to it. On those days, we would be in a location like their house, and we'd have nobody in there except Hoyte, who was operating the camera, and our boom operator, and myself sitting next to the camera. There was no wardrobe, no hair, no script supervisor—nobody else. So we just had this whole day where all the crew was out on the street around the corner, and we could go wherever we wanted and the camera could just wander wherever the actors went. In the middle of the scene, I'd say, "Let's go to the backyard now. Chase her out of the house." So it was this very loose thing. We knew that we didn't need to cover the scenes in a traditional way. We didn't have two pages of dialogue that we needed to work. We needed to just get these moments that were alive, whether it was a little, sweet moment where he's distracted while he's working and she wants his attention or a moment where it's a heavy fight or a moment where they're just sharing their work with each other. We would just make it up.
HOLOFCENER: Rooney has such limited screen time, but it really resonates. She's such a huge presence in the movie and in his inner world.
JONZE: I think a lot of it just had to do with casting. Rooney has a presence that's really powerful. I definitely knew she was a good actor, but I don't think I knew how great of an actor she is. She's incredible to direct—she's able to go anywhere. She just has such precision and emotional honesty, which sometimes don't go hand-and-hand.
HOLOFCENER: In other scenes and with other actors in the movie, was there improvisation?
JONZE: Those were the most improvised scenes. Other than that, there'd be little moments here and there—like, if a scene was supposed to be playful, we might improvise things and let it be open and see what happens. I don't know if you do this on set—and I'm curious, actually, if you do because when I got to work with David Russell on Three Kings , one of the things I noticed was how willing to throw out his dialogue he was. Not the meat of it, but if somebody came up with an idea, he would rewrite dialogue and throw it at you all the time during a scene. He would be like, "Here—do this." I wasn't as loose and as radical with that as he was. But I definitely was inspired by that.
HOLOFCENER: I do a bit of it more with certain actors than others. For instance, James Gandolfini—I don't know if you had this experience, but sometimes he was really comfortable with freedom, and I would say, "Add a line if you want and make it your own. If something feels wrong, play with it." And he would. Sometimes he would love it, and then make the scene so much better, add so many things. But sometimes he had enormous discomfort and looked at me like, "Hey, you're the writer. You tell me what to say." Of course, Catherine Keener, as I'm sure you know, loves to improvise. So it's funny when you have different actors who have different methods.
JONZE: What about Julia [Louis-Dreyfus]? Did she like to improvise?
HOLOFCENER: Julia was very comfortable improvising—and she's hilarious, so it was kind of a free for all in the funny department. I took anything that was funny—as anyone should. So how has your relationship with directing changed or evolved as you've gotten to be so fucking old?
JONZE: I know. So old ... And so tired. I think I've probably just gotten ...
JONZE: Probably better, but more comfortable with and intuitive about where to put the camera maybe.
HOLOFCENER: Was that something that you didn't feel that comfortable with early on?
JONZE: I mean, I came from photography and shooting skate videos, so I felt really comfortable with moving the camera and composition. But in terms of walking into a scene, watching actors rehearse, and adjusting the blocking and breaking it down for where to put the camera—I think that was a pretty abstract thing for me.
HOLOFCENER: I still find it hard. Do you work it out with the DP before you go to the set with the actors?
JONZE: Half and half. Usually, we have a pretty good idea in terms of when we're location scouting and prepping. Me and Hoyte would sit in the locations in pre-production and shoot a lot of photo storyboards. We would walk around and have somebody like Thomas [Patrick Smith], our first AD, sit in for Joaquin and take a lot of photos of each other finding shots for the scene.
HOLOFCENER: Don't you love those photos? I have so many videos of the AD and the DP on Enough Said acting things out—like, the gaffer playing Julia's part. Everyone joins in.
JONZE: So you do that, too?
HOLOFCENER: Yeah, yeah.
JONZE: I was going to ask you about James Gandolfini. I think I meant to ask you this after I saw Enough Said, but the scene where his character ends the relationship with Julia's character—how much of that was improvised?
HOLOFCENER: A fair amount. That was the most improvising that he did.
JONZE: That scene is so heartbreaking. He's so good in it.
HOLOFCENER: Really the only lines that were not written are the most powerful ones, which were two of them. It's when he says, "You broke my heart and I'm too old for that shit," and when he says, "You made me look like an idiot in front of my daughter."
JONZE: He improvised those?
HOLOFCENER: Yes. I think those two lines really brought him to a much more emotional place. He was amazing to work with.
JONZE: When I worked with him on Where the Wild Things Are, we shot the whole voice part before we went to Australia and did the movie. We had everybody together, and he was just sort of the force of nature that drove those scenes. When he was in a good mood, everybody in the room was in a good mood. And when he was in a heavy mood, everybody would be kind of heavy and quiet—he just had that kind of power. He could emanate whatever he was feeling just by being. He had that kind of charisma. Whatever he was feeling, you were going to feel it. He was this unstable, mercurial force, and everybody rode on the ocean of his mood.
HOLOFCENER: Before we go, I just want to mention how much I love Amy Adams in Her. I've never seen her do this kind of part, this kind of character. [Adams plays Theodore's friend from college and the only real, live human woman besides Catherine that he has extended contact with in the movie.]
JONZE: She's amazing. It's funny because I could see you guys hitting it off so well. I could see her fitting into one of your movies so easily.
HOLOFCENER: I felt that even more after seeing your movie. I've met her, and I really like her, so maybe it will happen.
JONZE: It'll happen. We're putting it in motion.
HOLOFCENER: I hope she reads this. Hi, Amy.
JONZE: Hi, Amy—and thanks for doing Nicole's movie in the future.
NICOLE HOLOFCENER IS THE WRITER AND DIRECTOR OF WALKING AND TALKING (1996), LOVELY & AMAZING (2001), FRIENDS WITH MONEY (2006), AND MOST RECENTLY, ENOUGH SAID.
VEN IF YOU'RE GOING SOMEWHERE HEAVY OR SAD OR INTENSE, IT'S PLAYING IN THAT SENSE OF EXPLORING SOME IMAGINATIVE THING THAT EXCITES YOU.— Spike Jonze