He’s the man behind the playfully inventive leftfield classics Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, as well as iconic music videos for the Beastie Boys, Björk, Weezer and Kanye West. But even a man as evidently talented as Spike Jonze http://www.clashmusic.com/tags/spike-jonze suffers the occasional lapse in confidence.
In Jonze’s new movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely soul drifting through a near-future Los Angeles with little connection with the rest of the city’s population. After the breakdown of a relationship, his bond with an intuitive, highly advanced operating system named Samantha grows into a full romantic relationship in which her artificial intelligence flourishes into something palpably real.
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Her, official trailer
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Although Phoenix’s role sees him interact with a cast including Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde, he mostly plays off Samantha – depicted solely by the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Asked about the challenges that such an unconventional performance entails for director and actor alike, Jonze explains: “I think he’s got such a rich imagination that it was like, ‘Oh, this is what the reality is.’ Also, good actors are good listeners, and he just listened. I think any great actor is a true listener. I think that was key.”
Is it a case of being able to rely on your intuition?
“Yeah, I guess that’s true, but I also wouldn’t want to make it sound like it was easy at all, because I think that’s misleading. It wasn’t easy and we don’t know what we’re doing. Even though I’ve made three movies before (the third being 2009’s Where The Wild Things Are) and Joaquin’s been in other movies before, you never know if something’s going to work. You kind of have an instinct that it’s working, but ultimately you have to have a blindness to that instinct, you just have to trust it. There are definitely moments in the day where you’re like, holy f*ck, is this going to work?”
To an outsider, it sounds unlikely that two towering talents could feel that way. On reflection, however, it must be an innate part of mankind’s emotions regarding the creative process. With the resources invested in a project and the sheer time it takes to complete a film such as this, it must be inevitable to experience such wavering emotions. Ultimately, says Jonze, it’s a process that combines a feeling of stress with the awareness that experience will eventually triumph.
“Knowing that I’m with my friends and we’ve figured how to get out of it before and trusting and hoping that we’ll figure how to get out of it again gives me some piece of mind,” he summarises, adding that the editing process drifts between waves of uncertainty and encouraging breakthroughs. Evidently it worked, as Her captures the intricate conceptual powers of his first two films while also delivering a more emotionally transcendent experience.
During the course of our interview, Jonze admits to feeling a little under the weather – “My brain is working at a quarter of the speed it normally works at.” Regardless, his speech still flows with an immediate intelligence, as with his explanation of this futuristic vision of Los Angeles – a near utopian environment to live in, which is undermined and contrasts with the feeling that its citizens are disconnected from each other, from intimacy and ultimately from love.
“The idea was to create a heightened version of what the world is already like. The world keeps getting nicer, in a way where everything is getting more comfortable and easier through design and technology. Yet I think there’s still loneliness and isolation. To create a world like that, where everything is seemingly neat but there’s still a longing… it would hurt in a certain way or a particular way, or maybe hurt even more so.”
That’s precisely what Theodore experiences. If his surroundings are so ideal, why can’t his emotions be too? His job – as a writer of highly personal letters for those unable, unwilling or simply too time-poor to do so themselves – demonstrates that he has the skills to achieve such a connection. Not that Jonze agrees with Clash’s observation that such an industry would be cynical.
“I guess I did think that was funny on one level, that you would outsource something so intimate. But I think ‘cynical’ prevents it from being other things. I don’t see things in black and white, or I try not to at least. I like writing things and making things that have conflicting intentions, where I kinda see things both ways and make something that envisions both contradictory feelings. Something like that, for example, yes there’s something funny about it, but there’s also something very genuine about it at the same time. His ability to connect with these people is very sincere and genuine.”
Her straddles two seemingly disparate elements. On one hand, it’s set in a world in which mankind’s dependence on technology is becoming borderline unhealthy. Says Jonze: “I didn’t make the film as a message film, or even as a social commentary or a social satire. I was trying to explore our relationship with technology in the modern world and more so our relationship with each other and our need to connect and our inability to connect.”
There’s that, and the fact that, at heart, Her is a romantic comedy. “I think that’s fine,” he says. “Being John Malkovich and Adaptation would technically be on the comedy shelf at the DVD store, but they’re more than that to me. I’m not trying to make something for the purpose of fitting into any box, but if that helps someone connect to it or digest it or if that’s how they feel about it, that’s not my business.”
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Arcade Fire, ‘The Suburbs’
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The film is supported by a score written and performed by Arcade Fire. Jonze has worked with the Canadian band before, directing the video for their track ‘The Suburbs’ and collaborating with them at 2013’s first-ever YouTube Music Awards.
“I think it was very clear from the beginning that I didn’t want to have an electronic soundtrack, that I didn’t want it to be synths. I did want it to be handmade, but I wanted to feel like there was an electricity to it,” says Jonze, noting the very specific nature of his requirements.
“Arcade Fire started writing from the script, and then we started sending them footage and photos… just trying not to get them stuck on scoring any scenes, but really just freeing them to write thematically and to write moods and pieces. They sent so many tracks it was amazing. Even on set we’d use some of them to play back just to imbue the set with some feeling. It really was a back-and-forth process where the music was part of the making of the film.”
The film is a leap beyond the initial news reports, which Jonze notes were often, approximately, “man falls in love with a Siri device”.
“I think that is probably pretty misleading until you see the trailer and the feel of it and tone of it, and see that Samantha is a very compelling, fully developed being,” asserts Jonze. “Their relationship is hopefully a very full and intimate and romantic one.”
That connection – together with the strength of the themes, the music and the rich humour – is reason enough to fall in love with Her.
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Words: Ben Hopkins
Spike with sunglasses photo: Adam Speigel
Her opens in British cinemas on February 14th. So grab a date, why don’t you?
This article originally appeared in issue 92 of Clash magazine. Details.