Director Spike Jonze on location for Her. Photo: Sam Zhu / Warner Bros. Pictures
Spike Jonze's career has bridged the movie and music biz, his work running the gamut from music videos to commercials, film and television. His feature directorial debut, Being John Malkovich, had its North American premiere at the 1999 New York Film Festival, going on to pick up three Oscar nominations including one for Best Director. More Academy Award nominations came a few years later with Adaptation, plus a win in the Best Supporting Actor category for Chris Cooper, and Jonze took on the art of the blockbuster with Where the Wild Things Are in 2009.
His latest film, Her, stars Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson and will have its World Premiere as the Closing Night Gala Presentation of the 51st New York Film Festival, which runs from September 27 – October 13. It recalls the sci-fi and comedic elements of Malkovich in its story of a lonely writer who develops a connection to his new "advanced operating system." After initiating it, Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) meets Samantha (Scarlett), a bright, female voice who is insightful, sensitive, and even funny. Their needs and desires grow together, deepening their bond.
FilmLinc Daily spoke to Spike Jonze ahead of Thursday's announcement that Her will close the upcoming NYFF. In the conversation, he touts the film's feminine nature, the challenges of personalizing the relationship of the two main characters, and how he designed his own version of a perfect, comfortable future set in L.A. complete with a sprawling subway system.
FilmLinc Daily: It has been a little while since your last narrative, Where The Wild Things Are. What inspired you to write Her and what might it have to say about how relationships are formed today?
Spike Jonze: What did inspire this… There are so many different aspects to it. There are all these conceptual science fiction areas to the film. Obviously technology has become such a big presence in our lives and, I definitely know, in my life. I think of how much of my daily interaction is with and through technology... and it's an emotional experience too. You know, you get a buzz when getting texts: "Oh, someone's thinking about me."
The movie has all these high-concept ideas, but it is nevertheless mostly a relationship movie. It's about love and our need to connect and our [method] of connecting. But, at its heart, it is a relationship movie.
FD: I saw the trailer and, of course, heard the unmistakable voice of Scarlett Johansson coming from the operating system and Joaquin Phoenix's character reacting to her and forming a relationship, of sorts. How did you work with them to pull off this unique arrangement?
SJ: We tried to write it with each person's wants, needs, and fears that they bring into their relationship, as we all tend to do. There's a certain set of differences and limitations because of their circumstances as you will see in the movie.
FD: The trailer appears to show a good amount of Los Angeles. Is the city a central element in telling the story?
SJ: Los Angeles is seen in our future version of itself. Early on we decided not to consider all the aspects of what things will actually look like in the future, as much as what we wanted "our future" to look like. L.A. was important for us because we tried to make a future that is very comfortable and an easy place to live in, and that's exactly what L.A. is like.
In our future we have an incredible subway system in L.A., so we suspended disbelief a bit. The weather is always nice and there's, of course, the ocean and the mountains and the food is always great. There's a comfort to our future and this movie plays so that everything reflects that [possibility].
I think the world is getting that way, actually. Design is a big part of the world in a way it wasn't 20 years ago. There's great food everywhere and even McDonald's uses nice wood now. And everything's just nicer. We tried to make a more comfortable L.A. that's easy and warm. Despite all of that, though, you can still feel isolated and long for connection.
Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's Her. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
FD: After you decided how you wanted "your future" to look, what were some of the challenges you faced in telling this story?
SJ: The biggest challenge is that it's a love story in which one of the characters isn't on-screen. To feel their connection and love for each other, which has everything to do with Joaquin and Scarlett, was the biggest challenge. So to give their relationship its due and feel what they're feeling was the biggest obstacle.
One interesting thing... It was the first time I worked with our cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and he brought a lot to it. He's also Dutch and brought a European touch to the film.
FD: How so?
SJ: I showed it to someone recently and their response I took as a very high compliment. The person said that it felt very feminine—a woman's film made by a man. I was very excited about that. When I first met Hoyte, one of the first things I liked about him was that he has a very feminine sensibility about him in terms of the sensitivity that he brings to his work. And that's one of the reasons I hired him. I wanted the film to feel feminine. And then my friend said that it was feminine and that really was a high compliment.
Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's Her. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
FD: You return to doing short films, videos and documentaries between your feature films, are they therapeutic or somehow inform you on your subsequent big projects?
SJ: I couldn't name specifically how one film follows another, but there is definitely some inspiration there. After Where The Wild Things Are, which was this big, long five-year project, I spent a year making small things. I wanted to do like a "sketch" and do something in just a month. The ideas didn't come directly out of Where The Wild Things Are, but the inspiration was definitely there. I did a short film with Kanye West over a weekend and then later did a short film about a robot love story and then a stop-motion animated film with friends in Paris. There were [many] of these short films... that I think were more of a reaction to doing that five-year project.
FD: Do you have any plans to do more docs down the line?
SJ: I don't know what I'm going to do now, honestly, but that's in a good way.
FD: And finally, congratulations on Her being selected as the Closing Night film of the New York Film Festival. We're excited to see it and have you here.
SJ: I’m very excited that it’s a premiere in the city. The New York Film Festival is where we premiered our first movie and that’s really special. It was our first U.S. premiere of Being John Malkovich and we had all our friends there and it feels so nice to come back to NYFF.
Read more about Spike Jonze's Her in our announcement of the Closing Night of the 51st New York Film Festival.