Movie Interviews
2:20 pm
Mon December 16, 2013

Spike Jonze Opens His Heart For 'Her'

Originally published on Mon December 16, 2013 6:49 pm

Writer-director Spike Jonze's latest movie, called simply Her, is about a lonely man who falls in love ... with his operating system. The two lovers — Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) — never meet face to face. In fact Samantha has no face, not even an avatar.

Like Jonze's earlier films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Her is odd and ambitious. But despite the high concept, Jonze insists his movie is really just an old-fashioned love story. He spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about the unique challenges of creating a film where one of the two main characters is just a voice, as well as about the wide range of reactions people have had to the story. And he pushed back at one of Cornish's questions about the movie's larger themes.

"This movie is, to me, so emotional," Jonze says. "When you're asking these questions that are more intellectual ... that's only half the story. And I think you're editing half of your reaction out."


Interview Highlights

On filming the interactions between Theodore and Samantha

Originally, on set, we'd cast Samantha Morton as that character. So she was with us on set every day, and she was in [Joaquin Phoenix's] ear, and he was in her ear. And she was in another room, and they were just speak-talking. And so a lot of what he did was listen to her.

Then in post-production we realized that what Samantha and I had done together wasn't what the character needed, or what the movie needed. And so at that point we recast. And then, although Samantha's not in the movie ... her DNA is still really in the film, because she's so much a part of Joaquin's performance. But in post, when Scarlett came on, we basically re-created that same intimacy that we had on set, with Scarlett in the sound studio.

On Scarlett Johansson's work voicing Samantha

I think she thought it was going to be, "Oh OK, yeah I'd love to this, it'd be fun to come do a voice-over." And I think as we started talking about it, one of the things I explained to her was that this character is new to the world, and hasn't yet learned her fears and insecurities. And I think that's when Scarlett was like, "Oh OK, this is, this is going to be hard," and that it is a two-hander. It is that kind of movie where you have to be moved and affected and fall in love with both characters for it to work as a love story.

On what the film says about our relationship to technology

I think there's not a simple answer to it, and the movie tries to — you know, the movie is my attempt at asking those questions. ... [It] touches on all of the themes that you're talking about in terms of the way we live in our modern life right now. But also it's writing about something that I think has maybe always been here, which is our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting. And that sort of tension has always been there. So I think, you know, where we're at right now has a particular set of challenges, but what I'm talking about has probably existed as long as we've existed.

On whether the film is meant to feel melancholy, or romantic, or ...

I think the other thing that's been really exciting about it is that as I've talked to people, the variety of reactions for what the movie's about is wide. You know, like some people find it incredibly romantic, some people find it incredibly sad or melancholy, or some people find it creepy, some people find it hopeful.

That makes me really happy to hear, you know, because to me it's everything. It's all these different things I'm thinking about, and a lot of them are contradictory. And I like hearing what it is to you.

On how his personal experiences with love influenced the film

That's what I've been thinking about. I think I tried to write about what I was thinking about. [I was] writing about, you know, the questions we were talking about in terms of the way we live with technology right now, but more so writing about trying to understand relationships and myself in relationships. Trying to make sense of it all.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish.

And this is Samantha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HER")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (as Samantha) Hello, I'm here.

CORNISH: She's the operating system at the center of the new movie, "Her," by writer-director Spike Jonze. It's about a lonely man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with his computer. You may recognize the voice. It's Scarlett Johansson. As with Jonze's earlier films, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," "Her" is odd and ambitious. Despite the futuristic, high concept, Spike Jonze insists his movie is really just an old-fashioned love story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HER")

JOHANSSON: (as Samantha) So what was it like, being married?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (as Theodore Twombly) Well, that's hard for sure. But there's something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody.

CORNISH: In the film, these two lovers never meet face-to-face. Samantha has no face, not even an avatar. So I asked Spike Jonze, what was that like for the actors?

SPIKE JONZE: Originally, on set, we'd cast Samantha Morton as that character. And so she was with us on set every day, and she was in his ear, and he was in her ear. And she was in another room, and they were just speak-talking. And so a lot of what he did was listen to her. And then in post-production, we realized that what Samantha and I had done together wasn't what the character needed or what the movie needed. And so at that point we recast.

And then, although Samantha's not in the movie, her voice isn't anywhere, Samantha Morton - her DNA is still really in the film because she's so much a part of Joaquin's performance. But in post, when Scarlett came on, we basically recreated that same intimacy that we had on set with Scarlett in the sound studio.

CORNISH: So after most of the filming was done, Scarlett Johansson was doing a kind of voice-over work.

JONZE: I think that's what she thought it was going to be.

(LAUGHTER)

JONZE: I think she thought it was going to be, oh, OK. Yeah. I'd love to do this. It'd be fun to come do a voice-over. And I think as we started talking about it, one of the things I explained to her was that this character is new to the world and hasn't yet learned her fears and insecurities. And I think that's when Scarlett was like, oh, OK, this is going to be hard, and that it is a two-hander. And, you know, it's that kind of movie where you have to be moved and affected and fall in love with both characters for it to work as a love story.

CORNISH: I came away from the film understanding that it was a love story in a very visceral way. And at the same time, it does seem like it says something about kind of how we relate to technology. And it seemed like you were kind of walking a line there about human relationships. It's not quite an indictment of technology, but it - is there anything there that you - you're seeing in how we relate to machines that's changing?

JONZE: Well, I think there's not a simple answer to it. And the movie tries to, you know, the movie is my attempt at asking those questions. And I think the other thing about it is that the movie is certainly, you know, touches on all of the themes that you're talking about in terms of the way we live in our modern life right now.

But also it's writing about something that I think has maybe always been here, which is our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting. And that sort of tension has always been there. And so I think, you know, where we're at right now has a particular set of challenges, but what I'm talking about has probably existed as long as we've existed.

CORNISH: Because there's definitely - even though the film visually is very kind of warm and inviting at times, everyone seems lonely. And it feels very melancholy, even though everyone's surrounded by people.

JONZE: Yeah. I think the other thing that's been really exciting about it is that, as I've talked to people, the variety of reactions of what the movie is about is wide. You know, like some people find it incredibly romantic, some people find it incredibly sad or melancholy, or some people find it creepy, some people find it hopeful. And I think it's like - that makes me really happy to hear, you know, because to me it's everything. It's all these different things I'm thinking about, and there's - a lot of them are contradictory. And so I like hearing what it is to you.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But you won't tell me. Now it seems close. It seems close.

JONZE: It seems close?

(LAUGHTER)

JONZE: What do you mean?

CORNISH: Well, you know, I did the same - I've seen it twice and I wanted to see it with other people because the first time I was so in my own headspace of, like, what is this about and what's happening? And I'm not sure what's happening. And the next time I wanted to see it just to enjoy it with other people.

JONZE: Oh. And when you saw it - did the group you were with have contradicting reactions to it?

CORNISH: Yes. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

JONZE: In what way?

CORNISH: Well, at one point, my husband was like, oh, the machines are going to get together and it's going to be like Skynet in "Terminator."

(LAUGHTER)

JONZE: Yeah.

CORNISH: Like his mind went right off in another direction. And some people were very focused on the sort of eeriness of it, of, like, it felt a little depressing. Like, oh, God, this is our future. We're going to actually just fall in love with our operating systems. Like it's one thing to stand outside for the Apple store. It's another thing to actually fall in love.

(LAUGHTER)

JONZE: And so - and for you, was it emotional at all?

CORNISH: Yeah.

JONZE: In what way?

CORNISH: Wait. Now you're interviewing me.

JONZE: I know, because...

(LAUGHTER)

JONZE: ...you're talking about it all intellectually and...

CORNISH: I am, I am.

JONZE: ...which is...

CORNISH: That's my job.

JONZE: I know, so...

CORNISH: All right. OK. No, no.

JONZE: You don't want to get emotional?

CORNISH: I don't want to get emotional.

JONZE: Why?

(LAUGHTER)

JONZE: But it seems - it seems interesting because this movie is, to me, so emotional, and so to talk - I didn't think one of the reason is...

CORNISH: Yes.

JONZE: ...like, when you're asking these questions that are more intellectual, I'm like, yeah, but that's only half of the story. And I think you're editing half of your reaction out.

CORNISH: I am because my other questions - well, let me put it to you this way. I actually did feel like the movie is incredibly emotional and about - so well-done kind of love story that all the questions I wanted to ask you are about you being in love.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Do you want to answer those instead?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: We can certainly go in that direction. You know, like when - is - because you wrote the film, those elements of the kind of a long-distance relationship.

JONZE: Yeah.

CORNISH: Have you done that? You know, did you feel some of your personal story kind of in this?

JONZE: Yeah. I mean, I think those - all - those are all questions that - that's what I've been thinking about. So I think I tried to write about what I was thinking about. And one of, you know, writing about, you know, the questions we were talking about in terms of the way we live with technology right now, but more so writing about, you know, trying to understand relationships and myself in relationships, and trying to make sense of it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HER")

PHOENIX: (as Theodore Twombly) I can't believe it's already been 50 years since you married me. And still, to this day, every day, you make me feel like the girl I was when you first turned on the lights and woke me up, and we started this adventure together.

CORNISH: The main character, Theodore Twombly, works at - I think it's beautifulhandwrittenletters.com.

JONZE: Yeah.

CORNISH: And he recites these really gorgeous, beautiful letters.

JONZE: Oh, he doesn't recite them. He writes them.

CORNISH: Oh, yes, right. He writes the letter.

JONZE: He writes them. He dictates them.

CORNISH: And it's a service...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...like in the future. You're saying even our heartfelt sentiments, we will outsource.

JONZE: Right.

CORNISH: It was something kind of sad about that.

JONZE: I - I feel like we need to hug this out.

CORNISH: I think we do, we do. Are you actually saying this is cheerful? Should I be excited about it?

JONZE: No. I'm not saying anything.

CORNISH: OK.

JONZE: I'm feeling like that I need to hug you. That's all.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Oh, OK. Well, that hasn't happened.

(LAUGHTER)

JONZE: OK, I'll do it on that effect.

CORNISH: Here we go. Best way someone's ever gotten out of an interview with me.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Writer and director Spike Jonze, his new movie is called "Her." Thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.

JONZE: Thank you for having me and this is a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.