“Hello, Rob.” The voice at the other end of the phone line sounds deep and professional. It’s writer-director Spike Jonze, whose new movie, “Her,” has already topped a number of critics’ lists and is nominated for a number of Golden Globes, including best musical/comedy and best screenplay.
When I congratulate him on the film, he says, “Thanks.” His voice goes up several notes. “I was just trying to sound mature and impressive with a deeper voice. I don’t know if it worked, but I don’t think I can do that for more than 10 seconds anyway.”
So this is the guy who has given us one of the most provocative and entertaining movies of the year.
In addition to “Her,” Jonze has helped keep the “Jackass” franchise going. His latest collaboration on the prankster movies with Johnny Knoxville, “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” proved to be another hit. It seems like a contradiction, but it goes with Jonze’s eclecticism and wide range of interests.
“Her,” which opens Friday in Utah, is only Jonze’s fourth directed feature in some 15 years. His first two — “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” — were trippy, often brilliant collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. On his third, he worked with novelist Dave Eggers and Maurice Sendak to turn the children’s writer’s brief classic “Where the Wild Things Are” into a full-length movie. The result was interesting, but the film only did so-so at the box office.
Jonze’s new movie is his first as sole writer and director. Set in a Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a man who falls in love with the disembodied voice and personality of his computer’s operating system. Phoenix’ performance in the film has earned him a Golden Globe nod for best actor in a musical or comedy.
The OS, named Samantha, is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who sounds sexy, young, playful and curious — the perfect being for getting Theo out of the funk he’s been in since his breakup with his wife (Rooney Mara).
The sly concept could have little more than satire, but there is something more real about Theo and Samantha in “Her” than any romantic comedy I can think of. It’s also funnier and more heartfelt than most. Given that couples now break up in emails and texts, and that some people relate more to a video game than the person next to them in Starbucks, the idea of someone falling in love with an OS personality doesn’t seem so far-fetched. In fact, in the movie, most greet Theo’s announcement of his new cyber-girlfriend with barely a shrug.
Jonze creates a gentle, evolved and clean L.A. of the future. About the only thing that seems a little unbelievable is the functional and easily accessible metro system that the filmmaker envisions for the City of Angels.
When I first start to ask the 44-year-old filmmaker about “Her,” I find myself lost in a complicated question about technology and relationships, and finally tell him that I was trying to ask three questions at once.
Jonze laughs and says that is what the movie is doing.
“I don’t have a simple answer to these questions because the movie is asking them, and there are no simple answers,” he says. “I think technology is doing so many things to us. It’s helping us connect and preventing us from connecting. I think that’s the setting for the movie.”
At one point we talk about how relationships fail because one person grows and another doesn’t or because people grow in different directions. A while after we moved on from that subject, Jonze moves back.
“I forget what you said that made me think this, but it’s about Samantha being her own person. Whether she was human or not, this is a trajectory that she is going through and experiencing,” he says. And then he speculates that perhaps in a couple hundred years, artificial intelligence will be its own species and have its own consciousness.
“I wonder what they’d think of the movie if they can still see it,” he says. “I hope they would like it, that they’d find it empathetic.”
This leads to speculation about how human humans will be with advances in nanotechnology or the creation of “an integrated silicon circuit with the mechanical properties of skin,” as described in a recent New Yorker article.
While Jonze’s persona is well-known, he keeps his private life pretty private. His real name is Adam Spiegel; he was born in Maryland and is related to the Spiegel catalog family. As a kid, he adopted the name Spike Jonze while competing in skateboarding and BMX events. After high school, he moved to Los Angeles and worked at a biker magazine. In 1992, he shot skateboarding footage for a Sonic Youth video.
That was his breakthrough in filmmaking. Eventually he directed music videos for the likes of R.E.M., Puff Daddy, the Chemical Brothers and Björk — as well as TV ads for Nike, Sprite, Nissan and Coca-Cola. He also was acting, most notably as a redneck in David O. Russell’s 1999 black comedy “Three Kings.” That was the same year of “Being John Malkovich” and his marriage to fellow filmmaker Sofia Coppola. They divorced in 2003 and Jonze hasn’t spoken publicly about it since.
In “Her,” Theo also has relationships with real-life women played by Mara, Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde. Jonze was reluctant to say much about British actress Samantha Morton, a two-time Oscar nominee who performed the voice role of OS Samantha on set. The director says that after shooting the film, he realized it wasn’t what the movie needed.
“I don’t want to go into detail because I really respect what Samantha did for us,” Jonze says. “She gives a lot and she was on with the set. She is a big part of Joaquin’s performance. Her DNA is in the movie, even if her voice isn’t.”
The director met with Johansson while she was starring on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” “She thought it would be cool to work together and do a voiceover, and originally she thought it might be just a voiceover,” Jonze says. “But then, as we started talking about the specific idea that she needed to strip away all the guards that we build up to protect ourselves, at that point I think she realized this was going to be really hard. It was not just a voiceover but a real challenging character. Even more challenging is that it all has to come through in a voice.”
“What Scarlett gave the movie is immense,” he adds. “It’s not only the texture of her voice, but the way she played it.”
He describes OS Samantha as super intelligent, without any fear or any insecurity and capable of learning through experience, but like a child in other ways. And as her relationship with Theo hit some tough patches, as all relationships do, she experiences pain.
“I think children feel heartbreak just as deeply as we feel heartbreak, and so does Samantha,” he says.
Jonze says he conceived the film about a decade ago, long before Apple came out with Siri, its voice-activated personal assistant. Of course, the movie begs the question: Is what Theo has with Samantha real? At one point in “Her,” the British philosopher Alan Watts (voiced by Brian Cox), who died in 1973, drops in as a friend of Samantha. (His consciousness has been uploaded.)
The filmmaker says he discovered Watts five or six years ago and liked what he wrote.
“I think for this movie specifically, one of the things he talked about is change and the difficulty for us to accept that everything is in the constancy of change and everything will end,” Jonze says. “It’s one of the themes in the movie that Samantha is going through.”
While “Her” is warm, sweet and amusing — a relationship movie everyone can relate to no matter who or what their romantic preference — it is also filled with high concepts. But the filmmaker — who voices a bratty video-game character in “Her” and has a small role in the upcoming “The Wolf of Wall Street” — seems somewhat unwilling to take himself too seriously.
So while bantering about reality, technology and relationships, Jonze shies away from making too much about what he’s done. “I’m hesitant to make grand statements because I feel like that it’s not exactly what I’m writing about.”