Interview: Director Spike Jonze on the Oscar-nominated Her
The former music video maker discusses techno-romance and replacing Samantha Morton
Not only has Spike Jonze directed the Golden Globe-winning Her, he’s notched up more exciting collaborations by teaming up with Arcade Fire, Martin Scorsese and Lena Dunham. James Mottram sits down with the world’s coolest director
At 44, he may be approaching middle age, but there’s still something unspeakably cool about Spike Jonze. In his teens, he was photographing skateboarders and BMX bikers. In his twenties, he was making landmark music videos like the Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’. And in his thirties, he was co-founding MTV’s Jackass, marrying Sofia Coppola (they’ve since divorced) and helming the Charlie Kaufman-penned features Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.
When we meet, a shirt-and-tie wearing Jonze is ensconced in a London hotel having just come from shooting a live video for Arcade Fire’s ‘Afterlife’ at the YouTube Music Awards. Jonze casually reports that lead singer Win Butler was staying at his New York apartment when they were working on new album, Reflektor. ‘Every morning he’d come in with mixes from the last day, so I got to hear the whole record as they were mixing. And “Afterlife” was one of my favourite songs.’
If that’s not cool enough for you, he’s also scored a brief role as a broker in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. ‘I didn’t even care what the role was. It was just good to be on set and watch him,’ Jonze says, full of admiration for the veteran director. ‘There’s some quote about Charlie Parker: “learn everything so you can forget it all”. That’s what I felt like I was watching, with that level of freedom and mastery. He was just completely going for it in a really inspiring way.’
While he’s also witnessed the latest Jackass movie, Bad Grandpa, gross over $100m in the US, Jonze’s primary focus is Her. The fourth movie of his career and the first he’s written alone, it scooped a Best Screenplay award at the recent Golden Globes. Set in a near future Los Angeles, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Ted, an isolated introvert who gradually falls for his computer’s artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
While Jonze did his research, reading up on futurist Ray Kurzweil and watching TED talks on developing technologies, this was merely the jumping-off point. Beginning as a reflection of the way humanity is increasingly interfaced with a digital universe, it goes way beyond that. ‘I’m certainly writing about our relationship with technology,’ says Jonze, ‘but really I’m writing about our relationship with each other and our relationship with ourselves.’
On set, Samantha Morton voiced the increasingly self-aware OS (who calls herself ‘Samantha’), but Jonze later realised it didn’t quite work. That meant an awkward conversation with Morton after he drafted in Johansson as a replacement. ‘She was very gracious,’ he reports. ‘She said, “you have to do what the film needs. I love you and I support you.” But even though her voice isn’t in the movie, her DNA is there.’
Still, it’s Johansson that’s been winning the plaudits, taking Best Actress at the Rome Film Festival for her work. Meanwhile, Jonze has just co-directed a short called 'Choose You', written by Lena Dunham (another effortlessly cool collaboration). Just don’t expect more music videos any time soon. ‘I think I’m more focused on writing the next movie I want to make.’ Now that’s a lesson in how to stay cool.
Her is on general release from Fri 14 Feb.