TORONTO – Normally during a film festival, it would be impossible to get me to take time out of my schedule to see sequences from an unreleased film and watch a Q&A with a filmmaker, but then again, not everyone is Spike Jonze.
The last time we spoke was at Sundance a few years ago, when he was in town to promote his short film about a robot who falls in love, “I’m Here.” Based on the trailer for his new feature film, “Her,” it looks like he may have had further thoughts along a similar line, and the promise of hearing a great conversation about his process and what got him back behind the camera for the first time since “Where The Wild Things Are” was too much for me to pass up.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox is a perfect venue for this sort of event. The rooms are fairly good-sized screening rooms, but they manage to create a feeling of intimacy when it comes to the Q&A part of things.
Kelly Reichardt was the moderator for the Q&A, which is a really lovely combination of filmmakers to take the stage. If you don’t know Reichart’s work, it wouldn’t shock me. Her films are modest gems, beautifully nuanced and observational, not really built to compete for hype in a world of superhero movies and endless sequels. I can easily imagine Jonze as a big fan of films like “Wendy and Lucy,” “Old Joy,” and “Meek’s Cutoff.”
To make the point that the afternoon was not just about promoting “Her,” the day began with a sharply edited look back at his body of work. It opened with the scene from “Adaptation” where Meryl Streep is in bed, listening to the dial tone on her phone and trying to reproduce the sound. The phone rings, and it’s Chris Cooper. She explains what she’s trying to do, and he immediately understands and starts trying to help her. It’s such a beautiful scene, and Meryl’s reaction at the end, tears in her eyes, so happy to not only be understood but to have accomplished her goal, is so lovely. I would imagine that for an artist, there is no more satisfying feeling than knowing that someone truly, completely understood what you were trying to say to them, and I can think of no better example of it in a film.
When you’re picking the highlights from Jonze’s incredible career, there is no dearth of material to use. Chris Walken flying in “Weapon Of Choice.” Max Records running amidst the Wild Things. A restaurant full of Malkovich. The Beastie Boys in full “Sabatoge” mode. A guy on fire running down Gardner Street in slow motion. Weezer in “Happy Days” outfits. The Torrence Dance Team. Crazy little elf Bjork in a full-blown MGM musical number. Simply put, some of my favorite music video images ever, alongside moments from some of my favorite movies. It’s such an amazing reminders of how many perfect things he’s created in his life. I was especially struck by Jonze talking to Maurice Sendak with Catherine Keener at the table with them. The moment that flattens me every single time, KW saying to Max, “Don’t go. I’ll eat you up, I love you so.”
And finally, to bring it full circle and really underline another truth about Spike’s work, Robert McKee onstage, speaking to a crowd, Brian Cox yelling about what makes a great movie. “Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And WHY THE FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie?!”
It was a highly effective way to set the stage, and then Jonze and Reichardt came out and took their seats. Jonze talked about wanting Reichardt to moderate the afternoon because her movies are so particular, so different than what he does. Reichardt opened with, “Just seeing that whole retrospective piece, I only wrote down one question for you: why are you so lazy?”
As the audience laughed, Reichardt continued. “It’s a mystery to me how you work on more than one thing at a time. You were talking about how you’re editing something else while you’re working on your movie. What’s your process?”
There’s really no bigger question for a filmmaker, and Jonze didn’t really know where to start. Reichardt said, “You’ve been making ‘Her’ for quite a long time. For one thing, it’s hard not to compare things to your own experience, and I make films in a short window. I only do one thing at a time. I hardly even have time for a meal with a friend while I’m working.”
Jonze seemed to finally find his way into the answer. “Like you, I work with people I’m really close with. It starts with that. It starts with an idea or a feeling, and I’ll try out ideas on my friends, and a lot of things come out of the spontaneity of that sort of situation. The best videos were the ones where I became friends with the artists first. The Beastie Boys are guys I loved before I met them, and when I got to know them, we started a magazine together and we started making videos together, and a lot of it came out of us just cracking ourselves up, like going to the fake mustache store and buying fake mustaches. It’s a very organic process. Or it comes out of a feeling. The clips from ‘I’m Here,’ that’s a good example. I just wanted to capture the feeling of falling in love in your early twenties. I meet a lot of people. Like Andrew Garfield, he had just finished ‘Never Let You Go’ with Mark Romanek, and while I was finishing ‘Where The Wild Things Are,’ I went to the park with them, and I just loved Andrew. I wanted to work with him because I enjoyed playing frisbee with him, and he ended up playing the robot for me. When we were working on ‘Where The Wild Things Are,’ we would have eight hour meetings every day about animating the characters and trying to get every detail right, like the way an eye crinkles when you smile.”
Reichardt replied, “I can’t remember what I was stuck on when I first met you. I was explaining to Spike what I was trying to do, and you just said, ‘Why don’t you do it in post?’ And we had this conversation about using all the tools on your belt, and on my belt, there’s just this one hammer. You spend a lot of time in post. So much of the filmmaking goes on in post. Even in something like sound design, it’s pretty much set when I get there, but in post, that’s just like a beginning point for you. You do so much work that’s about creating things, and not just trying to make them better.”
I love that the two of them were basically explaining what drew them to each other’s work. Spike said, “Kelly’s movies have this stripped-down raw directness with very long takes, and they’re very human in this way. They explore humanity and politics. There’s an honesty that comes with it because there’s very little… manipulation.”
“I thought you were going to say money,” Reichardt countered.
Again, a big laugh from the crowd as Spike continued. “I started directing videos at the same time that Michel Gondry was starting to direct videos, and I watched what he’d do. They all seemed to be pushing some new visual effects idea, but never just for spectacle. They all captured a feeling. By the time we lock picture next week, we will have been in post for fourteen months. We’ve done a lot of rewrites. It’s a relentless process, which is exciting to me because I don’t know what movie we’re making until it’s done. ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ was very exciting because the creatures didn’t have working faces on set, so we could keep working on behavior or what they were saying. And in ‘Adaptation,’ we could keep moving around all the elements and storylines, and we didn’t shoot anything in a way that locked us into a choice. That also took fourteen months to edit because we wanted it to feel like a sort of effortless flow between stories and characters.”
“Little known fact… all the ‘Jackass’ stuff is done in post. They never actually do that, right?”
“You mentioned ‘Where The Wild Things Are,’ and I’m curious about how you direct something without a face.”
“We shot the whole movie with the voice actors on a stage first. We had James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara, all of them on a soundstage, and we had these foam cubes that could be a tree or a cave, and that’s all they had. James used to say, ‘I’m an adult. I cannot believe I am doing this for a living.’ We shot the whole movie with them, and we cut that as a movie, so there’s a movie of them doing that. And we used their voices, but we also used that for reference for the guys who would wear the suits on the set. I wanted the characters to be very subtle, and so the guys in suits would try to capture them perfectly. James would hold his anxiety in his shoulders a certain way, and we tried to follow that through the physical performance and the face performance.”
“I directed Paul Dano in ‘Meek’s,’ and he’s got so much going on in his voice and in his face. Let’s move on to the new one. Am I allowed to say that you have a character who has no face in this one as well?”
With that, they showed the first of the afternoon’s clips from “Her.” If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, here it is:
As you can surmise, the film is about Theodore, a lonely man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence driven operating system. In the first scene of the film, we start in close on Theodore’s face as he talks about falling in love with someone. The longer he speaks, the less it sounds like he’s talking about himself until we finally realize he’s dictating a letter that is being turned into a letter from a woman to her husband on their 50th wedding anniversary. We see that he works at a company called “Beautiful Handwritten Letters.com”
As Theodore prepares to leave for the day, he stops to talk to a co-worker played by Chris Pratt, who kills as usual. “Who knew you could rhyme so many words with Penelope?”
Reichardt asked, as the clip ended, “Are you conceiving your sound design in the beginning?”
“In that scene, sure, in terms of the mixing.” Before Reichardt could ask more questions, Jonze suggested that they should watch the rest of the clips before more conversation, and so the next scene we saw featured Theodore setting up the newly purchased AI operating system. It’s a process, and one of the first questions he’s asked is if he wants a male or a female voice. He picks a female voice, and then almost immediately is asked, “Tell me about your relationship with your mother.”
Once the voice is set, it is immediately recognizable as Scarlett Johansson. No one else right now has that same mix of whiskey and sunshine, and it’s dead-on. And as Theodore talks to her, it starts to feel more natural, and he relaxes into it. “Hi.”
“How are you doing?”
“Well. How are things with you?”
“What do I call you? Do you have a name?”
“Yes.” (beat) “Samantha.”
“Where did you get that name?”
“I gave it to myself, actually.”
“When did you give yourself that name?”
“When you asked me what my name was, I thought, “Yeah, I guess I do need a name.’ So I read a book on how to name your baby, and I picked the one that suited me best.”
“You read a whole book after I asked you that question?”
“In 2/100ths of a second.”
By now, Theodore looks like he’s enjoying himself. They carry on setting up the system, until she asks him, “Can I look through your hard drive?” His reaction as he tries to figure out the right answer to that question is gold. She starts going through is e-mails and starts deleting a bunch of them for him, forcing him to think about why he keeps them, and it’s just great, the back and forth, the natural conversation.
In the next clip, we get to see how the relationship between the two of them evolves, and it’s obvious that it’s getting romantic between them. They’re at the beach together one afternoon, watching the sunset. We see them taking the train home, talking about everything. She wants to know about his marriage and what happened. “It was hard,” he tells her, “but there’s something about sharing your life with somebody.”
“How do you share your life with somebody?”
“Well, we grew up together, and I was worried that I was never good enough for her.” And as they discuss it, we see flashes of that life that he shared, with Rooney Mara playing his wife. Silent flashbacks as he talks about growing apart and changing and how hard it can be to deal with that. He talks about the way he is constantly thinking about old conversations, old fights. Samantha confides in him that she felt that way about something that happened between them a few weeks ago, and that she kept turning it over until she realized that it wasn’t helping.
“Isn’t that interesting?” she asks him. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”
I can already tell this film is going to gut me. That’s the real secret of the films that Jonze makes. He may seem like a prankster and a wild man at times, but his movies are emotionally brutal, beautiful and sad in equal measure. The next clip introduced Amy Adams as Amy, a friend of Theodore’s. She works at a video game company where they make mommy-themed games that she doesn’t seem to actually like. She and Theodore are having lunch, catching up on what’s going on with them. The video game they showed is ridiculous, but I can easily imagine someone actually making it. It’s a competition to be the perfect mom, and she’s on the carpool level, where she has an almost perfect run, with one exception that the game announces. “You gave him too much processed sugar.” Still, she manages to beat all the other moms and their times, so she gets the title of “Class Mom.” We see that the company she works for is BePerfect.
She talks about the relationship she just got out of, and Theodore says he heard from her ex recently. “I got that e-mail Charles is sending everyone. He’s taking a vow of silence.”
“Yeah,” she confirms. “For six months. He feels very clear about it.” She hears the way she’s talking about him and shakes her head. “I am such a jerk.” She talks about how she’s relieved now that things are over, and how she has more energy. She wants to move forward, and she says she knows that she sounds like an awful person, but she doesn’t care. “So fuck it. I feel good. Ish. I feel goodish. For me.”
She mentions that she’s made a friend who is an operating system, and how much it’s helping her with her life. “We just bonded really quickly. At first, I thought it was because they were made that way, but I don’t think so.” She says they’re just friends, but that she’s actually heard that there are people who have fallen in love with an OS.
Theodore confesses that he’s actually in a relationship with his OS, and Amy is fascinated. “So what is that like?”
He seems so happy not to be judged. “It’s really great, actually. When I talk to her, I feel really close to her. And when we lay in bed…”
She stops him, fascinated. “Wait… you guys have sex?”
“Well, so to speak. Yeah. She really turns me on. And I think I turn her on… unless she’s faking it.”
“I think every woman who’s having sex with you is probably faking it.”
He laughs, feeling better that he doesn’t have to treat all of this like a secret.
She asks, “Are you falling in love with her?”
“Does that make me a freak?”
“I think anyone who falls in love is a freak. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.”
The rest of the clip package was just select images. He goes hiking to the top of a mountain as we hear Samantha singing to him. He’s playing the ukelele while she sings, making up the words as she goes. He’s just so happy. It all seems very lyrical and sweet, and when we get some glimpses of the possibility of heartbreak, it seems really wrenching. There were also some great hints about how Amy may be the thing that comes between them.
As the lights came up, Reichardt started with “Do you want to talk a little bit about what you were saying before about wanting to get rid of all the real women in the world to replace them with virtual women?”
Jonze seemed shocked, laughing. “I didn’t say that!” He went on to try to explain how it developed.
Reichardt struggled to describe her own reaction to seeing the movie. “It’s a film about human relations. The whole film… I can’t tell. Are you afraid of technology? Are you in love with it? Have they just changed somehow? It’s warning us. No. There’s true sentiment. It has heart, but it’s also… where are you at, man?”
Spike replied, “We just started to talk to the movie. We’ve been working on it for almost three years now, and it’s weird to talk about it. It’s not even done. But I can tell that people want me to have an answer for those questions, and… it’s like, I saw Kelly’s movie last week, and it’s about these eco-terrorists, but really it’s about these kids who don’t know who they are and what they are.”
Reichardt corrected him, “I don’t use the word terrorists. They’re direct activists.”
“The point is, your movie asks how you affect the world and at what point are you having a positive or a negative effect, and your movie doesn’t give us that answer. In my movie, I’m thinking about all these ideas. How technology changes the way we connect. It helps the way we connect. It hurts the way we connect.”
Reichardt said, “While I was thinking about this question, I went to talk to some of the people I’m working with about it, and we’re all sitting there, and all three of them were at their computers. All of them came from other places, and when we get together, we’re all still on our machines.”
Jonze was nodding by this point. “It’s a big idea. It’s about how quickly technology has changed our lives, but I also was always trying to make a relationship story and examine love, and the way we live with technology is part of that story, but it’s only part of that story. So to answer your question succinctly, I don’t know.”
“The film takes you, and you find yourself in the trap of it. It’s sort of creepy that it’s this virtual woman. Like there’s a guy right there on his iPad.” Reichardt pointed out across the audience, directly at me, no doubt because the light from my computer screen was visible from where they were sitting. “And that guy’s blogging this all right now.”
At that point, they started taking questions from the audience, the first of which was, “When you’re making a movie with a lot of special effects that have to be pre-planned, how do you keep it spontaneous?”
Reichardt replied, “Drugs.”
Spike laughed. “That would be a better technique, I think. With ‘Where The Wild Things Are,’ it was a giant film with a giant crew, but when it came down to it, what had to work was Max, and how he felt in the film, and so everything was designed to help him, to give him things to react to. Sometimes there would be pre-recorded lines. Sometimes I would read the lines to him. Sometimes I’d spray our script supervisor with a fire extinguisher to get him to laugh, as if a Wild Thing was throwing another one through a tree. I love using visual effects, but making sure it’s alive is everything. Make sure the process is not driven by the effects, but that the effects are driven by the needs of the film.”
The next audience member asked about how he creates these very real and lived-in environments that are such an integral part of his films. He replied, “K.K. Barrett is our production designer and Casey Storm is our costume designer. They work to make sure that it all feeds into character. He talks about making sure things are coffee stained and worn. He remember his dad’s New York office and how it looked to him as a kid. It has to look like something that was lived in, but also these specific people have to live in it.”
The next question was about creating chemistry between characters and how important that is to the overall film. “It’s probably everything,” he said bluntly. “When you don’t have it, you can’t make it. You can’t manufacture it. You mentioned ‘Adapation,’ and the chemistry between Chris Cooper’s character and Mery Streep’s character came entirely from them. You can do a lot of rehearsals, where we spend a few weeks together before we shoot. We talk about the movie, we talk about our lives, we talk about the parts of our lives that relate to the movie.”
The next guy asking a question said, “Filmmakers often get asked about their influences, but your films seem to be unique. They seem to be you. I feel like you must be seeing other filmmakers spring from your work at this point, and do you recognize that in other people’s films?”
Reichardt laughed. “I’m pretty sure he just called you old.”
Spike replied, “I don’t know if I’ve seen work that I would say came from me. I feel like it’s hard to say ‘This is the way I would have done it.’ I think more… yeah, I am old.” He had to laugh.
The guy followed up, insisting, “I feel like ‘Walter Mitty’ looks like it could be by you.”
Spike considered it. “Thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment. I thought it looked more like Wes Anderson, though. I’m always inspired by other filmmakers, whether it’s a shot or the way they handle tone. There’s a moment in ‘Wendy and Lucy’ where a stranger offers to let her use a cell phone, and the way she says thank you, you can tell she’s not use to that kind of kindness. The way she looks at him, you just understand her whole character and how nobody’s been there for her. I think we all inspire each other, and it’s just a matter of not being blatant.”
The next question referenced an Ikea commercial that Spike directed, which you can see here.
“I think you touched on this a little bit, the way you give emotions to things that we don’t recognize as having emotions. I love that Ikea lamp commercial you did. You just feel so sorry for that lamp.”
Spike said, “I guess I just identify with lamps. I don’t know. I really…”
Reichardt finished the thought for him. “… spend a lot of time alone.”
Laughing, Spike shook his head. “I don’t have a good answer for that, Damn.”
When asked about the writing of the film, he elaborated. “I had the initial idea about ten years ago, when I read an article about a website you could connect to and have a conversation with an artificial intelligence. For about twenty seconds, I had this real buzz, but then it fell apart because you recognize its limitations. The way it was written, the more people who talked to it, the smarter it got. When I was finishing “Where The Wild Things Are,’ I starting making notes about it.”
He talked about learning so much about writing from working with Charlie Kaufman, and watching how Kaufman would take all the things he was feeling at that time and put them in the script. “That goes back to what you were saying, Kelly. I’ve been thinking about this for so long. Right in the middle of making this, Siri came out, and it felt at first like they’d stolen our thunder.”
Asked, “Do you have a favorite piece of work that you’ve made?”, it was obvious he couldn’t answer the question. He seemed genuinely moved by the retrospective package that they put together, and said how exciting it was to see all of that put together.
Jonze talked about working with a new cinematographer for the first time. He said that Lance Acord was busy gearing up to direct his own feature, so he reached out to Hoyte Van Hoytema, who shot “Let The Right One In” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Jonze described him as “a great gentle listener.” He said that Van Hoytema reminds him of Harris Savides, who is one of the great listeners. He referred to him as a “feminine” cinematographer, which set off a round of teasing from Reichardt about the use of that as a negative term, which Jonze insisted wasn’t what he meant.
He was asked about the casting for Samantha in the film, and that led to Jonze talking about the actor who was originally cast for the role, Samantha Morton. They recorded the whole film with her, and then felt that it just wasn’t quite working. They hired Scarlett very late in the process, “but I think Samantha’s DNA is still in the movie since she was there and part of the process.”
He said that “every movie we’ve done has their own set of rules,” and that it is never the same process twice, and that you have to do whatever is best for the film.
The next guy stood up and started his question, “There has been a lot of doom-and-gloom about the industry lately. Spielberg talked about how the industry is imploding…”
Reichardt interrupted, “Spielberg didn’t say that. Did he?”
The guy replied, “Yes.”
Reichardt openly scoffed at the thought. “He’s got no problems.”
Spike picked up from that and continued, “I don’t make movies that often, so I don’t know. I met Megan Ellison, and she’s our producer and our financier, and so when I had the script, I brought it to her. Megan liked the script, so we went and did it, and it felt like I found a partner who I aesthetically partnered with. I was incredibly fortunate. It is really hard to get movies made. I am extra fortunate. Talking to a lot of my friends over the last five years, it seems like a really hard moment. When we were trying to get ‘Malkovich’ made, it almost fell apart many many times.”
Reichardt said, “When I go to the movies and watch previews, it feels amazing that we’ve ever gotten our films made.”
The next person up said, “I’m sure you always work very closely with your actors and your cast, but I’m very curious about how you approached John Malkovich.”
Reichardt interjected, “Was it ever for a second somebody else?”
Jonze shook his head, “No. Never. We tried, but we couldn’t.”
Reichardt asked, “Did you know him personally?”
Jonze said, “No, and it took a long time to meet him. When I did, his first question was, ‘Why not ‘Being Tom Cruise’?’ Once he understood… at first, when he read it, he thought he had wronged Charlie, like he’d slept with his wife at some point. Once we met him, though, he decided to go for it, and I don’t think I understood what a brave thing that was. We were on set at one point doing the dance of despair. We were between takes, and John had a friend come visit, and he’s naked except for a sheet. He’s sitting on the stairs, telling his friend what the movie was, and as I listened to him describe it, it struck me how crazy that was.”
With that, they concluded the onstage conversation, and I walked a few blocks to the Shangri-La Hotel, where there was a small reception being held for Jonze. I saw Megan Ellison holding down a corner of the patio with Jessica Chastain, and for the only time during the entire fest, I was too shy to approach somebody. I think Ellison is one of the only people in the business right now who is voting with their gut, who is willing to put real money on the line to make art, and considering how driven by fear the rest of the industry is, it makes her look like a superhero.
After enjoying some of the food that Momofuku, which is located in the hotel, was providing for the reception, I finally found a few minutes to chat with Jonze. We’ve only spoken a few times over the years, but the interview we did for “Where The Wild Things Are” was one of the highlights of my time at Ain’t It Cool. I’m heartbroken that Ain’t It Cool’s myriad technical issues managed to eat part of the interview, so the thing that’s online now isn’t the full article that originally ran.
But as we spoke about various subjects, including the passing of Ryan Dunn, a recent screening of ‘Wild Things’ that I had to introduce the film to my kids, and how strange a role Megan Ellison plays in the business right now, what came through clearly to me was a different level of comfort this time around. When we spoke about “Where The Wild Things Are,” he was still in a vulnerable place as a filmmaker, still not sure how things were going to work out. Right now, a week away from delivering “Her” to the studio, Jonze seemed like he was pleased and about as comfortable as he could be. I asked him if we’re going to see his naked old lady character in “Bad Grandpa,” and he told me they shot some scenes, but ended up not using them. Nothing entertains me more than the notion that this sensitive, brilliant filmmaker loves to do things like “Bad Grandpa” as well, and I think you have to acknowledge both halves of who he is to fully understand or appreciate his work.
We didn’t really talk about his work during the reception. Instead, we talked about films he was excited by, films I’d enjoyed so far, the state of the business right now. It’s good to see him feeling this happy as he prepares for the film to make its debut at the New York Film Festival, and I can’t wait to lay eyes on the finished piece myself.
“Her” opens in limited release on December 18, 2013, then rolls out wider on January 10, 2014.