‘Her’: Spike Jonze Brings His Singular Vision to the Year’s Most Offbeat Romance

COVER STORY: One of Hollywood’s more unorthodox artists crafts a different kind of romance

Spike Jonze Featured
Dan Winters

Much has been made of the vocal performance that Scarlett Johansson delivers as the title character in Spike Jonze’s latest film, “Her,” about a computer operating system named Samantha who falls for her human owner Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix).

There’s another perfectly cast voice in the movie too — a foul-mouthed alien child who appears inside a videogame played by Theodore. The actor? Jonze himself. “It might be his best role yet,” jokes the helmer’s longtime editor, Eric Zumbrunnen. Asked why the filmmakers didn’t enlist a real child for the part, Zumbrunnen instantly responds, “We did!”

“Childlike” is a word used often by those who know Jonze best, including a tight-knit group of collaborators the filmmaker ferries from set to set, some of whom he’s worked with for nearly 20 years. “He’s a handful,” says Johnny Knoxville, who collaborated with Jonze as an actor on MTV’s “Jackass” series and movies, among them their latest hit, “Bad Grandpa.” Adds Knoxville, “There’s a lot of laughter and wrestling and pranking on a set. But in addition to a childlike enthusiasm for all things, he has an amazing, critical-thinking adult mind.”

That dichotomy is on full display this month with two projects that couldn’t be more disparate. Jonze receives a story and producer credit on “Bad Grandpa,” in which Knoxville is disguised as an elderly man and pranks unsuspecting bystanders. And “Her,” Jonze’s fourth directorial feature, hits theaters Dec. 18. Like his previous turns in the driver’s seat, it defies easy classification.

Jonze is, after all, the filmmaker who took us inside the mind of a character actor in “Being John Malkovich” and captured the most meta case of writer’s block in “Adaptation” before bringing the classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” to life.

Jonze’s latest endeavor, “Her” — which just won awards for director and film from the National Board of Review — is at its heart about a relationship. It just happens to be between a man and the voice of his computer. Jonze’s script and direction takes what could have been a one-note premise and makes it a heartfelt love story.

“In other people’s hands, this material could have been impossible,” says Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution at Warner Bros., which is releasing the film. “But he’s a genius.”

Jonze, 44, is one of the entertainment industry’s most enigmatic talents.

It can be hard for some to reconcile that the person who helped launch youth-culture, male-targeted magazines Homeboy and Dirt, and once helped kidnap Brad Pitt on “Jackass,” is the same artist behind the idiosyncratic critical darlings he has fashioned for the bigscreen.

“I’m not sure why that is. I just want to do things that excite me — that make me laugh or touch me or confuse me,” says Jonze, whose career spans everything from musicvideos and commercials to films, television and publishing.

Tucked away in a private booth at a restaurant in the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Jonze hardly looks like an edgy auteur or mischievous prankster. Casually dressed as usual, he has an unassuming air and is soft-spoken and unfailingly polite. The writer-director-producer-actor is more engaged by conversation with his interviewer than by answering questions only. As Kroll says, “He’s interested in everything and everyone in the world. I’m always surprised when I meet people who are so engaged in that way — especially in our business, because people look in a lot. And Spike is always looking out.”

Little is publicly known about the prolific but press-averse Jonze. He was born Adam Spiegel; his father Arthur H. Spiegel III, ran a health-care consulting firm, and his mother, Sandy Granzow, is an author and artist. While he was famously married to filmmaker Sofia Coppola for four years until 2003, Jonze has never discussed the relationship publicly.

Despite the fact people know little about Jonze’s private life — or maybe because of it — there is endless speculation on how personal “Her” is to him.

“Everything I’ve done feels really personal,” Jonze says. “Even scripts that Charlie Kaufman wrote (including “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich”) feel personal, which is why I was drawn to them. Even my musicvideos and ‘Jackass,’ I’m close to it all because it’s all stuff I’m excited about.”

Jonze, who is also well known for his musicvids for such artists as Weezer, Beastie Boys and Bjork, recalls that when he first started doing musicvideos, people were eager to label them as ironic. “I think something can be funny and sincere at the same time,” he says.

It’s not hard to find power players who rave about Jonze, personally and professionally.

Sony Pictures chair Amy Pascal championed Jonze’s second picture “Adaptation,” starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep — rather a bold move given the film’s non-mainstream plot about a lovesick screenwriter who grows increasingly desperate in his attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief.” “You gotta make some scripts you love,” says Pascal, recalling the first time she met Jonze. “He came into my office and did magic tricks, and I was gobsmacked. He was smart and unassuming, and his genius creeps up on you when he’s talking.”

Jonze says the kernel for “Her” first came to him 10 years ago. “The initial idea was a man falling for a voice,” he says. “But it didn’t become something until I started to think about it as a relationship movie.” After wrapping the lengthy production of “Where the Wild Things Are,” which took five years of Jonze’s life (and was a costly box office flop), he wasn’t ready to immediately jump into another movie. “For awhile, I just wanted to work in this other way where I would take an idea and just do it, without overthinking anything.”

Though he had 50-plus pages of notes on “Her,” Jonze began making short films that were “incredibly freeing to just write a draft and shoot.” They included “Once We Were a Fairytale,” starring Kanye West as himself; and “Mourir aupres de toi” (“To Die by Your Side”), a stop-motion love story between characters on the covers of books made with handbag designer Olympia Le-Tan.

When he finally sat down to write “Her,” he found the first draft took five months. In April 2011, he sent it to a select group of friends, among them his agent, CAA’s Bryan Lourd. “I didn’t know if I needed to go and write for another year, but Bryan was very encouraging,” Jonze explains. “He said, ‘I think it’s ready to show to people; let’s send it out.’ ”

One of the first actors Jonze had in mind while writing the script was Phoenix, who had auditioned for the role of John Laroche in “Adaptation” (a role that went to Chris Cooper, winning him a supporting actor Oscar). Jonze recalls his initial meeting with the thesp when considering Phoenix for “Her”: “Within the first five minutes, he was so forthright and unpretentious and lovely,” Jonze says. “I realized that he takes his work really seriously but he doesn’t take himself seriously.”

Phoenix didn’t read the script at that initial meeting, but remembers that the two talked for a long time. “He really didn’t tell me much about it,” Phoenix says. “I remember at one point he asked if I liked a lot of dialogue. I said no. And he said, ‘Well, there’s a lot of dialogue in it!’ ”

The next week, Jonze delivered the script to Phoenix personally. “He told me he was starting rehearsal for ‘The Master,’ and it might take him awhile to read it because it’s hard for him to read something when preparing for something else,” Jonze notes. “But I woke up the next morning and had a long text from him basically saying, ‘I love it. If you think I’m right (for the part), I’d love to participate. If you don’t think I’m right, I can’t wait to see it.’ ”

To bring “Her” to fruition, Jonze relied on a small team of trusted allies, many of whom he’s worked with on all of his films, including Zumbrunnen, editor Jeff Buchanan, production designer K.K. Barrett, first a.d. Thomas Patrick Smith and costume designer Casey Storm.

From the beginning, Jonze knew he didn’t want to paint a dystopian picture of the future. “One of my first inspirations for what I wanted the future to be was Jamba Juice,” Jonze says. “Not the architecture, but just how clean and colorful it is.” The filmmaker also was fascinated by how styles come in cycles, and wanted the costumes to have a slightly 1920s feel. He was so involved he even modeled some of the clothes for Storm. “I went to a Salvation Army and gathered a random assortment of shapes and sizes and tried them all on Spike,” Storm recalls. Many times the costumer had to build outfits from scratch, as Jonze favored high-waisted pants and unique collars. “You can’t always take existing stuff and cut it down,” Storm says.

To hear his collaborators tell it, Jonze’s shooting style is as unique as his films. “Twice now we’ve done retreats where the principle creatives get together and go over the script, and he lays it out beat by beat before we get our grubby interpretations on it,” Storm reveals. “It’s a total luxury.”

Echoes Barrett, “We’re very much a family working together; but I don’t think it’s your traditional film family. There’s a lot of ear squeezing and punching and wrestling and snuggling.” Or, as Zumbrunnen calls it, “full-contact filmmaking.” There is much talk of sudden physical activity. Says Buchanan, “We’ve joked that someone is working on a book called ‘The Process: A Guide to Working With Spike Jonze.’ Bullet points of what to expect include headlocks and 2 a.m. phone calls. This is a guy who has a million ideas a day.”

Ask Jonze about his affinity for tactile behavior, and the filmmaker seems caught off guard for the first time. “I don’t know,” he finally says. “It’s not a thought-out decision; it just happens.” While Phoenix never found himself wrestling his director, he does recall some antics at their first rehearsal. “As we’re reading the script, I got hit in the face with a rubber band,” Phoenix says, laughing. “I looked up and he was just smiling, and I was like, ‘Oh no, I have this for four months?’ ” But Phoenix says the shenanigans helped set the mood. “When Spike is working, everything he does is to set up a feeling he’s trying to capture. So there’s a direct correlation between what happens between the takes and when we’re shooting.”

Jonze not only encourages a creative environment on set, he is able to pull out talents in people he knows. Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema worked with Jonze for the first time on “Her” and called the experience inspiring not only professionally but personally. “He can see artistic qualities in people in unexpected ways,” van Hoytema says. For example, Jonze decided to buy him a guitar after seeing van Hoytema messing around with his on set. “I’m a horrible player, but he thought I should play, so we went out one day in China and bought me one.” Similarly, Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist Karen O. had never done a soundtrack for a film when Jonze approached her about composing the score for “Where the Wild Things Are.” He enlisted her again on “The Moon Song” for “Her,” a song that Samantha writes and sings. Explains Karen O, “Whenever I write music for Spike, I automatically start writing with a quality of innocence. Maybe because Spike’s boyish nature reduces me to my girlish nature.”

But perhaps Jonze’s talent for bringing out the best in others is most evident in the performances he elicits from his actors. Maybe because he’s been an actor himself (most notably in “Three Kings” and “Moneyball” — and a memorable scene as a low-rent stockbroker in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “The Wolf of Wall Street”), Jonze has a deep empathy for the artists he works with.

Phoenix admits he was nervous about playing such a vulnerable character onscreen in “Her,” but Jonze created an intimate environment with as few people on set as possible for some of his tougher scenes. Adds van Hoytema: “We never had a big technical setup; it was low-key and humane and kind.” Jonze had lights built into the apartment set to reduce interrupting the moment. Smith says this kind of attitude is typical of Jonze. “Spike always has a film driven by the performers,” he says. “So it’s always about creating an environment for the actors to feel comfortable and trusting.”

Smith reveals that at one point, Jonze wanted to reshoot a scene where Phoenix was lying in bed. “I thought he’d nailed it, but Spike said, ‘Joaquin’s in a different mind space right now, and I’d like to go back and explore that scene again,’ ” Smith says. “I mean, he was doing it for Joaquin, really. Sure enough, we do the reshoot, and I’ll tell you something: In all the years and all the movies I’ve done, I’ve cried twice on set. Both times were in Spike Jonze movies. The first time was Meryl Streep’s suicide in ‘Adaptation.’ The second time was that closeup of Joaquin. It was amazing.”

Jonze’s ability to be fluid and open to change extends to post-production. On set, Phoenix worked primarily with actor Samantha Morton, originally hired to voice Samantha (though sometimes Jonze, too, would provide the voice for the computer system. “He’s an excellent actor,” Phoenix notes. “It’s kind of infuriating how good he is.”). But while editing the film, Jonze realized, “What we did together wasn’t what the movie needed.” He adds: “It was a hard call to make. Because (Morton) is not only one of my favorite actresses, she’s a great friend. We’ve worked together before and will work together again.”

Jonze met with countless actresses before deciding upon Johansson, who arrived at his apartment in New York on her one day off from performing “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway. “We had a nine-hour meeting that was supposed to be a one-hour meeting,” Johansson recalls. “But at least we had some stale crackers and old hummus.”

Jonze ticks off the qualities he was looking for in the role: “Samantha is born without any fears or insecurities, and she has a childlike newness but also an incredible intellect and speed of thought,” he says. “That depth and vulnerability, but also innocence, is a hard combination.”

Johansson ended up working every weekend for four months with Jonze constantly tweaking and rewriting her lines. But the actress has no complaints. “The attention to detail that I experienced with Spike was purely character-driven,” she says. “I can only imagine that specificity is applied to every aspect of the project as a whole. He has a rare complete vision, one of a true auteur.”

Production designer Barrett says that “Her” was particularly challenging for Jonze in that it’s his first script as a solo writer and “it’s all him. It’s a personal view — a singular view. Other films had shades of his own vision, but this is purely his take. And I think that’s a hard thing to come to, showing your vulnerability and your inventive side at the same time.”

The gamble seems to have paid off; “Her” already has received glowing reviews, top nods from the National Board of Review, and Oscar buzz. “He really cares about getting it right,” Phoenix says. “Not right in a sense of ‘I’m trying to make it work for the audience,’ but ‘I’m trying to make it work for myself.’ That difference — and it is subtle — is what makes him an artist.”