High Concept

Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix talk about the beautiful sadness of ‘Her’



When you first hear the premise of Spike Jonze’s Her — a lonely man falls in love with his computer operating system — the natural assumption is that the filmmaker was inspired by using Siri, the voice-activated application on iPhones that carries out requests in a friendly female voice.

But Jonze says the initial nugget for the film came more than a decade ago, when he was playing around with an artificial-intelligence program that you could talk to on your computer. Although the program was primitive, with a limited vocabulary that essentially parroted whatever you asked, Jonze came away wondering what would happen if such a device could become sentient, develop feelings and emotions, and learn and grow — everything that would make it human, except it wouldn’t have a body.

The resulting film examines that concept. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, the movie stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a lonely introvert who makes a living writing eloquent letters for strangers — birthday wishes, love notes — but has trouble talking to real people or even making eye contact. Theodore has been deeply wounded by his impending divorce to his bitter wife (Rooney Mara), and he doesn’t understand how the relationship curdled or why she accuses him of pulling away.

Jonze, who wrote and directed the movie, says he understands both sides of that dilemma.

“I’ve been in both sides of that conversation,” he says. “I’ve done the thing where I stop being communicative, and I’ve been on the other side where the other person isn’t communicating, and I become frustrated.

“The … um … I don’t know…,” Jonze says, looking away as he searches for the right words. “I think there is something about … unless you come from a really evolved family that allowed you to talk about your feelings and felt like a safe environment, then you aren’t really prepared to do that when you grow up. The strengths and failings of a relationship depend entirely on your ability to talk about your feelings. So yeah, it can be challenging for some people.”

In Her, the alienated Theodore forms an unusually tight relationship with an operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who has been custom-made for him. But unlike today’s artificial intelligence, Samantha has the ability to develop intuition and desires. The more complicated she becomes, the harder it is for her and Theodore to speak honestly. Suddenly, without intention, she starts reminding him of all the mistakes he made in his marriage.

“By the time you reach a certain age, everyone has been affected by past relationships in good and bad ways,” Phoenix says. “You start realizing that both the positive and negative things that happened are part of your growth as a person. That’s an idea everyone can identify with. One of Spike’s amazing, beautiful talents is that he takes these big intellectual ideas that seem strange and foreign to us — a guy falls in love with his computer — and breaks them down to a place we can all identify with.”

Jonze says Phoenix was his first choice for the role of Theodore, and he met with the actor a week after he finished the script. “So much of the movie has to rest on his face, and he has to represent two characters,” the director says. “As soon as I met him, I realized he was so open and genuine and doesn’t take himself seriously at all. There’s nothing pretentious about Joaquin, even though a lot of people think that. I realized there was this side to him I hadn’t seen on screen that much.”

Samantha Morton was originally cast as the voice of Samantha, but after shooting was completed, Jonze realized during the editing process that the chemistry he needed his two lead characters to share wasn’t there, so he recast her with Johansson. Her role was recorded in a studio on weekends during four months, with Phoenix there to give her someone to play off.

The result is one of the most moving romances in years, as well as another of Jonze’s imaginatively detailed head-trip fantasies. One outspoken critic who is definitely not a fan: Siri. iPhone users have taken to asking her what she thought of the movie. Her responses have varied from “In my opinion, she gives artificial intelligence a bad name” to “Her portrayal of an intelligent agent is beyond artificial.”

Fortunately for the makers of Her, Siri doesn’t go out to the movies much.

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