A short interview with Spike Jonze

The Her director and music-video legend reminds us we might die tomorrow

Arts+Culture Feature
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Spike Jonze playing with Maurice Sendak's chicken Leigh Johnson for the December 2009 issue of Dazed & Confused

Over the years Dazed has been following Spike Jonze, we've seen him go from skate kid to iconic music-video director to Hollywood provocateur to Oscar contender. For his new film, Her, a guy who’s going through a messy divorce (Joaquin Phoenix) falls for his advanced computer operating system, voiced by a husky Scarlett Johansson. It’s as much a sparklingly clever headfuck as his previous films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, which were penned by Charlie Kaufman. Here’s what the good-humoured but wryly guarded director had to say when he called from LA. 

Dazed Digital: There are a lot of sci-fis out there expressing distrust of machines. Your film actually considers whether romance with a computer might be an ideal state of affairs. Are you really into tech, and how it is changing the world?

Spike Jonze: There’s no easy answer to that question. After you spend three years making a movie, and it looks at different ideas, it’s hard to talk about it… I’m not sure how to yet. I made the movie and it says what I want to say. 

DD: Are you a big social media user?

Spike Jonze: Er.. is the telephone social media? 

DD: At a stretch…

Spike Jonze: Is shouting social media? 

DD: So, you’re a shouter?

Spike Jonze: If you’re round the table with 20 people and you need someone to pass the butter, then I guess yeah… 

DD: Did you have to shout at Scarlett? Must be difficult directing a voice without a body…

Spike Jonze: With Scarlett, she thought it was a voiceover and that it would be easy. Then she realised it would be really hard to create the complexity of her character – intelligent, witty but also guileless and innocent – and to have that all come through in just a voice. It took months. There was never any one way of working – we try to stay open to whatever works. 

DD: Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is amazing. Did he interpret the character in a way you didn’t expect?

Spike Jonze: That’s an interesting question. He brought a lot to it, I don’t know how to even put him into words. I got a lot from him – it was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was really important the movie had a naked intimacy to it, almost watching scenes in people’s lives you shouldn’t be seeing, like there’s a camera in someone’s apartment and they don’t even know they’re being documented. We created a shooting environment that was very quiet and intimate, not a big, loud set. It was pretty special, with everyone in it with us. 

DD: Her is the first script you’ve written alone, but it fits with your other films in its smart, mindbending speculations. Did working with Charlie Kaufman influence your sensibility?

Spike Jonze: I think we shared sensibilities before and that’s what drew us together. He influenced me as a writer, and with his desire and need to keep digging down into the truth of the moment. More importantly, he has an honesty and a truth to what he’s doing. He’s not going for the easier answers. 

DD: Any other influences?

Spike Jonze: I’m ill at the moment. Anything past six days I can’t remember. 

DD: Did writing your own script come together easily, or were there a lot of late nights with coffee, labouring away?

Spike Jonze: In all my films the process is never straightforward. It’s a mixed bag of the exciting and the painful. 

DD: Will you write more?

Spike Jonze: I would like to, unless I die tomorrow. 

DD: Don’t die tomorrow.

Spike Jonze: I might, we can never know. 

DD: You directed a music video for Arcade Fire live with Greta Gerwig for the YouTube Music Awards recently. Is it still important for you to push that medium forward?

Spike Jonze: I love that song, I love that band, I love Greta Gerwig. The song has this sort of strange mix of melancholy and hurt and joy, and that’s what I wanted to capture. We created this whole format to explore making live music videos, scoring live and creating this narrative, with this dance performance. When I’m making stuff the thing that excites me most is not the result but the process, and trying to do something I’ve never done before. I love when me and my friends don’t know how to make something – there’s that risk of failure, which should be there. If it’s guaranteed not to fail it’s something you already know how to do.

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