Imagine what Spike Jonze calls “the slight future,” in which the intelligent operating systems in our mobile devices have developed intuition, feelings, and the flinty purr of Scarlett Johansson. It’s not a far leap to imagine a lonely man falling in love with such a warm, disembodied voice, ever-present in his pocket, which is what happens to Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore, in Jonze’s hugely anticipated new movie, Her. The finished film won’t debut until mid-October at the New York Film Festival and won’t hit theaters till late December, but Warner Bros. is feeling bullish enough to have held two events previewing clips for the press and public, first in Los Angeles, and then again this week at the Toronto Film Festival.
In Toronto, Jonze presented the movie’s opening scene, which shows Theodore at work at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he ghost-dictates to a computer heartfelt notes on behalf of clients, which are then printed out on stationery in a beautiful script. There was also a scene in which he installs his iOS and she (Johansson) names herself Samantha; a scene where he and the Samantha voice discuss his divorce (from Rooney Mara) on their way home from a date to the beach; and a scene in which he and a friend, Amy, played by Amy Adams, gossip about other people’s relationships with their OS-es. “I know a woman in this office who is dating an OS, and the weird part is, it’s not even hers. She pursued somebody else’s OS!” Amy tells Theodore. There’s also a beautiful moment with Phoenix playing guitar as Johansson sings sweetly to a song written by Karen O — who also wrote music for Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.
The movie seems to have been inspired by Siri, but Jonze actually had the germ of the idea ten years ago and began writing the script three years ago. The showing of the clips was part of a public conversation with Meek’s Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt (who had debuted her own new film, Night Moves, at the festival), and Jonze told Reichard he was annoyed when Apple introduced the new iPhone with Siri in 2011. “We were like, ‘Ah, that sucks! They stole our thunder.’ But ultimately it didn’t matter because it was inevitable. Our thing is so much different than Siri, and Siri is in the end sort of contributing [to generating interest in the movie].” Jonze had actually gotten his idea from an earlier, far more quaint artificial intelligent IM chat technology he stumbled upon in the aughts. “You could type in a message and they’d respond right back to you,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Hello,’ and it would say ‘Hi, how are you?’ I had this real buzz, like, ‘Wow, this is trippy,’ and then like after twenty seconds, it quickly fell apart and you realized how it worked and it wasn’t that impressive. But those twenty seconds were really exciting. The more people talked to it, the smarter it got.”
Later, at a TIFF cocktail party, I asked Jonze what his own relationship to his own phone was like. “Uh, I carry it with me?” he said, and laughed. “Making a movie that touches on technology, now I’ve realized how much I’m going to get those kind of questions. But I guess my reticence to talk about that is because the movie is about so much more. If I just talk about my phone or technology, those ideas in the movie are big and can sort of dwarf what the rest of the movie is about, which is more important, which is the way we connect with each other, or the way we long to connect with each other and sometimes fail to connect.”
To Jonze, the hardest part of making the film was figuring out how to make a movie that often has only one person onscreen, talking to the air. “You don’t have another person to cut to. That was the hard part,” he said. But as far as building a connection between a man and a disembodied voice, he felt that was taken care of by the mere act of casting Phoenix, who Jonze envisioned in the role even though they had never worked together before. “I kind of knew as I was writing it,” Jonze told me. “I was like, ‘I think … ’ But I didn’t know, because I didn’t know him that well. I mean, I love him. He’s so compelling. But I didn’t know what he’d feel like in that role until I went and met with him and talked to him, and immediately — we talked for about an hour and a half — I was like, ‘Okay. I want to watch him in this movie. I could watch him for two hours.’”
Jonze has a month until the film debuts at the New York Film Festival, and it’s nearly locked, but there were still hand-drawn placeholder graphics in some of the clips, waiting to be replaced in the next few weeks. I was so excited by the clips that I started peppering Jonze with granular questions about the world he created, many about Theodore’s workplace, BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. One, asked innocently enough, stopped Jonze: The letters Theodore dictates are printed out in perfect cursive, so do the clients send in handwriting samples for the computer to mimic? “We didn’t … yeah, uh, we didn’t think of that, that they should do handwriting samples,” Jonze said, stuttering. His publicist approached to whisk him away. “She’s undermining my confidence now,” he told her, gesturing to me and laughing. “Now I’m going to have to reshoot the movie.”
“Oh Jesus, what did you do?” the publicist asked me. “You know that he’s going to go home tonight and try to figure out a way to stick that in. We can’t have this! I need the movie to be ready in three weeks!” She appeared to be joking, but studio paranoia about Jonze’s neurosis and obsession with detail had the ring of truth. I apologized, and then for good measure tossed out the idea that Jonze do a behind-the-scenes mockumentary tour of the BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com operations. “If you tell him that, he will go home and start working on that tonight,” the publicist said, and refused to let me near him again. But he came back around anyway. “I’m going to put that in there, the handwriting samples,” he said, quickly and furtively, like delivering a spy message, “and pretend I thought of it.”