Writer-director Spike Jonze's latest movie, called simply Her, is about a lonely man who falls in love ... with his operating system. The two lovers — Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) — never meet face to face. In fact Samantha has no face, not even an avatar.
Like Jonze's earlier films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Her is odd and ambitious. But despite the high concept, Jonze insists his movie is really just an old-fashioned love story. He spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about the unique challenges of creating a film where one of the two main characters is just a voice, as well as about the wide range of reactions people have had to the story. And he pushed back at one of Cornish's questions about the movie's larger themes.
"This movie is, to me, so emotional," Jonze says. "When you're asking these questions that are more intellectual ... that's only half the story. And I think you're editing half of your reaction out."
On filming the interactions between Theodore and Samantha
Originally, on set, we'd cast Samantha Morton as that character. So she was with us on set every day, and she was in [Joaquin Phoenix's] ear, and he was in her ear. And she was in another room, and they were just speak-talking. And so a lot of what he did was listen to her.
Then in post-production we realized that what Samantha and I had done together wasn't what the character needed, or what the movie needed. And so at that point we recast. And then, although Samantha's not in the movie ... her DNA is still really in the film, because she's so much a part of Joaquin's performance. But in post, when Scarlett came on, we basically re-created that same intimacy that we had on set, with Scarlett in the sound studio.
On Scarlett Johansson's work voicing Samantha
I think she thought it was going to be, "Oh OK, yeah I'd love to this, it'd be fun to come do a voice-over." And I think as we started talking about it, one of the things I explained to her was that this character is new to the world, and hasn't yet learned her fears and insecurities. And I think that's when Scarlett was like, "Oh OK, this is, this is going to be hard," and that it is a two-hander. It is that kind of movie where you have to be moved and affected and fall in love with both characters for it to work as a love story.
On what the film says about our relationship to technology
I think there's not a simple answer to it, and the movie tries to — you know, the movie is my attempt at asking those questions. ... [It] touches on all of the themes that you're talking about in terms of the way we live in our modern life right now. But also it's writing about something that I think has maybe always been here, which is our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting. And that sort of tension has always been there. So I think, you know, where we're at right now has a particular set of challenges, but what I'm talking about has probably existed as long as we've existed.
On whether the film is meant to feel melancholy, or romantic, or ...
I think the other thing that's been really exciting about it is that as I've talked to people, the variety of reactions for what the movie's about is wide. You know, like some people find it incredibly romantic, some people find it incredibly sad or melancholy, or some people find it creepy, some people find it hopeful.
That makes me really happy to hear, you know, because to me it's everything. It's all these different things I'm thinking about, and a lot of them are contradictory. And I like hearing what it is to you.
On how his personal experiences with love influenced the film
That's what I've been thinking about. I think I tried to write about what I was thinking about. [I was] writing about, you know, the questions we were talking about in terms of the way we live with technology right now, but more so writing about trying to understand relationships and myself in relationships. Trying to make sense of it all.