The quirky film director tells James Mottram why his latest release is more than just your average romcom
It's hard to know quite what to expect from an encounter with Spike Jonze. The first time I met him, for his 1999 directorial debut Being John Malkovich, he was cripplingly shy – barely able to get out a word. But today, dressed in a jacket and tie, and sitting in the early evening gloom in a London hotel, he's quite the host. "You're so much smarter than I am," he says when I articulate one question about his new film, Her. Well, that's one way to get your interviewer on side.
As much as I'd like to buy into his flattery, it's Jonze who is the clever one.
Groundbreaking videos for Beastie Boys, Björk, Fatboy Slim and Arcade Fire; a founding member of the multimillion-dollar Jackass TV show and movie franchise; an ad-hoc acting career in films like David O Russell's Three Kings and Martin Scorsese's recent The Wolf of Wall Street.
Her is Jonze's (44) first solo venture, after his two wondrous collaborations with writer Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and his more troubled take on Maurice Sendak's children's classic Where The Wild Things Are. Critics awards have been pouring in since December and more are likely on the way.
It's the story of how a Los Angeles loner named Ted (Joaquin Phoenix) falls for his computer's new Siri-like operating system (OS). "I think a lot about the way I'm so personally interfaced with technology all the time," admits Jonze, who already gave Her a dry-run with his 2010 short film, I'm Here.
Admitting he's fascinated by the evolution of computers, his research took him from reading futurist Ray Kurzweil to watching TED talks on developing technologies. But as much as Her deals with our increasing reliance on digital companions, it moves away from that as Ted gradually becomes intimate with his OS – who names herself Samantha (voiced, brilliantly, by Scarlett Johansson). "I realised as I was writing it," says Jonze, "that I really wanted to make it a relationship movie."
Even if it's not your run-of-the-mill romcom, it explains just why Jonze's movie has been moved from its original January UK release to a Valentine's Day slot. Never mind it's a man and his OS, it's a heartfelt expression of just how difficult couplings can be.
"To have an intimate relationship with somebody [requires] a leap of faith," says Jonze. "Even after years you don't really ever know how they see or think about the world. Our subjectivity is so completely our own."
Jonze has been married to writer-director Sofia Coppola – and you have to wonder if Ted, who begins the film separated from his wife, is something of a self-portrait. Divorcing Coppola in 2003 it wasn't the first time Jonze dealt with separation.
Born Adam Spiegel and raised in Maryland, his own parents divorced before he was in high school. He found solace in the friends he made at Rockville BMX store. From there, he won a job on Freestylin' magazine photographing bikers and skateboarders. His early effort Video Days led to Sonic Youth hiring him to shoot footage for their promo for 100%.
Understandably, he's more focused on his career as a film-maker now.
"Maybe that's me being naive or optimistic at the very least. But we evolve because we always do. We will live in a different way."
What about the robots, though? Will they ever take over? Jonze stares back. "Well, we did!"
Her opens on February 14