Spike Jonze: “This is me trying to make sense of this insane experience of being alive”

Just in time for Valentine’s Day the ever-surprising Spike Jonze returns with his first film in four years – Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. And it’s the perfect break-up movie. The goofy auteur on ripping out your heart and stomping on it forever ...

Fri, Feb 7, 2014, 00:00

Dressed in a sharp grey suit and crisp white shirt, Spike Jonze does not seem properly attired for a one-man food fight. But 20 minutes after he sits down across the table from me, he plunges his head into lunch. He’s polite about it, of course: “Do you mind if I put my face in my food?” he inquires, pre-dive.

Up close, the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation looks a good deal more boyish than his 44 years. Doubly so when he emerges from his salad with a goofy grin and bits of lettuce and shrimp attached: “Where was I?”

The punchline to this tomfoolery is that Spike Jonze has just made the most mature, achingly romantic film of his career. Her, as audacious a cinematic dissection of love as we have seen since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, traces the relationship between sad-sack writer Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha, his computer’s intuitive operating system, as voiced with foxy aplomb by Scarlett Johansson.

It could, one feels, have belonged to the same unlovely subset of man-machine interfaces as S1mone. Instead, it’s a cerebral, full-blown weepie, an ideal date movie – released here on Valentine’s Day – and an even better break-up picture. Basically, it’s writer-director Jonze ripping out your heart and stomping on it forever.

“Oh good,” says Jonze. “I’m very sorry to have done that to you. But good, right? That is something. Break-up picture? Wow. What do you think would happen? How would that night go?”

There is more to Jonze’s conceit than mismatched or star-crossed love. Theodore romances Samantha in a sphere of corporeal and potential partners that includes supporting cast members Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde. It’s a world where everyone is perennially plugged in at the expense of human interaction. Is this the same dystopian postal code of the Jonzeiverse where he placed Arcade Fire for the 28-minute promo for Scenes from the Suburbs?

“I don’t think that the distinction between utopian and dystopian is a black-and-white distinction,” says the film-maker. “We could have sat here in this exact hotel room 100 years ago and had a talk about 2014. And depending on how you editorialise it could sound dystopian or utopian. The future is subjective. What’s relevant are the choices we make and how we find happiness in whatever context we find ourselves. For us, when we were designing this movie, we weren’t trying to design the future. We were trying to sense of the feelings we have right now. Whatever those are. And um…”

He pauses: “I have feelings about this. But they’re super-complex. I guess I’d rather just leave the movie with people and let them have their own experience with it. I try not to be judgmental as a person. That doesn’t mean I don’t judge things. But I try to look at things from as many different angles as possible. It’s the same thing when I’m making films.”

Her, accordingly, is a deceptively deep piece of cinema and one that demanded tough love. The editing process was lengthy and required the assistance of fellow auteurs Steven Soderbergh and David O Russell. More traumatically, there was a personnel change at the post-production stage. The role of Samantha, which had been played off camera and recorded with Samantha Morton, was recast. It’s a lucky break for Scarlett Johansson, who, ironically, has never been sultrier than as Her’s disembodied, souped up Siri-clone. But it can’t have been easy to let go of Morton, who gave her name to the character and who retains an executive producer credit on the finished film.