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Spike Jonze interview: Her is my 'boy meets computer' movie

Spike Jonze’s new film with Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams is up for five Oscars, but don’t expect your normal romcom, he says

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 multi-million 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 (he’s the penny-stocks broker Jordan Belfort meets). And we haven’t even got to the films yet.

Her is Jonze’s 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. He’s just won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. And he’ll go to the Oscars in March with Her up for five awards, including Best Picture – one of the Academy’s saner decisions this season.

The story of how a Los Angeles loner named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls for his computer’s new Siri-like Operating System, it’s an eerily prescient piece – a Singles for the Smartphone generation. “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, a robot romance starring Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory.

Joaquin Phoenix with Amy Adams in Spike Jonze's 'Her'

At 44, Jonze is in the perfect position to predict the near-future – having lived through the pre-Internet, analogue age. “I feel really lucky that I got to experience the Eighties, but also lucky that I got to experience the Nineties, and super-lucky that I’m getting to experience right now,” he says. “Everything is happening so fast in the last ten years – like the internet. I remember when MySpace came out. It did do something pretty incredible – which was unite people around the world with common interests and common tastes.”

Admitting he’s fascinated by the evolution of computers (“Is artificial intelligence less than our intelligence?” he ponders), 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 Theodore gradually becomes intimate with his OS – who names herself Samantha (voiced, brilliantly, by Scarlett Johansson). “I realized 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 rom-com, 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.”

Spike Jonze in the Golden Globe press room. The director won Best Screenplay at the awards for 'Her'

Jonze has been married, to writer-director Sofia Coppola – and you have to wonder if Theodore, who begins the film separated from his wife, is something of a self-portrait. Divorcing Coppola in 2003 – he’s since been linked to actresses Michelle Williams and Rinko Kikuchi – it wasn’t the first time Jonze dealt with the pain of separation. Born as Adam Spiegel, his own parents divorced before he was in high school. His father Arthur ran an international health-care consulting firm in New York, while his mother Sandy remained in Maryland, where Jonze was raised, working in public relations.

He found solace in the friends he made at Rockville BMX store – where he got the ‘Spike’ nickname due to his unkempt appearance. From there, he won a job on Freestylin’ magazine photographing bikers and skateboarders. But this was the Eighties, a different era. “That was the last time subcultures were truly subcultures, meaning nobody gave a shit outside that subculture. As far as skateboarding, not only did nobody give a shit, people looked down on it. Like independent music or punk rock music. Nobody gave a shit.”

Yet somebody was watching; his early effort Video Days, a twenty-minute reel of skateboarders pulling stunts, led to Sonic Youth hiring him to shoot footage for their promo for 100 per cent. Since then, he turned the Beastie Boys into ’70s cops for ‘Sabotage’, put Björk in a Busby Berkley-style routine for ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ and made a man with a dog’s head troop through the streets holding a boom box for Daft Punk’s ‘Da Funk’. 

When we meet, Jonze has just come from the YouTube awards, shooting a live ‘video’ for Arcade Fire’s ‘Afterlife’, but he’s surprisingly off-hand about a medium that he, along with the likes of Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham and Jonathan Glazer, turned into an art form. “I’m not as excited about doing them as I once was. And there are a lot more people are much more excited, and should be doing it, because they’re living it. I don’t want to do it just to do it.”

Understandably, he’s more focused on his career as a filmmaker now; even his videos have begun to take on the form of mini-movies, as with his sublime 28-minute promo for Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’, a more disquieting vision of the near future. Yet he says he’s hopeful for the shape of things to come. “Maybe that’s me being naïve 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 14 February