Oscars 2014: With 'Her,' Spike Jonze gets into relationships

Oscars 2014: With 'Her,' Spike Jonze gets into relationships
Director Spike Jonze and songwriter Karen O during filming of "Her." (Lance Bangs / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Spike Jonze's idiosyncratic risk-taking has been rewarded with broad acclaim throughout his career, including two Directors Guild of America nods and four Oscar nominations (three this year alone for "Her"). Still, he's not immune to doubt.

"To be honest, in editing, there's always periods where I feel like the movie is never gonna work," he says. "'It's a noble idea, but ultimately a flawed idea.' Usually it'll go away after a week or so and I'll be excited about the movie again."


To craft "Her's" unique love story involving Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer's operating system, Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), Jonze and his collaborators fixed their courage and created a pleasant, clean, near-future Los Angeles — more Gene Roddenberry than Aldous Huxley.

Jonze says he and his longtime production designer, K.K. Barrett, "talked a lot about creating this world where everything is easy and comfortable, accessible and warm, and yet there's still this loneliness and longing and need for connection; that pull between the seemingly utopian world and that particular type of melancholy that seems like a heightened version of what can exist today." Jonze is speaking in a conference call that includes his friend and collaborator Karen O of the alternative rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The songwriter is nominated with Jonze for the film's handmade love ballad, "The Moon Song."

The writer-director says he had the film's initial idea 10 years ago, spurred by his "conversation" with a proto-artificial intelligence, but about five years ago started thinking of it in deeper terms.

"Had the idea just stopped at a guy having a relationship with an artificially intelligent program, I probably wouldn't have continued developing the story," he says. "I realized it could be a means for me to write about relationships, as complexly as I could pull off. Two people connecting, trying to be intimate, is as complicated an idea as there is."

It's easy to see how the concept of "Her" could have been transformed — perhaps into an R-rated comedy or a dystopian thriller — if more commercial concerns had come to the fore.

"I'm fortunately removed from that kind of development process," says Jonze. "My process is much more internal. It's ultimately sort of closing my eyes and trying to home in on a feeling that is important to me, and following that feeling wherever it leads me."

Karen O laughs when Jonze asks if she remembers when he first shared the concept with her: "I don't remember when, but it didn't shock me. I didn't think you were crazy for having that idea. It seemed kind of up your alley, really," she says.

Jonze asked the indie rocker, who also collaborated on his 2009 film "Where the Wild Things Are," to compose a song for a tender scene in which Theodore and Samantha improvise a tune together. Karen O has said she wrote and recorded the delicate ukulele song at her dining room table.

"I think my main reference was that scene from 'The Jerk,' where Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sang 'Tonight You Belong to Me,'" she says. "It's such a memorable moment and he's playing on the ukulele; it was definitely sort of a nod to that."

Jonze says of the composition, "I thought it was perfect. What Karen does well is she can home in on a feeling inside her and channel it through her music. The lyric, they're 'a million miles away' on the moon together, a million miles from everyone else — that feeling of falling in love and being with somebody in their own world — it's something only they share … I loved that.

"At the same time, there was a little bit of foreshadowing … a bittersweet [hint] that she was going off into space. I think it was in that little balance that we went back and forth on the lyrics a lot, just through emails."


Karen O agrees: "Initially, it was a little too bittersweet, and you wanted to warm it up a little bit. [The collaborating] helped a lot because it brought it to that place you're talking about, being in that world a million miles from everyone else rather than a million miles from each other."

"Yeah," says Jonze. "If anything, my lyrical contribution was 'More of the sweet, less of the bitter.'"

Although Jonze had given her the script soon after he finished it ("for her notes"), Karen O didn't see the scene with their song until the premiere.

"He kind of saved it for me.... I got butterflies in my stomach, you know? I got self-conscious about it; that's my character," says the indie rocker. "But I thought it was a pretty sweet moment in the film. I kind of blushed."