Interviewer Tom Jackson
A romance between a loner and his Siri-like operating system, Her is a love story like no other. We spoke to writer/director Spike Jonze about shooting dumb skits in high school, self-doubt and success.
What was the first thing you ever directed?
Me and my friends, we were the first generation with home video cameras, so in high school we'd shoot really dumb skits, always involving drug deals, like zip lock bags with flour in them and cop show re-enactments. I don't think I ever used the word 'directing', but they were the first videos I ever made.
Did you keep the videos?
They're somewhere, at least I hope I still have some of them. It's funny 'cos I did them when I was 14, 15, and then when I was 24 we did the Beastie Boys video "Sabotage". A couple of years later I found one of those videos and I realised that "Sabotage" is a lot like what we made in high school: weird glasses, fake moustaches, using flour as fake coke, it was all the same stuff. And it was just funny to realise I was making the same stuff all over again but just much better, and with much more fun actors and the Beastie Boys who are easily the most charismatic band ever made.
Speaking of the early days, the stories you tell in your movies, music videos, even commercials are often very unusual. The concept for your first film, Being John Malkovich, is so bizarre. How did you convince someone to give you the money to make it?
A lot of it is credited to the people I work with. I guess to my credit it's choosing those people, but it's their sensibility, their courage and their belief. Steve Golin owned this company called Propaganda and at the time they represented me and a bunch of other directors. I brought him the script for Being John Malkovich and said I wanted to make it; he supported it and he got it. I don't think anyone else could have got that film made except Steve Golin. A lot of it is finding the right people. For Her, Megan Ellison produced it, and she is someone who is very confident in her taste, someone who's going to live and die by what her taste is and I think that has a lot to do with it.
You work on all sorts of projects, why is it important for you to have so many creative outlets?
I don't differentiate that much between movies and everything else; the only obvious differentiation is the length of them, in that a movie is two hours versus a music video that's three minutes or a skate video that's 60 minutes. For me, I'm pretty slow. Where the Wild Things Are took five years, but that's the only differentiation. One isn't a distraction from the other. It's more a fluid thing. It's like now I have an idea for this, or this would be exciting, or it would be really fun to get together and do another movie with Jeff Tremaine and Johnny Knoxville. We just did this movie called Bad Grandpa...
Can you tell us a bit about that?
They're two old friends, and we've made things together forever and so I wrote it and produced it with the two of them and Jeff directed it. The three of us have a really strong collaborative relationship. It's a really rare thing. Obviously, Jeff is the director and he's gotta get his thing done, but it's like being in a band because it's very democratic. Usually we don't do anything unless all three of us are into it, but if two are really into it and one is on the fence you can get out-voted, but if one of us wants to veto something because it doesn't feel right, even if the other two really wanted to do it, we always listen to them, which is something I really learned from the Beastie Boys. The three of them are just this incredible democracy. I think it's a part of who they are as a band creatively. They have this real love between the three of them.
Do you carry that collaborative spirit over to your movie sets?
It's a little different because on a movie set my responsibility is to the idea of the movie, and that's for me to define what the movie is. Charlie Kaufman wrote my first two films, and he's such a visionary writer so we would talk a lot about what the film was about, but ultimately I had to make a movie that was about what it was about to me. And he was OK with that. My responsibility is to know what the scene is about, what the moment is about, but it always comes back to what the movie is about. To get there I'm working with these incredibly talented, smart people – the actors, the cinematographer, the production designer – in order to try and get the best ideas. I'll take ideas from everyone, but my job ultimately is to curate those ideas, and figure out which ideas are the right ideas. Because it might be a great idea, but if it's not the right idea it doesn't matter.
How have you managed to only work on projects you seem to be passionate about? You're always busy, but you've only made four films in 15 years. No one could ever accuse you of selling out, or doing anything just for money...
I've certainly made things that I've felt less strongly about, where I've thought, 'Maybe I did that for the wrong reasons'. You know, like I did that job 'cause I really wanted to go shoot something in Brazil. I mean if that's your goal, 'Oh we get paid a lot and we get to shoot in Brazil' then you're going to succeed in that goal but you're not necessarily going to make something good.
Can you tell us about this wonderful Brazil job?
No. I mean it's not bad, it's just not something that felt like me. I think the key is, and I don't really remember who told me this, but the idea of keeping a low overhead. Never really spending that much money, never having credit cards and credit card debt means you don't really have things that you have to make money for. Not having an expensive car or apartment in LA when I was young and not spending money meant I didn't have to do things for money. Basically I would just do things, even if I was getting paid, I would only do things that I would have done, even if they were free.
What about when you get into the creative process and you have people, like the studio, other producers, even your friends... how do you stick to your vision and always make exactly what you want to make?
Well, there are two different things. One is having confidence in your ideas versus being influenced by other people, which has more to do with self-doubt, and I've definitely been in places where I've had self-doubt and therefore I think that this other person who's really creative, their ideas are more valuable than mine. I don't know what you do about that. Self-doubt is just a constant thing.
So you have self-doubt?
Sure, yeah, definitely. But I think just taking the time to reflect on it and going back to 'What's the movie about? What's this thing about for me?', and then living and dying by that. Where the Wild Things Are was a movie to me about what it feels like to be that age. I wanted to make a movie that wasn't so plot driven, but more of a mood piece about how scary it can be to be young. And the world feeling out of control. And the emotional volatility of the people you're close to. And the danger of the world. And you're trying to understand the world, and navigate the world. And taking the internal and external life of a nine year old really seriously. And that's what Maurice's work always did. He wrote about children as people. They might not have as much experience as we do at our age, but what's scary is just as scary, what hurts is just as hurtful, what's heartbreaking is just as heartbreaking and what's exciting is just as exciting.
But anyway, I had doubt as I was making Where the Wild Things Are, because I knew I wasn't making a family film. I was making this character film. It wasn't plot driven, it was emotion driven. I had doubt, but at the same time, I thought 'I just have to commit to this. This is my intention, this is what I feel is best for the movie and I've committed to it'. And I definitely got shit for it, but I feel like I succeeded with what I set out to do. It's really about deciding what success means to you. I think in this world there are a lot of things that from the outside can alter your definition of what success is.
So what is success to you then?
It's getting as close to the feeling I started with as possible. And in Her, it's starting with these feelings and ideas about relationships and longing and loneliness and the fears we project onto the people we're intimate with and trying to explore all that. You hope that what you create connects with people, but I realised that can't be the goal and that can't be how I judge myself. I just have to be clear about the intention I'm starting with and how close I get to that. And that to me is more satisfying. If my goal is to go to Brazil and get paid, you know, it's fun, but ultimately it isn't that fulfilling. What I realised is most fulfilling is to have a feeling that I'm trying to get to, and judging myself on how close I get to that feeling.
That's a very healthy definition of success. OK, so lastly, what's the one question you always get asked but are sick of answering?
They always ask me about why I stabbed that guy when I was in prison. And I just can't answer it anymore. If you want to know the answer Google it. It's online, you can look it up.
Her is out in Australian cinemas on January 16 and we have five double passes to give away thanks to Sony. This comp has now closed.