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Love between man and OS is ‘real complex,’ says ‘Her’ director

3-9-07 Staff mug shot Bill Zwecker. phoby Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

3-9-07 Staff mug shot of Bill Zwecker. photo by Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

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Updated: January 24, 2014 6:21AM

Multi-hyphenate Spike Jonze — writer, director, actor, producer — already has earned his niche in Hollywood history thanks to such films as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Where The Wild Things Are.”

Now Jonze has written and directed “Her,” opening Wednesday and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man living in the near future who falls in love with his computer’s operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. (Think iPhone’s Siri evolved to the nth degree.)

I sat down with Jonze at Chicago’s Public Hotel to learn where he got the idea and how he went about creating a futuristic Los Angeles that was not automobile-dependent.

Q. This is such an unusual story idea. Where did it come from?

A. I often get an idea, thinking to myself, “That would be an intriguing idea for a movie,” then I write it down and put it into this file in my computer where I keep those thoughts. To be honest, a lot of them are only a paragraph and I never go back to them because they might be a cool idea, but just not practical from a filmmaking aspect.

In this case, the line about a man falling in love with an artificial operating system — and it actually becoming a movie — had to do with the passage of time. I got the idea about 10 years ago, but about five years ago, it hit me that I should start writing this as a relationship movie and making it a real complex relationship between these two beings. A paragraph turned into 10 pages then 60 pages of notes before I even began writing the script. I realized I actually had something here.

Q. Is it true that Joaquin Phoenix collaborated with you as the screenplay evolved?

A. Yeah, the interesting thing about Joaquin is that while sometimes he’s not the most articulate in the sense of being a filmmaker — never working on it from the outside by saying, “The story needs to do this” — he would say things like, “This doesn’t feel right,” because he actually became Theodore and immediately captured the essence of who that man is. He never would go the easy path. He never cheats or makes things simplistic. He’s always going for much deeper ways to express character. His native intuition is very strong — one of the strongest I’ve ever seen in an actor.

Q. The Theodore character you created is the top writer at something called — where ironically, he pens fabulous love letters, thank you notes and congratulatory messages that look handwritten but are computer generated. Do you send hand-written letters yourself, or are you sending most messages via email today?

A. Of course, I do now write more emails, but I do think it’s important to pick up a pen and put it to paper and send a handwritten note as often as possible. I think it means more to people who received those letters. I certainly know I appreciate it, when I get one.

Q. Often films set in “the near future” look phony. How did you go about giving the film its look — merging contemporary Los Angeles with touches of Shanghai, to give it the feeling you wanted?

A. A lot of it was big decisions about what we’d take away in a L.A. a few years from now — for example, the traffic. We thought, “Let’s take away cars. Let’s take away baseball caps. Let’s take away jeans. Let’s take away T-shirts with logos. Let’s take away sneakers, for the most part.” It was about eliminating stuff and working from a narrower path. It was about people having to deal with environmental issues — hence eliminating cars and having an excellent public transportation system. But also, with the jeans and logo T-shirts, etc. — it was about fantasizing how people would consider those things passé, no longer cool.

Then, of course, we merged scenes of Shanghai in L.A., as that is such a futuristic-looking city, and presuming a massive amount of construction had taken place to make Los Angeles a more developed, livable city.

Q. Scarlett Johansson wasn’t your original Samantha (the voice of the operating system). You started with Samantha Morton. When the change to Scarlett?

A. To begin with Samantha was great, but when we got fairly far — in post-production actually — we realized that what we needed for that character was something very different than what Samantha and I had created together. So we recast and Scarlett became the voice.

I try never to make the same movie twice, so in every movie I have to discover what it is, and often that happens in the process of making it. Things evolve and change. That’s what makes it exciting. When we found Scarlett, after reading with many, many people, I could feel she was right. I sort of would lean into what she was saying. She had this intelligence in her voice and charisma — and of course that huskiness to her voice, the timbre and warmth of her voice. It just worked. Most important was the person inside the voice that just clicked. She knew something about herself, there was a confidence about herself that resonated with me.

Q. At the core of your film is how Samantha (the voice) evolves and how that complicates the relationship she has with Joaquin’s Theodore. How did you come up with all that?

A. Basically, I wanted to make two movies in one. On the one hand there’s this relationship that Theodore has with his operating system who is 1,000 times faster than he is and can do so much more than any human. But on the other hand I wanted to make a relationship movie about a guy who is in love with that kind of entity. It’s complicated and it’s ultimately impossible, especially when you’re emotionally invested in that relationship. It’s about the challenge of falling in love with someone and remaining in love with them as they evolve — because, let’s face it, we’re all changing constantly. You fall in love with someone and you want them to let you change and grow, but you also have to let them do the same thing — or you should. It raises the question: Can you still love them, no matter who they become?

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