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Joaquin Phoenix, Spike Jonze, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde discuss 'Her'

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix
Warner Bros. Pictures

Set in Los Angeles in the near future, “Her” (written and directed by Spike Jonze) tells the story of Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken and going through a divorce after being dumped by his estranged wife, Catherine (played by Rooney Mara), Theodore becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system (OS), which promises to be an intuitive and unique entity in its own right. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet Samantha, a bright, female voice (acted by Scarlett Johansson) who is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny. As her needs and desires grow in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an eventual love for each other.

Joaquin Phoenix, Spike Jonze, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde at the 2013 New York Film Festival press conference for "Her"
Carla Hay

Meanwhile, as Theodore's feelings for Samantha start to deepen, he confides in his best friend Amy about his complicated and confusing feelings about falling in love and having a relationship with an OS. Olivia Wilde has a supporting role in the movie as a woman who goes on a blind date as he tentatively starts dating again. "Her" had its world premiere at the 2013 New York Film Festival in New York City, where Jonze, Phoenix, Adams, Mara and Wilde gathered for a press conference on the day of the premiere. Here is what they said.

Spike, what sparked the idea for “Her”?

Jonze: The initial spark was an article I saw online, where it linked to an instant message … you could have an instant message with an artificial intelligence. It may have been called Alice Bot. It was 10 years ago … I had a little exchange. I had this buzz of, "Wow, I'm talking to this thing. This thing is listening to me."

And then quickly it devolved into this thing that wasn't intelligent; it was just parroting things it had heard before. It wasn’t intelligent but it was a clever program. I didn't really think about it for a long time. Then I eventually thought about a man having a relationship with an entity like that, but with a fully formed consciousness. I thought of the idea of, "What would happen if you had a real relationship?” And I used that as a way to write a relationship movie and a love story.

For the cast, what were your initial responses to the “Her” script?

Phoenix: I liked it.

Adams: I also liked it. I think I met with Spike before I read the script, so I was more into Spike's vision. It was compelling. It was at a time where I was really busy, and I had a baby, and I was like, “I don’t have it in me to do a film right now.” But every time I met with Spike, I couldn't say no because his vision was so beautiful, and it was in line with the kinds of issues I was dealing with. That’s the great about this film: Everyone finds their own pieces of issues in it. I just couldn’t say no. I just had to work with Spike.

Phoenix: You could say no though. You could’ve said no, Amy!

Adams: I couldn’t. He looks very sweet, but he’s very insistent.

Jonze: It was more like I would pretend I’d be about to cry if you said no, and you felt too guilty.

Mara: I really liked it too. I actually had to beg Spike for the part. I didn't have the option of saying no. I had to beg you for it.

Jonze: Beg?

Wilde: It worked. I loved the script. Everybody else was already in place. I loved that this supporting role was another piece of the puzzle that Spike needed. I wanted to figure out what Spike needed to serve the story, to make it complete, and to create something for Theodore to bounce off of, to then fall in love with Samantha. It’s kind of interesting.

It's the experience that pushes him into this deep love. I wanted to be able to make it work the way it needed to work for the story. And then Spike and I read for an hour-and-a-half and had so much fun with it. Even after that experience, I thought, “If that’s it, that’s already great. I already loved this experience.” Getting to go to China for a week and getting to hang out with these guys was pretty amazing.

Spike, can you talk about this very specific and detailed near-future world that you created with your longtime production designer K.K. Barrett, combining Los Angeles with the exteriors in Shanghai?

Jonze: The initial idea was to try to make this sort of future of L.A. that felt nice to be in and nice to live in sort of playing off of the fact that our world is getting nicer and nicer to live in. New York and Los Angeles especially L.A., where the weather is so nice, and there's great food, and you have the mountains and oceans, but even in that setting you can feel very isolated and very lonely. It seemed like an interesting setting.

I met the architects who did the Lincoln Center and the Highline — Liz [Diller] and Rick [Scofidio] — and this was when I was still writing the script, so I was still trying to figure out what it was. I got the opportunity to meet them and go to their office and talk to them. Liz had gone to film school before she became an architect, so she was very interesting to talk to because she came from an architect [background] but also storytelling.

And I remember asking her what the future could look like. And she asked a simple question, which was, “Is it a utopian future or dystopian future?” I started saying these ideas what I was imagining. I had this idea that it would look like the colors from Jamba Juice. And she said, “OK.” And she started giving ideas and talking about stuff.

It’s sort of the basic question she asked that made it concrete in a way. This is what I’m doing. I’m making this utopian future that you can, in this world, to feel lonely in that setting is even worse because it’s a world where you should be getting everything you need, seemingly.

Joaquin, what were some of the challenges of acting opposite someone who isn't there physically?

Phoenix: I'd like to say I trained really hard. But as an actor, I'm accustomed to walking around the house talking to myself. You rehearse all the time, so I don’t think it was that dissimilar.

Spike, how difficult has it been to maintain a creative identity over the last 20 years of your career?

Jonze: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I have a good answer for it. I guess just making a lot of mistakes, doing a lot of things along the way that didn’t feel like that was me … that felt inauthentic to me and sort of learning from those mistakes and staying on the things that felt more true to me, as opposed to me being somebody else.

Joaquin, can you talk about the loneliness aspect of “Her”?

Phoenix: I don’t know how to answer this. Spike just broke me, to be honest. All I was concerned about was trying to feel natural to something that wasn't there. I think I kind of overlooked the loneliness of the character. And so, in the first couple of weeks, Spike just crushed me. I'm not sure what happened or how, but that’s how I want to answer.

Spike, do you want to address that?

Jonze: How did I crush him?

Phoenix: You were shooting rubber bands at me.

Jonze: It’s true. Undermining him any chance I could get. No, I think he’s joking.

Phoenix: Yeah. [He points to Adams, Mara and Wilde] There are these three ladies who are so smart and beautiful. I feel like we should talk to them because they have so much to say.

Jonze: Rooney, please.

Mara: No.

Phoenix: Rooney, don’t do that. They flew you out here. I’m so sorry, everyone. Poor kid. She’s nervous.

Samantha Morton was the original voice of Samantha. How did Scarlett Johansson replacing Samantha Morton change the tone of the Samantha character and the tone of the movie?

Jonze: To be vague about it, every movie (at least the ones I’ve worked on) takes a long time to find what it is, and that was part of the process of this movie finding what it was. I’m hesitant to answer that question because what Samantha brought to the movie by being with us on set was huge. What she gave me in the movie and what she gave Joaquin off-camera was huge. And then I think what Scarlett have the movie was also huge. And I kind of would rather leave it at that.

Why did you decide not to give Samantha an avatar or image in cyberspace?

Jonze: Rooney, you can answer this thing, as the only college graduate …

Mara: The question was specifically for you. I have no idea why you decided not to use an avatar. I think it’s better that you didn’t, but I have no idea why.

Jonze: I liked the idea of her existing in the way she does exist, which is more in the ether and [Theodore’s] heart and psyche. So I think that was probably exactly what you said.

Wilde: I would add that I think as a fan of that choice, she then becomes your ideal; it becomes your own experience. Even if people are familiar with Scarlett's voice, and imagine her as an actress, it transforms that. I think she becomes whatever you want her to become. I think if you had defined her, you would have stopped people from being able to create that for themselves. That’s one cool effect of it.

Phoenix: Who needs a college education?

Wilde: Don’t need college! Not me!

Where did the Perfect Mom game come from in “Her”?

Jonze: I think it’s the pressure of parenthood and the peer pressure of parenthood seemed like a funny setting for a video game for me. Amy, you’re a parent. Do you find that kind of peer pressure?

Adams: Oh yeah. It’s really intense. I think we ad-libbed some of that stuff. Like, “Oh yeah, I know this.”

Jonze: Most of her commentary is ad-libbed because she knows it firsthand.

Can you talk about what “Her” says about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman and what it means to be intimate?

Jonze: I don’t know if I can live up to the question, but thank you for that … I was thinking about one of the conversations Olivia and I were having when we were rehearsing. It’s what you hear when somebody says something to you.

There’s a scene where Olivia says, “When am I going to see you again?” What does she hear when he says, “I’m not sure. I’m busy.” We were making up all kinds of stories about what she actually hears that gets her to the place where she says, “You’re a creepy dude.” That’s sort of inherent in everything we did: what you’re actually hearing when somebody is saying something — not exactly hearing what they say but hearing what you think they actually mean.

Wilde: Yeah, you said something really interesting yesterday about how the artificial intelligence carries no baggage. She’s pure, which makes her even more of a kind of an ideal romantically, of course. The difference between human and artificial intelligence is baggage. So whereas the blind date carries an enormous amount of pain and baggage and projecting all of that on what Theodore is saying, Samantha is so open-minded and only sees the best and assumes the best. That's the difference between human and artificial.

Jonze: One of the things we were talking about yesterday and what I talked a lot to Scarlett about that Samantha is brand new to the world, so she's like a child that hasn't learned any insecurities, any self-doubts. She learns those through the course of the movie. She has these experiences that give her those painful situations that create those self-doubts. And I think Scarlett, when we were first working on it, we were talking about it, that's when she [Scarlett Johansson] started to understand just how hard that role would be, to try and go back to that place where you don't have those kinds of fears yet.

When Amy and I started working together, we talked a lot about how we were meeting this character at this moment in time and where she’s been trying to be all these things to her husband and to her relationship and everything. She’s imploding.

Adams: I don't think it's a male or female thing, as far as intimacy. If Spike is exploring it from a male point of view, it’s because he's male. But I don't think being fearful of intimacy or lack of intimacy is specifically male or that is a failure in men specifically. And there are a lot of different reasons. It's hard to boil it down to one thing. Each person has their own reasons why intimacy is hard.

For Amy — and I'm not talking in third-person; I’m speaking of my character — Amy has a hard time with intimacy … because Amy has been pretending to be somebody else and something she's not, it keeps her from being herself. And when you're not expressing yourself as your true self, you can never find true intimacy, because you’re always hiding. And I think that the relationship she has with Theodore is the probably most intimate in her life because it's the most honest.

Can you talk about why so many of the characters in “Her” don’t really question the idea that a human can fall in love with an object that has artificial intelligence? Rooney’s Catherine character seems to be the only character in the movie who questions how normal it is.

Jonze: Yeah, there might have been a couple of other characters along the way that questioned it but fell by the wayside, but it seemed like Rooney’s character and Rooney’s performance sort of delivered that message and represented that part of the population. But yeah, there was sort of a general acceptance of it that seemed right for the film.

“Her” has a lot to say about the idea people expect relationships to be perfect. What was the starting point that you used to build the concept of relationships in this movie?

Jonze: I guess what you’re asking is how much did we talk about the ideas of the film versus the relationships and the characters of the film. I’d say we mostly talked about the relationships and the characters of the film. Joaquin?

Phoenix: Sounds good.

Jonze: Rooney?

Mara: Definitely.

Jonze: Amy?

Adams: Yeah, we just spent a lot of time dissecting the characters and finding the truth of where they were in that moment.

Jonze: One of the movies I watched when I was writing was “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” because that script is so incredibly written. It kind of does what you’re saying. There’s a lot of talking of ideas of what the movie is about, but mostly the characters are plowing through the story and taking you through the story with their decisions. I think it was really inspiring, that movie.

For more info: "Her" website