Spike Jonze Interview: Her, Joaquin Phoenix, Expendables 4

Interview Matt Edwards 2/13/2014 at 8:41AM

Spike Jonze, the director of Her, chats about directing Joaquin Phoenix, his Expendables 4 plot idea, and more...

Let me get this right out of the way: I did not want to leave at the end of this interview. I wanted to stay and talk to Spike Jonze some more. There are a few reasons for this. One is that Spike Jonze has had a long, interesting career. There’s a lot to ask him about. He’s directed so many notable music videos, some great feature films (Being John Malkovich and Where The Wild Things Are) and has been a part of the Jackass team since its inception.

Then, there’s that Spike Jonze is so much fun to talk to. Eloquent, friendly, enthusiastic and inspiring. This may rank amongst the most unprofessional things said on Den of Geek so far this year, but I just really wanted to hang out with Spike Jonze.

Still, being unprofessional in this introduction is one thing, refusing to leave an interview is quite another. Spike Jonze is a busy man, and with Edith Bowman awaiting her interview slot it simply wasn’t the time for an idiot like me to be causing delays. I was also aware that being dragged away by security may have made an impression that would have made a second interview somewhere down the road less likely.

For now, then, here’s how my chat with the rambunctious and radical Spike Jonze.

How are you? Are you well?

I’m really good. Yeah. 

I saw Her this morning. It’s really good. I really liked it. 

Thank you.

This is your first feature solo script, right? So...

No, I’ve done Lord Of The Rings, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and I did Being There with Peter Sellers and Barton Fink. Did you see Barton Fink

Yeah.

So I’ve written some films in the past. 

Well, excuse me.

Oh, and Annie Hall. That was my first movie. 

[Laughs] How was writing on your own different to your previous directorial films? Did it give you any different challenges? 

Yeah. Writing is hard. As you obviously know, sitting there with nothing on the page and having to create something out of nothing is hard. But I loved it. I feel like I’m ready now. Where The Wild Things Are, I think I could have written on my own. When I brought Dave Eggers on I already had 60 pages of notes. I technically could have, but I don’t think I was ready to. I needed him to be there and help me. 

You picked quite a subject for it. A man falls in love with an operating system, which is difficult to believe because people hate new operating systems. How difficult was it to make that believable? It must have been a huge challenge.

[Laughs] I didn’t even think that people hate new operating systems. That’s a great interpretation. 

It was definitely the challenge of the movie, to believe that love story. I think I realised that the script is almost deceptively easy to read because everybody is on the same level playing field. Like reading a book, you imagine all the characters. Now in a movie you’re suddenly forced to imagine one character when the other ones are so vividly portrayed, in flesh and skin. You get to see their expressions shift and their eyes shift, their anxiety build or release. You see everything happen.

But to me that’s exciting. In our movies we create impossible challenges. Not impossible, because that’s ridiculous [Laughs]. We, er... 

You set challenges that most other people wouldn’t know how to approach, maybe?

We try to. I think that’s what makes it exciting and makes it dangerous. I think I realised that I need to have a real risk of failure and danger to get my adrenaline up. It’s like jumping off a hotel roof into a swimming pool. Which you have to have, because if you jump off the building without adrenaline and are a little bit more casual about it, you not might clear all the cement that you need to clear. Usually there’s 15 feet of cement between the wall of the building and the swimming pool and you need to really push off, and you need that adrenaline to get that extra boost. 

One of the things I liked that you did, with a relationship between a man and technology, normally these are things that are presented to us, especially in movie theater and media, quite fearfully.

FUCK THAT SHIT!

YEAH!

Right?

Right!

OK!

But was that something you were conscious of subverting, or not adhering to?

No, not in that way, although I like what you’re saying. I think my nature is, at least I try, to not judge, and in this movie I try to not judge the characters. I like people that define their own values. I am much more interested in somebody who has their own definition of what they value, their own definition of what success is, their own definition of what love is. That’s much more interesting and much more meaningful. Somebody that has to fight against social norms and somebody who like... did you see Lana Wachowski speech? I forget what it is, about civil rights; it’s some society that is honouring her. Did you see that?

I haven’t, no. 

Look at it and link to it in this article, if you will. It’s so inspiring to me and so beautiful. 

[I believe this is the video Spike is referring to. It is indeed a very inspiring speech]

It was right around last year when they did Cloud Atlas. Did you see that movie?

-I didn’t, no. 

You didn’t? Jesus Christ! You’re not a nerd. Get out of here!

I just didn’t get around to seeing it.

It’s definitely, definitely worth seeing. It’s so ambitious and authentic and genuine. 

Anyways. I love that. I love people that willfully defy what you’re supposed to be and create their own definition of their selves.

Joaquin Phoenix is so good in this.

Thank you.

He’s great. He has a reputation as being quite intense. How was he to work with?

Well, he’s intense in that he cares and that he can’t lie. If he’s not feeling something...

[A noise in the hallway]

There he is, right there. 

If he’s not feeling something, it’s my responsibility as the director to help him figure out. As opposed to other actors who are like, ‘Okay, I don’t get it but I’ll act it for you’, he doesn’t know how to act. He’d tell you himself, he doesn’t know how to act. If he’s faking it, he won’t do it. And so, I think in that way, he’s intense, but intense in the best way, intense in the most beautifully sincere way.

I didn’t really know him and I wanted to talk to him about this movie and I went and met him, I realised that he’s somebody that takes his work really seriously but he doesn’t take himself seriously at all. Like, there’s not an air of pretension about him. I think you get the impression from his work that he’s just like this intense, brooding guy, but he’s the biggest clown there is, so in that way he was also a joy to work with. We were on this adventure together and trying to go intimate and deep together, but also...

...have fun?

Yeah, have fun, or at least, whether it’s fun, enjoy the intensity. ‘Cause not everything is necessarily going to be fun but it can be rich. Not everything in life is going to be fun, but you can still try and appreciate it in all its bloody mess.

Moving on slightly, you’re associated with Jackass.

No I’m not. I’ve never heard of that before. No, I’m kidding.

That’s quite different from, I’ve spoken to people about films you’ve made, they don’t associate ‘this’ Spike Jonze with ‘this’ Spike Jonze. They think of you as two separate people. Does that come up regularly?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, in interviews. Not in my life. Knoxville and Tremaine are two of my oldest friends and we make these things together. Eric Zumbrunnan and Jeff Buchanan, Hoyte van Hoytema who actually this is the first movie [we’ve worked together on], my crew who I work with that I’ve worked with, like Eric, Casey our costume designer, K.K. our production designer, Thomas Smith our first AD, that’s my group of friends I’ve worked and made stuff with forever, my friend. Rick Howard and Megan Baltimore and Mike Carroll, we have a skateboard company together, we have Girl and Chocolate. These are just my friends I make stuff with, and they’re all part of me and what I’m excited about.  

So, you’ve directed John Malkovich and two Nic Cages, which is an action trope, someone playing two characters. Would we ever get Spike Jonze’s Expendables 4, and what would that be like?

[Laughs] Well...um...what would it be? You tell me. You write it, I’ll make it. Pitch me, right now. 

I don’t have anything for you. Well, there’d be Stallone and... three Nic Cages? And they’d just be fighting Jason Statham for 90 minutes. 

Well, what if it was all Nic Cages?

All Nic Cage? Now I’m on board.

The Expendables 4 with all Nic Cages. I would die to do that movie. Imagine how good he would be. ‘Cause in those action movies you have the hero guy that needs to get back in the saddle again, you have the guy that is getting reluctantly pulled back in, the nerdier guy who’s good at technology and the bomb guy who’s socially awkward, so he’d play all the different guys in the action movie. And he’d play the bad guy, obviously. 

Ahh, action movie bad guy Nic Cage would be great. 

All right, I’ll work on it. 

What’s your favorite Jason Statham movie?

All of them. I couldn’t pick. I mean, how could you pick? I won’t marginalise that man and his work by picking one. 

Thank you, Spike Jonze. By the time this goes to press I promise I will have seen Cloud Atlas.

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