The Drum drops in on director Spike Jonze, the man behind Oscar-winning movie Her, and SapientNitro’s Nigel Vaz as they discuss the relationship of humanity and technology.
“The past is just a story we tell ourselves,” claims Samantha, the voice of the OS1 operating system in Her. The Spike Jonze film explores an emerging symbiosis between humanity and technology, and asks questions about our relationships, behaviours and emotions – including a sense of loss and sentimentality that is, at least for now, beyond the comprehension of technology.Jonze – fresh from the stage at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity – joins Nigel Vaz, European managing director of SapientNitro, in conversation about the director’s creative vision and processes. Jonze is understandably far more at ease in the comfortable hotel surroundings, speaking to a single person, than in front of an audience of hundreds. Despite winning an Academy Award for the screenwriting of a movie that successfully entwines science fiction with romantic comedy, Jonze doesn’t hold the film up as an oracle of future technology.The technology in Her – including the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, OS1, and an ‘earbud’ device that fits within the phone user’s ear to allow them hands-free communication – is for Jonze “a setting”. It is essential and ubiquitous, yet never the primary focus of the storyline.“There has always been the challenge of connecting authentically to someone and this is the latest set of circumstances that are in our lives. Every time I was writing a scene, there were so many ideas that I could have written about in terms of technology and relationships and emotion. Whenever I write a scene I always move towards what was emotion-based and the thing I really linked into, the relationships that I had been in, the feelings that I felt,” explains Jonze, of the purpose of his story.
Jonze is disarmingly honest about himself when he describes the lengthy editing process undertaken for each of his movies – around a year. This is when he truly hones his work and allows himself to reconsider and make changes. “I am smarter in retrospect,” he claims.When it comes to compiling footage for his stories, Jonze creates a list of 50 ideas and roots out over time those that won’t work. “It’s the editing process where I become intellectual and I throw out things. It’s a mixture of both of those parts of your brain.”The editing process for Her led Jonze to recast the actress who had voiced Samantha, replacing English actress Samantha Morton with Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson, despite Morton having recorded all of her work.He says: “Our editing process is evolutionary – where we are constantly rewriting it and reconceiving it. When you have characters that have voiceover, we can keep rewriting that dialogue over and over. It’s obviously a blessing and a curse. The script is a draft of the movie and then we shoot the draft and we keep writing more drafts.”This leads Vaz to press Jonze on how he collaborates with his team and his financial backers when working on either a film or commercials, and whether he is happy for others to join him on his journey.“I try to be very specific, before I take a job or somebody’s money; to be really clear about what it is I am doing. If they have any anxieties, it is voiced at that point,” says Jonze, who adds that by being clear about his plans upfront, he is able to continue his work free from interference.“When I have done ads, a lot of time I’ll get a set of boards which will evolve a lot from what’s written. Sometimes the agency will send me a set of boards and if there are elements that are iffy, but the one core idea is amazing, we go back and expand on that core idea. A lot of the time creatives then tell me that it was the idea they started with and they had to change it over the course of time. “In that situation, I am very upfront that I know how to do this, even though it was not what was sold. I am more than happy to talk to the client with the agency and explain how I would do it. Everybody has a set of challenges. All I can do is offer what I can contribute; if that’s not useful or helpful, it’s better that everyone knows where they stand.”
Jonze’s collaborators on Her proved crucial to the success of his vision of “slight future”. Neither Minority Report not Blade Runner in its subtle depiction of future technology, Her had the critical input of designers from Sagmeister & Walsh, architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio of DS+R and most importantly production designer KK Barrett, who played a key part in the light-touch portrayal of technology.Vaz, who spends much of his time considering the implications and opportunity at the intersection of story and technology, moves to highlight the realism behind Her, as it aims to tap into the human truth of loneliness in the context of our evolving relationship with technology.“What was clever about Her was that the technology was ever-present but largely invisible; in some ways that made it smarter technology, designed for the context of how people use it, which is how I would imagine technology would evolve in the future,” states Vaz. “There was a sophistication about the movie that made it not about the technology, but the characters.”One scene that captures both the loneliness and the link with technology comes as the main character, Theodore, lies on his bed talking to Samantha via the earbud, as though she is a woman lying next to him. This scene, Vaz suggests to Jonze, demonstrates that he successfully avoided a common mistake made in business – a focus on creating a new technology rather than serving a need or helping the user emote.“A problem around modern design is exactly that it often forgets there is a human being that has to consume that technology,” says Vaz. For Jonze, the decision to concentrate on building a world that would facilitate telling the story meant making a conscious choice about the design of his world’s technology and how overt a role it would, or would not play.A question often asked, and which Jonze and Vaz explore, is whether people are able to have true relationships with technology, the story at the very heart of Her. The film hints at, rather than proclaims, a future technological singularity and stops short of addressing some big questions around all-seeing operating systems and privacy. Vaz posits that the idea of an OS ‘life partner’ could fundamentally challenge existing perceptions of what is private and what is tracked – effectively the one remaining psychological barricade between us and the singularity of human and ‘machine’.For his part, Jonze claims not to be able to predict how the future humanity-technology relationship will play out. “We’re on this path,” he says. “We’ve only had ‘civilisation’ for 10,000 years in a universe that’s four billion years old. We’re young. Who knows what we are capable of and what is to come.”Plenty of film-makers have thrown enough fantastical, future-gazing devices into their work to ensure, presumably, that some of it stands the test of time. Jonze, for all his modesty, has hit upon a more sophisticated approach – one that may not just change the way tech is portrayed in film, but which challenges our presumption that humans and future technology are on parallel, rather than converging paths.This feature was first published in The Drum’s 25 June issue, guest-edited by Nigel Vaz. The magazine is available for purchase in The Drum store, or for subscribers to download here.Photography by Julian Hanford
The official trailer for Her can be viewed above.