People often have difficulties in starting and maintaining romantic relationships, as they find it challenging to truly be honest and intimate with the person they love, and allowing that person to do the same. As people are always changing and growing, they ponder how they can allow the person they love the freedom to truly be who they are all the time. That struggle of finding someone who truly listens, understands and knows you, and accepts your ever-changing personality, is the main driving force in the new romance comedy-drama, ‘Her.’
‘Her,’ which is set in the near future in Los Angeles, follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a complex man who works as a writer, who pens touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken after his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), who he’s known most of his life, ends in divorce, he goes on a blind date with a new woman (Olivia Wilde), only to discover dating in the real world again isn’t as easy as he expected. He then becomes increasingly intrigued with a new, advance operating system. Upon initiating the system, Theodore is delighted to meet Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny voice who runs it.
As Samantha’s needs and desires to become human and connect with Theodore increase, in connection with his own growing feelings, their friendship deepens into an eventual love for each other. Theodore navigates his confusing new relationship with the help of his friend Amy (Amy Adams), who has also started up a romantic relationship of her own with her new operating system, after her and her husband separate, as well.
Phoenix, Mara, Adams, Wilde and Jonze generously took the time recently to participate in a press conference following the Press and Industry screening of ‘Her’ during the 51st New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Among other things, the actors and writer-director discussed how the filmmaker’s knowledge of instant messaging with an artificial intelligence on the Internet, and his questioning of what would happen if a person developed a true relationship with an operating system, led him to make the movie; how the world could become a nicer place to live, but people like Theodore can still feel isolated from society and humanity, and only find comfort in technology; and how Jonze didn’t create an avatar or an identity in cyberspace for Samantha, as that viewers could create whatever vision of her in their own minds.
Question (Q): Spike, where did you come up with the idea to make a film about a human’s intimate relationship with an artificial intelligence operating system?
Spike Jonze (SJ): The initial spark was something I saw online, where you can have an instant message with an artificial intelligence. It may be called Alice Bot. It was from ten years ago. I had this buzz of, “Wow, I’m talking to this thing.”
Then it devolved into this thing, that wasn’t intelligent, it was just parodying things it had heard before. 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, “What would happen if you had a real relationship with one?”
Q: For the cast, what were your responses to the script, and how did you become involved in the film?
Joaquin Phoenix (JP): I liked it. (laughs)
Amy Adams (AA): I was more into Spike’s vision, as I thought it was compelling. It was at a time where I was really busy, and I had just had a baby, and I thought, I didn’t want anything to do with film right now. I couldn’t say no because his vision is so beautiful. It was in line with the kinds of issues I was dealing with. I had to work with Spike.
Rooney Mara (RM): I really liked this movie. I actually had to beg Spike for the part. I didn’t have the option of saying no. It worked.
Olivia Wilde (OW): I loved the script. Everybody else was already in place. I loved that this supporting role was another piece of the puzzle. I wanted to figure out what Spike needed from me to serve the story. I wanted to create something for Theodore to bounce off of, so that he could then fall in love with Samantha. 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.
Spike and I spent an hour and a half and had so much fun with it. Getting to go to China for a week and getting to hang out with these guys was amazing.
Q: What was the process of creating a utopian future world set in Los Angeles?
SJ: The initial idea was to try to make this sort of future that felt nice to be in and nice to live in. We were playing off of the fact that our world is getting nicer and nicer to live in. We wanted to show that in 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 had this idea that it would look like the colors from Jumba Juice. To feel lonely in that setting is even worse because you should be getting everything you need.
Q: What was the process of portraying the emotion of loneliness in the story?
JP: All I was concerned about was trying to feel natural to something that wasn’t there. I think I kind of overlooked the loneliness character. The first couple of weeks, Spike just crushed me, and I’m not sure what happened, or how.
Q: What were some of the challenges of acting opposite someone who isn’t there?
JP: I’d like to say I trained really hard. As an actor, I’m accustomed to walking around the house talking to myself, and I’m not sure what happened, or how.
Q: Why did you decide not to give Samantha an avatar or an identity in cyberspace?
OW: As a fan of Spike’s choice, I’ll say she becomes your ideal, and 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.
Q: How did you work with Scarlett after she was cast as Samantha, to create the character’s identity?
SJ: I talked a lot to Scarlett about how Samantha is brand new to the world, so she’s a child that hasn’t learned anything. She doesn’t have any insecurities, and doesn’t have any self-doubts. She learns these feelings through the course of the movie. She has these experiences that give her those painful situations that create those doubts. That’s when Scarlett 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.
Q: How does artificial intelligence differ from human intelligence?
OW: Spike said something very interesting about how the artificial intelligence carries no baggage. Samantha is pure, which makes her kind of an ideal. The difference between humans and artificial intelligence is baggage. So whereas the blind date carries an enormous amount of baggage, Samantha is so open-minded and only sees the best. That’s the difference.
Q: How was intimacy captured from a male’s perspective in the film?
AA: I don’t think it’s a male or female thing, as far as intimacy goes. Spike is exploring it from a male point of view because he’s male, but I don’t think having a lack of intimacy is specifically a male thing. It’s not a specific failure in men, and there are a lot of different reasons; it’s hard to boil it down to one thing. Each person has reasons why intimacy is hard.
For my character Amy, and I’m not talking in the third-person (laughs), she has been pretending to be something she’s not, so it keeps her from being herself. If you’re not expressing yourself as your true self then you’re not finding intimacy. The relationship she has with Theodore is the most intimate because it’s the most honest.
To see segments from the ‘Her’ press conference, watch the Part I and Part II clips on YouTube.