ORLANDO, Fla. -- Spike Jonze is reluctant to call his new film "Her" -- a melancholy romance about a man who falls in love with a sentient, learning and loving operating system -- "science fiction." He doesn’t want to talk about technology and the modest leap it makes from our cloud- and smartphone-obsessed present to a digitally romantic future.
"It’s not about technology," he says. Then he corrects himself. "It is, obviously, ‘about’ technology. Just not to me. It’s such a big idea -- that you could, one day, have a relationship with a computer operating system -- that I worry it will overwhelm what the movie is really about."
So he soft-sells his vision of the future. Everybody wears what appear to be stretch pants and Hush Puppies.
"The future is comfortable!"
Jonze, director of such challenging, genre-defying films as "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Where the Wild Things Are," offered his film to festivals and to critics.
And he’s been dealing with the praise, and the differing interpretations, ever since.
"One person says, ‘It’s about relationships. Or ‘It’s about evolution.’ I like that. It’s about our species and our society evolving. And on a micro level, it’s about one man evolving in his life and growing a little bit. We all try to evolve.
Is "Her" also about loneliness, the electronic isolation of the tweeting / texting age taken to a new level?
"We’ve always had ways of hiding from really connecting with each other," Jonze says. "There’s always been things that we used to avoid close contact. The technology is all that’s changing.
"This (handheld worldwide communication, social media, etc.) is a powerful thing that we can use right now, but we’ve always found a way to be lonely and avoid revealing ourselves to each other.
"All the ideas in the movie -- artificial intelligence, the direction society is heading -- were just a way of writing about relationships now, relationships forever. I wanted to look at the micro, this one strange romance, and the bigger picture, the macro -- the struggle for intimacy, the longing for love, wrestling with the things inside ourselves that prevent real intimacy."
His own take aside, Jonze is reconciled to the varying interpretations and appreciations of "Her," from "wryly funny (Variety) to "warm all over (Time), "probing, inquisitive" (The Hollywood Reporter) to "screwball" (Slant Magazine).
"I like anybody who reads something into it that makes my movie look smart."
"Her," which opened in limited release Dec. 18 and goes wide today -- in the Berkshires it will be playing at Beacon Cinema in Upstreet Pittsfield -- didn’t come easily. Whole characters (one played by Oscar winner Chris Cooper) were cut in the final edit. And while he zeroed in on Joaquin Phoenix as his soulful, sad hero Theodore, the voice Theodore that falls in love with, "Samantha," started out as actress Samantha Morton. She was on set, the "Samantha" Phoenix responds to in all the flirtatious, funny, and romantic interactions. Then Jonze decided Morton’s voice didn’t deliver all he wanted out of the character, and he brought in Scarlett Johansson.
"We learned a lot about voice acting on ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ " Jonze says. That film had gigantic puppets voiced by actors like James Gandolfini. Despite Morton’s yeoman’s service on the set, what Jonze wanted out of "Samantha" was something only Johansson could bring.
"Scarlett is a force, this woman with a self-possessed charm that’s all about intelligence and wit. When she makes fun of you, it’s a badge of honor. She’s that smart, and that leads to confidence and that comes through in her voice Š Having that kind of self-possession was key to her performance, I think. It’s a lot of what makes her sexy and so very attractive, that confident voice."
Jonze -- he was born Adam Spiegel -- came to film from the music-video universe, and every movie he’s made -- hit or miss -- has been challenging and amusing, romantic with the sting of loneliness. Divorced from Sofia Coppola, linked at various times to actresses Michelle Williams and Rinko Kikuchi, he still describes himself as a "very private person." "Her," a film he both wrote and directed, is his biggest statement on loneliness yet. It’s tempting to watch Theodore, who falls in love with a disembodied voice that "gets" him, as autobiography. Is Jonze a lonely man?
"I don’t know how to answer that. No idea. Especially in the context of an interview.
"But I guess, to be fair, there’s a lot of me in all the characters. Lonely, flirtatious, whoever. That’s the hope of writing, that you empathize with all the characters you create. You are both sides, all sides, in every conversation. So I am Theodore. But also Samantha. And everybody else."