By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Given his offbeat body of work, a request by filmmaker Spike Jonze for interviewers to find his answers elsewhere doesn't seem strange. Not that any questions about his unconventional romance Her are off-limits, just that five in particular keep coming up.
"I hope that's not rude," Jonze said by telephone from Miami, a day after the movie and his direction were named 2013's best by the National Board of Review. Her garnered three Golden Globe nominations, including best musical/comedy.
"It's just that at this point those are questions that I've answered so many times," Jonze said, sounding nothing like a diva. "They're all super relevant, obviously. But I start to not believe my answers anymore. . . . They start to not become my words, just an idea that I've repeated so many times. That doesn't feel good."
Originality is vital to Jonze, which any of his previous head trips — Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are — have proven. Her is their equal in head-trippiness, with Joaquin Phoenix playing a lonely guy falling in love with his computer's new operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
Think of a traditional movie romance starring Siri and you get the off-kilter idea, handled with disarming sincerity. And modesty, when the relationship moves to a sexual level. Rather than visualizing the act, Jonze closes our eyes with a blank screen, offering only voices in ecstasy.
"It's such an intimate moment between these characters that it seemed like the way to go was making it purely intimate to them," Jonze said, so wary of sounding pretentious that he immediately mocked where that answer sounded like it was heading:
"Some of the best ideas come from sheer discovery, and not by some masterminded, preconceived genius. (laughs) More from being open and wandering."
Kind of like Jonze's conversation with the Tampa Bay Times, which didn't resort to questions he'd prefer to skip, as in these excerpts:
You created a striking setting for Her, a future Los Angeles that's spacious, even comfortable. Are you that optimistic about L.A.?
When we started designing the movie . . . we realized that we didn't need to make a movie about the future. We're not predicting . . . (but) creating a world that felt right for this story. Creating, on the surface at least, this utopian setting for loneliness and isolation. That seemed particularly painful and poignant.
What makes Joaquin special as an actor?
If you ask him, he says he really doesn't know how to act. He's not being humble; he just doesn't approach it with the knowledge of how to do anything, what he's going to do or where he's going to go with a scene, or how he's going to get there. . . . To wander in the darkness like that is scary. He's always nervous that he has no idea of what he's doing.
So he's chiefly motivated by fear?
It's fear and also humility. He's never like: 'Okay, I've done this before and here's how we'll do it.' There's not a fiber of his being that ever convinces himself that he knows how to do it. He just relies on instincts of what feels right or wrong. There's nothing analytical about the way he works.
And props for making Scarlett sexier than ever, even though we never see her.
Well, thank you. She just has it, this presence; whether you see her or not, you sense her. She has a presence that's undeniable.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.