Reddit’s AMAs — short for “Ask Me Anything” — have become a constantly intriguing source for stories and insights from creative folks of all stripes. As the concept has become more popular, we’ve seen celebs including Joss Whedon, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Bryan Cranston sit down to field questions from Reddit’s readers. It’s a unique way to interact with celebs — or even just regular people who have interesting lives or points of view — directly, without having the intermediary of a journalist or film editor or publicist picking and choosing the questions. Sure, not every question gets answered, but many of the ones that do are funny or fascinating. Director Spike Jonze recently sat down for an AMA and talked about the origins of his latest film, Her, and why he wanted Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannson for the two main roles.
Jonze revealed that the idea for Her came via an experience many of us have had over the years, and which has gotten a renewed relevance thanks to Apple’s “digital assistant” Siri. Jonze had a conversation with a chatbot, sharing the bizarre experience of talking to a thing that you know isn’t really talking to you, just simulating conversation based on its programming. That planted the initial seed for the idea of a relationship between a human and an A.I. program, but Jonze said he didn’t return to the idea until five years later. “I started thinking about it more as a way to write about relationships, and trying to understand them.”
As for the cast, Jonze said that Phoenix was his first choice for the lead of Her. But while he thought Jonze was “amazingly compelling to watch onscreen,” he wasn’t actually sure if Phoenix was right for the role of lonely greeting card writer Theodore Twombly. So what sold him? Oddly enough, it was one of the weirder slices of pop culture in the past few decades, the year Phoenix spent as a “rapper,” leaving everyone speculating as to whether he was putting us all on or if he really had gone bonkers. It was eventually revealed that all the craziness was for a faux documentary, and during an appearance on David Letterman’s show, the host gave Phoenix a hard time about it, leaving the actor “embarrassed and laughing and apologizing.” Jonze says that it “was from this clip that I saw this other side of Joaquin that was so endearing and playful, and I thought he might be great for the role.”
Finding the right voice for the A.I. program Samantha was a bit trickier. The role originally went to actress Samantha Morton (Cosmopolis), a friend whose talents Jonze praises, in spite of the face that she was eventually replaced by Johannson. Jonze said:
…what we had done wasn’t right for the movie, so we started auditioning people again. And I think in the end, between when we originally were casting and when we cast Scarlett, we probably read 30 different people. And it was an incredibly challenging role to find the right person for, and incredibly challenging role for Scarlett to pull off.
Another person asked Jonze about the overall world they created for Her, and whether the writer/director was inspired by any dystopian novels or films. Jonze denied that they were inspired by any preexisting thing in particular, but said that:
…the ideas behind the design were that we were trying to create a world where everything felt warm, and comfortable, easy, accessible, but even in a world where you seemingly have everything you’d want, there’s still loneliness and longing and the need to connect. That seems like a particularly contemporary form of melancholy.
So early on in design, KK Barrett (our production designer) and I decided that we weren’t going to worry about being futurists in any way in terms of technology and design, and let ourselves create a future design aesthetic that excited us and pleased us.