YOU CAN WALK out of Spike Jonze's man-falls-for-his-computer movie, "Her," unsure whether you've seen a love story, sci-fi creepshow or both.
Jonze, who hates to talk about his own movies, is coy on the subject, and not just with reporters. Even those who helped design his Golden Globe-nominated new movie were unsure what sort of near-future world Jonze wanted to create.
Case in point: Architect Liz Diller, who helped develop Manhattan's High Line park, whom Jonze sought out when he was putting "Her" together.
"When I first met her I wasn't even planning on talking about the movie," Jonze said. "I was at her office, and they showed me everything they were working on, models and stuff, and I realized I was in the presence of these amazing minds, so I started talking about this screenplay I was working on, and I asked them, 'What do you think the future will look like?' "And the amazing thing was, Liz didn't start talking. She started asking questions. And one of the questions was, is it utopian or dystopian? And it wasn't until she asked that question that I thought, gee, maybe I have to make that choice."
Don't look for a definitive answer in "Her" - its ability to see all sides of technology's inexorable onward march is one of the movie's charms.
"Her" stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man, facing divorce, who falls in love with the intelligent, vocalized operating system (voice of Scarlett Johannson) loaded into his electronic devices.
The movie is so smartly designed, so shrewd in its anticipation of next-step human/machine relationships, that many see it as Jonze's cinematic treatise on the subject.
Jonze himself does not.
"I'm actually astounded that people come out of the movie thinking all these different things," he said. "Because, on a very simple and basic level, I'm just making a movie about loneliness and longing. People long for intimacy, for that desire to connect. There are things within us we want to be known and seen. To me, that's Theodore's story."
Spoken like a man who's made wonderful movies about lonely puppeteers ("Being John Malkovich"), lonely orchid hunters and lonely screenwriters ("Adaptation").
Jonze also made "Where The Wild Things Are," adapted from the Maurice Sendak story, a very public process during which details and decisions were reported along the way. Jonze didn't like it much, and made "Her" in what in today's world amounts to a shroud of secrecy.
From the outset, he had the star he wanted in Phoenix, he had the backing and the complete freedom to make the movie he wanted, below the radar.
"I like working that way," he said. "Of course, I guess everybody does. It's rare in the case of making movies today. Megan Ellison wanted to produce, we had the financing and Warners wanted to distribute. The movie is very intimate, and maybe that's part of the reason why. It was created in this intimate little bubble."
Still, details leaked out about Jonze's decision to make casting changes. Phoenix shot most of his falling-in-love scenes with Samantha Morton on set (but out of frame), to get the feeling of authentic, man-woman rapport. Jonze later swapped Morton's voice with Johannson's, looking for something more playful - perhaps to take the edge off of scenes that call for the operating system to take over aspects of Theodore's online life.
"Scarlett is very smart, very self-possessed, but she also has a guileless, childlike quality that was important to the character."
Still, Jonze honored Morton's performance by giving the operating system her name - Samantha. And he says the residue of her performance is very much in the picture. I asked Jonze if the combined contribution of the two actresses might warrant a historic Oscar nomination - two actress, unseen, combining to play an entity as believable as anything visible. "I think," he said, "that would be pretty cool, and pretty appropriate."