April 14, 2015

Master Class: SPIKE JONZE

A Recap of Writer/Director Spike Jonze's Visit to SCA

Every semester, Professor Jason Squire’s case study class (CTPR 386) dissects a specific film’s journey from idea to multiplex, with guest speakers from each stage of the process providing insight. In Spring 2014, Squire’s class ended its exploration of the Oscar-winning film Her (Best Original Screenplay) with a visit from Writer/Director Spike Jonze.

Jonze broke down the making of the film—from where he got the idea (he had been living with it for a while) through its marketing—and offered students a master class in independent filmmaking.

On Writing: the Challenges of the Writing Process and Writing Her
There's a feeling that you start with on every film that is the reason why you can't stop thinking about it. It's the thing you're always striving towards. You go with that when you write the screenplay, which gets you to a certain point. You write draft after draft questioning and challenging it. You keep pulling the thread.

I had the initial idea about the premise [for Her]—a guy having a relationship with a voice—11 or 12 years ago. It went into my file of ideas. At some point, I went back to it again and started thinking of it as a relationship movie, which made it interesting. It went from being a cool, high-concept idea to being something that had a heart… At that point in my life, I was thinking a lot about relationships—how they work and how they don't work, the challenges of intimacy. I think that whatever you're naturally thinking about should be what you're writing about. That idea became a sandbox for me to play with those feelings in.

On Distribution and Working with Studios
To me, it's all about specific people. I wasn't sending my script to Warner Brothers; I was sending it to Blair [Rich, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Creative Advertising, Warner Bros. Pictures]. I talked to Blair about how the film affected her, how it made her feel. Blair is, along with Sue [Kroll, President, Worldwide Marketing and International Distribution, Warner Bros. Pictures], somebody I trust to figure out how we're going to market the movie. What's the feeling in the movie that we want to put in the promotional materials? For me, it's essential that the marketing excites me and represents the movie well. It’s all important and it's all with individual people whom I respect.

The main thing [about working with studios] is being honest and upfront about what you can and can't do. If you can work with partners like that—people who are straight with you, and you're straight with them, and no one's lying to each other—that helps a lot.

“Casting” the Crew
I wanted it to be an intimate set because I needed Joaquin to give a performance that felt like he was alone in an apartment or alone with Samantha. To do that, I needed to build an environment around the actors that allows them to convey that intimacy. We lit the apartment in a way that required very few changes between takes so that there wasn't a lot of crew coming in and out: maybe four or five people. There were never more than 10 people in that apartment, so [Director of Photography] Hoyte [van Hoytema] put a lot of thought into casting that crew and making sure that everyone on that set had the right demeanor. They were all incredibly talented and experienced, but also sensitive and willing to work with a very small crew.

 On Editing: changing the script and cutting the film
You're always going back to that original feeling of what the movie is about. You hit walls in screenwriting, in shooting, in directing, in working with the actors, in setting the shots for scenes, in editing. You just keep going back every time you're stuck and say, “What's the scene about? What's the moment about? What's the movie about?”

We edit for a long time because we’re still writing while we're editing. In a way, you keep re-making your movie every day. You keep re-inventing it. You keep questioning and challenging while you're writing, while you're shooting, while you're editing.

On Advice for Young Filmmakers
It's hard to recognize sometimes what your own voice is, but I think in some ways, you don't need to develop a voice so much as get quiet and listen to yourself. I bet that short stories you wrote in 8th grade or 10th grade or short films in 11th grade are all things that will come back and be your voice. You don't just sit up and say, “Okay! Now that I'm an adult, I have a voice.”

As I've started writing more, I've been trying to not be so sure about what I am trying to say but more sure about what I'm feeling… Trying to find all those different sides and find something moving about it, something that moves me, that I think is funny, that excites me or affects me or touches me or confuses me—I think writing those things are important for me. Writing the things that I’m embarrassed about, the things that I think, “This is going to be embarrassing if anyone ever reads it.” You can't go wrong… That's where the magic is. That's where the generosity of what you're going to offer somebody lies. It's like in a conversation: the more vulnerable you make yourself, the more real the conversation is going to be… You might risk them laughing at you. You might risk them getting uncomfortable and not knowing what to do, but in that offering of vulnerability is where something is going to happen. You're going to have an amazing conversation. You're going to create a friend. You're going to fall in love—and that's the same as writing.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been edited so that Jonze’s quotes on specific topics appear together.