Spike Jonze is an American director, writer, and producer. He has written, produced and directed music videos, adverts, short films, and documentaries (Kukla, 2015). However, he has only directed four full length films: Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009), and Her (2013) (Kukla, 2015). Jonze also wrote Where the Wild Things Are and Her.
Jonze started as a BMX/skateboarding photographer before beginning to make documentaries on skateboarding (Kukla, 2015). One of these documentaries, Video Days (1991), is “regarded as one of the most influential skate videos ever made” because of how it used quick cuts within its editing and a heightened style (Kukla, 2015).
The success of these documentaries led to Jonze having the opportunity to make a music video for the band Weezer and their song ‘Buddy Holly’ (Kukla, 2015). Jonze’s work is often considered as ‘post-modern’ cinema because of how he challenges the typical conventions of narrative within his work – such as by using self-reflexivity – as can be seen in this Weezer music video (Kukla, 2015). For the video, Jonze chose to have the band perform on a set which looked like that of the sitcom Happy Days (1974-1984), along with the cast members of the sitcom appearing, and a ‘to be continued’ sign being shown halfway through (Kukla, 2015).
This postmodern, self-reflexive style continues throughout Jonze’s work, seen in how Adaptation considers the process of writing a film, drawing attention to the constructed nature of the film, and how Her tells a love story but does not use the traditional narrative conventions of a romantic film (Kukla, 2015).
This is why I decided to research Jonze for this unit, since our film is quite self-reflexive as it follows a writer who is struggling to write so imagines her character acting out the situations she is writing in reality, thus drawing attention to the written, and therefore constructed, nature of the film. Nonetheless, many of Jonze’s characters are lonely, as is the main character of our film. Thus, I aim to take inspiration from how Jonze shows loneliness through his simple directing style to also convey the character’s loneliness within our film.
- Close-ups – these bring the audience closer to the character, highlighting emotions but also causing the character to be alone in the frame
- Wide shots – these can isolate the character, making them look small, and convey how alone they are within the wider world
- Montages – how a character becomes lonely can happen over a much longer period of time, which can be condensed in a montage
- (How to Shoot Movies About Loneliness Like Spike Jonze, 2017).
In contrast to these close-ups, Jonze also uses wide shots and long shots to show how isolated Theodore is, often using these along with close-ups. For example, at the opening of the film, Jonze chooses to introduce us to Theodore in a close-up, establishing the focus on him and his emotions (see fig. 1). However, this close-up cuts to a sequence of wide shots and long shots showing Theodore’s place within the world – that he is cut off from other people, emphasised by him appearing to be alone and even small in these wide and long shots despite that he is surrounded by other people (see fig. 2, 3 & 4).
Jonze continues this style throughout the film, using a long shot of a corridor near the ending to further highlight how alone Theodore is, especially now his operating system has left him (see fig. 5). Nonetheless, this shot also places the audience far away from the character, causing them to be unsure of his emotions – and furthering the fact that, in this moment, they don’t know where he is or what he is doing there. This same shot is later used when Theodore returns to the corridor with his friend, Amy (see fig. 6). This serves to show that although Theodore was once alone – as he has been for most of the film, and previously in this corridor – he may not be now he has found company in Amy. This is furthered by the end shot which shows the two of them sitting on a rooftop together – (see fig. 7) – showing how much Theodore has been changed by the events of the film, going from lonely and alone in the opening close-up, to having company in the closing wide shot.
Because of this focus on Theodore and his emotions, Jonze filmed each scene in several takes, working on getting the emotion right by collaborating with actor Joaquin Phoenix and helping to shape his performance – especially since Phoenix was often performing alone on the set, only talking to the earpiece which represents the operating system he falls in love with (Hill, 2013). Thus, Jonze would more often stand next to the camera during filming than at the monitor so he could be closer to the actors, but also so he could see the emotion the actor was conveying and how the camera was capturing this, as well as how the character and their emotion appeared in the wider world – necessary due to the use of both wide shots and close-ups (Hill, 2013).
Despite the use of both close-ups and wide shots, which could represent the “ways that technology brings us closer and ways that it makes us further apart”, Jonze has said that, “that’s not what this movie is about. It really was about the way we relate to each other and long to connect: our inabilities to connect, fears of intimacy, all the stuff you bring up with any other human being” (Hill, 2013).
Jonze therefore chose to use the Kuleshov effect to make this clear to the audience (Renée, 2016). The Kuleshov effect came about when director Lev Kuleshov found that “an actor’s expression wasn’t enough to convey a specific idea, therefore juxtaposed images must”, since audiences would make an association between images if they were cut next to each other (Green, 2016). Therefore, in Her, Jonze cuts Theodore’s present narrative with contrasting montages showing his happier days when he was married (Renée, 2016) – (see fig. 8 & 9). This shows to the audience that his current loneliness and unhappiness are because he is no longer married, and misses his wife, backing up and highlighting the emotions Phoenix portrays through his performance.
Overall, Charlie Kaufman, a writer Jonze frequently collaborates with, has said about Jonze’s work that, “they’re all relationship movies, and all about how people interact or don’t interact or miss each other” (Hill, 2013).
Hence, the loneliness of the characters is also conveyed in Adaptation, a film written by Kaufman and directed by Jonze. In a similar way to Her, Jonze uses close-ups and wide shots to show that writing is the only company both Charlie and Susan have. For Susan, Jonze does this by using a shot of the side of a skyscraper at night, several windows lit up. This then dissolves to a shot of Susan’s window, where she sits inside writing. This shows that, although there are several other people around, Susan is alone with her writing – furthered by the close-ups of her surroundings shown, such as the books on orchids, which is the topic of her writing, and the tight two shot of her and her computer as she types (see fig. 10-14).
Jonze does this with the character of Charlie in a similar way by showing him sitting at his desk in his bedroom, all alone, in a wide shot, cutting to a two shot of him and his typewriter. This is followed by a point of view shot of his blank page – showing that he has writers’ block (see fig. 15-17).
Fig. 10 Adaptation – Susan’s loneliness (2002)
Fig. 11 Adaptation – Susan’s loneliness (2002)
Fig. 12 Adaptation – Susan’s loneliness (2002)
Fig. 13 Adaptation – Susan’s loneliness (2002)
Self-reflexivity & Adaptation
This leads to Charlie having an epiphany – shown by Jonze through him slowly tracking into Charlie as he realises what he wants to do with the adaptation. As Charlie begins to get more and more ideas and says these into his recorder, Jonze uses jump cuts to show his frenzied thoughts and his excitement. The fast cutting of these jump cuts contrasts with the final shot of the scene where Jonze holds on Charlie as he listens back to his thoughts – again disheartened because they don’t seem to make sense. The contrast between Charlie’s excitement and again being disheartened is also shown through the cinematography, with the jump cuts where he is excited being more brightly lit in comparison to when he is disheartened.
Nonetheless, to get over feeling so disheartened about his screenplay, Charlie does what he initially says he won’t and goes to the screenwriting teacher his twin brother, Donald, recommends. This leads to Charlie listening to the screenwriting teacher’s advice and turning the end of the film into exactly what he says at the beginning he doesn’t want it to be (Denby, 2002).
This leads to the characters going from New York (see fig. 18 & 19) – somewhere familiar to the audience, and thus giving the film a sense of realism – to them ending up in a swamp, Charlie and Donald, both played by Nicolas Cage, running from Susan and the subject of her book, Laroche, making the film seem mysterious and surreal (Kukla, 2015) – (see fig. 20). This mysterious tone is furthered by the slow pacing and strange events which occur towards the end of the film – with Laroche and Susan attempting to kill Charlie and Donald, Laroche getting bitten by a crocodile just before he kills Charlie, and Donald being killed in a car accident. Without Donald, Charlie ends up alone – shown by Jonze through a wide shot of Charlie eating dinner, an empty chair opposite him (see fig. 21).
Yet, the mysterious tone of Adaptation‘s ending is in contrast to the realism Jonze aimed to sustain throughout Her (Hill, 2013).
Production design & realism in Her
However, near the end of the film, Theodore also begins to wear more muted colours – such as a white shirt (see fig. 23) – just like other people, showing how he is beginning to change (Renée, 2016). He begins to fit in, signalling that he might not be lonely forever, and setting up the ending of the film.
Overall, Jonze’s directing style is made up of shots and techniques such as:
- Challenging narrative conventions – for example by using self-reflexivity to draw attention to the constructed nature of film, and jump cuts, which distort time and space
- Showing a character’s loneliness through a simple directing style of wide shots, close-ups, and montages – this focuses the audience on the character’s emotions, and highlights how alone they are
- The Kuleshov effect – this shows the associations between the film characters and history in Charlie’s thoughts in Adaptation, as well as alerts the audience to the contrast between Theodore’s past and present in Her
- Point of view shots to place the audience in the character’s position – these often make the character’s loneliness more apparent by showing that from their viewpoint, other people look far away, or are not present
- Holding shots of the characters – as in in Adaptation to show how Charlie becomes disheartened by his ideas
- Speed of cuts show the character’s emotions – quick jump cuts show Charlie’s excitement in Adaptation, while slow cuts show Theodore’s depression in Her
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Her – opening close-up (2013) [Film still, DVD] In: Her. Los Angeles: Annapurna Pictures.
Figure 2-4. Her – opening wide/long shots (2013) [Film still, DVD] In: Her. Los Angeles: Annapurna Pictures.
Figure 5. Her – Theodore alone in corridor (2013) [Film still, DVD] In: Her. Los Angeles: Annapurna Pictures.
Figure 6. Her – Theodore & Amy in corridor (2013) [Film still, DVD] In: Her. Los Angeles: Annapurna Pictures.
Figure 7. Her – end shot (2013) [Film still, DVD] In: Her. Los Angeles: Annapurna Pictures.
Figure 8. Her – Theodore’s present (2013) [Film still, DVD] In: Her. Los Angeles: Annapurna Pictures.
Figure 9. Her – Theodore’s past (2013) [Film still, DVD] In: Her. Los Angeles: Annapurna Pictures.
Figure 10-14. Adaptation – Susan’s loneliness (2002) [Film still, DVD] In: Adaptation. California: Columbia Pictures.
Figure 15-17. Adaptation – Charlie’s loneliness (2002) [Film still, DVD] In: Adaptation. California: Columbia Pictures.
Figure 18 & 19. Adaptation – New York (2002) [Film still, DVD] In: Adaptation. California: Columbia Pictures.
Figure 20. Adaptation – the swamp (2002) [Film still, DVD] In: Adaptation. California: Columbia Pictures.
Figure 21. Adaptation – Charlie alone (2002) [Film still, DVD] In: Adaptation. California: Columbia Pictures.
Figure 22 & 23. Her – production design (2013) [Film still, DVD] In: Her. Los Angeles: Annapurna Pictures.
Denby, D. (2002) ‘Hothouse: “Adaptation” and “Solaris”.’ In: The New Yorker 2/12/02. At: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/hothouse (Accessed on 11 March 2020).
Green, W. (2016) ‘Movie movements that defined cinema: Soviet Montage.’ In: Empire 8/8/16. At: https://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/soviet-montage-movie-era/ (Accessed on 11 March 2020).
Hill, L. (2013) ‘A Prankster and His Films Mature.’ In: The New York Times 1/11/13. At: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/movies/spike-jonze-discusses-evolution-of-her.html (Accessed on 11 March 2020).
How to Shoot Movies About Loneliness Like Spike Jonze (2017) [Online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHD2e3jkkJA (Accessed on 11 March 2020).
Kukla, B. (2015) ‘The Beginner’s Guide: Spike Jonze, Director.’ In: Film Inquiry 25/9/15. At: https://www.filminquiry.com/beginners-guide-spike-jonze/ (Accessed on 11 March 2020).
Renée, V. (2016) How Spike Jonze Communicates Loneliness Through Cinematography in ‘Her’. At: https://nofilmschool.com/2016/03/how-spike-jonez-communicates-loneliness-cinematography-her (Accessed on 11 March 2020).
Renée, V. (2017) Watch: 3 Things Spike Jonze Does When Making Movies about Loneliness. At: https://nofilmschool.com/2017/04/watch-3-things-spike-jonze-does-when-making-movies-about-loneliness (Accessed on 11 March 2020).
Robey, T. (2014) ‘Spike Jonze interview.’ In: The Telegraph 3/2/14. At: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/10610048/Spike-Jonze-interview.html (Accessed on 11 March 2020).
Spence, D. (2002) Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman Discuss Adaptation. At: https://uk.ign.com/articles/2002/12/05/spike-jonze-and-charlie-kaufman-discuss-adaptation (Accessed on 11 March 2020).