Production: Writer/Director Spike Jonze

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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.


Jonze shows loneliness through his directing by using:
  • 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).
Jonze keeps his directing style simple when conveying loneliness as this allows the audience to focus on your character’s emotional struggle” (Renée, 2017). For example, in Her, Jonze and the director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema, chose to use shallow focus close-ups “to communicate visually just how isolated and detached Theodore is from the world around him” (Renée, 2016). One instance where this happens in the film is when Samantha, Theodore’s operating system, doubts whether she can have real feelings because of how she is a programmed computer. During this scene only two shots are used, both close-ups of Theodore. Each serves to show how he feels – portrayed through the actor’s facial expressions, such as how he scowls, laughs, or looks upset. Thus, these close-ups with shallow depth of field also act as a way for the audience to see Theodore’s reactions to Samantha, since, because she is an operating system, she never appears physically in the same space as Theodore (Kukla, 2015). However, from this it can be seen how detached Theodore is from other people because he is entirely alone in the frame, as well as alone in the space, with only a computer for company.

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.

Fig. 1 Her – opening close-up (2013)
 Fig. 2 Her – opening wide/long shots (2013)
 Fig. 3 Her – opening wide/long shots (2013)
Fig. 4 Her – opening wide/long shots (2013)
 Fig. 5 Her – Theodore alone in corridor (2013)
Fig. 6 Her – Theodore & Amy in corridor (2013)
Fig. 7 Her – end shot (2013)
 Fig. 8 Her – Theodore’s present (2013)
Fig. 9 Her – Theodore’s past (2013)

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).

However, unlike Her, in Adaptation the audience are able to hear what is going on inside the character of Charlie Kaufman’s head as his thoughts are conveyed through voice-over, something which is later condemned by a screenwriting teacher – showing the self-reflexive nature of the film.

 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) 

Fig. 14 Adaptation – Susan’s loneliness (2002)
 Fig. 15 Adaptation – Charlie’s loneliness (2002)
  Fig. 16 Adaptation – Charlie’s loneliness (2002)
 Fig. 17 Adaptation – Charlie’s loneliness (2002)

Self-reflexivity & Adaptation

Hence, Adaptation is self-reflexive since its story focuses on the production of a movie screenplay from the writer’s point of view (Denby, 2002). Charlie Kaufman is a real writer, the writer of Adaptation and also the main character of the film – with the story of Adaptation portraying how he struggles to adapt the real book The Orchid Thief into a film (Kukla, 2015). 
Adaptation was supposed to be the film adaptation of The Orchid Thief, however, Kaufman struggled with this, and thus decided to write himself into Adaptation as a character, making the film about his experience of struggling to adapt the book into a screenplay (Bowes, 2003). Therefore, Kaufman has said that, “the emotions that Charlie is going through [in the film] are real and they reflect what I was goin’ through when I was trying to write the script”, although, “there are specific things that have been exaggerated or changed for cinematic purposes” (Spence, 2002).
To capture some of these emotions – backing up and showing what we hear Charlie thinking through voice-over – and Charlie’s struggle, Jonze uses montages and jump cuts. For example, during one montage, Charlie – initially disheartened with not being able to work out how to adapt the book – comes up with ideas for how he could write about orchids. To show Charlie’s thoughts Jonze cuts away from him to show other characters and even other real people, such as Charles Darwin, as Charlie thinks of them and tries to determine their place in the narrative.
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).

 Fig. 18 Adaptation – New York (2002)
Fig. 19 Adaptation – New York (2002)
Fig. 20 Adaptation – the swamp (2002)
Fig. 21 Adaptation – Charlie alone (2002)

Production design & realism in Her

To sustain realism throughout Her, Jonze and his team used production design. The film used practical locations in Shanghai, making it seem as if it were a future version of Los Angeles by combining it with parts of present LA (Robey, 2014). Jonze and the film’s cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, decided to do this as they didn’t want to use lots of CGI or big sets but instead wanted to “do stuff in camera” (Robey, 2014) to ground the world of the film in reality and make it feel “lived-in” (Hill, 2013).
This feeling is further backed up by the production designer’s choice to use “high-waisted trousers, natural fabrics and exquisite wood furniture” in contrast to the futuristic neon design of films which also focus on human’s relationship to technology in future worlds, such as Blade Runner (1982) (Hill, 2013). Jonze has said his overall aim was “trying to make this world that’s really comfortable and very easy to live in. To feel isolated in that setting hits that much more” (Hill, 2013).
Jonze also isolates Theodore through colour by using it as a way to show who belongs, and who does not (Renée, 2016). Therefore, he differentiates Theodore from other people by having him dress brightly in shirts which are red, yellow, and peach coloured, whilst other people wear muted colours (Renée, 2016) – (see fig. 22). Hence, rather than symbolising Theodore’s loneliness through blue and green cinematography and design, Jonze instead shows this through his shot choices and how Theodore is different from other people, encouraging the audience to look closer despite his colourful outfits and seemingly happy disposition (Renée, 2017).
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.
Fig. 22 Her – production design (2013)
Fig. 23 Her – production design (2013)


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
Hence, it can be seen from his directing style that Jonze’s films are, as stated by Kaufman, all about relationships (Hill, 2013). Although many of his characters are lonely, Jonze shows through his directing style that they are trying to connect with other people, by encouraging the audience to focus on the character’s emotional state in each moment.


Since loneliness is a big part of our main character, Monica’s, state of mind, I aimed to take inspiration from Jonze’s simple directing style – wide shots, close-ups, and montages to highlight loneliness – to also show how lonely and isolated Monica is. However, since Jonze’s directing style also conveys how his characters are trying to connect with others, I also thought I could be influenced by his directing style in the way I portray how Monica finds company through her writing, and her book character, Vera.
During the first shot of the film – which I aim to be a continuous take – I decided to use a two shot of Monica and her laptop, influenced by how Jonze uses two shots of the writers in Adaptation with their typewriter and laptop, to show that writing is a big part of Monica’s life, and to imply that writing is what keeps Monica company. To further this by showing how alone Monica is amongst other people, I was influenced by Jonze to include a wide shot in the second scene which shows Monica surrounded by people at the first champagne party. Jonze does similar in Her, highlighting Theodore’s loneliness by showing him alone in a wide shot, despite being surrounded by other people. The physical separation of Monica standing on one side of the table, and the partygoers on the others can further highlight Monica’s isolation to the audience.
Yet, Monica’s loneliness can also be shown in close-up. I was influenced by Jonze to frame Monica in a shallow focus close-up, so that the background of the shot is blurred, at the beginning of scene three, when the audience first become aware of her writer’s block. This shows that, like Theodore, Monica is isolated and detached from the rest of the world (Renée, 2016), since she seems to be fully concentrated on her writing, and solving her writer’s block, backed up by the following point of view shot, inspired by Jonze’s use of this in Adaption to also reveal Charlie’s writer’s block. Monica’s detachment from others continues at the second champagne party in scene four, since she contrasts with the setting and with the other partygoers, as she is dressed scruffily, unlike the formality which surrounds her. This is similar to Theodore in Her, since Jonze distances him from other people by dressing him in bright colours, whilst the rest of the world, in contrast, wear more muted colours.
When Monica’s writer’s block leads her to stop writing, even as her deadline gets closer, I decided to use jump cuts as she paces, inspired by Jonze’s use of jump cuts to show Charlie’s excitement as he comes up with ideas, as well as the use of a handheld camera as he initially paces to convey the instability of his thoughts. However, I aim to use a handheld follow shot of Monica as she paces, cutting this together with jump cuts to show Monica’s uncertainty and desperation, as this worsens, making her thoughts speed up as her deadline gets closer.
For the final shot, I intend to show how Monica has found company through her writing and Vera by using a two shot of Monica and Vera as Monica starts to write again. This is similar to the end shot of Her, where Jonze uses a wide two shot to show how Theodore finds company with Amy. Hence, it can be seen that Jonze’s directing style influenced me to find ways to distance Monica from others throughout the film, as well as show her emotional state, so that in the final shot I could convey how Monica has regained the company it had seemed like she had previously lost.

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.


Bowes, P. (2003) ‘The story behind Adaptation.’ In: BBC News 31/1/03. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

Denby, D. (2002) ‘Hothouse: “Adaptation” and “Solaris”.’ In: The New Yorker 2/12/02. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

Green, W. (2016) ‘Movie movements that defined cinema: Soviet Montage.’ In: Empire 8/8/16. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

Hill, L. (2013) ‘A Prankster and His Films Mature.’ In: The New York Times 1/11/13. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

How to Shoot Movies About Loneliness Like Spike Jonze (2017) [Online video] At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

Kukla, B. (2015) ‘The Beginner’s Guide: Spike Jonze, Director.’ In: Film Inquiry 25/9/15. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

Renée, V. (2016) How Spike Jonze Communicates Loneliness Through Cinematography in ‘Her’. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

Renée, V. (2017) Watch: 3 Things Spike Jonze Does When Making Movies about Loneliness. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

Robey, T. (2014) ‘Spike Jonze interview.’ In: The Telegraph 3/2/14. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

Spence, D. (2002) Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman Discuss Adaptation. At: (Accessed on 11 March 2020).

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