“You’re taking over my life!”
Electric Dreams (1984)
(Miles in conversation with Edger—his personal computer with a life of its own.)
“This summer comes a story about the illusion of reality…and the lies that have a life of their own.”
Trailer for S1m0ne (2002)
Over the weekend I saw the movie Her written and directed by Spike Jonze. It’s one of those simple, yet complex movies that sticks with you in a way that most movies don’t. Congrats to Jonze for winning best screenplay at the Golden Globe awards last night.
I couldn’t help but think how original Her was, yet how familiar it was at the same time. It’s a long way from Westword, Jurassic Park (1993) but its warning of the dangers of technology make them movie cousins. But there are other older films which I think are brothers and sisters to Her. Movies that go beyond sharing theme, but where the characters, a love story angle, computers, and/or story beats are similar to one degree or another.
Back in 2009 I read a great post on the Mystery Man on Film blog called The “Raiders” Story Conference which was about a then recently discovered 125 transcript of a 1978 story conference between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasden as they discussed what Raiders of the Lost Ark would be. (I’m still surprised these days when filmmakers tell me they’ve never heard of the Raiders transcript.)
You may have to hunt for the actual transcript, but I still think it’s the greatest link to the behind the scenes creative filmmaking process you’ll find. And one of the big take aways is how even great filmmakers talk in terms of how other films (and TV shows) influence their new movies.
So when they talk about Steve McQueen in the 1966 film Nevada Smith, you learn some of the roots of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). The originality of the Raiders gang is they took all of their influences and created something new. I don’t know what movies influenced Jonze in writing the Her script, but two that come to mind are Electric Dreams and S1m0ne. (Of course, he may have never seen either film.) This doesn’t take away anything from Jonze and his team that crafted together a fine film including a tremendous performance by Joaquin Phoenix.
But as a filmmaker and/or screenwriter it’s worth your looking at those movies (and scripts if you can find them) because both screenwriter Rusty Lemorande (Electric Dreams) and writer/director Andrew Niccoi (S1mOne) wrote story echos to Her. (Niccoi I should note wrote The Truman Show, which I would also call a cousin to Her.) All of those films show various shades of how technology affects culture.
“I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”
Understanding Media (1964)
But it’s important while looking at similarities, to look at differences as well. If Electric Dreams is at places the cheesy ’80s music video version of boy meets computer, then Her is more the existenital, mediatative, art house version. In many ways the two movies are further a part than, say, a PC and a Mac. (And while the computer in Electric Dreams does have a mind of its own, it is a guy rather than the female in Her.)
And from a filmmaker perspective, Her could have been made as an extremely low-budegt film. It’s a highly stylized movie, shot by a very experienced cinematographer—Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter)– with name actors, but there were even times when Jonze says he limited the crew on the set to just six people. That doesn’t mean there weren’t dozens of people behind the set, but Jonze worked keeping the intimate scenes intimate.
But Her is a film that could have been shot with a six person crew—total— with less set-ups than Edward Burns used on Nice Guy Johnny. The emphasis there being on could—as in the realm of possibility. Not the film Jonze made, but a low budget version. Check out the post How to Shoot a Feature In 10 Days and The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.
Don’t worry about being original. Shakespeare and Chaplin understood there was nothing new under the sun, yet are known for their originality. What gives any screenplay you write its freshness is the influences kicking around in your head, the places you’ve lived, the people you’ve met, and the way that you tell the story. The post Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C) goes into this in more detail.
Jonze spent three years of his life making Her. Go see it because films about something are hard to get made. Hard to get people to go see. Watch it from the perspective of what’s possible by embracing your limitations. (Notice, Phoenix is in every single scene I believe—and often alone in the scene). And see it because it’s a well made, well told story that stands on its own.
Tomorrow we’ll look at two more unlikely similarities that are also in the same family with Her—Woody Allen and the Twilight Zone.
(While in the past I have used the word cloning to talk of similar films, I think I now prefer the word “sampling” from the music industry —though I’m still looking for a better phrase.)
Movie Cloning (“Raiders”)
Movie Cloning (Pirates)
Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)
Movie Cloning (Blake Snyder)
Movie Cloning (Part 1) Follow the links for six parts
Update: In an interview with Luke Goodsell Jonze is told that a friend of Goodsell’s said upon hearing about the movie Her, “So, basically Spike Jonze has ripped off Electric Dreams.” Jonze gets Goodsell’s friend—Phoebe— on the phone:
Jonze: Hey, Phoebe?
Phoebe: Hey, what’s up.
Jonze: Ah, nothing. This is Spike Jonze. I’m sitting here with Luke and we’re doing an interview for a movie. [Beat of silence.] This is Spike. I’m here with your friend.
Phoebe: [Laughs.] Hi… how are you!
Jonze: We’re calling you to give you a hard time because you compared my movie to Electric Dreams.
Phoebe: [Laughs.] I can’t believe you’re doing this!
Jonze: I know! Luke threw you under the bus.
Phoebe: I was giving you a really big compliment, because that’s one of my favorite movies.
Jonze: Oh, he left that part out. Conveniently. I haven’t seen that movie, but Luke just described it to me and it sounds great. I just had to defend myself.
What a smooth move by Jonze to hear the movie comparison during the interview and take it where I’ve never seen an interview go. If there’s a recording of that phone conversation Jonze should put it on the DVD commentary.
Philip Martin at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in his review Modern romance also makes the connection to Her, S1m0ne and Electric Dreams. Scott Foundas at Variety called Her a “radical retelling of the ‘Pinocchio’ story (by way of 1984’s techno-romance ‘Electric Dreams”).’ Pinocchio (1940) was Walt Disney’s second feature film and based on a children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi published back in 1883. If you recall it’s about a wood-carver who makes a toy puppet, and the puppet dreams of becoming to a boy. And I’m sure we could just follow that train further and further back hundreds and even thousands of years back and find other story echos to Her.
P.S. Did anybody ever learn who wrote the blog Mystery Man on Film? It was a great run while it lasted. Miss that voice.
Scott W. Smith
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