3 Techniques Spike Jonze Used in HER to Achieve Suspension of Disbelief
Spike Jonze and Falling in Love with a Program
There is one complaint I have never heard from people who watched HER, by Spike Jonze, and that’s that they didn’t buy the emotional relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson.)
So, how do you create a believable and intimate relationship between a human and a program who can only be heard and can never be seen on screen? Not a small feat.
Jonze did a lot of things right in HER, including going for a non-intrusive design. There is no meta-text appearing on the audience’s screens and technology is organically incorporated into the characters’ life.
He also used all tools available to him in various departments to make it possible for the audience to quickly accept that Samantha was more than Siri.
In their podcast episode on HER, Shaun and Brian from No, Totally! discussed many aspects of -and their reactions toward- HER, including three techniques Jonze used to achieve suspension of disbelief. Here is what Shaun has to say:
#1 – CAMERA PLACEMENT
Just as the OS is about to boot up, Jonze breaks the fourth wall and shoots from the other side.
“When Theodore, Joaquin Phoenix character, when he is first ready to boot up the OS 1 system, which is Samantha, they’re showing Joaquin from his right side, and just as the OS is about to boot up, Jonze breaks the fourth wall and shoots from the other side, and he shoots, anytime he is at the computer, from that point on in the movie, he shoots from that angle. So I thought that was interesting, just in the sense of literally changing the visual approach to Joaquin Phoenix and his relationship to the computer from that point on. Because obviously the character of Theodore, his experience of the computer is fundamentally changed from that point on.”
#2 – ACTOR’S DIRECTION
The main element that comes to mind when you see HER is the actors’ performance, Phoenix’s first of course, as he is the face of the movie and has to deal with reaction to a voice (which wasn’t Johansson’s when the movie was shot) and Johansson then, who recorded her part later on.
Here is a closer look at Theodore’s body language during that very first scene where he ‘meets’ with Samantha:
Joaquin acts like he is shy in front of Samantha, even though there is no indication that she can see him or anything, but his body starts turning…
“In that same scene, I also thought it was interesting that when Samantha and Theodore were having their first conversation after the OS is booted up, either Spike Jonze, or Joaquin Phoenix, probably both, made this decision that Joaquin acts like he is talking to a real person. Joaquin acts like he is shy in front of Samantha, even though there is no indication that she can see him or anything, but his body starts turning, he’s got that kind of looking down shyness, and his entire body ends up turned away completely from the computer before that conversation has ended. The main character here is treating Samantha like a person already, and I think that makes it a little easier for us as an audience to step into that mind space and treats Samantha as a human as well.”
#3 – SOUND DESIGN
This point is my favorite, it is something I didn’t notice at all while watching the film and so, I guess it makes me fall into the category of people for whom the sound design worked on a subconscious level:
As Samantha and Theodore become closer, she actually starts concentrating towards the center channel, that is a space carved out for humans.
“From a sound design perspective, this is the one that I really think will probably seal it for a lot of people subconsciously. When Samantha is first heard talking, her voice is mixed on all channels. Like if you imagine you have a 5.1 surround sound system and you have got your five satellites speakers, her voice would be coming from all them.
Whereas, most of the time the dialogue only comes through the center channel, or mainly through the center channel on that kind of system. So when Samantha is first talking, she is kind of reverberating all around you and all around Theodore, the character. But as she and Theodore become closer, she actually does start concentrating towards the center channel, that is a space carved out not for action or special effects, loud noises or music cues, that soundscape is usually carved out for humans, and that’s where Samantha starts to reside. Kind of a really subtle hint that she is a real character.”
I really enjoyed this efficient and informal breakdown of a key scene, that installs a lot of components that will evolve with time. It perfectly shows how filmmaking and directing are not about one decision for one element, but a series of decisions in multiple departments that, when added up, result in a believable story or not.
And this is what suspension of disbelief is about.
More about Spike Jonze and HER:
- Spike Jonze Ask Me Anything: his Influences, Transitioning from Music Videos to Film, and Writing HER
- Download More than 20 Examples from HER’s Screenplay in How Did They Write It Extension #3