Friday, August 16, 2013

INTERVIEW: Ashton Kutcher and Joshua Michael Stern on Jobs

Since the untimely passing of Steve Jobs in 2011, the mystique surrounding the Apple founder has only grown, leading to several screen projects quickly hitting the development pipeline, all aimed at shedding new light on the man behind the Mac. The first of these biographies out of the gate is Jobs, opening today, which stars Ashton Kutcher, in one of his most nuanced and textured performances to date, in the title role.

The film, scripted by Matt Whiteley, covers considerable narrative ground, taking us from Jobs' time as an unmotivated college student to his founding (with Steve Wozniak, played in the film by Josh Gad) of Apple Computers to his eventual dismissal from and triumphant return to the company he created. I recently had a chance to speak with Kutcher, along with director Joshua Michael Stern, about their approach to the film and this most iconic of real life characters. The following are some highlights of our conversation:

Steve Jobs is such a presence in our life, and you lived inside his world for so long. What did you learn that you didn't before? 

Ashton: Well, you know, I think people know Steve Jobs the showman. I think people know the guy who stood up and gave the keynotes. The magician. The salesman. I think that's the Steve Jobs that people know, and there's a guy underneath there that's broken and hurt and driven and brilliant -- although I think people knew that, but I don't think people know to what extent -- and charismatic and mischievous and vindictive, and I think that that's the guy that we learned about and I think that's the guy that we think it's valuable for other people to know.

Josh: And I think we take him for granted for everything that he's given to the culture. But what I learned and it's something I think everybody can relate to was just how misunderstood he was for so long. Decades. People don't understand that he really was underestimated, and he was sort of an enigma for a lot of people. And I think that that, the crux of feeling isolated by your own vision and feeling "other than" by how misunderstood you are by not only how you communicate, but what you want to create in the world is something we all feel at one time or another and that was a revelation to me as far as, you know, to the extent of it during his youth, especially.

This is such an expansive story that you had to make decisions about what we see and what we don't. How did you decide what the film covered?

Josh: Well, I think that everybody has something invested in a different part of Steve's life and it's a very big life, it's a very rich life and when you're telling the story and what ours is over two hours, you have got to make decisions as to what you're going to tell and not tell. And for us, generally, I think it was about him creating the product. Getting to that moment where he could feel fulfilled by his one singular vision of the home computer.

And all of the other issues we could get into the left and the right of it or things that sort of started to sort of fall off, because it didn't sort of serve the focus of that, because once you go down one path you can't just do a scene about it, you have to discuss it. You can't just say that he went to Xerox. You can't just have a quick moment, you have to explain it and what did he learn, and how did he get in? And all of a sudden it becomes, you know, complicated or you know, the moment he was giving a speech, you know at Stanford and he met his wife and they went on a walk and then they got married and then he was sitting in his office at Next.

There's so many moments where, I thought at one point about the movie and I thought about movies that are 2 hours and 25 minutes and every time I see those movies, everyone comes up and they usually say, "Well that could have lost 20 minutes." And you think about reverse engineering that movie and I think we tried to get ahead of the moments by focusing it on Steve and his singular and not -- and also I think on some strange way when it came to his personal life, in deference to his personal and the people who are still alive, we didn't really get into too much of his life, but we did make choices to try to focus the movie and keep it about him and about his vision.

Did you feel constrained in terms of creative license, artistic license, in terms of your performance? How did you get inside that character? How much was you and how much was Steve Jobs?

Ashton: Well, I think it's always a combination of both. You know, you're trying to create an approximation of who you interpret a character to be when you play them and it's a difficult task. It's an even more difficult task when you have a person who's still very much a part of the zeitgeist and when the image of the person that is a part of the zeitgeist is very specific, and is what that individual wanted to show the public.

It's iconic. 

Ashton: It's iconic. However, it's recent and intimate, and you hold the memory of him in your hand every day, so it's in your face and I think that that presents a specific challenge and it's because the character comes with distinct expectations. So, if you play Abraham Lincoln and you have the top hat and the beard and you're tall, there's a general understanding of that approximation and you know, people today don't remember how he walked or talked.

So, you know, you can read and infer, but an approximation in that regards isn't probably judged so acutely. You know, when Val Kilmer played Jim Morrison, there was a generation of people that understood Jim Morrison, but even a lot of the fans of Jim Morrison never saw Jim Morrison or met Jim. They may have heard his music, but they didn't know the way he walked or talked or what he did. Steve Jobs people knew. They saw his keynote presentations and they knew who he wanted them to know. And it's really started like, at the Mac. When Mac was launched is when he sort of hit a public stage that started to become a national, then international public stage.

And there are scenes in the move, you can go online and you can actually watch in real life what happened and that's a daunting, scary task because there's a life that existed before 25 years old that nobody knows. And you have to approximate how he became who he is. You're not as you were 20 years ago. He, when he became the known weapon of Steve Jobs, was not who he was 20 years prior, and so building the guy and trusting the instincts around building how he became who he was was daunting and terrifying and scary and difficult.

And when you talk about embodying the character, did you find it easier to work from the outside in, or did you find something inside that you sort of created for your take on him?

Ashton: When you build characters from the outside in, they become, oftentimes they become like Saturday Night Live characters or they become like caricatures of the character. And I've seen people do those versions of who he was, so you know, I made a conscious effort to learn why he made the choices he made and start making those personal choices for myself.

The process of that was I started reading everything about him that I could find and then once I collected enough about him I started actually reading things that he probably read, and meeting the people he probably met and hung out with them and you know, studying Edwin Land and Ansel Adams and Bauhaus and Folon, and reading, you know autobiography of the Yogi and mucus free diet healing system and consuming the materials that he consumed so that the choices that I made were the choices that he would make, but not from me going, "Oh, what would Steve Jobs do," but from me going, "This is what I would do based on this collection of knowledge."

Josh: There was also, I mean I can tell you from this perspective that he didn't even start thinking about the mannerisms until after weeks and weeks of discussion about the, you know, organic genesis of who he was, but then even the mannerisms had to have a thought as to how does it start when he's younger and how do they manifest itself when he was much more…and how did all of that sort of become more and more sort of focused as he got older, you know, because he was a very mannered guy.

Ashton: Well, why did he walk that way?

Josh: And why did he...

Ashton: You know, if you walked barefoot when you were younger a lot, you probably got used to stubbing your toe quite a bit and so you pick up your feet and walk with a little bit of a different lope. If you spent time in India where everyone said "Namaste" when you actually receive gratitude you probably do that gesture. And so understanding the sort of architecture of that, understanding that one of his parents was from Wisconsin, so he had a little bit of a Midwest accent, but then one of his parents was from Northern California, so when he said ""like"" and ""I"", he actually said it with an open vocabulary. Understanding those nuances when you dissect and break somebody down are pretty important.

I know that you came into this with a great deal of admiration for, as you said, the icon that he was. Did you feel uneasy about showing maybe parts of his life that weren't necessarily the most flattering?

Ashton: Yeah, in fact it was part of my motivation actually to do the film. I work a lot in the tech space and work a lot with entrepreneurs and people that worked with Steve and know Steve and consider themselves friends of Steve's and colleagues of Steve's and people who honor him and I wanted to, when I read the script I was a little, like taken aback because that's not the way I saw him and I felt like if not interpreted properly it could be very misconstrued by someone who had just read it and was like, "Wow, that guy was an asshole," and didn't understand why he was an asshole, because sometimes being an asshole can be very valuable. And sometimes you are the guy in the room that cares more than anyone and you don't care if people think you're an asshole because your vision is maybe more than official to people then what even they realize.

He was like a living paradigm shift. I teach you know, students who are 17, 18 and I'm like, there was a time when you had to put tapes in your tape deck, and you would drive off the road trying to change the music, and now it's just, you have a thing, boom every album you own. And that's the larger than life quality that you wonder if there's going to be another personality like this.

Josh: [to Ashton] Well, what do you think about that? What do you think about, I mean, there always is, I know there always is, but what do you think about that? What's that going to look like, the next guy?

Ashton: You know, I think about the telephone, you know the Alexander Graham Bell revolution of the telephone and what that did for communication. The invention of it. I think about the automobile, I think about like, when I was a kid, you know the invention of the answering machine, which I was like, "Wow." Or call waiting, which was like very big. It was a very big thing. Call waiting was a very big thing. And these incremental innovations happen constantly.

And you know, I mean years before Steve Jobs actually made these things popular, you know, Alan Kay and the guys at PARC, they built the GUI and they built the mouse and they built the, you know, the networking of computers and you know, the internet was an invention of DARPA and the government. You know, these things, there will be strides in innovation and you know, the hope of the legacy of Steve Jobs is not that somebody's going to create something great, because people are creating something great all the time, but they're going to create something that's useful and beautiful.

Ashton, I know you're back on Two and a Half Men, I think this is the third year. What's the appeal for you of having a home base on TV while also doing these projects?

Ashton: Man, you go and you do a movie like this and you dive deep, right? You spend three months just like, grinding to figure out a character, and then you show up on the day and it's like, that's it. Like, we didn't rehearse this movie. You show up and you just do it, and then it's like this intense bundle of energy you crank it out and you go and you do a TV show, and what most people don't realize is I get a screenplay on Monday from the television show and then on Tuesday I get a new screenplay for the same show and on Wednesday I get a new screenplay for the same show and on Thursday I get a new screenplay for the same show and it's gradually, it's changing every single day.

It's gradually getting better and better and better and more refined and then I have one night to memorize 45 pages of a show and put it up in front of a live audience on Friday night. And the process of that is exhilarating. So, it's like if you talk to an entrepreneur and you know, they spent 8 months building the first beta product that they put out, and they go, "Wow, that's amazing." But the same entrepreneur might go to a developer weekend where they've got 2 days to actually like develop a product and build it and then like, present it in front of everybody and have it work and there's a different type of exhilaration, different type of excitement.

Both are equally interesting and valuable and fun and entertaining to do and perform. And then I also have a family there. I could spend 7 months out of the year with John Cryer, who's one of the great human beings I've ever met and Jimmy Widdoes who's this like, just like the guy that, one of the guys that like, if he could give me feedback on everything in my life, I would be happy. That's my director. You know, like if he could just give me feedback on everything it would be great, because it's always valuable and thoughtful and caring and giving.

And Chuck Lorre, who's this uncompromising creator and like, word wizard and comedy wizard. And that family's awesome to have. When you do movies it's you have a 3 month family and then everybody goes away and then joins another family, you know? And if you're lucky, you actually form a relationship with someone where you hopefully get to work together again and so, it's two different crafts and two different sets of excitement and joy."


Many thanks to Ashton Kutcher and Joshua Michael Stern for their time and thoughtful responses. Jobs is now playing at a theater near you. To hear the audio from this interview, you can stream the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast below, or download here.

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