Opening this weekend is director Joshua Michael Stern‘s Jobs. Starring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs and Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak, the biopic covers the Apple founder’s life from when he was a college dropout, to taking over Apple years after being let go from what he helped create. Jobs also stars Dermot Mulroney, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Ron Eldard, and Matthew Modine.
Last week I landed a phone interview with Stern. He talked about how he got involved in the project, casting Kutcher and the other roles, the way Kutcher landed himself in the hospital from eating a fruitarian diet, how they decided what years of Jobs’ life to cover, deleted scenes, how things changed along the way, future projects, and more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
JOSHUA MICHAEL STERN: Actually the financing came to me because it was financed by a guy in Texas who’d never made a film before, an entrepreneur who owns a magazine named Mark. He just basically called me in and said, “Look, I want to make this film. I know it’s crazy, I know it’s out of the box. I’ve never made a film before, but I really want to do this.” So the fact that the first movie about Steve Jobs was made by a guy who was completely entrepreneurial and outside the film industry, I think is very appropriate.
So you had essentially one financier?
STERN: We do, but as with all films in the end it ends up getting diced up a little bit. But the seed money is one guy for the most part. He had partners so I can’t say it was just one, but generally it is and it was his vision to make this film. He called me and I basically became his creative partner in the sense that I was able to put it together for him, but he was really the backing of it. I got Ashton on through the agency and we then just took off and made the film in very quick order.
Talk about creative freedom on set when you’re doing this essentially independently.
STERN: The producers really had a lot of researchers and I was sort of shackled to the facts that we knew. We fictionalized them to the extent of what the conversations were. For example I had this huge conference room built… part of the challenge is to make a business park in the early 80’s cool and epic – how are you going to do that? They’re pretty dull places. But I had a huge conference room built with 16 chairs around this enormous sort of King Arthur table for all the board members because I thought it would be dramatic but I had to remove everybody because people came running in and said, “There’s only four board members at this period in this particular year when this particular meeting happened.”
So that was the kind of thing that was happening all the time, but as far as the performances go, we really just had a lot of copasetic collaboration with Ashton as we built the characters and all the actors. It was a big ensemble and how do you make 15 characters have an imprint even though they’re only on screen sometimes for just a few moments?
STERN: Yes, familiar but not so huge that you’d be going, “Why are they only in it for that amount of time?” I also tried to work with the actors, like Josh Gad who played (Waz?), trying to find out what’s the essence of these characters, what do they represent, what do they believe in and who are they in this film? What’s their place in this sort of ensemble Shakespearean drama that is Steve Jobs’ life on some level?
When you’re telling a life story and you’re basically doing it in two hours, you have to figure out what you’re going to omit, you’ve got to figure out what’s more important. Was there ever a discussion about trying to do something covering his entire life or limiting it to just Apple? Can you talk about how you decided what years of his life to cover?
STERN: I think that it was pretty clear to me that we needed to cover everything from his early 20’s up until the iMac came out. Right before when the iMac came out is when most people associate Apple started. That’s when people remember Apple – that first iMac or that first laptop that was a clam shell. To me everything before that was what was interesting. The fact that he got fired from his company then comes back sort of resurrected and then he takes over everything because he realized that he had to control everything if he was ever going to realize his vision was important.
I think that that was what most important and we had to sort of fluff away from what I did not want to focus on, like a lot of his personal relationships like with his wife, stuff where we’d have to be venturing into total conjecture, it’s just what did we know? To me this is a movie about a man who had an idea for a company and at some point becomes one with the company. People have asked me, “Is it about Apple or is it about Jobs?” and I say it’s about how a man becomes his company and the company becomes the man. That has only happened a few times, like it happened with Ford, I think, they became inextricably linked together.
Some of the details that were left out might have been interesting to certain people in the population because everybody has something different invested in this man and in his product. So when he went to Xerox for example, where he got a lot of the user interface from, we didn’t include, and a lot of personal stuff like finding his biological sister, those were the things we left out. You have to pick and choose and sort of streamline it. It was about the man and his product and not about the bigger picture of what was going on in the world, like we didn’t focus on Bill Gates and what was going on there. We did in as much as it affected him in the world of Apple, but we didn’t step outside of it too much.
How long was your assembly cut?
STERN: My assembly cut was 19 minutes longer than it is now. The movie, at 2 hours and 5 minutes, is already about 15 minutes longer than any studio would want their movie. You could always cut a few things out, but we were on a very short shooting schedule, like 30 days, so there was a lot that we purposely didn’t include for dramatic purposes, for keeping the focus of the movie as much as possible.
From when you first got involved in the movie to its end result, how much got changed along the way in terms of developing the story and the script and the project.
STERN: I think that the last shot that’s seen in the movie, where’s he’s doing his take of the commercial, was something that was added on during filming of it. Because it struck us that this is a movie about now, in the sense that there’s nothing super-objective. And it was very obvious where corporations are doing more with less people, the recession has sort of adjusted the market and the world. We’re no longer in the post-industrial society where you go in for a pensioned job and stay in a factory or the corporations for 40 years. People are out there looking for jobs and realizing that they have to look within to do and create what the new and next thing will be. They can’t rely anymore on what was usually given to them, which were these jobs that were waiting for them. They have to find what it is that they have to contribute to the world, what is the new idea that’s going to push them forward and better the world.
To me that’s what Jobs was about. He said at the end of the movie, “When you realize that the world was created by people no smarter than you, your life will change.” That, to me, is a message for right now and people figuring out what they’re going to do with themselves.
I heard that before filming began Ashton was on that fruitarian diet and might’ve gotten sick and might’ve ended up in the hospital. When you heard all this, assuming that it’s true, what was your first reaction?
STERN: First of all, I heard it three days before shooting when I was on an elevator. I didn’t tell the producers, by the way, I don’t know if I’ve ever told anybody that. I heard it from somebody’s assistant and then I spoke to him and I was extremely worried. I was nervous, a) about the shooting of it, but, b) just about him. He’d gone on a fruitarian diet and lost almost 18 or 19 pounds. When you see him at the beginning of the film [he is thinner], but then he started gaining weight because we shot chronologically, so by the end of the film his face is pretty round.
He followed the exact diet that Steve followed but I guess that diet relied a lot on grape sugars and just fruit and his insulin levels went nuts is what eventually happened and he landed in the hospital because something was really just off with his insulin. But that was a scary moment. It was nerve-wracking and I kept it from the production because I said, “I’m not going to tell anybody unless this is really, really an issue the day of.”
How involved were you with the screenplay? Did you re-write any of it?
STERN: I helped at the very beginning because the screenplay was 200 pages and we had to get it down to around 117, 118 pages. It ended up being about 125 pages. So I helped cutting it but to be honest with you, I really did not have very much to do with after that. I did a lot of on-set stuff, but that was very important to the producer that Matt do most of the writing.
STERN: He was a very flawed individual, which is what interested me about his story. I was interested that he was a guy who was frustrated and wasn’t a guy who gave these beautifully eloquent key note speeches, which is what most people remember from him, introducing the next Mac product. The thing that surprised me most when I interview people who were in his team originally, was not how eloquent he was. I mean some guy said he had a very difficult time explaining things, which was sort of interesting because you could see why. Because he was wanted things that didn’t exist and people didn’t have a point of reference for what he was asking for and he was talking to M.I.T. engineers. He was like a guy who didn’t know how to write music, but he knew exactly how the concerto should sound. He would sort of interpret their inability or their push-back on his ideas as not joining him and that kind of drove him crazy. It’s like the guy who has the cure for cancer, yet doesn’t have the words, or the technology doesn’t exist. He’s telling people, “If you could see it, this would work” and people kind of thinking, “Yeah, maybe.
So that interested me because that’s most of us, we all feel misunderstood and we all feel judged by somebody and we all have to overcome that to be successful and that’s what he did.
What’s coming up for you next?
STERN: I’m not sure yet. I’m working on a few different films and I’m just searching for the right new story to tell. As a director, you just have to kind of like just get through the first project before starting on the next one. You know, this is just a little indie movie about a guy, even though he’s an iconic guy, and so I really care for it and want it to do well out there.