Joshua Michael Stern on Jobs

The entrepreneurial mythology of Steve Jobs is not unfamiliar in these parts, but here it comes again in the movie Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher as the late Apple honcho who with partner Steve “Woz” Wozniak (played by Josh Gad) launched a wee personal-computing company from his parents’ Los Altos garage, then lost his job, then got it back. Lest we understate the significance of these events, here’s a discussion about them with filmmaker Joshua Michael Stern.

Do you mind if I record our conversation on this handsome, indispensable, not entirely affordable iPhone 5?

Not at all. I prefer it.

Were you daunted by the task of making a movie about Steve Jobs?

Well it’s daunting until you just look at it from the perspective of him being a character in your drama. And you look at his arc, see where he came from, see the conflicts that arose, and what he overcame to come back and take his company over and resurrect it. I think there was a natural arc to it. His story really is almost a classic story: the sort of a prince that was born into a family that wasn’t his own — he was adopted — and he always felt like he was meant for bigger, better things, even though his working-class parents loved him. And he banded with a scraggly, ragtag group of guys who were really looked down upon, and from those misfits he rose into the ranks of what was a very corporate world.

Once in that world, he was sort of doubted and eventually there was a lot of palace intrigue to get him out. And he was excommunicated, fired, so he spent 10years in the wilderness, getting smarter and honing his thought, and he came back and basically took over the kingdom again, and the rest really is history after he did that.

As for being daunted by such an iconic character, it was scary, but it was the fear that made me want to do it. So I chose to really just focus on him and his company and what that was.

Well, how did you make those calls about what to leave out?

I had all sorts of early ambitions, like maybe there’d be lots of effects, maybe there’d be a special camera that’s Steve’s POV, and the rest of the world disappears and all we see is what Steve sees. But I shackled myself or was shackled by the script so as to not dive into conjecture on anything. Ashton had an encyclopedic knowledge, as did the writer, Matt Whitely. So I just focused on what’s happening in the moment, the truth of that. And while everything was carefully designed, I made a decision to stay out of the way.

I think you just have to think about what’s dramatically interesting. Also, what you feel you can touch on and not fully explain. For example, those 10 years in the wilderness. In that time, you know, he met his wife, he went to NeXT, which was basically a failed company, he got on the board of Pixar. A lot of stuff that was not necessarily dramatically interesting, though you could make the movie of that. And there were earlier moments, too, that I’m sure people will discuss, like the fact that we went to Xerox, and really co-opted the GUI system from Xerox. But that’s getting pretty technical, and don’t forget, computers are by nature very non-dramatic. I mean, there’s yet to be a really interesting movie about computers. You know? So I had to find the human drama around the technology.

That scene where Woz tells Steve goodbye was pretty emotional! 

And you also have to know that, dramatically, you create a scene like that as sort of a symbolic scene. It was the scene where the last symbolic moment of his youth, when he started this company, was leaving him. It was the letting go of what was before. Also, in sort of using a Shakespearean paradigm, Woz [Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak] to me was like the fool in King Lear.

The one guy who’s still at his side while he wanders raving on the heath?

Well, yeah, just sort of observing him. He served as Jobs’ conscience, as a reminder. I think my impression of Steve Jobs, and this might be a completely inaccurate projection, is that he was highly non-sentimental. He didn’t look back. He always looked forward. And I think people misinterpreted that as being insensitive to them and not engaged with them, when I think that he just couldn’t look back. And most people have an emotional draw to sentimentality, but he wanted what was new.

And I think that scene with Woz was obviously more symbolic; that scene didn’t necessarily occur. Although I would like to feel on some level that if Woz were ever to be totally transparent about it, he would allow that it touched on things that he’d felt. He hasn’t seen this film — Sony is developing a movie from Walter Isaacson’s book about Jobs, and Woz is a consultant on that — but I think our treatment of Woz was very sympathetic.

Likewise your treatment of Jobs, presumably?

The thing is, you’re talking about a guy who so often was trying to convey his thoughts to people who had no point of reference for what those thoughts were. That was one of the biggest surprises for me in researching Steve. A lot of the people on the early team said that he had a really hard time explaining things. This guy who was known for his keynote speeches!

But when he first started out, he was trying to explain to these engineers things that didn’t exist yet, but he knew they’d be amazing. For him it was obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to anybody else. Everyone said the second Steve walked in, they just held their breath. Because they were programming things that hadn’t been done. And one comment could just eradicate months of programming. And so I think it was sort of tough from the beginning. It was as if he had a building he wanted to build, and it wouldn’t work if someone’s dimensions were slightly off. And he was almost always right. It’s just that to get what he wanted was always difficult.

Let’s talk about casting. It seems like Ashton Kutcher really wanted this.

We had the script, and he was one of the first to read it, and, really, the only meeting I took was with him. I made the decision very quickly. But he really arrived at that first meeting having already studied this guy. He was showing me the character — I mean, he was basically doing Steve Jobs. In my opinion. He may deny that. But I think he knew that I needed some evidence to take away, that I had to really see it. And he showed it to me. I also liked that there was something provocative about this actor playing this role.

I knew there’d be skeptics. That skepticism was interesting to me as an artist. I mean, actors create their careers, and their careers take a certain turn, and people build up pre-conceived notions about them. Stars especially, and sometimes it’s their own doing, because it’s their bread and butter. But I also asked myself, how do you cast charisma? Because Steve Jobs was very charismatic. And I thought that Ashton had that. He had that showmanship. I think some people, even if they’re skeptical, will see it. Good or bad, they just want to know. Even the cynics who want to tear it apart.

It is a fun thing to watch, and a weird pleasure of movies: seeing one famous person impersonate another.

But it was a very difficult role to play, because unlike some other famous people who have very idiosyncratic speech patterns, Steve had a very flat, slightly midwestern way of speaking. So for Ashton, he had to find lots of nuance. Like that walk he had, and the way he gesticulated. And as he got older, all of that energy that had seemed a little wild got more centered. His intensity got much more focused. And so we really did sort of blueprint the arc of the character.

One thing about Jobs as movie subject is that he’s not just another dim figure from faraway history. He’s still omnipresent, especially around here. So what about the timing?

When we started making it, that was a concern: Was it too soon? But what I discovered is that with the quickness of technology, with the rapidness of social networking, with sort of the ADD of our new world reality, soon is relative. I think Steve Jobs will probably always be with us, but I don’t feel like this was too soon. In a weird way I almost feel like four or five years from now would be too late. Because I think for a lot of people, he’ll be faded in to the history of what’s going to happen to Apple.

And do you have any speculations about that?

I do think it’ll change. Of course it’s going to change, because the culture that he imparted was very specific to his sensibility. Now the tech world is really about piggybacking on a general concept. It takes so long for R&D that companies today just buy other companies. But Mac was always internal. It was always self-driven. They weren’t buying anyone else off, or licensing anything. They had to do it all.

I think the example of the product that most exemplifies what he’d wanted to do in his early 20s is the iPhone. He wanted to bring his product to people, to put it in everyone’s hand. And the stumbling block, and it still occurs to some extent, is the price-point. I don’t know what will happen because I’m not really a techie that way, but I think the culture will change and will be much more dictated by the needs of profit, where I don’t think he was ever totally driven in that direction. He was competitive, but he wasn’t driven by it.

Lots of people talk about what they think Apple has done for (or to) our culture. What do you think making a movie about its founder does for our culture?

Well, for me, this film really comes out of a time in history, in this recession, when people are downsizing — realizing that we need less people to do what we we used to do. And the fact that we can self-motivate, that we can bring out the dreams and the vision that each individual has, is important now more than ever because there’s less infrastructure than there used to be. The corporations are loosening up; all of those pension plans that existed in the last century, the sort of lifelong stability and infrastructure, is largely gone now.

Steve Jobs was a highly flawed individual, and he was a very misunderstood individual, and I think we can all relate to that on some level. And I think instead of letting those flaws and those misunderstandings define him, he sort of pushed forward fearlessly to achieve a goal. I think that’s good to think about at this time in history.

Now, the movie is called Jobs. Has it ever occurred to you that someone might think it’s a documentary about the economy?

It’s funny that you mention that. I had not thought of that until recently. My father wears one of these production hats that we got made that just says “Jobs,” and he’ll be walking down the street, and somebody’ll say, “We need more of em’!” I hadn’t thought of that! But it seems a better title than Steve Jobs. You know, it’s like Lincoln, just one word is enough.