INTERVIEW: Jobs director Joshua Michael Stern on Ashton Kutcher, the real Steve Jobs, and more
"In many ways, Jobs is a product no different than a Steve Jobs project. We just care about it that much."
Few movies released this year have drawn more online chatter — both positive and negative — than Jobs, a biopic of the late Apple co-founder starring Two and a Half Men's Ashton Kutcher in the title role. The film, which hits theaters today, focuses on Jobs' early life, as he worked out of his garage with friend and co-founder Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) in the years before he became a national icon by introducing products like the iPod and the iPad.
I recently conducted a phone interview with Jobs director Joshua Michael Stern. We spoke about why Kutcher seemed right for the title role, the flaws of the real Steve Jobs, and the reason he considers Jobs to be a "prequel." Here's a (slightly edited) transcript of our conversation.
How did Ashton Kutcher end up starring in Jobs?
After the script was written, he was [involved] very early on. He read the script and wanted to meet on it, and I was more than happy to meet with him. And when I met him — I really have to tell you — he was already channeling Steve Jobs. He'd done hundreds of hours of research already, on his mannerisms and his sort of loping walk. He lost, like, 18 pounds for the final film. It was just like [Steve Jobs] really was there. I drove away thinking, "That's interesting." But more than that, I drove away from that meeting thinking how f---ing sort of curious is it to get this guy — this actor — in this role…
The young Steve Jobs was told "no" a hundred times. [He] was a showman. He was really about recognizing what was cool and interesting and trying to show that — and I thought that Ashton also sort of got what that was. […] Plus, I knew there'd be a lot of skepticism about that choice. I thought there'd be curiosity about it, and I think that curiosity and skepticism invites something interesting when you're making something that's artful. You want people to be skeptical, 'cause that gets people to see it. You're always trying to move the needle somehow.
Ashton Kutcher has been much more successful in comedies than in dramas. Did that ever make you hesitant about casting him?
Yeah. As a director, you are in a constant state of hesitation. You never let anyone know you're ever hesitating. […] You're always in doubt, but [you] never let anyone see that you're in doubt. That's sort of paralleling the Jobs story, on some level. We're just creating a product. A movie's just a product… To be honest, whoever I cast in that role — whether it was this actor, or that actor — there was always going to be an aspect of Steve Jobs where I would say to myself, "Would this actor really get it?"
[Ashton and I] talked about everything so much and went through every scene, so I was pretty confident. Ashton would call me almost every night after shooting at one a.m. He'd often get my machine. […] He was asking questions which were all toward "Well, how can we make this better? What have we missed? Is there a nuance in this scene that we're missing?" We would have these discussions constantly.
It sounds like he was trying to channel Steve Jobs.
It's obsession. There are a lot of themes in this movie, but obsession is one of them. When you do something you love, there's always an aspect of obsession — which, to me, sort of implies a single-minded drive from which nothing else can detract. I think when we make a film, it sort of becomes an obsession. Even to the point where we're releasing it… In many ways, Jobs is a product no different than a Steve Jobs product. We just care about it that much. We care about it so much for better [and] for worse.
There are several other competing Steve Jobs projects in the works. With Jobs, did you have any specific goals as to how you would be portraying Steve Jobs' life onscreen?
There were two sort of centric levels to the life of Steve Jobs. One was the theme of the movie, which was about the theme of Steve Jobs' life. It just dawned on me: Why do this now? But I think now is really the right time to do it because of the message of the film: The reality of this sort of post-industrial age where the big corporation is doing better with less people. The world where you get out of college and you'd have your job at the company, with the pension, and everything's sort of laid out for you, is gonna become something of the past.
As far as his persona goes… I think that we see Steve Jobs as the genius speaker in the mock black turtleneck with the round glasses, sort of beautifully delivering his new product, and I think that for people to understand that he started in a garage… Just a guy in the Valley with a bunch of friends in a garage, tinkering with an invention — which is what it originally was. He went through such pain the first year…No one would take his calls, and he didn't care — but that single-minded drive not to be judged, because he was very misunderstood as well. For me, that feels like everybody. I think that a lot of us get defined and get pushed back in our lives by the people who judge us, and the people who misunderstand us, and think that maybe what we're doing is a little off. "Maybe you should be doing this. You should be doing that…"
I think that the message of [Jobs] is that you have to look from within to really create and build. […] You have to build your own life, not live it. Build it. And I think that's going to define the next hundred years of industry.
Before you started making Jobs, what were your impressions of Steve Jobs — and how did they change as you were making the movie?
It's very funny, because a lot of people have seen the trailer and there's been some pushback for some people thinking, "Well, I think they're gonna deify Steve." Wait 'til you see the movie. It really shows, sometimes, a very unflattering portrait — but I think a realistic portrait of him. I found in him a man who had his own troubles and his own struggles, but that he was somebody who didn't let that end up defining him. And I think he's also somebody who learned from the mistakes that he made.
Did the success of films like The Social Network inspire you— knowing that, because similar movies had worked in the past, you could bring this story to the big screen?
We didn't follow the template. [Pirates of Silicon Valley] was really about a duel between Gates and Jobs. In total disclosure, I never saw Pirates of Silicon Valley — I never caught it when it came out, and then when I was gonna do this movie, I didn't want to see it. Of course, I saw The Social Network, which is a beautiful film. I think that film had a different trajectory. That was really about Zuckerberg's character from the time he's in college to only, like, five years later. That's how fast it all happened. It's really between the ages of 23 and 28.
Our story is really about from when [Steve Jobs] is 19 or 20 to when he's about 39. A 20- to 25-year span, which is a really different take on it. I had to focus on just a simple concept, which is about a man who creates a company — Apple — and how, at some point, Apple became the man, the man became the company, and they became inextricably linked together.
Jobs has been described as a prequel to what happens later in Steve Jobs' career — from 2001 to his eventual death. Do you see it as a kind of prequel?
I think I was the one who said it. For me, where our movie ends is where — I believe for most people — Steve Jobs started, because people don't have that much memory before [of him]. If you're under 25 or 26, you go over two hours in this film and don't see anything you recognize. So to me, it is a prequel. It's about how [Steve Jobs] got to the point where he could fulfill his vision.