The director's ode to love and longing, ''Her,'' opens limited Dec. 18; here he talks relationships, moviemaking, and the one problem with Scarlett Johansson

Spike Jonze clearly sweats the small stuff. The writer-director takes his time between projects, which is why he’s released only three movies since 1999 — Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are. His fourth feature, Her, is set in the near future and follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a divorced, lonely writer who falls in love with his artificially intelligent yet earnestly soulful computer operating system named Samantha. Scarlett Johansson replaced another Samantha, Morton, as the Siri-like voice after filming when, in the editing room, Jonze realized he wasn’t hitting the precise emotional chord he was after. (But he’s quick to say, “I love [Samantha Morton] and love everything she gave to the movie.”) One gets the sense from meeting Jonze — soft-spoken and boyishly handsome at age 44 — that he’s unwilling to commit to a project unless he is wholeheartedly engaged. “I don’t want to make a movie till I have an idea I have to make,” he says. “I don’t want to make a movie just to make a movie.” Jonze sat down with EW to discuss everything from romantic baggage to why he makes movies.

Her is billed as ”A Spike Jonze Love Story,” but it’s certainly not a typical romance. Were you curious as to how audiences might react?
Well, the most interesting conversations have been when I can feel that people felt something personally in it. We did an early screening the other day with a few hundred people and afterward there was a Q&A. Three people had questions that were mostly talking about their divorces, and another person was talking about her anxieties about love. A man I never met before came up to me after the screening and started telling me about his affairs! It just made him think about his relationships. Here are people who are trying to figure it out just like the rest of us. Just like I am.

Are you worried people will want to impose your romantic past onto these characters? [Jonze is divorced from director Sofia Coppola.]
I think that’s normal — I’m writing about relationships. But I’m not writing about any one relationship. I related to all the characters, and I think I wrote myself into all of them. That’s something I learned from [Adaptation and Being John Malkovich screenwriter] Charlie Kaufman — he always saw himself as all the characters.

Did you realize you were writing and directing something that was going to be so personal?
I feel like everything I make is personal to me. But yes, the characters are talking about things that I talk about with my friends. I’ve been on all sides of those conversations. But I don’t know. [Long pause] I don’t know anything, really! That’s what is so weird about trying to do these interviews — I don’t know anything.

There’s been a groundswell of support for Scarlett Johansson getting an Oscar nod for her work, even though in the film she’s a disembodied voice.
I can certainly attest to what Scarlett did: It was a meaty, very real thing. She was working on the Captain America sequel during the week, and then we’d spend every weekend working. She’d do 12 hours on Saturday and 12 hours on Sunday. We had these long discussions about her character — how Samantha was incredibly self-possessed and intelligent and emotionally deep, but she was also brand-new. She’s fresh. She has no baggage; she hasn’t learned insecurity and fear. To explore all that in an honest and deep way with just a voice? I remember when Scarlett was like, “Okay, this is going to be hard.” I think before that she may have thought it would be just a voice-over — do it in a week and be through. But I think it was just as challenging as any other character.

She’s such a sexy, beautiful actress, it was actually fun to just hear her act.
Ideally I wouldn’t have cast somebody so well-known. But we needed a great actor. We read with many, many, many people. Different people could do different parts of it, but she could do it all.

You are behind so many projects — the Jackass franchise, music videos, and the recent YouTube Music Awards. What is it about feature-length films that keeps you coming back?
It’s kind of the best job in the world. [Laughs] It’s hard to put into words. I love making things, but with movies, because of both the length and time you are working on them, you’re able to keep percolating on the themes or ideas of the film. A two-hour film can have a lot more in it than a three-minute video. But it’s like this group daydream that everyone is getting to work with these incredible artists and actors and designers, building these sets and making your own world. When do you get to make your own world? It’s pretty incredible.

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