Steve Jobs was a visionary – an entrepreneur, an innovator, a leader, a designer, and one heck of a marketer. Most widely recognized as the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple, Jobs helped pioneer revolutions around personal and tablet computing (Mac and iPad), digital music (iPod), and mobile phones (iPhone). And even co-founded and served as CEO of Pixar Animation Studios (Toy Story).
But long before all of that, there was simply Steve Jobs – a normal kid who grew up in a modest bungalow with his adopted parents in Los Altos, California in the 60s and 70s.
This is the story depicted in Jobs, a biographical account directed by Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote) and starring Ashton Kutcher. Focusing on Jobs’ early years, the film shows a young man as a free spirit, with tremendous drive and curiosity, who drops out of college, takes a life altering trip to India, and returns home to partner with Homebrew Computer Club friend, Steve ‘Woz” Wozniak.
Together, the two form a “small company” out of Jobs’ parent’s garage, hire a few friends, and begin building and selling circuit boards, one of which becomes the foundation for the very first, Apple I computer.
Says Stern, “He was just a guy in a garage with his friends, tinkering with something – an invention that ended up revolutionizing the world and becoming the cornerstone to one of the largest companies on the planet.”
“He was actually no different than anybody out there,” says Stern. “He felt misunderstood. He tried to get his product sold and no one would take his calls for over a year. And when he tried to describe what he wanted, he got very frustrated that people questioned him and didn’t want to instantly jump onto his vision.”
Jobs’ story is not only relatable; it’s inspirational. And the film, honing in on the early successes and failures, from the Apple I to the iPod, takes audiences inside the life of the creative whiz. Along with a mesmerizing performance by Ashton Kutcher, the film is a fascinating account of the evolution of Apple and an honest, unflinching portrayal of a man on a mission to revolutionize the world.
In our exclusive interview with director Joshua Michael Stern, we talk about the challenges in bringing Jobs to screen, the dedication of Ashton Kutcher, and the legacy left behind by one of this generation’s greatest entrepreneurs.
Steve Jobs’ story spans many decades. Wasn’t the original script something like 200 pages long?
Yes. I walked into it when it was 200 pages long and had to quietly tell everybody that we have to cut this down quite a bit. The producer was a man who had never made a film before and I was inspired and intrigued by him. Mark Hulme was a businessman from outside the industry and wanted to make this film with me as his creative partner. So, we dealt with a script that would normally be considered a mini-series or about half a mini-series and we had to bring it down to a more suitable length.
Did you feel any pressure in making a film about such a well known icon?
I think there was pressure only in the sense that he was recently in people’s consciousness. But I felt that the subject matter was so important to tell right now, i.e. this whole issue of the recession and big companies doing so much more with less in the post industrial age.
It used to be that your pension was going to be at the factory or the corporation and your life was set for you, but that’s all adjusting right now. That unemployment number is there because companies are seeing that they can do more with less and I think that the individual and what the individual can contribute to the world is going to become the new norm.
That was Steve Jobs. He was just a guy in a garage with his friends, tinkering with something – an invention that ended up revolutionizing the world and becoming the cornerstone to one of the largest companies on the planet.
So, that intrigued me. I just had to put aside all of the fears and the judgment that could come my way from many of the choices I was making in bringing this story to the screen. And certainly, there’s a lot of skepticism. But I just had to keep my focus on the prize and keep that single minded obsession, which is exactly what Steve did.
Was there any kind of relationship with Apple during production of the film?
No. They weren’t involved at all, nor would I expect them to be. It’s no different from Facebook when the The Social Network was made and they abstained from negative or positive comments. They can’t be associated with the film in any sort of way and I think that’s how it should be because they can’t be either endorsing it or being negative against it.
That said, I think they’re going to be really interested in the film. I’ve been told that they’ve sent out their secret scouts to see it in advance. We don’t know what they think about it, but there’s a lot of curiosity from everyone who works there because this is pre-history. It’s really the beginning of Apple. And there are very few people working at Apple today that are from the era that we’re discussing.
So, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for them to see.
Many scenes were shot in the house that Jobs grew up in, even the garage where it all began. How did that come together and what was the experience like?
Steve Jobs’ stepmother lives in the actual house that Steve Jobs grew up in and she invited us over. So, we went up and shot the first scenes there. All the scenes in the movie where they’re in the back yard, the living room, or the garage were the actual places where Steve himself grew up. The garage was the actual garage where he and Woz created the Apple I. And it was the first home of Apple.
When I got there, I thought we were going to have this sort of epiphanal moment where we all absorbed it and got spiritually connected. But it wasn’t that. What was striking was how small it was. This was a post-war bungalow. It was everybody’s garage, especially if you came from a lower-middle working class family. So, it just struck me that this was a story about everybody.
It’s interesting because the garage was pretty much frozen in time. I mean, the calendar on the wall when we walked in was still from the Carter administration!
Ashton Kutcher was a great choice for the lead role – tech savvy, charismatic, and the resemblance is uncanny. What can you say about his performance and what did he bring to the role that surprised you?
He was amazing in the role and I can only tell you that I worked really hard with him to find the character of Steve Jobs. We worked from the very beginning to figure out how he could immerse himself inside the character. He had done so much research, exhaustive research, watching hundreds of hours of videos.
In fact, he used to put Steve Jobs on a loop on his iPhone and would listen every night before he went to sleep to get that cadence down, the long way he used to speak. He had the mannerisms, the loping walk, he went on a fruitarian diet and lost about eighteen pounds because he wanted to get that memory recall as to what Steve was going through.
Ashton did a tremendous amount of preparation so when we arrived on set, he was there, pretty much fully realized. And we worked every scene. He would call me at 1 a.m. almost every other day while I was sleeping and I’d get a voice message from him. I would wake up and listen to him pacing in his house, going over the scene we had just talked about over a million times, but trying to figure out if there was anything else. Was there any other quiet nuance that we should be thinking about?
He worked so hard at it and I think he did a remarkable job.
Every time I think about computers and movies, I think about Tom Hanks messaging Meg Ryan back and forth throughout You’ve Got Mail. Showing computers on screen is not very sexy – how did it impact your decisions as a filmmaker?
It’s interesting that you mention that because I was doing the DVD commentary the other day, talking through it, and one of the things I realized as I was weirdly objectifying it and taking it apart was that I made an early decision not to show too much of it. But when I showed it, i.e. the scene where he first discovers the board in Woz’s house, I did it with certain light and lots of camera movement around the wires, trying to find out what was sexy about a computer. Or when they first create the board in the garage, I said to everybody, ‘I want this to feel like they’re doing something dark, almost like it’s a meth lab or something (laughs)!’
These guys are stuck in this garage, putting together computer boards, and there are wires and solder and metal. We forget that those first years were kind of like the Iron Age of computers. It was a bunch of guys with fire and metal. So, I shot it in a way that tries to make it feel sexy.
I think there’s just something dynamic about pushing in and finding the beauty, the weirdness, and the simplicity of what the grid of a board looks like or the way the wires fit into the keyboard. It was a mess, but it was beautiful that it was a mess.
Any obstacles working in the 70s era?
For me, movies made about the 70s never work on a certain level when looking back because the people have been turned into cartoons, i.e. the hair is too big, the bell bottoms are too amplified, glasses are too much, the collars are so wide, etc. And we all wince when we look back at this period. But weirdly, when we lived through the 70s, the period of free love, it was actually defined by people feeling they looked great going to all the discos and clubs.
So, I went back to the art department and said, you can make the glasses big, but not too big. Make the period feel as we remember it as opposed to what it looks like in retrospect. So the shirt collars are not too large, the bell bottoms are not so big, and the hair not so crazy. So when you see the film, the essence of the 70s is all there, but it’s in the background. You throw it away. You’re not overly aware of it; you just know that it’s that period.
What did you learn about Steve Jobs in making the movie? And what do you admire about his legacy?
I learned that the guy that we remember giving all those beautiful keynote speeches in the black mock turtle necks and the round glasses, who spoke so eloquently about a particular product, struggled so much. He was actually no different than anybody out there. He felt misunderstood. He tried to get his product sold and no one would take his calls for over a year. People hung up on him over and over again. And when tried to describe what he wanted, he got very frustrated that people questioned him and didn’t want to instantly jump onto his vision. So, there was a lot of struggle to bring what he wanted to the public and that’s what made it interesting to me and might also be a revelation for others.
I was also struck by how ahead of his time he was. He understood that you shouldn’t just live your life and rely on others or the old world norms of how we think we should succeed in life. Instead, we have to create our own reality that will help the world. It was always something that he believed in.
And most importantly, when he was giving speeches to high school students, he would often say, ‘People will tell you to go to college. I say live your life. Figure it out. Discover your spirituality. Fall in love. Do anything to expand your mind because you really need to experience life so that you can find out what you need and want so passionately that you’ll do anything to get it.’ That’s what I will always remember about Steve Jobs.
Mark Sells is a nationally recognized film/entertainment journalist and Critic-at-Large for 100.3 FM The Sound (Los Angeles). In addition to his blog on 303, you can follow The Reel Deal on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook for the latest entertainment news, reviews, and interviews.
*Photos courtesy of Open Road Films, 2013.
Jobs - Official Movie Trailer (2013)