The life and legacy of the legendary Apple founder provide the subject of Joshua Michael Stern’s “Jobs,” which stars Ashton Kutcher in the title role and Josh Gad as his long-time colleague Steve Wozniak. In a recent Dallas interview, Stern and Gad discussed the film, which concentrates on the initial phase of Jobs’s career, from the creation of the Apple I in the early seventies through his exile from the company in 1985 and his return as CEO in 1996.
“Our movie is sort of a prequel to a non-existent movie,” Gad explained, half-jokingly.
“Yeah, it’s a prequel to an idea,” Stern agreed. “You almost acknowledge that everybody knows the sequel. Coming from my generation, when you see the word ‘Apple’ it means cellphones, iphones, ipods. It means Mac. The first place you go isn’t necessarily this clunky device that almost seems barbaric now, a cool word processor that did a few other things that were mind-boggling. If you showed that to my kid, he’d [say], ‘This is crazy—is it from the 1910s?’”
“I think that’s what’s so cool about this film,” Gad said. “Speaking for myself, I didn’t know a lot of this—how this all came about, how this corporation that stands for so much in the way of technological innovation started.”
“That’s the inspiration for this movie,” Stern continued. “That [Apple] started in a small garage—we filmed in the actual garage where Steve grew up and started Apple I. It’s about a guy and a bunch of friends who were soldering. People keep forgetting, it was like the iron age. It was just metal and heat. We romanticize it, and think it was all in this technological, digital world—it wasn’t, back then. It was very much analogue and metal and plastic. And the fact that they did that and brought it to where it is now is sort of mind-boggling when you think about it, and especially mind-boggling in a culture that kept those people on the outside. They weren’t part of what was cool, they weren’t part of a trend, they weren’t part of what everybody else was experiencing in the mid-seventies. “
Gad added, “I always say that if you were to do ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ now, you would have to do the jock being the nerd, because the nerds have now taken over the world. And I think that these guys were paving the way for that. They were trend-setting in a way that nobody could have possibly imagined. People were experimenting with these things, but the valley hadn’t yet become Silicon Valley. It hadn’t yet become that place where we think of everything major technological giant coming from, especially when it comes to digital technology. So I think there’s something very cool about seeing it in its most nascent stages.”
Stern amplified on that point: “And I also think the country…in the sixties and seventies sort of paused and said, we’re now going to deal with the morality of the world, all that stuff that was going on in the early seventies. But there were a huge number of people who didn’t participate in that sort of free-love movement. They were on the outside of that. As everyone else was exploring their new-found morality and freedom, they were put in their garages and left to their hobbies. And their hobbies became what was going to be the new industrial revolution, because when the hangover from the seventies occurred, and everybody else just sort of said, ‘Where are we now?’ after the disco age, emerging from these garages were these guys who said, ‘I’ll tell you what we’ve been doing these last ten years’—creating what will be the new world…. And Steve’s genius was in recognizing the fact that this is what’s next, this is what’s cool. [He said,] ‘I’m going to be the one who’s going to bring what they wrought to the world.’ And it will change everything.
“For me the movie was always stepping back from the technical aspect of it…. You have a guy who was adopted, who was brought up by parents who were working people—if you were to put it in sort of mythological terms, sort of a peasant. He wanted bigger and better things, and meets this ragtag group of guys, and they kind of storm the kingdom, but he’s never seen as the prince who’s legitimate, and they kick him out. Then he spends ten years in the wilderness, and he comes back and in order to get the throne back, he has to get rid of everybody who was there. It was really a redemption story in the end, and I think it was very important to see that he learned something from his youth—he learned how to operate in the business world. This is a movie about the business of vision. If you have a vision, how does that translate into a business? Because you have a board of directors, and their whole purpose is to crack down on risk. But how do you create something amazing without risk? So at the end…he knew he had to take over again. So it was important for us to show that last bit of his life [but] to me, it was more of an epilogue. Where our movie ends is really the beginning.”
“So we’re a prequel to the second part of the Jobs saga, but a sequel to ‘Mad Men,’” Gad interjected.
And Stern said, “Yes, exactly.”
Stern explained the genesis of the project, especially his work with producer Mark Hulme, a Dallasite. “It was inspiring,” he said. “He [Hulme] really wanted to do something big and brave and ambitious and scary. And we met, and I basically said I will be your creative partner on this. The budget did expand a lot…but on some level I knew that this could either be a very small indie with an unknown cast, interesting but more of a lark, or we could try to make something important and cast people that mean something. Putting Ashton in it, who by the nature of who he is might seem suspect but also interesting. There’s something sexy and vibrant about that choice, something curious about that choice. And I knew very early on that the only way this movie would succeed was if there was a cultural curiosity about it. How do you position it so it means something bigger from the very beginning? Casting the right people—casting Josh Gad, coming from the theatre and having some great films coming out. For me, there was great risk in it, and that made it frightening—as Josh and Ashton will tell you, it scared the hell out of everybody. Nobody more than the producer and myself.”
Gad described his experience coming aboard. “I had to learn how to solder, I took computer programming courses,” he said. “I really immersed myself. I was kind of late to the party. Ashton had…essentially a five-month jump start on me. By the time I had my first phone call with Ashton, he was already living in Jobs’s shoes, which terrified me.
“Josh [Stern] was brilliant in providing me and all the actors with as many resources as possible to capture that authenticity. In fact, I did burn myself on a number of occasions. It was worth it, because you’ve got to believe that these guys know exactly what they’re doing. It was about that, and also about poring through the hundreds of hours of footage and audio recordings of the man. It was about reading as much of the literature and absorbing as much as possible…. And so I was able to build a map in order to access this character. You do all this work, and the funniest, most ironic thing is that you’ve got to let it all go. You’ve got to tell the story, and all that becomes secondary.”
While “Jobs” is overall an admiring portrait, it doesn’t overlook problematic aspects of its subject’s character. “We had to be true to what we knew about him,” Stern emphasized. “And in this period of his life he had a vision, and he was exacting, and had a lot of frustration about how to translate that vision to people who had no point of reference about what he was even talking about. But at the same time, trying to find the humanity of that, and realizing at the end that even though I believe it to be sort of severely unsentimental towards his relationships, his love was his product. And the movie is about the fact that he created something…and eventually he became synonymous with his product. Apple was him. So people say this is a movie about Apple, or this is a movie about Steve Jobs. [But] it’s a movie about Steve Jobs, who creates a product and then becomes one with the product, and everything else around him—his human relationships, everything that helped bring him there—faded into the past and became non-realities to him. He made them non-realities—parenthood, his child, he distances himself from his friends. To him the only reality was his product.”
“I think in Steve Jobs’s own words, if you’ve read the [Walter] Isaacson book [on Jobs], I think he would be compelled to tell you that he was not a very nice man to a lot of people,” Gad added. “In many conversations they would mention his fitful crying phases, or his temper tantrums. And I think that’s an honest portrayal worthy of his own sentiment about himself and some of the choices he made. He was a shrewd man—there’s no denying that. And I think to a certain extent it might have cost him his first round with Apple. And it was that same sensibility that allowed him to come back and conquer. And I think that in order to tell an exacting portrait of this journey and this man…you have to be as accurate as possible, because if you’re not, people will call your bluff. There’s too much readily available material for people to say, ‘Mmm, not so much, guys.’ So we felt compelled to make sure each one of the characters and each component of the story came with a level of authenticity.”
“Steve showed love in his way,” Stern added, “and the way he showed love was through the things he created. That’s how Steve expressed himself.
“If you’re going to play these characters, you have to fall in love with them. You have to know why they’re doing [what they do]. Ashton had a few really tough moments in this movie, where he was saying pretty tough stuff—denying the paternity of his daughter, denying shares to people who had started the company with him. And he had to find out what the reality for Steve was, because we assume he had a very rational explanation for it—even if it was a reality distortion, even if it wasn’t real, even if he was deluded on some level. And instantly when I met these actors, Ashton and Josh, I knew they would fall in love with these characters, and it’s through that the audience will understand and be connected with them.”
Still, Stern emphasized, “this movie is celebrating the legacy of a man that people hold dear. And I think that [though it’s] warts and all, yes, at the end of the day, hopefully everybody finds it to be an inspirational story. And I think that’s the beauty of the film—it provides you with a sense of ‘Wow—there’s so much to be accomplished if you put yourself out there, if you take risks, despite some of the obstacles you might face.’ So at the end of the day, I think it’s a loving portrait, even if it does have controversial elements.”
Gad added, “And also I think we wanted to be sensitive. We did not want to make this about the fact that he met his wife and had a kid, and was reunited with his biological sister—those personal moments. This is about the product, not anything else. Because [his family] are so fiercely private. Maybe in years to come we’ll know more about his relationship with his wife and sister, which we know almost nothing of right now. And any hazarding a guess about those scenes…would just be conjecture.”
And those who knew Jobs and have seen the finished film have been complimentary about it. “They loved it, and they went to Ashton and thanked him for bringing Steve back for two hours,” Stern said. “Because I think those who knew Steve—the way he walked, his mannerisms…they each to a person said that scene happened a hundred times, even though it may not have happened exactly like that.”