'Jobs' Director on Capturing the Complicated Life of Steve Jobs
Joshua Michael Stern discusses the challenges of portraying the late tech innovator in the new biopic starring Ashton Kutcher.
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Attempts at capturing the essence of Steve Jobs, the temperamental genius who built one of the world's most valuable companies, have been made before and will likely be made many times more. But one could argue that the new movie Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher and directed by Joshua Michael Stern, displays the same startup fervor that made Jobs so great.
The biopic, which chronicles Jobs's life from 1971 to 1991 when he co-founded and grew Apple, opens nationwide August 16. Compared to major studio projects like the forthcoming Aaron Sorkin adaption of Walter Isaacson's popular biography of Jobs, this film was made on a shoestring, with an estimated budget of just $8.5 million. It also has an unlikely backer. With no prior movie-making experience, entrepreneur Mark Hulme, founder of Dallas-based publishing company the Five Star Institute, decided in 2011 to produce a movie about the late tech innovator and commissioned an employee to pen the screenplay. His DIY approach and passion for the project attracted writer-director Stern (Swing Vote, Neverwas) and eventually an A-list cast.
Related: Hyper-Curious and Willing to Fail: How You Can Be More Like Steve Jobs
Stern recently sat down with us to talk about the challenges and triumphs of portraying the obsessive, perfectionist visionary from Silicon Valley. In some ways retracing his footsteps, including filming in the house Jobs grew up in, brought the story to life. In others, it shed light on his intense personality. Following Jobs's fruitarian diet of eating only fruit for a month landed Kutcher in the hospital just before shooting began.
What follows is an edited version of the interview.
Entrepreneur: Your movie, about one of the world's greatest entrepreneurs, has an entrepreneurial backstory. What did you think when you learned that a Dallas business owner with no movie experience was determined to make this film?
Stern: I was completely fascinated with it. He is a very enigmatic, passionate, obsessed man -- all the things you need to create any product. Steve Jobs was completely obsessed with the personal computer from the time he was in his 20s 'til the end. And Mark Hulme was obsessed with making this movie. It was infectious.
Entrepreneur: What was your process for researching the movie?
Stern: There was a whole research team that Mark had gathered, and Ashton himself was an encyclopedic well of information. We would walk onto the set and if there was a microchip that hadn't been invented yet, he'd say, 'It's two years before this processor would have been here.' So we'd get rid of it. During the 1984 commercial unveiling, the podium on set was brown. And Ashton walked in and said, 'No, no. This was white.' And he was right!
Entrepreneur: Did you take artistic liberties?
Stern: I had to stick to what was known and public. For example, I built this enormous boardroom with 16 chairs. I thought it was so cool and dramatic, and filled it with board members. But the guys come running and say there were only four board members in this period of time. So I got rid of the others. We were slaves to the facts as a structure, but you do fictionalize conversation within that.
Entrepreneur: In learning more about him, what surprised you about Jobs?
Stern: It struck me that this man, known to be such a brilliant speaker, had a very difficult time explaining things when he was younger. He was describing technology that didn't exist. He had MIT engineers, and he was trying to tell them what he wanted; but there were no terms for what he wanted yet. I think a lot of his early frustration was trying to quickly get his vision to the finish line.
Entrepreneur: You got to film in the actual garage of his parents' house, where they built the first Apple computers. What was that like?
Stern: It was interesting because it was just another little house, a post-war bungalow in the Valley. It amplified that this story was about an everyman. This story was about anybody who ever had an idea, who tinkered in their garage with an invention. That's all Steve Jobs was. You can mythologize him, but really in the end, he was a kid from the Valley, with his funny little friends, and they made something.
Entrepreneur: What do you think set him apart?
Stern: He had a vision and he was a salesman. There's a great scene where he's on the phone, and he called hundreds of people and was denied. You forget that Steve Jobs hustled. He called anybody. He was fearless. When he was very young, he had no filter. He would call the president of Hewlett-Packard and the head of Atari and say, 'I'm Steve Jobs.' He just didn't take no for an answer.
Entrepreneur: I was struck by Ashton Kutcher's physical resemblance to Jobs and how well he mastered his mercurial nature. What was it like working with him?
Stern: He worked so hard. He adopted Steve's fruitarian diet. He studied his mannerisms. But once we got rid of all the exterior stuff, he had to justify a lot of Steve's behavior that was questionable: denying paternity to his child; not giving stock options to a lot of the guys who'd originally founded Apple with him. A lot times he found that justification because Steve justified it. The business of vision is really, really rough.
Entrepreneur: Why do you think his story resonates so much?
Stern: We're looking at a movement and resetting of how we do business. It's going to force people to look inward and figure out what you can do individually. Entrepreneurialism is the new norm. It's what will define the next 100 years. It's about taking an idea, putting bones and architecture on it, and making it into something the culture can use.
Entrepreneur: What do you think Jobs would say about your interpretation?
Stern: I think he would say, 'You captured the spirit of making a product. You captured the mad, fevered obsessiveness that one has to have to create something.' I'm sure he would also say, 'but you missed dot dot dot.' And what we missed were the things that were unknowable, his life in private moments that there is very little record of. We didn't venture in conjecture. I think it's important to get the foundation of how he created Apple out there. Then let all the other tellings of this story come out.
Related: Steve Jobs Movie Trailer Shows the Tech Icon's Dramatic Rise