It’s not easy making a posthumous movie about the world’s most well-known and beloved control freak. Just ask Joshua Michael Stern, director of new Steve Jobs biopic Jobs. The film delves into the early days of Apple Computer as Stern paints a picture of a man he calls a “brutally honest character.”
Don’t go into the PG-13 Jobs expecting any bombshells about Apple’s late, great maximum leader — you won’t find any. Instead, what you’ll get is a straightforward cinematic take on Jobs’ early partnership with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played mostly for comic relief by Josh Gad), a healthy dose of Hollywood-style boardroom intrigue and a few glimpses into Jobs’ personal life. Many of the scenes, whether factually accurate or not, have been woven into the tapestry of tech history. And Jobs, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, obviously isn’t around to fact-check the past or exert his famous control over the final product.
“Part of the shackles for me as a director was, we really had to do everything that was sort of public domain, you know, we couldn’t stray too far off of what we basically knew about Steve,” Stern told Cult of Mac during a recent interview at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in San Francisco. “But the interesting thing about Steve, being such an enigma, there really isn’t that much more to know at all. I mean, everyone knows what they know.”
It’s all strung together in a straightforward fashion and peppered with a mix of Josbsian inspirational speeches and outbursts, brought to life on the big screen by actor Ashton Kutcher. A biopic lives or dies on the back of its lead actor. Kutcher’s no Daniel Day-Lewis, but Stern says his lead had “encyclopedic knowledge” of Jobs. There are moments when Kutcher melts into the role and Stern’s movie gives us a reasonably satisfying window into what it might have been like to exist within Jobs’ orbit.
While the basic outline of Jobs’ life and his leadership of Apple have become common knowledge for anybody who’s interested, the man himself remains something of a mystery — even to some of the people he worked with on a regular basis.
“People who knew Steve for 30 years say, ‘I don’t know if he knew I had a kid,’” Stern said. “He didn’t have those kind of relationships. And he so early on jettisoned people that were close to him when he was young, and you can’t now quite tell what is what and who’s right.”
The Apocryphal Tale of the Fat Man
As he discusses the subject of his movie, the director touches on several apocryphal stories about Jobs: his admiration for the Cuisinart’s design, his surprising blind spot about the size of consumers’ wallets, his seemingly harsh handling of an overweight employee.
“He’d go up to a guy in the commissary and say, ‘You’re fat.’”
“He’d go up to a guy in the commissary and say, ‘You’re fat,’ you know, and then give him a card for somebody that is a great nutritionist that he personally knew,” Stern said, recalling an apocryphal story told by Kutcher. “And he said, ‘You’ve got to go to this guy.’ And the person would sit there with it.”
That sort of unfiltered human interaction is on frequent display throughout Jobs, and no matter how many tales you’ve heard of the Apple CEO dressing down an underling, it’s still somewhat shocking to see Kutcher crank up the volume during one of Jobs’ nastier moments.
Still, Stern said he found Jobs to be a sympathetic character: His lunchroom handling of the tubby employee, for instance, was just Jobs’ awkward way of showing how much he cared about the overweight guy. And, he notes, Jobs gave the employee a solution for his obvious physical problem.
Steve Jobs: Misunderstood Visionary
Jobs is, and was, misunderstood, with many of his interactions stemming from frustration, Stern said.
“One of the things that I discovered in researching about him is how many people said that young Steve had a really hard time explaining things [at Apple], and that really struck me, because older Steve is known for his keynotes, where he speaks so eloquently and beautifully and flawlessly,” Stern said. “It’s because he was trying to explain to people something — to MIT engineers, very often — that didn’t quite exist yet. It was like somebody who didn’t know how to write music but had the most amazing sonata, amazing orchestral movements that he wanted to explain to musicians but couldn’t find the language…. He was frustrated that people didn’t understand and see what he saw. He often said — Steve did, in many of his interviews — he always used the word, ‘It was obvious.‘ For him, things were obvious, and it wasn’t to everybody else.”
That sense of Jobs as a true visionary, seemingly unhampered by sentiment and empathy, comes across on the screen. For those familiar only with shiny Apple gadgets and Jobs’ black turtlenecks, the blunt business decisions of decades ago — and the occasional outbursts at his fellow earthlings — might come as something of a shock.
“He was very unfiltered as a human being.”
“He was very unfiltered as a human being, which is a great thing for the things that we have in our hand, and our technology that we own, but probably not as great for human interaction,” Stern said. “Because only through great and pure and driven honesty can you make a great thing.”
While Jobs undeniably possessed a clear vision for making better products, he also suffered from a certain blind spot. To illustrate this disconnect, Stern tells a story related to him by somebody who worked on the original LaserWriter.
When the Mac came out and started the desktop-publishing revolution, it became obvious that a high-resolution printer needed to take the place of the hideous dot-matrix printers prevalent at the time. Graphic designers’ art-filled files were much larger than simple text documents, and ordinary printers couldn’t handle them. The LaserWriter team told Jobs they had to put a hard drive in the printer.
“Steve said, ‘Well great, put the hard drive in the printer.’ And they did it, and the first LaserWriter, they came back to him at a meeting and they said, ‘Here it is.’ He says, ‘Ah, this is the most amazing, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ And they said, ‘Well you know, it’s going to cost $6,000.’ And Jobs said, “That’s great.” And the guy who created LaserWriter said, ‘Yeah but the average American at this time could either buy a Honda Civic new or a LaserWriter.’ And [Jobs] said, ‘Well why wouldn’t they buy the LaserWriter?’”
It was a bizarre blind spot for a man Stern calls a true purist.
“That was symbolic of his issue, which was always that what he wanted to do was so cool, but so ahead of what we could afford and technology could afford at the time, that it would take many many many years” to become reality, Stern said.
In the end, the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad were Jobs’ shiny gifts to a world filled with people he couldn’t necessarily connect with on a normal human level. Jobs showed his love through his world-changing products, according to the director.
“I still think that the iPhone is the great sort of achievement,” Stern said. “A billionaire — literally, a billionaire — has an iPhone, and his gardener also has an iPhone…. So there’s a sense that his technology really is in the hands of everybody now.”