The blessing and the curse of being Steve Jobs

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Filmmaker Joshua Michael Stern has the distinction of directing “Jobs,” the first big-budget movie biopic on one of the world’s most important entrepreneurs: Steve Jobs. The film was bound to come under extreme scrutiny from avid Apple fans, of whom there are many, and so Stern takes a cautious approach, lining up events in chronological order and sticking to facts garnered from meticulous research.

“Still, there are some things about which I’ve had to choose sides,” Stern tells The Japan Times. “For example, Steve Wozniak’s account of his time with Steve Jobs is different from Jobs’ own account. There were some things that had to be left unsaid or not referred to, and I’ve had to stick with Jobs’ account. It’s impossible to get a consensus of memory, but that’s what biopics are about.”

Stern was a screenwriter before he became a director, but he says he “would not have gone into writing or filmmaking if not for Apple.” In college, he first started working on an Apple II computer.

“I don’t think linearly; I think in images, so if I’d had to deal with the typewriter and whiting out the mistakes and all that, I don’t think I could ever have achieved any level of prolificness,” he says. “And I was never good at spelling or grammar either. But Apple II and the home computer allowed me to take all the thought that was racing around in my head and more or less slap it onto the screen, so that there was a constant, fluid motion going on between my thoughts and the computer. Before, writers had to be much more orderly and disciplined. But for me, Apple II was a real extension of my thoughts.”

After college, however, Stern transferred his thought process onto a Dell. “I couldn’t afford an Apple computer. That was one of the problems addressed in the movie — the cost thing was an issue with Steve. One of his main concerns was that not everyone could afford to use his product.”

This is why Stern found tremendous significance in a moment at a Los Angeles restaurant recently, when he saw a movie-industry executive taking out an iPhone at the same time as a busboy clearing the tables took out his.

“People have asked me what Apple product Steve Jobs was proud of most, and I would have to say that it was the iPhone. It was the first that transcended economic class, and allowed a billionaire and a busboy to enjoy the same product, on the same level. It just did away with the issue of class restriction.”

Mind you, Stern’s portrayal of Steve Jobs (played by Ashton Kutcher) is far from a benevolent, for-the-people visionary. After all, Jobs is said to have had an infamous nasty streak, especially as a manager of people. In the movie, Wozniak, or “Woz” (Josh Gad), is always having to excuse his friend’s idiosyncrasies and lack of social graces.

“Ashton Kutcher and I were concerned that many aspects of Steve’s personality will be very off-putting,” says Stern. “In the movie, we give a softer version, because in real life he was much … ” Worse? “Well, he was a very frustrated man. There he was, at the very forefront of the personal computer. He could see it, and knew what was there. But for a long time he couldn’t communicate or share his vision in a way everyone could understand. That must have been so painful.”

At the same time, though Jobs married and had many children, Stern says that he rarely made himself amenable. “Steve was never interested in sentiment or personal relationships. I think he never understood the point, and subsequently never bothered to make the time.”

Apple products, though, evoke emotion and friendliness; compared with the products made by then-nemesis IBM, even an early Macintosh makes you want to reach out and shake hands.

“Steve took whatever love he had inside him and poured it into the computer,” says Stern. “That’s how he showed his love, and I don’t think he had it in him to do it any other way.”

It’s probably no coincidence that Jobs felt an affinity for Japan and the Japanese psyche; he probably felt right at home in a land where it is socially acceptable to give heart and soul to one’s work and not much else.

“He got some of his best ideas out of trips to Tokyo, and he had always recognized the aesthetics of Japan,” says Stern. “Like the Apple Store, he got that idea after a trip to Tokyo. He realized that in this city, square footage was a huge luxury. And he wanted to build a store where there was lots and lots of space, and the products on display were simple, beautiful and sparse.

“Back at headquarters, people thought he was crazy. But look how the Apple Store offers a unique experience — you get addicted, and you keep going back there. You know there’s not going to be anything new on the shelves, but you want to go because the place is so cool. More than anything else, Steve knew cool’s addictive power.”

Indeed, the movie shows how Jobs was forgiven his eccentricities because of this ability to generate cool.

“When you come down to it, Steve had just one idea,” says Stern. “He took it, made the home computer and spent the next three decades perfecting it. He was obsessed. And in the process, he empowered and liberated the individual in a way that normal industry never could. I don’t think he ever saw a downside to what he was doing.”