Director: Star Ashton Kutcher ‘spoke the language’ of ‘Jobs’

Aug. 16, 2013 at 7:44 AM ET

"Jobs" covers the period in Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' life until he developed the Macintosh computer in 1984.
Glen Wilson / Open Road Films
Ashton Kutcher and Josh Gad in the biopic "Jobs" as Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

When it came to telling the story of Steve Jobs’ life, “Jobs” director Joshua Michael Stern knew he had to choose between two eras: before the 1998 introduction of the iMac, or after the iMac.

Stern could pick the time in the Apple co-founder’s trailblazing career before his meteoric rise and track the hurdles he faced until he revolutionized personal computing, created an iconic brand, and was forced out of his company. Or he could cover Jobs’ mythic rise in the 1990s, after one of the most noteworthy comebacks in history, his cancer diagnosis, and his 2011 death.

“For me, the origins story was the most interesting part of Steve’s life,” Stern told NBC News. “The iMac really established him as a sort of force of nature in our culture, and so everything that occurred before that to me — the struggles he went through, the clashes, really were where the drama was. But more than that, in a culture where we’re in this post-industrial age, in a recession where more companies are doing bigger volume with less people, where there’s no longer that pension job you would get right after school where you’re guaranteed a certain security, the new reality of the economy is going to be self-motivated. And with Steve Jobs, it was just that. He was just a guy in a garage with his friends who built this incredible machine that ended up revolutionizing a lot of the different ways we communicate with each other.”

As a result, "Jobs," starring Ashton Kutcher, is as much the story of Apple as it is of Jobs. The film, which opens Friday, quickly dispenses with Jobs’ decision to drop out of college and the challenges he faced working at Atari. Instead it moves rapidly into Jobs' launch of Apple Computer with his friend, Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), from the Jobs family garage at the age of 21. The film trails the young entrepreneur’s rise in the late 1970s and includes the day in 1985 when Apple’s board of directors pushed the 30-year-old Jobs out of the company.

“I wanted to tell the story of a man who creates the company Apple and how at one point the company becomes the man and the man becomes the company, and they become inextricably linked together,” Stern said. “One doesn’t ultimately exist without the other in many ways. From the iMac on, it was the beginning of his real legacy; that’s when he came into his own as a cultural icon, and I think people can sort of fill in the blanks when we end our movie.”

Stern deliberately avoided delving deeply into Jobs’ personal life and stuck only to facts that had been publicly established, such as his rejection of his first-born daughter when Apple was in its infancy. In the film, Jobs’ genius, darkness, and eccentricities are on display, including the fact that he didn’t like to wear shoes, had a tendency to park illegally in spots for the handicapped, and did not suffer fools gladly. But “Jobs” is not a documentary and takes liberties, sometimes leaving key players and significant events out entirely.

“(Jobs) really was an enigma,” Stern said. “I didn’t want to venture into too much conjecture. We chose to show the moments in progression that we felt were the most linear and most connected to Apple. And I tried to show everything from the perspective of Steve, so everything going on outside of Apple, we don’t see.” (That includes his 20-year marriage to Laurene Powell and their three children).

The casting of Kutcher created an unexpected collaboration, Stern said. The 35-year-old actor, known mostly for his air-headed comedic roles, studied Jobs' life and related to his technological innovations more than another actor might have, Stern said. Kutcher has made a second career as a venture capitalist nurturing young technology companies.

"I knew from the beginning of this movie that the part was important to him," Stern said. " He felt he could bring something to it. He knew so much about the technical world going in, much more than I did. He spoke the language, and he knew that all these kids who come to him with ideas for the newest app or mobile function are as obsessed with their idea as Steve was with the personal computer. He gets the nature of obsession."

Kutcher watched hundreds of hours of videotapes to study Jobs' gestures and his hunched walk, and even went on Jobs’ infamous fruitarian diet, which made him lose 18 pounds and landed him in the hospital two days before shooting began. During a Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Kutcher said playing someone he admired “was terrifying.” It also scared him to take on an icon who is still fresh in the minds of so many, although Kutcher said he was able to relate to Jobs' need to be loved.

“For all the amazing things that Steve Jobs did in the world, at the end of the day he was a person just like you and me,” Kutcher posted recently on Reddit. “He had scars, and flaws, and gifts, and my ultimate effort was to humanize an icon. So that people had a feeling and an understanding that they are capable of great things.”

The timing, less than two years after Jobs died from complications of pancreatic cancer, never worried Stern.

“I just thought his story was a story for right now,” he said. “It’s a story of self-motivating yourself. There’s a line at the end of the movie where Steve Jobs says, 'When you wake up and realize that the world was created by people no smarter than you, you will be free.' I thought that was a message for where people are right now around the world. It’s just not about Steve Jobs. It’s about what he stood for. And what he stood for and what he represented is the model of what one should hope a new world economy will look like. The more people that can be inspired and say to themselves — ‘Well, maybe I didn’t find a job today. But maybe I can go to my garage and figure out this cool new device that I’ve been working on.’ Maybe that will help.”