Funny or Die's iSteve Beats the Other Steve Jobs Biopics to the Screen
Steve Jobs will be directed by Aaron Sorkin. Jobs stars Ashton Kutcher. But this year's third Steve Jobs biopic, Funny or Die's iSteve, has its own advantage: It's first. As of April 15, audiences were able to watch the hour-plus feature on Funny or Die's website, while Sorkin continues to cast his lead role and Kutcher waits for a release date.
In the rush to lead the pack, writer-director Ryan Perez, a UCLA grad and veteran of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater, who has been an in-house writer and director for Funny or Die since June 2008, had to cut corners. Perez wrote the script in 72 hours, bought four black turtlenecks, and shot the entire feature-length film in five days, with research mostly pulled from Jobs' exhaustive, 10,512-word Wikipedia entry. ("No one can even read that in three days," jokes iSteve producer Allison Hord.) Yet, explains Perez, Jobs' ghost won't be mad — he'll admire his moxie.
"The Internet is a culture of quickness and firstness important above all," Perez says. "That's the spirit of Steve Jobs and of our film."
Not mentioned: accuracy. Not that truth is paramount in biopics — even Oscar-nominated ones — which are forced to condense a life into less than two hours. "There are, uh, dramatic embellishments, similar to Zero Dark Thirty or Argo," Perez says, before conceding that Zero director Kathryn Bigelow probably could beat him up.
iSteve is the first feature to run on Funny or Die, the Hollywood-based comedy website known mainly for shorts, which was founded by Will Ferrell and his frequent collaborators Adam McKay and Chris Henchy. But that wasn't intentional — iSteve started as simply an idea for a mock trailer, a four-minutes-or-fewer clip poking fun at Jobs' hagiography and Hollywood clichés. Because of all the different scenes, a tightly edited gag like that can take the team a day and a half to film. Perez and Hord had a brainstorm. Why not shoot more, cut slower and expand iSteve into a full-length film? And, of course, extend their iFinger to the iCompetition.
Casting the messianic Steve Jobs was easy. Justin Long, who actually played an Apple computer — albeit a computer in sweaters and jeans — in the snarky "I'm a Mac" ad campaigns, agreed to portray the exec across the film's three-decade stretch from 1976 to the mid-2000s. "There was a fun irony in that," says Perez, especially as iSteve's timeline includes Long's own ad campaign, leading to a Synecdoche, New York-esque vortex where Long plays Jobs advising another actor playing Long on how to play a Mac.
"It's very meta," laughs comedian James Urbaniak, who plays Bill Gates, Jobs' compatriot-turned-competitor. Gates elbows into the scene to loom over his dweeby PC spokesman in the hopes that the PC might finally emerge victorious in one of the commercials. "I don't think Bill Gates would argue with my saying that Bill Gates is a somewhat less charismatic figure."
That hasn't stopped Urbaniak from trying to play Gates twice. In 1999, he auditioned for the TNT TV movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley but lost the role to ex-Breakfast Clubber Anthony Michael Hall. "Once you see my performance in this film, you'll understand why they didn't cast me."
Is Urbaniak at all worried about retribution from Gates, a tough CEO who used to berate lazy staffers by asking if they'd rather quit Microsoft and join the Peace Corps? "I think he's a busy man," the actor says. "I'm sure he'll have a young person watch it and explain it to him." (As Long was unavailable for an interview, we were unable to ask if iSteve might hurt his chance of collecting Mac commercial residuals.)
Instead of Gates, the filmmakers really should beware their audience. iSteve is both about and for the Internet, and the Internet is polarized in its perception of Jobs. "If you say anything about Steve Jobs, the reactions are so passionate, and that's mostly coming from people who never met him," Perez says. Though the director is an admitted non-first-adopter, that fervor is why he wanted to examine Apple's legacy, even if his approach is tongue in cheek. "I'm interested in the fact that people are so interested in it."
When Hord waded into the comments section of Gizmodo, the opinionated technology website, which closely monitors the Ashton Kutcher biopic, she caught a glimpse of the kinds of responses that iSteve may face. "People are crazy," she says. "They're either laughing or saying it's sacrilegious. I would hope that these really critical fanboy types would understand who we are and where we're coming from."
While Funny or Die hasn't always been flattering to Apple — last year, Perez directed a fake commercial for the third-generation iPad, which boasts that it comes with high-res photos of white girls wearing backpacks and "a vague sense of ineffable progress" — the comedy studio is aware that it might not exist without the company's innovations. Yes, its offices, just one block from Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, are stocked exclusively with Mac computers.
"Everybody who works in any kind of media now owes a lot to Steve Jobs because of his development of things that help us work and edit," Perez says.
Hord adds, "His desires for the Everyman to have basically a studio in a box — that's how a company like Funny or Die can actually thrive, because we're a low-budget, run-and-gun facility."
But what about poor Kutcher and his delayed dramatic debut? "Ashton Kutcher is welcome anytime at Funny or Die," Perez says.
"The door is open," Hord chimes in. "Maybe there's another historical figure he'd like to play."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.