We live in a digital world, thanks in no small part to the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc. and all-around technovisionary. So it’s a pleasing irony that “Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview,” playing June 18-22 at Georgia State University’s Cinefest, feels like an artifact from an analog age, while offering the heady content of a particularly meaty TED Talk.
In 1995, technology journalist Robert X. Cringely interviewed Jobs for his PBS documentary series “Triumph of the Nerds.” About 10 minutes of excerpts appeared in the broadcast, and Cringely later believed the full interview to have been lost. After Jobs’ death in October 2011, director Paul Sen discovered it on a VHS tape in his garage in England. Video transfer technology has improved since 1995, but the occasionally fuzzy resolution and staticky audio of “The Lost Interview” subtly evoke its origins.
In the aftermath of countless obituaries hailing Jobs as a modern Leonardo da Vinci, “The Lost Interview” captures the computer impresario at a more vulnerable, transitional point in his career. Cringely catches up with Jobs a decade after he was forced out of Apple and on the eve of introducing his hot new machine from his company NeXT. As Cringely explains in a brief prologue, Jobs was a year away from selling NeXT to Apple, returning to his old company and bringing Apple back from the verge of bankruptcy. If you describe Jobs’ time with Apple as two acts, “The Lost Interview” falls during the intermission, after the introduction of such personal computers as the Macintosh but before such devices as the iPod, iPhone and iPad shaped 21st-century consumerism and social interaction.
Early on, Cringely asks Jobs about his start, and the audience has to envision a time when personal computers were literally the stuff of science fiction. Jobs describes ogling his first computer at Hewlett-Packard as a precocious, tech-savvy 12-year-old. As teenagers, he and future partner Steve Wozniak made mischief as telephone hackers, building devices that could swindle free long-distance calls from AT&T. In perhaps the quintessential Silicon Valley creation story, Jobs and Wozniak sold their microbus and calculator for parts to build their first personal computers in a garage.
“The Lost Interview” touches on the highlights of Apple’s early days, notably Jobs’ “Eureka!” moment when he saw the first graphic user interface at Xerox, which didn’t know how to capitalize on it. He recalls having screaming arguments with colleagues over whether the mouse could be made cost-efficient. A polished, discursive speaker, Jobs reveals raw emotions when he describes his falling-out with Apple’s then chief executive officer, John Sculley, which led to Jobs’ resignation in 1985. Jobs didn’t exactly spend the following 10 years in the wilderness, though: “The Lost Interview” doesn’t mention that 1995 saw the release of “Toy Story,” the first feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, which Jobs co-founded in 1986.
“The Lost Interview” took place at a time when Microsoft was in ascendance and Apple in a downward spiral, and Jobs’ put-downs of Microsoft made headlines in 1995. “The only problem with Microsoft is that they have no taste,” he says. “I don’t mean that in a small way. I mean that in a big way. Their products have no spirit about them.” While Jobs was unquestionably a visionary, “The Lost Interview” serves as a reminder that he was also a businessman making a product for the marketplace, as much Henry Ford as da Vinci.
Near the end Cringely asks him, “Are you a hippie or a nerd?,” and Jobs immediately identifies himself and his early Apple colleagues as hippies, part of a generation that grew up with the conviction that “life wasn’t about what they saw their parents doing.” He speaks with undeniable passion about the quality of Apple products, both in design and as tools for social improvement. The conversation doesn’t consider whether making and selling better computers and other electronic devices can meet a personal’s spiritual needs. (Mike Daisey’s monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” despite being discredited by the author’s factual embellishments, takes Jobs to task for Apple’s failure to apply its ideals to its Chinese sweatshops.)
The film consists of more than an hour of mostly unedited footage, with the camera on Jobs from a stationary position, although occasionally a jarring freeze-frame will accompany Cringely’s voice-over as he provides context or switches topics. “The Lost Interview” is by no means a visually engaging movie, but it remains a thought-provoking conversation, enriched by Jobs’ subsequent success and his untimely death at the age of 55. And it proves that the world can be changed by humble pieces of equipment lying around the garage.
Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. Directed by Paul Sen. Not rated. 72 minutes. Opening Monday, June 18, at GSU Cinefest.