Being Spike Jonze

The acclaimed rock-video director has made one of the year's oddest, funniest films. So why is he scared of his own shadow?

For an early segment for an MTV series of interviews with video directors, Jonze sent his friend Chris Pontius, who writes for skateboard magazines, to pretend to be him. For Mean magazine, Jonze posed as a frazzled publicist who couldn't get Jonze to cooperate. For Spin, he asked some friends to act like strangers and repeatedly beat the hell out of him in front of a reporter. Even when interviewing with friends at a skateboard magazine, he invents stories and agrees to every outlandish rumor -- wild honeymoons, cross-country BMX bike rides -- the reporter serves him.

Jonze plays similar games with his identity on the screen. In his much hailed video for Fatboy Slim's gospel-flavored "Praise You," he appears as the leader of The Torrance Community Dancers, a clumsy and, thankfully, imaginary group that awkwardly expresses itself in front of a Los Angeles movie theater. Despite his reported bashfulness, Jonze stars in the video, venturing extroverted, breakdance-inspired moves that most people would keep to themselves. Then, in a voice even more nasal than his real one, Jonze -- speaking to an offscreen interviewer -- spins another imaginary identity.

"A lot of people tell us we have a very hip-hop feel," he says. "Growing up in Manhattan, I performed with several B-Boy posses." He enthusiastically hugs the other dancers and says: "That's sort of our background, sort of our inspiration!" At the annual MTV video awards in September, where "Praise You" collected three awards, Jonze accepted his prize as "Richard," the leader of the Torrance troupe, the icon of ironic cool posing as a pretentious performing-arts geek.

Jonze takes a break from filming to talk things over with stars John Cusack and Catherine Keener.
Jonze takes a break from filming to talk things over with stars John Cusack and Catherine Keener.
Catherine Keener and John Cusack bend in Malkovich, but they don't break.
Catherine Keener and John Cusack bend in Malkovich, but they don't break.

Jonze's real identity is less romantic. He was born Adam Spiegel, heir of the once stylish, now frumpy Spiegel catalog, and he grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, the affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where he was more interested in BMX bikes and skateboards than in TV or movies. He's been called Spike since age 12, named -- by staffers at the bike shop Rockville BMX -- for the spiky haircuts he gave them. (Jonze was added on, most think, in homage to the surreal '40s bandleader.) He moved to L.A. as a teenager in the late '80s and has remained there since, establishing and maintaining a hallowed role in the local skateboard scene and doing his best to stay invisible to the local media. These days he's into yoga, which he does every day at lunch.

Slight of build, with fine hair and an affinity for baggy but neat clothes, Jonze looks like the kind of polite kid who might still be arguing with his parents about whether law or medical school should be his next step. It's unlikely he passed his high school public-speaking class: When he discusses himself or his work, his sentences collide and interrupt each other, and he seems to have trouble sitting still for more than a few minutes, running to get more water whenever possible. He's more or less the opposite of press-crazed Harmony Korine, the other boy-wonder director with a new film (Julien Donkey-Boy) at the New York Film Festival.

Jonze's friends -- nearly all of whom, famous or obscure, refuse to speak for attribution -- use the words "sweet" and "unassuming" when speaking about him, and a few describe him as shy with people he doesn't know, crazy or wild with those he does. Shyness aside, in the last few years he has begun to come out of hiding, appearing not just in that MTV video but also in cameos in several films, among them Mi Vida Loca and his friend David Fincher's The Game. His role as the Judas Priest-loving redneck Army private Conrad Vig in Three Kings marks the first time he's been given any substantial role in a feature film.

Jonze left Bethesda at age 17 to work for Freestylin', an L.A. bicycling magazine. He was hired to write and edit, but instead drifted into the darkroom. "He was kind of notorious in the BMX scene as a prankster," says Andy Jenkins, the editor who hired Jonze mostly on the basis of his funny, anarchic personality. Jonze also began shooting photos of skaters and a series of skateboard videos -- quick-cut, mostly half-hour films made by skateboard companies to show off their stars and to sell boards and clothing -- and quickly developed a reputation as a groundbreaker.

His first major effort was 1991's Video Days, made for the Blind skateboard team, which included not only skating legend Mark Gonzales but also the actor Jason Lee, best known from Kevin Smith's films. That video contains the seed of what's become a widely celebrated style: fast, risky camera work, smart choice of music, offbeat humor.

"For anyone from my era, it's the video," says Ed Templeton, a Huntington Beach skater who was internationally ranked in the early '90s. "When I want to get stoked to go skating, I watch the Blind video." This video, and other Jonze skate films such as Rubbish Heap, made a real impact on their medium. Says a skateboarder and photographer who asked that his name not be used: "It portrayed kids as kids -- doing crazy stuff and getting into trouble." Earlier skate videos had tended to be polite and safe. "There was this etiquette to the way skateboarding was portrayed. People weren't doing crazy things. Spike did this video, and it was just the rawness of kids. He shot a lot of night spots, which allowed the subjects to stand out more. It was rad."

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