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?

Skater and photographer Rosenberg praises Jonze's camera movement, his ability to describe a skater's personality through short interviews, and his innovative choice of music. "Skateboard music was almost all punk rock," Rosenberg says. "But Spike came in with things like The Jackson Five's 'I Want You Back.'" He also used a dynamic John Coltrane song from the 1950s and War's funky "Low Rider," which plays as the teenage skaters uncap beers and crash their car in the desert badlands.

These videos drew the attention of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who asked Jonze to star in and shoot the skateboard passages of their rock video "100%." On the set, Jonze worked with director Tamra Davis (director of Billy Madison and Hanson's "MMMBop" video) and learned from her the rudiments of rock-video directing. Meanwhile, Freestylin' had gone out of business, and Jonze moved on to Dirt, a magazine for teenage boys that was, during its short-lived run, the counterpart of the more successful Sassy for girls. R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe met Jonze while he was working at Dirt and remembers him being "like a skate kid -- a very smart one." In some ways he still is: Almost a decade after he broke in, skaters are still Jonze's people, and skaters feel proud of his success, as though he were a boy from the old 'hood.

The kid who dreams of a nice split-level in Garland: Jonze plays Conrad Vig in David O. Russell's Three Kings.
Murray Close
The kid who dreams of a nice split-level in Garland: Jonze plays Conrad Vig in David O. Russell's Three Kings.

In 1995, Sony/TriStar asked Jonze to direct Harold and the Purple Crayon, a live-action-animation feature film based on the Crockett Johnson book about a boy whose crayon drawings take on a life of their own. David O. Russell, who went on to direct Spanking the Monkey and to cast Jonze in Three Kings, was brought in as scriptwriter, but for reasons no one will discuss, the film was never made. Jonze continued to make skate videos and to shoot for magazines, and he branched into commercials -- including clever, imaginative spots for Nike and Nissan and a Levi's jeans commercial in which a patient on a stretcher is saved by the Soft Cell song "Tainted Love" -- and short documentaries while building the definitive portfolio of alternative-rock videos.

Stipe concedes that it's difficult to pin down Jonze's directing style, which is built from the rapid juxtapositions that mark the work of his namesake. Like most of the director's admirers, Stipe speaks about Jonze's ability to see the world from "a different angle," but can't be much more specific. "It's more of a freedom to fuck with the medium, and that for me is what sets him apart from the average director. He doesn't see the limitations, and if he sees them, they don't translate for him."

Much of the appeal of Jonze's style has to do not just with rapid onscreen movement and guerrilla camera work but with tone, the way he borrows images and iconography from other times and places and treats them with empathy and even affection instead of scorn. It's clear in his use of the '50s and '70s in his Weezer and Beastie Boys videos, in the way he pokes fun at the clumsy dancers in "Praise You" -- who persevere through the indifference and hostility of passersby -- but also makes this leotard- and tank-top-clad bunch the heroes of the story.

"He employs a certain contemporary irony that is inevitable for his age," says Sonic Youth singer-guitarist Thurston Moore. "But it is refreshingly lacking in the bitterness I see in other hepsters his age, like Harmony Korine."

Jonze's ability to see the humor in his subjects without trashing them is most clear in Amarillo by Morning. This short documentary from 1997 captures a group of Texas teens who dream of a future in the rodeo and nearly makes a star of a 16-year-old named Little John, a baby-faced kid in an enormous cowboy hat who speaks in the earnest, rapid-fire patter of a teenage televangelist. The documentary came about by accident, while Jonze and his director of photography, Lance Accord, were visiting Texas to shoot rodeos. They met some kids and, as Jonze puts it during our interview, "just couldn't stop videotaping them." Part of what drew Jonze to these boys was the absurdity of their conviction, but he never mocks them. "For me, I was just so into how they were 16 years old and they were so vocal about what they thought their lives would be like."

When he speaks about his projects, Jonze often adopts an innocent's fecklessness, as if he were an accidental genius. As he told the Los Angeles Reader in a 1995 interview: "It's probably because I'm like Chauncey Gardener, the guy from Being There. I'll say something like, 'A big table!' and then someone says, 'Oh, great. Let's give him a lot of money. Go make it.'"

Despite Jonze's image as a fun-loving boho who just lucks into his triumphs, there's a rigor and degree of difficulty to all of his work. Thurston Moore saw it immediately when he and Tamra Davis first watched Video Days.

"We were marveling at how some of the shots were being made, and we figured the cameraman was on a skateboard following the skaters, which is something we had never seen, at least not with so much inventiveness," says Moore, adding that Jonze's command of technique is such that "he can throw a camera in the air and create cool-looking stuff."

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