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?

Being John Malkovich began its life not with Spike Jonze, but as an idea inside the head of rookie screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who is nearly as shy and evasive as the director. Originally the story of a married man who fell in love with another woman, the script morphed into the tale of a harried puppeteer (John Cusack) who takes a job as a filing clerk on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of a Manhattan office building and discovers a portal into John Malkovich's head. He and a sexy, sharp-tongued co-worker (played by Catherine Keener, of Your Friends and Neighbors) set up a scheme to advertise the experience and charge $200 for the trip.

"You get to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes," says a matter-of-fact Joe-Sixpack character waiting in line, as though explaining a gimmicky ride in a run-down amusement park. It's one of the film's many deadpan moments, in which strange developments are treated as just part of the landscape.

Spike Jonze directs John Malkovich, perhaps the only man alive who doesn't need instructions on how to be, well, John Malkovich.
Melissa Moseley
Spike Jonze directs John Malkovich, perhaps the only man alive who doesn't need instructions on how to be, well, John Malkovich.

Kaufman says that he proceeded intuitively with the story that became Malkovich and that the script is still, mostly, a mystery to him. "It was always John Malkovich," Kaufman says. "It was part of the original idea. And I can't tell you why I liked it."

After Jonze had been brought in to direct but before they'd contacted Malkovich, Kaufman and Jonze threw other names back and forth, trying to come up with someone who'd work as suitably in case the actor declined to participate. "We couldn't come up with somebody else who works as well," Kaufman admits.

Kaufman and Jonze passed the script to Malkovich's agent, who passed it to the actor, who might never have read it if not for a severely delayed flight out of Los Angeles International Airport. Headed back to his home in the south of France, Malkovich expected his role to be little more than a passing reference. "I thought it would be a one-line joke or something," he recalls. Upon completing the script, he was struck by the daring humor and the unlikeliness of a film so eccentric ever getting made.

Jonze's main contribution to the film had nothing to do with the dynamic camera moves, lost-in-time quality, or sudden juxtapositions that characterize his skate or rock videos. Says Jonze, sitting in a New York hotel room: "I always thought of playing it very naturalistically and emphasizing the characters and the script and the story."

Instead of getting in its way, he says, letting the script be insane and hilarious was the best way to go. Jonze's choice was an unlikely one in a year that's seen kinetic, MTV-influenced movies such as Run Lola Run, The Matrix, and Fight Club and the emergence of more and more rock-video directors into the world of feature film.

His take on the script helped keep some of the film's big names, who found the story funny and original but were skeptical of it working as a full-length film. (The movie's rumored budget, $13 million, suggests that much of the cast's high-priced talent worked for far less than their standard fees.)

"When I first read it, I thought, 'Oh, God, I hope they don't try to make it into something wacky,'" says Diaz, who signed on only after discussing it with Jonze. Keener found the script "amazing," but felt similarly: "You take a script like that, and you wonder where it could end up."

Cusack was one of the first people to see the script, which he had heard described as long as five years ago as "this underground script that would never be made." He found it "part vaudeville and black comedy and absurdist farce and existential, completely original. I never thought he could sustain it for a whole film." He wanted to meet with Jonze, whose reputation he knew only vaguely, before committing to the movie. Though he'd seen some of his videos and liked them, Cusack wasn't yet convinced. "They showed he was inventive. None of them suggested that he could make a feature film."

Cusack says he's usually hesitant to play guinea pig for first-time directors, who most often just tell him what they think he wants to hear. Jonze, it turned out, was different.

"Spike immediately started talking about character, character, character, and tone," Cusack says. "He didn't talk about visuals. And that's when I knew that this kid was smart." Tricky, kinetic direction works for some films, he says, but not this one. "The Matrix and Run Lola Run were not really about characters; they're about creating worlds. You're being taken on a wild, science-fiction ride. If you're gonna make a movie about people, you can't overwhelm it with visuals, because you can't settle down and look at behavior."

People who have worked with Jonze talk about a contrast between his image as a daffy slacker and the driven, hard-working reality. "I think Spike has a great sensibility," says Malkovich. "For a kid who seems like a goofball, who's skateboarding or taking pictures and doing tricks on his bicycle, he's very smart. He has a really delicate touch. He really watches you -- unlike a lot of directors who sit by the video monitors. He's very stubborn -- he has very strong opinions. He's a little bit relentless." Adds Keener: "I found him very focused on the set. In a benign, conservative way, he kept us all on track."

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