Being Spike Jonze
In a strange new film that opens this week, people pay for the pleasure of slipping through a small door in an anonymous office building and spending 15 minutes inside John Malkovich's head. Turns out celebrity's not all it's cracked up to be: Those who make the trip watch Malkovich reading The Wall Street Journal, heating up leftover Chinese food, and ordering bathroom towels over the phone.
According to Malkovich himself and some of the film's other stars, this is pretty much what it's like to be famous. "When we go to McDonald's, we have to decide if we want to park or go through McDrive," says the edgy and inscrutable star of stage and screen.
Cameron Diaz, the former model and There's Something About Mary lead, who appears in this new film as a frizzy-haired pet-store owner, concurs: "I think what the movie says is that the grass is always greener -- everybody else [seems to] have it better."
For most of the film's stars, and for its producer, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, celebrity is a known quantity, something they wrestled with long ago, but one member of the crew of this Kafka-meets-Alice in Wonderland satire -- director Spike Jonze -- has little to say about celebrity or voyeurism. He has even less to say about himself and his own background. For Jonze, who's developed a formidable underground reputation over the past decade as a video director par excellence, the real demands of celebrity have come calling for the first time.
Though he has made one of the year's funniest movies -- Being John Malkovich is up there, in its own eccentric way, with South Park and Rushmore -- and is MTV's most celebrated director, he has almost no public profile. Jonze -- who also appears as one of the Three Kings in David O. Russell's Gulf War action film, playing a hick from a group home in Dallas who longs for a nice split-level in Garland -- turns down interviews, decides not to show up for others, and stages bizarre pranks in lieu of others. His publicity firm has to hire paparazzi photographers to get a shot of him. Walking into a New York press conference that seems to fill him with fear, and asked by a reporter when he changed his name, the blond and sheepish 29-year-old responds: "Ah, 1933."
Despite the director's frequent impersonation of an innocent bystander, Jonze's new work is one of the most personal and unpredictable films to arrive in a long time. Incongruously, it's also controlled and polished. Much of the movie takes place on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of an obscure New York skyscraper and involves a hundred-year-old lech who survives almost entirely on carrot juice and a monkey struggling to get in touch with its inner child. But it's hard to know whether Being John Malkovich will go down in history as "the last great movie of the century," as Esquire has called it, or as an endless midnight movie.
As ubiquitous as his work is, Jonze himself is a study in the elusive. Most Americans under the age of 35 have probably seen one of his videos for acts such as Sonic Youth, Björk, Dallas' own MC 900 Ft Jesus, or Dinosaur Jr., but the man himself exists only as a vague mystique. His videos are consistently the best and most inventive in the business: His clip for Weezer's "Buddy Holly" sets the alternative-rock band onstage at Al's Diner, with old, kitschy footage of Richie Cunningham, Potsie, even The Fonz. His manic video for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" -- an imitation '70s cop show, complete with bad mustaches and reflector sunglasses -- is equally beloved for its retro fashion sense and its constant onscreen movement. Björk's "It's Oh So Quiet" was a Busby Berkeley homage set in a Valley tire shop, with dancing mechanics and twirling umbrellas, and this year's video for Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," which chronicles an amateur dance troupe, swept the recent MTV Music Video Awards. The fact that those who admire his videos know little more than his name is no accident.
"He just doesn't like to talk about himself," says Megan Baltimore, who, with Jonze and two others, owns the Torrance, California-based Girl skateboard company and also was once his roommate. "I don't know if I should say anything," she replies when asked more about him. "I don't want to give away any of his secrets." Asked whether Jonze attracts misinformation and mythology, she says, "Would I be giving away his mystique if I said yes?" This kind of closed-mouth treatment is typical of the way Jonze's friends from the skateboard world discuss him.
"Spike has a wonderful persona, because the people around him help create his mythology," says Jacob Rosenberg, a fellow skater and video director who has known Jonze casually since the early '90s. Rosenberg says Jonze likes to play with his image and reputation out of the same sense of boyish fun that motivates his shooting and directing. "Life is much more interesting the way he does it."
Part of the Spike Jonze myth is that he's a reclusive, almost pre-verbal genius -- the image he likes to convey when members of the media are around. When, in 1995, a New York Times reporter asked Jonze whether his real name was Adam Spiegel (which it is), his response was, "Yeah, that's a...you know, it's all...it's a mastermind P.R. plan I'm working on." Or when asked whether he was dating actress and director Sofia Coppola, daughter of the Godfather director: "You know, it's all a...I have no...I don't know what you're talking about." (Jonze married Coppola this spring at her father's Northern California vineyard in a ceremony serenaded by Tom Waits.)
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'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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
Mark Pellington, who has also made the transition from rock videos (for Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails) to feature films (most recently Arlington Road), calls Jonze "a great conceptualist." Jonze is stylish, he says, but all his work is driven by fresh, left-field ideas. Pellington compares Jonze to David Fincher (the video director who graduated to Fight Club and Seven) and Tim Burton in his ability to tell a story with visual verve without overwhelming it with effects.
"God gave him a special way to see the world," Pellington says, "and he does it with tongue in cheek and a good heart."
Though a rumor has floated that Jonze was worn-out by the process of working on Malkovich and Three Kings and wants to return to shorter projects, he says he's ready for more. He's spoken recently to Rage Against the Machine about a video and always has his eye out for other documentary ideas. But he's also known for being choosy, and when it comes to features, he'll continue to hold out for scripts as good as the movies he loves, among them such recent films as The Straight Story and Election.
"He's a genius -- everybody knows it," says a friend from the skateboard days. "Whenever he does something, people just wait. People put everything aside. You just don't know what's going on in his head -- ever."
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