Our Favourite Visual Wizard On Wild Things, Jackasses and Tom and Jerry
Director, writer, producer, photographer, editor, actor, artist, dancer, this man has so many roles he can’t even pin himself down. Spike Jonze is one of the most prolific people in the visual art business today. He’s 41 years old but has a trendy youthful veneer that belies the age. The highly ambitious and emotionally distant photographer in Lost in Translation is rumoured to be based on him. He had a well-publicised marriage to its director, Sofia Coppola, who still remains a close friend.
Once reported to have jumped out of the backseat of a moving car, just because – according to a pal – “he felt like it,” his predilections to becoming a stuntman started early in life. An addiction to BMX and skateboarding brought him vaulted acclaim from many magazines, and the expert trick-style magician was making a name for himself not only as a fearless champion skater/biker, but also as a cameraman willing to get anywhere in the line of fire to get the perfect shot. Publications like Freestylin’ and Transworld Skateboarding were witnessing the evolution of a board punk into a respected photographer.
His work progressed into film, and he is credited with pioneering a form of skateboard video that coupled a daring new method of camera technique alongside a whiplash editing style. He also subverted the music soundtrack that let sail the old standard punk rock tracks and welcomed more reflective sounds that morphed the antics from mere stunts into an art form. Since then, Spike Jonze (real name Adam Spiegel – the nickname was born from work colleagues taken with his gravity defying hair) has cultivated the realm of bona-fide filmmaker. He has directed music videos for acts like Sonic Youth, Weezer, Bjork, R.E.M., Beck, Daft Punk, but most notably the Beastie Boys (his award-winning video for Sabotage would have cost peanuts if he didn’t insist on wrecking two $85,000 cameras; one dropped from a moving van, the other in an underwater shot using only a Ziploc bag as protection). His video for Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice featuring a dancing Christopher Walken was voted the greatest ever in a VH1 poll.
Other notches on Jonze’s bedpost include big budget campaigns for Adidas, Nike, Gap, Absolut, and Ikea, and receiving an Outstanding Achievement in Commercials Award from the Director’s Guild in 2005 for his ad work. Further critical endorsement came for his first full-length feature Being John Malkovich in 1999, then in 2002 with Adaptation, and most recently with Where The Wild Things Are. In between all this Jonze still had time to produce and direct numerous short films, documentaries, skateboard videos, and put together a retrospective exhibition at the prestigious New York Museum of Modern Art for Outstanding Contribution to the art of video. And then there’s Spike’s work as a producer on the hugely successful Jackass franchise. As we spoke he revealed that the Irish people are the real inspiration for Jackass. I’m not sure whether he’s referring to our innate sense of fun, or just the fact that Wee Man is dressed as a Leprechaun, but what is agreed is that most Irish people would pay money to see Brian Cowen forced to sit in a poo-filled portaloo and bungeed 100 feet into the air.
How are you enjoying your trip to the Emerald Isle?
In Dublin they really like to drink a lot and stay out (exhales slumping back in sofa). I love the people. I have friends that are Irish so I knew what to expect when I got here.
Why do you think the Jackass franchise has been so successful?
We grew up watching The Three Stooges, Tom and Jerry, and Roadrunner. These are things that we really enjoyed and influenced us so we wanted to share that fun. We would be doing that stuff anyway so we started filming it. We thought it would last six months or be taken off air. Here we are ten years later, it’s amazing.
What inspires the Jackass challenges?
I think you guys are the real inspiration for Jackass. You have the same sense of camaraderie that we try to capture in the movies. We have Knoxville and Jeff (Tremaine, director) who are like excited children when they get ideas.
So, what madness is going on in Knoxville’s head?
Knoxville watches Tom and Jerry and often quotes scenes verbatim. He sees life like a cartoon and when he comes with ideas like firing out of a rocket or something we say man you can’t do that, but then he arrives with a rocket and proves us wrong!
How does your creative process work?
There’s got to be an answer here! Well, I suppose I have to be more specific. When I was working on Where the Wild Things Are I wanted to portray what it was like inside the mind of a 9-year-old child. When I get an idea, it’s a feeling, an instinct. At some point something clicks and I know exactly what it is and what I want to do. That gives me permission to do it. It always starts with a feeling. We have an idea, turn up on set and see if it works something might spark and then it works. I have to feel it’s an organic process.
Where The Wild Things Are, at $100m, is the largest budget you have had in your career to date. 300 people were involved in the post-production and there was a battle with the studio over final cut – but you won.
Well, yeah. It is so different from working with Warner Bros. on a project like Where The Wild Things Are, which was a big, long project. A movie like that is a huge commitment from my life. There is far more spontaneity working on a production like Jackass, a skate movie, or a short.
How do you flip from fart to art?
From Jackass to John Malkovich. It’s just things that excite different parts of me. We don’t analyse what we do. That’s for other people.
I had a small cameo in David Cross’ show The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret. I got stuff with Arcade Fire and am working on a book adaptation. So I hope to get that turned into a movie soon. I got stuff to keep me busy!
Spike on Charlie Kaufman:
We love working together it would be great to get a project together again with him. After directing Synedoche, New York I think he’s focusing on doing more movies like that. Next thing he writes he’ll probably direct again.
Spike on Michel Gondry:
The first video I saw of his was Bjork’s Human Behaviour, and I recognized something special. I wanted to know who he was. A lot of the language he used I recognized. His work is so organic, but so complicated at the same time. I’ve been on set when I produced his first film Human Nature. His stuff is so geometrically and physically complicated but he can see it and he tries to help everyone else see what is in his head and how to transfer that to a feasible shot…We were staying in London for a while and we did an ‘exquisite corpse’ on film. He would do the first scene and would show me the last frame from that. It could be a bottle being grabbed and then it would be my job to create the next scene, which could end with someone screaming, and then HE would pick it up from there. like movie tennis. The tape is somewhere in my house, I’ll find it sometime!
Words: Mark Linehan