Whenever newspaper and magazine articles are written about music video director Spike Jonze, the word "hip" almost always pops up somewhere in the story, a prospect Jonze finds deeply horrifying.
"Hip? It's . . . terrible," he stammers. "I don't think so." Jonze, a scrawny 29-year-old with disheveled hair and nervous fingers, stares at the table in front of him. "I guess people . . . " His voice trails off.
Presumably, Jonze is categorized as hip because he makes brilliant music videos, television commercials and short films. His work has earned him several shelves' worth of awards and a devoted cult following. A recent Spin magazine profile pointed out that "a wide and deep selection of the hippest people alive dig Jonze," which isn't as horrible as calling him hip, though it's close.
It's also true: Jonze's fans range from British dance music stars Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers to R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe. And how's this for well connected? When Jonze married actress Sofia Coppola last summer at the Napa Valley vineyard owned by her father, film director Francis Ford Coppola, "Here Comes the Bride" was warbled by none other than pop iconoclast Tom Waits.
This year, after nearly a decade as an underground icon, Jonze seems to have arrived in the mainstream. Friday brings the release of his feature-directing debut, the thoroughly bizarre comedy "Being John Malkovich." Last month he made his wide-screen acting debut in David Russell's war adventure, "Three Kings," playing the appealingly unhinged redneck Pvt. Conrad Vig. And earlier this year, he portrayed a clumsy dance troupe leader in the video for Fatboy Slim's "Praise You,"a devastatingly funny spoof of music video conventions that he co-directed with frequent collaborator Roman Coppola.
Jonze worked on "Being John Malkovich" for 3 1/2 years, and in the service of publicizing the film, he's spending an afternoon trapped in a Manhattan hotel room, talking to reporters who think he's hip.
Mostly for his own amusement, Jonze often confounds journalists with cunning stunts and willfully disingenuous tall tales. For the benefit of a Spin reporter, he staged a fist fight between himself and a supposed video client who chased him with a baseball bat. Several years ago, when asked how he came to be talking with producers about directing the sequel to "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," Jonze offered Entertainment Weekly the following explanation: "My stepdad sells juicers to a lot of people in Hollywood, and he knew Jim Carrey through his juicing connection. In Hollywood all the big deals are made through juicing."
On this particular afternoon, Jonze seems to be having trouble getting words to come out of his mouth. He won't say much about his upbringing in the Washington suburbs. He doesn't confirm that his real name is Adam Spiegel and that he is the scion of the Spiegel catalogue fortune. (Though it sounds like one of his absurd stories, it's true.) He insists that he wasn't the ungainly geek showing off b-boy moves in the "Praise You" video.
He squirms in his chair. When asked which local high school he attended--Bethesda's Walt Whitman--he says "uh" seven times in a row. "I'm not that good at doing this," he says. He stares at his fingers. "I'm not that comfortable, so . . ."
Is his apparent paralysis-by-shyness genuine or is it merely another one of Spike's shticks? Hard to tell.
But this is what it seems like: At this particular moment, a very uneasy Spike Jonze desperately wants nothing more than to be somewhere else.
A Love Hexagon
"Being John Malkovich" is about wanting to be someone else. That is something that the helium-voiced nerdly Adam Spiegel, who has transformed himself into the helium-voiced nerdly Spike Jonze, understands very well.
The film tells the story of out-of-work puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), who suffers because no one understands his art and because his ditsy, distracted wife (Cameron Diaz) is more attuned to the needs of their diapered pet chimpanzee than she is to his creative frustrations. As a last resort, the nimble-fingered Craig takes a filing job at Lestercorp, tucked onto floor 7 1/2--employees are forced to stoop--of a Manhattan office building. There he encounters both an ill-tempered , manipulative temptress (Catherine Keener) and a hidden portal that leads to the interior of John Malkovich's head. Crawl in, and you spend 15 minutes being John Malkovich before you are dumped alongside the New Jersey Turnpike.
That Malkovich plays himself in the film is crucial to the plot's extraordinary premise, but when screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and Jonze began working on the project, they had no idea whether he would appear in the film--or how they would proceed if he refused to participate.
"We tried to think of who would we get if John didn't say yes," Jonze says. "Charlie and I sat down and made a list, but we never came up with anybody that really excited us. There was the first choice and then there was like a hundred 50th choices and nothing in between.
"People that we talked about were amazing actors and interesting people, but just not right or not exciting. No one ever is the same as Malkovich, so we just kept sort of believing that he'll do it," he says. "We just kept working on blind faith . . . fooling ourselves into thinking he'd do it, and luckily he did."
Jonze says it turned out Malkovich has "a perverse sense of humor" and bought the concept. "His life is very detached from the image of John Malkovich, so he can kind of poke fun at the image of John Malkovich," he explains. "He doesn't take himself seriously at all."
While Jonze concedes that the film mocks Malkovich's insufferably affected demeanor, the director insists that Malkovich is not the big butt of this film's joke. "That's just a side we have fun with," he says. "I don't think that's the point of the movie in any way."
What is the point of the movie?
"A lot of things," says Jonze. "What I like about all of Charlie's writing is that there are so many different layers to it. You can enjoy it just for the comedy or the insanity or you can enjoy it for the ideas and what it makes you think about, or you can enjoy it for the characters and their relationships."
The film's relationships are dizzyingly complicated. "Being John Malkovich" ditches the familiar love triangle, opting instead for what might be best described as a three-dimensional love hexagon. Then there's the chimp struggling to overcome childhood trauma. And if the vision of a world filled with all manner of John Malkoviches isn't ludicrous enough, what could be more ridiculous than casting Cameron Diaz as ol' ball-and-chain?
'He's a Genius'
In the 18 years since MTV broadcast its first clip (The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star"), music videos have evolved into a tremendous cultural force. The promotional clips airing on MTV and other music channels helped turn videogenic cream puffs like Madonna and Paula Abdul into stars. Music videos commercialized the mad energy of Nirvana, the cinematic ghoulishness of Marilyn Manson and the self-aggrandizing cool of Puff Daddy.
Along the way, music videos have impacted more than record sales. The video clips' jittery cameras and frenzied editing pace have influenced television and film. The music video format has also served as a creative workshop for film directors: David Fincher, director of "Seven" and "Fight Club," previously filmed clips for Abdul's "Straight Up" and Madonna's "Express Yourself." Hype Williams, who recently turned out a slew of futuristic hip-hop clips, directed the dramatic feature "Belly."
Jonze has filmed videos for a wide range of pop acts--including R.E.M., the Beastie Boys, the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Puff Daddy, the Pharcyde and Bjork. His clips don't bother with the jiggling booties and well-oiled bodies that characterize so much MTV fare. He spares viewers the most enduring music video cliche: the self-conscious attempt at Meaning. Instead, his high-concept videos are smart in idea and execution, displaying his affection for a range of styles and sensibilities.
His clip for Weezer's "Buddy Holly" revived '50s nostalgia (as filtered through a '70s television show) by transplanting the band to what appeared to be the set of "Happy Days." And while Bjork's colorful "It's Oh So Quiet" betrayed Jonze's fondness for classic American movie musicals, his clip for Daft Punk's "Da Funk" explored a kind of cinema verite fantasy, following a dog-headed man named Charlie as he strolls along Manhattan's Second Avenue.
It is not surprising that Jonze's videos can transform even the most familiar pop music icons into something else. His clip for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" transformed the hip-hop trio into badly dressed '70s television cops, complete with bad mustaches and worse outfits.
"Spike's the most innovative, funny guy out there," says David Levine, director of video production at Astralwerks, the New York-based label that's the U.S. home for Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, two acts whose careers have been boosted to varying degrees by Jonze's videos. "He's a genius. He puts a completely different twist on artists. His videos take away all the vanity and hoopla of 'Hey, I'm a rock star.' He just makes these funny, great little films."
Says Tom Calderone, MTV's senior vice president of music and talent: "He'll not only surprise us with what's he's done, you can also tell he has challenged himself to come up with a video that's going to be so totally innovative and cool and unique.
"He also does a great job in reinventing an artist or totally taking them to another level. Look at what he has done with Bjork. He takes the spirit of the music that she has created and gives it a credibility and a bigness that only special directors can actually create," Calderone says. "He's tremendously influential. Everybody holds their breath watching his videos, and then they have to step up even more. He raises the bar of creativity."
Jonze's television commercials for Nike, Coca-Cola and Sprite have been no less inventive. Like music videos, television commercials are disposable short films meant to sell a product. And both force directors to get an idea across in minutes, if not seconds.
"Spike's work really stands out, which is hard to do with 8 million commercials out there," says Steve Neely, executive producer-creative director for San Francisco-based advertising agency Foote, Cone and Belding. "He's very conceptual, and when he gets involved in a project, he likes to involve Spike in them, creatively speaking--which is a big positive."
Neely worked with Jonze on the Levi's 501 spot that depicted a man being dragged behind a van (the point of the ad was that the jeans withstand wear and tear). "Spike insisted on playing the part," says Neely. "So we let him do it. There he was, all of 24 at the time, being dragged behind a van. It was pretty funny."
The making of Jonze's ad for Nissan's Frontier truck was also memorable. In it, a man snoozing on a recliner is oblivious to the actions of his pet Austrailian shepherd, who maneuvers the chair out of his living room for a hair-raising ride through hilly city streets before they end up in front of a Nissan dealership. The spot required the construction of three different chairs: electric-powered, gas-powered and gravity-powered. Jonze was actually behind the wheel of one of the vehicles that narrowly misses the chair. To prepare for the filming, he took a course in demolition driving.
Sketch of the Artist
One might assume that Jonze developed his off-kilter sensibility sometime during childhood, but Jonze isn't providing many details about his old self Adam Spiegel. He attended Bradley Hills Elementary School. By the time he got to Whitman, he was calling himself Spike Jonze, and he and his friends were into competitive BMX bicycling and skateboarding. They also shot videos of each other and went to a lot of concerts. "We'd go to see shows every weekend down at the Wilson Center," says Jonze, referring to the much-beloved '80s punk rock venue at 16th and Irving streets NW. "To me it was like a small town in that all the people who are doing similar things all knew each other, and it's like a very small little circle even though it has all the makings of a big city."
Jonze left for Los Angeles when he was 17. He worked as an editorial assistant for a bicycling mag called Freestylin' and helped found Dirt, a for-boys spinoff of Sassy magazine that featured such useful articles as "Why You Don't Have a Girlfriend." He skated a lot and shot footage of his friends skating. He had photographs published in other magazines--including Details and Interview--and shot a promotional video for a skateboard company.
His music video-making career was officially launched in 1992 when he was asked to contribute some skateboarding footage to the clip for Sonic Youth's "100%." He was 21 at the time.
"It's fun," he says. "In general, I just put the song on at home or driving around and just listen to it over and over again, and write down random ideas and then see which ones I like most when I look back over the list or which ones may fit together.
"The people I usually work with are people that I'm usually pretty in sync with," he adds. "I was always listening to the Pixies and the Breeders' first record. So then getting a chance to do a Breeders video, it's like, I just kind of knew I would get along with Kim Deal. You get to basically work with people you're really into, and because you're really into them, more often than not, you're kind of coming from the same place."
In 1995, Jonze was tapped to direct a $25 million adaptation of Crockett Johnson's children's book "Harold and the Purple Crayon," but mass firings at TriStar Pictures meant that the film never reached production. Still, the endeavor wasn't a complete waste of time: While working on that project, he met David Russell, who became a friend and the director who hired him to act in "Three Kings."
"Doing 'Three Kings' was a huge opportunity because I never really expected to do anything like that," Jonze says. "So I took advantage of that, took it real seriously and tried to do it. I learned a lot about acting and directing other actors."
His mom still lives in the area. Her name is Sandy, and she wore a flowery black dress to the recent Washington premiere of "Three Kings."
"Yes, I'll be interviewed about Spike, as long as he says it's okay," she said at the premiere. But Jonze has trained his mother well. Later, her husband--Spike's juicing stepdad--responded to an inquiry by saying that Sandy was away.
In the Himalayas.
Still Spinning Stories
Last month, Jonze collected three trophies at MTV's glitzy Video Music Awards at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Dressed in a baggy choir robe, he led the Torrance Community Dance Group through a live performance of the gawky dance moves immortalized in the "Praise You" video as Fatboy Slim pounded a piano behind them.
That night, Adam Spiegel, who has successfully transformed himself into Spike Jonze, got to become yet another someone else.
When the award for best direction in a video was announced, a jubilant Fatboy Slim introduced one "Richard Koufay" to the live audience. Jonze, wearing a beard and glasses, held up the statuette. "The Torrance Community Dance Group and I have been together for seven years," he gushed, "and this is by far the most amazing thing!"
Several weeks later in a Manhattan hotel room, Jonze, who has warmed up considerably and no longer seems uncomfortable discussing his work, talks freely about the man who accepted the award.
"He's a choreographer I've worked with on a number of videos," he says. "He was in the Bjork video dancing and in a few other things.
"That was his dance group, the Torrance Community Dance Group. I just sort of helped because they had never done a video. I just gave them cameras and showed them where to edit and stuff like that.
"I wanted to come but I couldn't make it out to them. We were . . . uh . . . too busy wrapped up in post-production on the movie."
Spike Jonze is smirking ever so slightly.