Director looks always for the fun factor

Director Spike Jonze attributes his success to working and playing with the right individuals, writes Maria Giovanna Vagenas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm

It's November 2013 and a man is awkwardly making the rounds at the Rome Film Festival, looking somewhat out of place.

The man is director Spike Jonze and although he looks like a 44-year-old who hasn't left his teenage years behind, this facade conceals a complex, beguiling personality who has created some of the most original, offbeat and entertaining films of the past decade and a half.

Born Adam Spiegel in the US state of Maryland, this all-rounder who took his new name from satirist and bandleader Spike Jones has done it all: from skateboarding to writing, photography to film directing, producing to acting. Gifted with huge talent and an extraordinary versatility he has turned his hobbies into art and business, combining his passion for music, skateboarding and BMX freestyle biking with his love for the image - photography first, then videos and movies.

I was fortunate in terms of meeting the people that I met, and working with
Spike jonze 

In Rome, where his latest film, Her, had its European premiere, Jonze struck up a rapport with the audience - quite a change considering that just a few years ago he would cancel press conferences, release false information about himself, and play practical jokes on journalists. Direct, spontaneous and sprightly, he humorously dismissed complex, academic questions and adopted a straightforward approach.

"I belong to the first generation that grew up having video cameras," he says. "I guess I came up making skate videos, taking photos, writing short stories and articles, then me and my friends started a few magazines like Homeboy and Dirt.

"When I was 20 years old, I had no plans to be a filmmaker. To me it was always about just making things with whatever medium. That was the idea, and it was always exciting to figure out with whom of my friends I was going to make it."

Jonze has a creative and quirky group of friends who have allowed him to be the linchpin of a range of bold projects. He has produced skate videos (his Video Days for the Blind skate company in 1991 earned cult status), some of the most original commercials of the past two decades (including ads for Adidas, Ikea and Gap), and groundbreaking music videos (for his friends Björk, Sonic Youth, Fatboy Slim, Weezer and the Beastie Boys, to name a few). "Looking back, I was fortunate in terms of meeting the people that I met, and working with the people that I worked with," he says with a boyish smile. "Me and my friends have always tried to make ourselves laugh, or to come up with things that affect us, I suppose. To have fun in the first place is the best way to connect with people."

Jonze likes to have fun - after all, he's one of the creators of MTV's Jackass TV show and movies (the latest, Bad Grandpa, came out in 2013) and still loves playing pranks with old friend Johnny Knoxville, of Jackass fame.

In 1999, Jonze's career took a giant step forward with Being John Malkovich, written by the idiosyncratic Charlie Kaufman. "When I started making my first movie I was principally focused on the fact that I had to work with actors. Since I came from the world of performance, I was used to concentrating on that aspect. For me, the set design and the photography were all simply supporting elements to the characters," he says.

His fruitful collaboration with Kaufman continued with Adaptation in 2002, while Dave Eggers was taken on as his screenplay accomplice for Where the Wild Things Are in 2009.

Jonze has also worked with an exceptional group of filmmakers: "Mike Mills, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola [Jonze's ex-wife] and David Russell, we all came up in a certain era, and we all watched each other's stuff, talked to each other, inspired, influenced each other and worked on each other's things," he says. "I feel fortunate to have grown up with these filmmakers."

Jonze's latest movie, Her, his first as sole writer and director, can be considered another step forward. It has already earned several critics' awards in the US as well as the Golden Globe for best screenplay and last Sunday cemented Jonze's status when it won him the Academy Award for best original screenplay.

"I wanted to tell this story because it's about different things that I have been confused about and wanted to try to understand," he says. "On one hand, the movie is about our relationship with technology. On the other hand it's about our desire and our need for intimacy and the things that prevent us getting close to someone else." Set in a near-future Los Angeles, Her focuses on the life of a lonely, oversensitive, middle-aged man, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who earns a living by writing letters for other people.

Still suffering after his divorce from ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore starts an unconventional relationship with the female voice (Scarlett Johansson) of his computer operating system. Bit by bit, this virtual friendship grows into a true romance and eventually into a passionate love story.

Jonze spent three years on this feature - one year on the screenplay and 14 months in the editing room, during which time his collaboration with Phoenix became intense: "Joaquin and I had been talking about the movie for almost a year. Every few months I had a new draft, we would sit down for a few days, read the script and exchange our thoughts and reactions. What I was hoping to get from him was this very warm, raw, emotionally available, open performance."

On writing the role of Samantha, the operating system, Jonze says: "I tried to write Samantha as her own being. She is brand new to this world, like a child, and therefore doesn't have any of the baggage we all have. She has not yet learnt to be scared, to be upset, she has not had all these experiences, she has to create them. On the other hand, she has all that intelligence and speed in her mind and, in the course of the movie, she learns those things too, like we have learnt in our lives."

Her was shot partly in Los Angeles and partly in Shanghai, and the two cities were collaged together: "I thought we should make a movie in that kind of utopian-feeling world that is somehow still similar to ours, showing that a person can feel lonely and isolated and that this situation hurts even more, in a way, because you are in a place where you are supposed to feel connected," Jonze says.

Shooting in Shanghai turned out to be an adventure. "Shanghai is a city of 20 million people, there is a lot of energy and shooting there is really hard. If you try to hold people back, they won't stop. One night on a bridge an older lady started lashing out with her umbrella at our young Chinese production assistant who was asking her to hold on. Obviously she just walked through the shot," Jonze adds with a laugh.

The question of the soundtrack was solved almost by magic, in typical Jonze fashion. While he was looking for a composer, Win Butler and wife Regine Chassagne from Arcade Fire were at his house on holiday. "I was trying to figure out who was going to get the score and it hit me that my favourite band in the world was in my guest bedroom. So they wrote the score."

It's just the latest example of Jonze finding himself in a fortunate situation, but there is little doubt he has also created that fortune himself, making a success out of pretty much any situation he is in.

Spike Jonze's three previous films:

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Spike Jonze's big-screen debut, a fantasy-comedy written by Charlie Kaufman, was one of the most inventive, brilliant and subversively funny films of the 1990s. Would you pay big money to enter the mind of a famous actor? This is the premise that drives the movie, which takes us on a hilarious, offbeat trip inside the head - and body - of actor John Malkovich. It stars John Cusack as Craig, a failed street puppeteer, Cameron Diaz as Craig's dull wife, Lotte, Catherine Keener as Maxine, Craig's attractive co-worker, and the amazing Malkovich as a fictional version of himself. The film earned three Academy Awards nominations: for best director, best original screenplay and best supporting actress.

Adaptation (2002)

Jonze's second collaboration with screenwriter Kaufman. Based on Susan Orlean's non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, the film is a semi-autobiographical postmodern comedy drama about writer's block. Narcissistic but irresistibly funny and sincere, Adaptation has a dual narrative thread, dealing with the writing of a script and the theft of an orchid. The tangled, diabolically clever film contains a misleading blend of fiction and real life, and drew brilliant performances from Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, Chris Cooper as orchid hunter John Laroche, and Nicolas Cage in the double role of Kaufman and his fictional twin, Donald. Cooper won an Academy Award for best supporting actor, Kaufman was nominated for best adapted screenplay, Cage for best actor and Streep for best supporting actress.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

This adaptation of the 1963 children's book by Maurice Sendak, and Jonze's first movie co-written with Dave Eggers, is about the adventures of a lonely nine-year-old named Max, who sails away to an island inhabited by wild creatures and becomes their king. The movie combines live action, animatronics and computer-generated imagery, but despite the stunning visuals and other-worldly touch, it is rather dark for a children's story. Max Records plays Max, while prominent actors including James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper lend their voices to the creatures.

Her opens on Thursday