Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Auteurs #54: Spike Jonze

Among the small group of filmmakers who successfully built their careers from the world of music videos to feature films, Spike Jonze is someone that hasn’t just successfully put his own stamp into the world of films from his experience in music videos. He is also someone that is able to create stories that are very weird and strange yet manage to find them appealing to a wide audience. From his collaboration with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to the more personal films he had been creating that ranges from the world of skateboard culture to mediations on loneliness. Jonze has managed to find a sense of innocence in a world that is often misunderstood or to complicated to some.

Born Adam Spiegel on October 22, 1969 in Rockville, Maryland, Jonze was the son of Arthur H. Spielgel III who was related to the famed Spiegel family who were famous for Spiegel clothing brand and its catalog. While the family would earn money from the brand, Jonze’s family that would include his brother Sam and sister Julia would forge their own paths like their parents did as their father was a consultant manager and their mother Sandra L. Granzow was a communications consultant for developing countries as one of many jobs she had. At the age of 18, Jonze moved to San Francisco to attend its art institute where he immersed himself into the world of skating and BMX culture serving as a photographer. It was around that time he was given the name Spike Jonze as a pun of sorts to the famed bandleader Spike Jones.

Jonze started making music videos in the early 1990s for bands like Wax and Sonic Youth. His approach to the videos he directed were different from a lot of the mainstream music videos of the time. His style quickly gained a following and he found himself working with The Beastie Boys, The Breeders, Weezer, Dinosaur Jr., R.E.M., Bjork, Fatboy Slim, Elastica, the Pharcyde, and Daft Punk, to name a few.

How They Get There/Amarillo Morning/Torrance Rises

While honing his craft with music videos, Jonze made three distinct short films. where he spent much of the late 90s creating a trio of different shorts. The first one, How They Get There, was a simple comedy about a man who begins to mimic the movements of the woman he sees across the street. As the pair copies each other, the film evolves into something that is both tragic and funny. The other two short film saw Spike Jonze try his hand at documentary filmmaking. One film was Amarillo Morning, which followed two teenagers, who wanted to be cowboys, around for the afternoon. Shot on video, the film showed how the teens’ desire to be cowboys was not always reflected in the music they listened to.


The third short, Torrance Rises found the director collaborating with Lance Bangs on a mockumentary about the dance troupe who appeared in the Fatboy Slim video Praise You, which Jonze also directed with his then brother-in-law Roman Coppola. The humorous film focused on the group’s rehearsals for their appearance at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards. Torrance Rises ended up being a cult hit and helped Jonze to get noticed by many prominent figures within the film industry.

Being John Malkovich


Around the time Spike Jonze was making short films, he received the script for Being John Malkovich from his then father-in-law, and renowned filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola that was written by a TV writer named Charlie Kaufman. The odd script revolved around a puppeteer who takes a job on a mysterious floor of a building only to discover a portal that leads into the mind of actor John Malkovich. Jonze worked closely with Kaufman to develop the film, and brought in a couple of collaborators, cinematographer Lance Acord and editor Eric Zumbrunnen, who had worked on his music videos and short films. Aided by David Fincher’s production company, Propaganda Films, and a production company co-founded by R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe, Jonze received the funding he needed for the quirky film.

With Malkovich on board to play himself, the primary cast included John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener along with supporting roles from Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, and Charlie Sheen as himself. With a $10 million budget, shooting began in July 1998. With K.K. Barrett handling the production design duties, Jonze also brought in Philip Huber to provide some crucial puppetry work. The puppetry was key to the film as it emphasized the power struggle the magical realism in the film.

Being John Malkovich premiered in the U.S. in late October of 1999 and was given a limited release by USA Films (later Focus Features). The film received rave reviews from critics for its originality and did modestly well at the box office in the U.S. before eventually getting a worldwide release. Receiving three Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay to Kaufman, Best Supporting Actress to Keener, and a Best Director nod to Jonze, the film’s success surprised some as many studios had not realized the film’s potential when they passed on it years earlier.



Having struck up a friendship with Charlie Kaufman, Jonze next film, Adaptation, explored Kaufman’s own troubled experience while trying to adapt Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief into a film for Jonathan Demme. Kaufman’s script not only touched on his writing process, but also in how he had written himself and his fictional twin brother Donald into the story. With Nicolas Cage playing both Charlie and Donald Kaufman, rest of the principle cast included Meryl Streep, playing Susan Orleans, and Chris Cooper, as the horticulturalist John Laroche. The supporting roles were filled out by Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cara Seymour, and Brian Cox.

The film itself took place during the production of Being John Malkovich, with members of that film’s cast making cameo appearances, which gave Adaptation a unique sense of surrealism to the proceedings. Jonze further added to this by bringing in filmmakers Curtis Hanson and David O. Russell to play fictional characters. These moments helped to emphasize the struggles that come when attempting to make art. Frequently blurring the lines between fiction and reality, Adaptation, once again showed that Jonze could masterfully create films that were both inventive and playful, while still connecting with audiences on an emotional level.

Though originally scheduled for a late 2001 release, Adaptation was delayed due to the amount of post-production work need. The film finally came out in late 2002 to excellent reviews and a healthy showing at the box office. Chris Cooper won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the film, while Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep received Oscar nods for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Charlie Kaufman also received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, which he shared with his fictional twin brother. While the film was a success, Jonze’s personal was unraveling as he split with wife Sofia Coppola in December of 2003. Taking time to get his personal life in order, Jonze spent the next several years producing projects including the MTV show Jackass.

Where the Wild Things Are


During his long hiatus from films, where made music videos, commercials, skateboard videos, and shot a concert film for the post-punk band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jonze produced films for director Tarsem Singh and Charlie Kaufman’s debut film Synedoche, New York. It was in this time, he was approached by writer Maurice Sendak about helming a live-action adaptation of his famed children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. The story focused on a boy who retreats into an imaginary world where he becomes king. Receiving support from actor Tom Hanks and producer Gary Goetzman, Jonze was able to raise the funds needed to get the film into production.

Working with budget of $100 million, Where the Wild Things Are was Jonze’s most expensive film to date. Shooting began in 2006 in Melbourne, Australia with production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Lance Acord helping to bring the fantastical world to life. Max Records was cast to play the lead role of Max with Catherine Keener playing Max’s mother. The supporting cast was a who’s who of talent. Mark Ruffalo had in a small role as the boyfriend to Keener’s character, while Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and James Gandolfini all provided the voices for the monsters Max encounters.

During the post production, while Jonze worked on the film’s score music with Carter Burwell, he asked Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ vocalist Karen O to contribute some originals for the film. Where the Wild Things Are was finally released in the fall of 2009, where it was well-received by critics, but just barely recovered its $100 million budget. Despite its disappointing commercial reaction, Jonze felt proud of the excellent response he received from children who were able to connect with the film.

Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak


While trying to get Where the Wild Things Are developed, Jonze’s frequent meetings with Sendak prompted him to make a documentary with the aid of friend Lance Bangs. Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak was shot sporadically over the course of five years, and featured Spike Jonze and Catherine Keener interviewing Sendak about his work and views on the world. In the conversations Sendak opened up about his own personal life as well as memories he had as a child. Memories that were very influential work, and explained why he refused to cater to trends in the world of children’s literature.

I’m Here/To Die By Your Side


After the release of Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze once again embarked into a series of small projects, including a few music videos and a short film called Once We Were a Fairytale with rapper/producer Kanye West. Another short Jonze made, I’m Here, was funded by Absolut Vodka and told the of about two robots in a futuristic Los Angeles society where humans and robots co-exists. Featuring the voice work of Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory, the short film featured costume work from Alterian Inc. who were famous for designing the suits worn by the French electronic duo Daft Punk. The short was well-received when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2010. The short can be seen here.


Taking time to create a short film for the band Arcade Fire, which served as a promotional clip for the group’s album The Suburbs, Jonze made another short co-director with Simon Cahn. The six-minute film, To Die By Your Side, offered a mixture of live-action and animation and was set largely in a French bookstore. The premise involved characters from different book covers falling in love and going on a strange adventure. The short can be seen here.



Inspired by his recent shorts, Spike Jonze wrote Her, a story about a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligent operating system named Samantha. The film explored the themes of loneliness and love in an age where technology governs connections. To bring his $23 million budget bring his sci-fi romance to life, Jonze casted Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role of Theodore Twombly and filled out the ensemble with Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, and Rooney Mara.

Samantha Morton was initially cast as the voice of Samantha, and was brought in to interact with Phoenix in certain scenes. However, Morton was replaced in post-production by Scarlett Johansson whose voice and performance was more in tune with what Jonze had envisioned for the character. Jonze also brought in the Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema to shoot the film, which aided in the film’s futuristic feel.

Another key aspect to the film was the music. Jonze asked the Canadian art-rock band Arcade Fire and experimental artist/occasional Arcade Fire contributor Owen Pallett to create a score. Karen O also helped out by writing the original song Twombly and Samantha sing. Her made its premiere at the 2013 New York Film Festival and was a smash hit. The film went on to gross $47 million worldwide and drew rave reviews from critics. Her ended up receiving Oscar nominations for its score, original song, K.K. Barrett’s production design, and Best Picture. The film also garnered Spike Jonze his first Academy Award as he won for Best Original Screenplay.

With four films, a handful of shorts, and several acclaimed music videos under his belt, Spike Jonze is a figure in cinema that consistently thinks outside of the box. Whether it’s about exploring the world of oddballs, artists, or children, Jonze manages to find something in them that audiences can relate to. Spike Jonze is a unique individual in American cinema who is not afraid to find the beauty and emotion in the oddities of life.

Related: The 25 Essential Videos of Spike Jonze

Very Special Thanks to Courtney Small for his editing on this piece

© thevoid99 2016


Anonymous said...

I definitely wish we would see more from him!

Dell said...

Jonze has been hit-or-miss for me, bit I do love Being John Malkovich and Her. Never heard that story about how he got his name. I like it.

thevoid99 said...'m eager for what he does next. I give him another year or 2 to see what he'll come out with.

@Wendell-He's not a very conventional filmmaker but that is one of the reasons why I love his work very much.