Being Spike Jonze

Perhaps the most intriguing brain behind Jackass, the masterly mischievous Spike Jonze talks to Paul Byrne about, well, being Spike Jonze.

I’ve always thought the reason Spike Jonze shies away from TV is purely because of his desire to keep a little mystery to his magic.

Do we really need to have Jonze reveal and unravel all the strings involved in the making of his three sweetly weird and truly wonderful movies, Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002) and Where The Wild Things Are (2009)? Or have the entire list of ingredients and secret recipes that went into such acclaimed and award-winning music videos as The Pharcyde’s Drop, Wax’s California, Fatboy Slim’s Weapon Of Choice and Praise You, (that’s Jonze himself leading the Torrance Community Dance Group, by the way), The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, Bjork’s It’s All So Quiet? Or have the director’s commentary stomp all the ambiguity out of his rosette-laden commercials work, such as Lamp (for IKEA), Pardon Our Dust (for Gap) and Hello Tomorrow (for Adidas)?

Is it any wonder Spike Jonze has taken the J.D. Salinger approach to celebrity? Only, eh, he hasn’t.
“The reason I don’t do TV is that I can never come up with a cool answer,” says the 41-year old skateboarding scamp. “I just don’t feel comfortable in that environment, and I end up not being able to make much sense. If that makes sense.”

When I last spoke with Spike Jonze, it was in an LA hotel back in October of last year, as Where The Wild Things Are was about to be unleashed. It took Jonze ten years to get his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s much-loved 1963 children’s book up on screen, much of the editing process spent deep in battle with Warner Bros, who had put up much of the reported $100million budget. It was the acclaimed filmmaker’s first attempt at a blockbuster, but Where The Wild Things Are didn’t quite burst enough blocks to make it a true box-office hit. It’s worldwide take was just a nudge over $100m.

Which may explain why Jonze has only shot one half-hour short in the meantime (the Andrew Garfield-led I’m Here), and has no concrete plans for his next project. It may also explain why he decided at the last minute to jump on the victory tour bus for Jackass 3-D, Jonze having created the stunt-driven TV show alongside childhood buddy Jeff Tremaine (who directed both the TV outings and the three movies) and leading man Johnny Knoxville.

Jonze is making his first visit to Dublin as Knoxville and the boys bring their house of pain to Ireland, filming as they go for the January 2011 DVD release, Jackass 3.5. Which should add a few more swimming pools to the enormous take of Jackass 3-D.

This $20m movie took $50,353,641 over its opening weekend in the US last week. Which, you know, is just bonkers.
“Isn’t it?” smiles Jonze. “We’re still trying to figure out what happened exactly. The feeling is, there’s a whole new generation out there who are only vaguely aware of what Jackass is, and to them, it was a whole new experience. I’m guessing, after ten years, there was a degree of nostalgia too for some. Still, that’s an incredible amount of money for something we’re doing purely for fun.”

Having debuted on MTV back in 2000, the Jackass series bowed out a mere two years later, after 25 episodes, to leap onto the big screen, the second cinema release pulling in another tidy sum in 2006. A shamelessly crude and rude franchise, Jackass sees ex-stuntman Johnny Knoxville leads his band of dangerously merry men (including fellow ex-stuntmen Steve-O and Bam Mangera) through a series of pranks, pratfalls and, in the case of the latest big-screen offering, even a snakepit. Each stunt or prank usually ends in tears (of pain for the protagonist; of laughter for the cheerleaders), broken bones or vomit. If the director is lucky, of course, he’ll get all three.

It’s a show very much of our times. In the same way that Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle are very much of our time. For some, it’s The Three Stooges for the 21st century. It’s Hans Moleman’s Springfield Film Festival-winning Man Getting Hit By Football. Does it work on so many levels for Spike Jonze?
“It works on at least one level,” he laughs, “and that’s all we really care about. There are some very smart people involved here, and quite a bit of thought goes into what ends up on screen, but the humour is shamelessly juvenile. Which, you know, is valid. I personally love Man Getting Hit By Football. It deserved that big win, and more.”
Still, it’s got to hurt just a little when a movie that Jonze reached deep down into his soul to get right struggles to earn back its $100m budget as it tours the world whilst Jackass, made on a shoestring and with all the tender loving care of a sneeze, makes that in one week. In just one country.
“I don’t see them as related really,” he nods. “I was very happy with Where The Wild Things Are. It was the movie I imagined, the dream I had in my head when we set out. And that’s really all that matters. Of course I wanted Warners and everyone else to make their money back, and for Maurice to like it, and for audiences to enjoy it too, but my work was really all about making the film that I wanted to make.

“Once you’ve achieved that, you can never regret it. Most of the movies I love aren’t big blockbuster affairs. I was just watching Harold And Maude again the other day, and that’s such a perfect movie. That didn’t make a lot of money when it was first released, but that hardly matters now, does it?”

Darn tooting. And I for one am excited about the upcoming Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher remake. So, given that Spike Jonze has only shot one half-hour short since completing his third big-screen outing, are we to take it that getting the right people and the right money together is still a struggle? At one point, as Jonze had yet another debate over Where The Wild Things Are with Warners president Jeffrey Rubinov, the filmmaker offered to settle the argument with a little Greco wrestling. Rubinov declined.
“I don’t have too much of a struggle, no,” he answers. “No more wrestling, which is good. The Warners film was the only really big movie I’ve done, and it was a valuable experience, but it’s not like I’m looking to make that kind of movie again and again. It’s always about how the story can be told, and finding the best way to tell it. And my movies don’t tend to cost that much. So, all I have to do now is find the next story that I want to tell…”

And what of the stories Spike Jonze has already told? At the end of last year, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective, wittily titled (by the man himself) Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years. How was it for Jonze, having all that perspective on offer?
“It was fine,” he nods, “but I didn’t really watch much of the work myself. I never do. These guys had gotten in touch with me when my first film came out, and they wanted to show all my videos, along with the movie, and I just thought that that was really strange. I felt uncomfortable with it. And I said that they should maybe wait ten years, to see what movies I make, and if they still wanted to do it in ten years, then I’d do it. And so, they came back after ten years, and I had agreed to do it. So, I kinda had to, you know.”
You had just turned 40 that month too, so, you must have been in a retrospective mood…
“Yeah, I guess I was, but I’m really not interested in looking back all that much, when it comes to the work. You hope it has a life beyond its initial release, but you don’t want to hold onto it either. I love my work enough to set each one of them free. If they come back to me when I’m really, really old, then I’ll know that they love me too…”

Words and Photo – Paul Byrne

Jackass 3-D hits Irish cinemas November 5th