It’s almost hard to believe that Her, in theaters this week, is only Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film. He hasn’t made a movie since 2009, but during that time, he’s never seemed absent from the public consciousness, because he’s always doing something — an epic Beastie Boys video starring action figures, a dark twisted fantasy in which Kanye West exorcises his wicked side by extracting a sad mouse-puppet from his stomach, or a heartbreaking 30-minute sci-fi film about young robots in love that also functions, somehow, as a commercial for vodka. Since 2007, he’s been the creative director of Vice’s VBS.tv. This October he oversaw the first annual YouTube Music Awards telecast — kind of an ideal gig for the guy who essentially invented viral videos before there was a YouTube on which to distribute them — and directed that show’s best production number, which featured Greta Gerwig doing exuberant Frances Ha dance moves to live music by Arcade Fire.
In some ways, Jonze’s clout aside, this is a fairly prototypical 21st-century creative life. You produce a bunch of stuff. No one thing makes you rich. If you’re lucky, you’ll find sponsors — whether it’s Absolut or any of the countless other companies for whose products Jonze has directed strange, funny, even beautiful TV spots — who’ll pay you to do your work and get out of your way. Jonze’s non-feature work is proof despite centuries of evidence to the contrary that art-for-hire gigs can be a safe space for wild, creative inspiration; working in tight forms like the music video or the TV spot never seemed to cramp his style. The surprising thing about his films is how humane they are, how good Jonze turned out to be at grounding flights of conceptual fancy in real human emotion.
Jonze was born in Maryland in 1969. His real name is Adam Spiegel; his father, Arthur Spiegel III, was a descendant of Joseph Spiegel, who founded the Spiegel mail-order catalogue in 1865. The Spiegel family sold the company before Jonze was born, but for years he was still being described as “heir to the $3 billion-a-year Spiegel catalogue business” in magazine profiles. The story persisted in part because in order to correct it, Jonze would have had to talk to reporters about his actual background, which might have led to follow-up questions about how his experience (whatever it was) has informed his work, a road Jonze has never been keen to go down.
What we do know is that Jonze grew up in Rockville, and more specifically in a bike store called Rockville BMX, where he worked during junior high and throughout high school. He started writing and shooting photos for the Torrance, California–based BMX magazine Freestylin‘, edited by Andy Jenkins and Mark Lewman, and moved out to California to work there full-time after high school. This was in 1987; he was 17. A few years later, the trio of Lewman, Jenkins, and Jonze would edit the short-lived Sassy spin-off Dirt and help steer Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys’ toweringly influential pseudo zine.
Jonze soon transitioned from shooting freestyle BMX riders to shooting skateboarders. He made his first skate video, Rubbish Heap, in 1989. Video Days, released two years later, featured riders sponsored by Blind, including a 21-year-old Jason Lee, and went on to become one of the most-imitated skate videos of all time. Jonze was a daredevil who’d skate alongside his subjects to get shots other videographers couldn’t; he cut skate sequences to John Coltrane, the Jackson 5, and “Three Is the Magic Number” as well as Black Flag and Hüsker Dü, already pushing against the conventions of genre.
From a historical perspective, though, the interstitial, non-skateboarding-related material on these videos is more important, because you’re watching one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation perfecting his aesthetic on a beer-money budget. In 1993’s Goldfish, when a guy in aviators and a comical ’70s wig chases skaters through the streets, it plays like a cocktail-napkin sketch of “Sabotage”; the sequence from 1997’s Mouse in which Rick Howard skates around town in a mouse costume while pedestrians do double takes is pure Jackass. Both of these videos were released by Girl Skateboards, a company Jonze cofounded in 1993.
Even as his Hollywood profile grew, Jonze never quite left the skate-video world behind. He’s credited as a codirector on Girl videos like 2003’s Yeah Right! — an HD reimagining of the form, featuring wild green-screen-assisted stunts and an Owen Wilson cameo — and 2012’s Pretty Sweet. There is undoubtedly some parallel universe where Jonze never made feature films and just does stuff like this for a living, and only 4,000 dudes know he’s a genius:
The music videos are the reason that didn’t happen. In 1992, Jonze codirected a video for Sonic Youth’s “100%” with Tamra Davis; he shot the skateboarding footage, which features Lee as an eventually murdered punk dude. (The song, written by Kim Gordon, is actually about Henry Rollins’s dead pal Joe Cole.) Davis would soon marry Mike D of the Beastie Boys; Jonze would become one of the Beasties’ key collaborators during their mid-’90s Atwater Village–is-the-center-of-the-universe phase. Jonze’s clip for their 1994 single “Sabotage” cast the band as mustachioed fuzz in the title sequence for a ’70s cop show that never existed, although as MTV’s Jimmy the Cab Driver put it, “it looks like a hell of a show.” (R.I.P., Nathan Wind, Sir Stewart Wallace, and the MTV that thought Jimmy the Cab Driver was a good idea.)
“Sabotage” and Jonze’s clip for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” — which repurposed old Happy Days footage to cast the band as a Kenosha, Wisconsin, quartet rocking Arnold’s Drive-In1 — became the most ubiquitous Jonze videos of the period. He was great at lovingly re-creating the look and feel and film grain of vintage cultural detritus, which was an archetypally Gen-X auteur thing to be great at. But what really set his work apart was its sense of humor. His 1995 video for Wax’s “California” is a perfect visual joke, going from setup (this dude’s on fire! In slow motion!) to punch line (he’s running to catch a bus!) in less than two and a half minutes.2 It wasn’t the first or last time Jonze would create an instantly legendary video for a quickly forgotten band.3
The 2003 Directors Label retrospective DVD The Work of Director Spike Jonze collects most of the crucial ’90s stuff, minus (probably for some Diddy-ish reason) the completely amazing seven-minute video for the rock remix of “All About the Benjamins,” with Puffy turning out a high school prom with help from Tommy Stinson, Dave Grohl, and Lil Kim in a pink prom dress. (So here’s that, if you need it.) Most of the rest is alt-culture history. The Breeders’ “Cannonball” clip, which Jonze codirected with Kim Gordon, introduced the world to Kim Deal’s tube socks. And Jonze’s first Weezer collaboration, a single-take clip for “Undone (the Sweater Song),” flouts music-video convention by refusing to pay attention to the lead singer; the camera keeps wandering off to look at the other members of one of alt-rock’s least visually interesting bands, which of course makes you more curious about what Rivers Cuomo was hiding behind that bowl cut.4 Then, cue the dogs!
According to the music-video reference site MVDbase.com, Jonze’s output as a video director peaked in 1994, when his name appeared on 11 videos, including “Buddy Holly,” “Sabotage,” and Dinosaur Jr.’s “Feel the Pain,” the one in which Murph and J Mascis play an Olympian golf game on the streets of Manhattan. But even as alt-rock slid into eclipse, Jonze stayed busy. The backward Pharcyde video. The greatest posthumous Biggie video, which both tweaked and homaged Hype Williams, one of the few other big-name ’90s video directors whose stuff holds up. Jonze also became one of the few people who actually benefited from his association with the late-’90s rocktronica boomlet. Freed from the obligation to depict a band, like, rocking out, Jonze created complicated narratives out of whole cloth and further explored formal choreography, something he’d experimented with as far back as ’95, with the tire-shop Busby Berkeley number in Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet.”
For Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” Jonze made a mini-movie, with actors, dialogue, and a story, about a young man with a dog’s head whose life is complicated by a broken leg and the boom box blaring French acid-house music that he refuses to put down or turn off, even when it derails a potential love connection. Aren’t we all, in one way or another, carrying around a metaphorical boom box blaring a metaphorical French acid-house song we can’t let go of? In Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” Jonze turned up on-camera as Richard Koufey, the scruffy but enthusiastic leader of the fictional Torrance Community Dance Group, who bust out an Up With People pop-lock routine in front of a Westwood movie theater. Norman Cook himself shows up for only a few seconds as a guy in a denim jacket who doesn’t understand what’s going on. Jonze won a few MTV Awards for this one, and accepted in character (word to Nathaniel Hornblower) as Koufey.
In 1995, TriStar Pictures hired Jonze to direct a film version of Crockett Johnson’s 1955 children’s classic Harold & the Purple Crayon, in which a little boy sketches an entire imaginary world into being. Perfect, right? Except Harold never happened. Jonze worked for a year and a half on an ambitious CGI/live-action adaptation of the story before the studio pulled the plug; some test footage later surfaced on YouTube.
Jonze’s actual feature debut, Being John Malkovich — the first of two comedies he’d make based on seemingly unfilmable Charlie Kaufman screenplays in which frustrated creative types go through the postmodern looking glass — came out in 1999. John Cusack plays Craig Schwartz, a pretentious New York puppeteer who looks behind a filing cabinet at his part-time job and discovers a portal that lets people ride shotgun inside actor John Malkovich’s head for 15 minutes. Craig and his unscrupulous coworker Maxine, played by Catherine Keener, start selling access to the Malkovich portal for 200 bucks a throw. Craig is in love with Maxine; then his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), experiences a sexual awakening as a result of her first Malkovich experience and falls in love with Maxine, too. Maxine loves Lotte, but only when she’s inside Malkovich. After that it gets weird.
Jonze, who earned his first Best Director nomination for the movie, smartly downplays the wackiness of the premise; Malkovich is the most measured and naturalistic film ever made about an actor with a brain-portal. Diaz and Cusack both allow themselves to look authentically worn-down, like real New Yorkers pulled off a grubby subway platform. And even the mystical process of entering and exiting Malkovich is governed by physical laws. You crawl, then slide, down a long, muddy tunnel;5 when it’s over, you’re ejected, birth-canal wet, into a ditch by the New Jersey Turnpike. What happens in between is a kind of virtual-reality experience, and in hindsight Malkovich — released the same year as The Matrix — looks like an early attempt to imagine how the option to escape into virtual life would rewire our ideas about morality and the self.
1999 was also the year Jonze turned up as an actor in David O. Russell’s Three Kings — he played a redneck grunt named Conrad Vig, who was sort of the Fourth King6 — and married Sofia Coppola, whom he’d met seven years earlier on the set of the “100%” video; Francis Ford Coppola had helped get Jonze his first meeting with Malkovich. Jonze and Sofia were married at Coppola’s vineyard, and a photo spread documenting their wedding ran in Vogue, although it didn’t include a single picture of Jonze, something that probably didn’t bother him much.7 He was learning to deploy his enigmatic, pranksterish, inarticulate-like-a-fox persona in interviews like a cloaking device or a smoke bomb. In Zev Borow’s 1999 Spin magazine profile of Jonze, the director takes Borow along on a visit to the home of a friend of his, a purported “country-funkabilly Prince-like” musician who calls himself “Knox.” They argue about the direction of a video they’re going to shoot together — Knox wants “more of an early John Cougar–type of thing,” a concept Jonze balks at. A fight breaks out, which ends with Borow pulling the two men apart and Knox chasing them out of the house with a baseball bat.
“Knox,” of course, was Johnny Knoxville. A year later, Jonze, Knoxville, and director Jeff Tremaine would cocreate the TV series Jackass. Tremaine had been the editor of the anarchic ’90s skate magazine Big Brother. The show began as a (somewhat) basic-cable-safe translation of filthy, mesmerizing Big Brother home videos like Shit and Number Two8 and grew into one of the most esteemed youth-culture brands of the ’00s. Its three endlessly rebroadcast seasons helped MTV cling to a sliver of grunge cred during the TRL era, spawned numerous TV spin-offs and four Jonze-coproduced feature films, and indirectly made it possible for Knoxville to do sex stuff with Jessica Simpson. Taken as one vast project, Jackass is far and away the most successful thing Jonze has ever done, even though he wasn’t behind the camera for much of it. This year’s Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa cost $15 million to make and pulled in $142 million at the box office.
Jonze’s second feature, 2002’s Adaptation, may be the only writers’-block movie better than the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. It’s a wholly original movie about a screenwriter so desperate to write a wholly original movie that he can barely write anything. The screenwriter is Charlie Kaufman, played by a fat-suited Nicolas Cage, who also plays Kaufman’s fictional twin brother, Donald. Charlie’s been hired to adapt The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book about an eccentric poacher named John Laroche. He doesn’t want to taint the material by adding clichéd Hollywood elements — sex, guns, car chases, drugs, characters who grow and change and overcome obstacles — but can’t figure out how to impose a narrative on Orlean’s “sprawling New Yorker stuff” without them. In a moment of inspiration more or less indistinguishable from a psychotic break, he writes himself and his struggle to adapt the book into the script.
I’m leaving out, for clarity, the visits to the set of Being John Malkovich — most of the cast and crew of that film make cameos, except for Jonze, and Malkovich appears to be the one directing the film — and the Condé Nast elevators, Donald Kaufman’s abysmal serial-killer spec script, and Brian Cox’s resplendently hard-blowing turn as screenwriting guru Robert McKee. The movie goes off the rails in the third act, albeit in a we-meant-to-do-that kind of way. A subplot about an Ecstasy-like drug derived from powdered ghost orchids is introduced, people get shot, and we see Orlean (Meryl Streep) fall in love with Laroche (Chris Cooper), just like Kaufman’s producer suggested they should.
The part about Kaufman being hired to adapt The Orchid Thief, despairing, and beginning to write a movie about his inability to adapt The Orchid Thief is true; Kaufman has said that when the script took that turn, the only person he told was Jonze. It’s hard to imagine anyone else thinking it was a good idea. Once again, though, the movie works because Jonze never tries to make it trippier than it needs to be. It’s a romantic comedy that happens to involve versions of real people and a few different layers of fiction. Chris Cooper won an Oscar for playing Laroche, but upon further review the greatest performance Jonze gets out of an actor here is Streep’s — the scene in which she’s high on ghost-orchid powder in a hotel room, harmonizing with the dial tone and bugging out on the sound of her toothbrush, is as funny as anything she’s ever done. And the scene in which Orlean asks LaRoche high-minded New Yorker–ish questions about orchids while writing down “Delusions of grandeur” and “Funny smell in van” is one of the truest representations of journalism ever committed to film.
Jonze’s next movie, Where the Wild Things Are, took seven years to finish and cost $100 million. At one point, after a disastrous screening for studio executives, production was briefly shut down, and there were rumors about Jonze being replaced as director. He has since downplayed how difficult the experience was, but there’s a moment in his great Maurice Sendak documentary short, Tell Them Anything You Want, shot at various times between 2003 and 2009, that speaks volumes. Sendak is explaining that when he first turned Wild Things in to his publisher, no one there liked it. “People were shaking their heads,” Sendak says, “like they’re doing with you now.” Here Jonze’s codirector, Lance Bangs, pulls back to show Jonze, who is densely bearded, hollow-eyed, and nodding gravely; he knows exactly what Sendak means.9
To some extent the studio wasn’t wrong to worry. Jonze and his co-screenwriter, Dave Eggers, took a 10-sentence story for young children and turned it into a movie about a kid (Max Records) who struggles with his anger and, through his interactions with a tribe of bummed-out, bickering monsters, eventually learns a very adult lesson about the futility of trying to insulate kids from pain and suffering. It’s a terrible kids’ movie because it’s too honest about what it feels like to be a kid, which is a pretty noble way for a film like this to fail, and there’s really nothing wrong with the movie apart from it being a marketer’s nightmare. It’s Jonze’s twee-est movie, but also his most deeply felt. And James Gandolfini’s performance as Carol, the Wild Things’ fearful, jealous alpha-beast, is some of the best non–Tony Soprano work of his career, even though he’s essentially just a mo-capped face on a giant Henson Creature Shop suit. Growing from a boy-genius conceptualist into an accomplished director of actors may be the greatest trick Jonze has ever landed, even though he’d probably do anything to avoid explaining how he pulled it off: