Spike Jonze sits on a chair with his knees drawn up around his chin. He’s wearing a jacket and tie, his shirt is hanging out and he’s rocking sneakers. He’s been speaking to journalists for three days. He knows all the questions by heart now. What were you like as a child? When did you first read Where the Wild Things are? Will you tell us about the film’s troubled five-year production? He doesn’t know this is not going to be that kind of interview.
“Yeah, I think the articles that get written right now are that I’m a giant kid,” he anticipates. “But I think that’s just because the movie I made is about childhood. The last two movies I made weren’t about childhood. So I didn’t get that article written. I got ‘Being Spike Jonze’ a lot on my first movie…”
Being Spike Jonze? No one’s ever quite cracked the enigma. Adam Spielberg got his nickname while working in a BMX store. But by the time you read this, “Spike Jonze” will be 40. He’s spent the last 20 years as film’s hipster maverick-creative, whisking pop-cerebral gonzo brilliance from TV shows (Jackass), commercials (Adidas, Gap, Miller), music vids (Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim, Kanye West), skate vids and movies (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation)… For so long the slacker wunderkind, Jonze seems to exist fully in the moment. His films are brilliantly free, playful and self-reflexive. He resists analysis, no matter how hard people try.
Just try getting Jonze to talk about the process. He’s friendly, charming, immensely likeable and maddeningly elusive. He’ll hesitate, he’ll dodge, he’ll simply go quiet. But he doesn’t bullshit and he doesn’t talk sound bites. If those are the options, he’d rather not talk at all. Sometimes he simply doesn’t have an answer. Sometimes he’ll answer the question he’d rather you’d asked him.
Where The Wild Things Are was supposed to have been Jonze’s first feature. Instead, after taking five years of his life, it’s only his third feature – but his first big-budget Hollywood production and by far the biggest movie of his career.
As he says, it’s a movie about childhood. Of hanging on and letting go. What made Jonze seem such a perfect fit – and persuaded author Maurice Sendak to give full blessing for an adap of his beloved and supposed unfilmmable kiddie-lit classic – was that he appears to have clung to his child-like inspiration like few others. “I think some part of being creative is being child-like, so kids create all the time,” he nods. “And without the anxiety that you get when you’re older. They’re not tortured. They make a drawing and they love it: ‘Look, I made a drawing! Mom!’ And as an adult it’s harder to stay in that place.”
Which is exactly what’s fascinating here. Where The Wild Things Are was not an easy shoot. He knows this. We know this. So does everyone else. Five years in the making, re-shoots, studio battles… Somehow, Jonze has always found a way to yoke creativity to commerce without letting the latter drag the former into the mud. But Wild Things strained his creative and anti-establishment mojo to breaking point, forcing him to go to war with the studio to protect his vision.
How exactly goes that experience – wrestling with the titanic dirty gears of the Hollywood machine – change a man like Spike Jonze? “I’m sure it has changed me in some way,” he begins slowly. “But, er… hopefully… for the better. And I think that…” Jonze starts to break off. “Like when you start something… That you don’t know how to do. You don’t know how to do it. You don’t know what it’s going to be. You know what you’re intention is. You know what you’re aiming for. Like you kinda have to be naive in a way. Even if you know, well, this might be hard, you have to be sorta like wilfully naive. And, um, and…”
A child can’t fight those kinds of battles. And Jonze had to fight. “I did have to fight with the studio, but not only I had to fight, but this was just a massive movie,” he says. “That was just five months in the middle of five years. And that was definitely gruelling and not fun. But in the end it didn’t stop us. We made the movie we wanted to make.” But at what cost? The question is, can you hold on to your childish streak after going through something like this? “Um, well, I mean, it wasn’t possible, like…”
He trails off again. Then comes back. “At certain times, it was really hard,” he admits. “Whether we were fighting with the studio or on location. You know, on this distant location with many people or a lot of equipment, a lot things can go wrong. Puppets. Weather. A child. I’ll want to protect him and yet get the performance we needed from him. And there were times when it, yes, it was exhausting. And the only way I made it through was that I was working with my friends and the people that I love and trust.”
Those are two words you don’t hear often in Hollywood. Warner Bros gave Jonze a lot of money to make this film. “Um, three trillion dollars,” he deadpans. Well, we heard it was closer to $70 million. “Yeah, I just never talk about it.” Either way, three trillion or $70 million, it’s a massive gamble to give Big Money to a skate-punk with just two violently anti-commercial features on his CV.
Would he ever give a guy like himself $70 million to make a film? Jonze bursts into a full grin for the first time. “Ha! Um… Would I? Yeah. Hell yeah! Fuck yeah. If I ran a studio… I think the most interesting companies are the companies that bank on ideas. You look at Apple computers. That’s by far one of the most interesting technology companies and successful. And the reason it’s successful is because they bank on ideas. And yeah. I think if you look at the companies that don’t bank on ideas, they’re boring companies. And I think that. So just as a businessman, if ran a company, yeah, I would bank on people’s ideas.”
As much as we’d all like to believe Orson Welles’ assertion that cinema is the greatest train set a boy ever had, with great budgets come great responsibilities. You wreck the train, you pay the price. Here we have Jonze, who’s made a art form of going off the rails. Clearly, Hollywood got nervous. Did Jonze? How does this low-budget independent maverick filmmaker deal with that sudden shift in attention and responsibility? “Um… I think, you can, you know… I think being responsible…” He pauses. He stays paused. Finally: “Whenever anyone gives me money to make anything I always want to be responsible to them and listen to them and hear out their concerns.” Until? “Until the point where it starts to prevent me from…”
He collects himself again and sits forward. “Like, there’s two responsibilities. One to the money. And one to the idea, what you’re trying to do. And I think as soon as the responsibility to the money starts to infringe too much on the responsibility to the idea, you kinda have to let go of the responsibility to the money. You know, because if you get lost in terms of what the idea is you’re making, then you’re neither here nor there and it’s not good for anybody.”
Jonze made his name with exactly this kind of anti-commercial attitude. He still doesn’t see himself as a studio filmmaker. Hard to see Hollywood being so clear-eyed about it. If Wild Things doesn’t do well, will there be consequence? “Yeah,” he shrugs. “No one’s going to give me that money to make a movie that size again. But that’s okay. I don’t need to… I mean, I just… They can’t… Like, that was the thing that… In the end, they… You know, like, I…” His thoughts drift. “I can always make something,” he suddenly says, firmly, nailing it down. “I can make a film with my friends on a video camera with no money. I could make a skate video with my friends. I could make a… I could make a drawing… I… I don’t need anyone’s permission to make stuff.”
There’s a theory. It may not be right. It may not be right at all. But there’s a theory that where filmmakers like Michel Gondry and Jonathan Glazer will kill themselves to get ahead and make films, Spike Jonze doesn’t need to. The theory says, because Spike has a massive Spiegel catalogue empire sat behind him waiting to be inherited, he’s essentially a dilettante. There are no consequences if he screws up – because he doesn’t need to succeed. Like we said, just a theory. What does Jonze think of it? Does he think he had a privileged upbringing? He doesn’t really like the question.
“Um… I… You know… I don’t know, well, no… I don’t know. Just, like, suburban America. It wasn’t like… You know. Probably similar to the book, I think, the movie, in terms of that. That kind of upbringing.” Like the book? The book’s only 10 sentences long. Let’s talk about Jonze’s free-wheeling, rule-breaking style of filmmaking. Does he feel it was borne directly out of his upbringing? “I, I mean, yeah, I’m like… Er… We didn’t have… It wasn’t like…” He looks up directly. “I’m not sure what kind of upbringing you think I might have had. When you say privileged, what do you mean?”
Just at this moment, the door swings open. It’s Where The Wild Things Are’s mini-star Max Records. “Oh! Shit!” beams Jonze. “Hey man, I’m leaving,” says Max, trots over to him. As the two say their goodbyes, there’s no missing the special bond between them. Max playfully punches Jonze’s arm and toys with his hands while they chat, before he breezes out of the room.
“He was the man for the job,” says Jonze, turning back round to us, still smiling openly. He sighs. “Look, I’m not saying I’m any different to those guys you mentioned. I’m just saying that those guys are going to make a movie regardless. You know, Michel Gondry, he’s not going to wait for someone to give him permission, he’s going to do whatever it takes. But I think, um, there’s a way things are percevied from the outside…”
Then, for the first time, Jonze just starts talking. “Like, I remember when Terence Malick put out Thin Red Line, and it was like when we were putting out our first movie, and I was so excited that I got to make a movie, and I was like, ‘What movie am I going to make next?’, and I was 29 years old and I was just starting to make movies and my friends were just starting to make movies, we were all sort of starting to make movies at the same time, and, um, and, er, and Terence Malick put out a movie, and I was so curious why he hadn’t put out a movie in 18 years. And it was only his third movie, and why… and it just seemed really weird. Why wouldn’t he put out a movie in 18 years? And I tried, like, you know, and I’d think there was something bad about that, like he was like somehow, like there was something strange about it. In reality, he was just living his life. And it’s like funny, because I was 29, and then like five years later, after we did Adaptation, I was thinking about… I just saw it differently, at a different point in life I looked back and thought about that, thought about, that I was just sort of naive, thinking that, um…”
How does he… “You know what I thought?” Jonze cuts back in. “I thought he must have had a nervous breakdown. Something like really dark happened to him. But then like a few years later after I did Adaptation, I just had the realisation that, I don’t know, there’s just a lot more to life than just making movies. Whatever it is. There’s making… And that, making, like…” He trails off… “Fuck it. Um…”
So what is there? “Um… I don’t know. Um… Everything!” he laughs. That’s a big word! We both laugh. How about some examples? “Yeah…” he laughs. “No… I can’t…”
So if there’s more to life than making movies, why is Where The Wild Things so special to him? “This movie changed my life,” he says, plainly. “Well, yeah, how could it not? Well, I think every movie I make changes me.” Yes, but… “No, it’s too late, that was your last question!”
Publication: Little White Lies