NYFF ON THE SCENE: Being Spike Jonze and His Reluctant Celebrity
by Anthony Kaufman
Spike Jonze, the boyish skateboarder/photographer/director is at this year's New York Film Festival with his first feature film, the highly anticipated "Being John Malkovich." Aside from winning acclaim for his original work in commercials (Nike, Coca Cola, etc.), short films ("How They Got There," "Amarillo By Morning") and music videos (The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," Bjork's "Oh So Quiet"), and his marriage to Sophia Coppola, Jonze is known for his private persona, more press-shy and awkward than what's often required of a rising star. So how fitting that his directorial debut is about -- among other things -- the seduction of celebrity and the strange happenings when a triangle of lovers discover a portal into the mind of famous thespian John Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time.
Just days prior to the New York Festival, Jonze's press conference was canceled (supposedly because he wanted to stay in Los Angeles to attend the premiere of David O. Russell's "Three Kings," in which he has a role). For attending press, that would mean a missed opportunity to glimpse the talented young man born Adam Spiegel nearly 30 years ago. But for the dedicated band of press junket journalists who flew into New York last Saturday, there were two hours of round tables with the cast and crew of "Being John Malkovich" scheduled. Finally, the story behind the director and his film would be revealed to the likes of indieWIRE and the other hundred writers stuck in several rooms on the 43rd floor of the Righa Royal Hotel.
"'Being John Malkovich' had been around [Hollywood] for a couple of years," said R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe (who worked with Jonze on "Crush with Eyeliner," among other videos) and through his Single Cell Pictures is one of the film's producers, along with Single Cell partner Sandy Stern and Propaganda Films' Steve Golin. "I think a lot of people had read it and thought it was very funny and audacious and none of them had the audacity to actually make it into a feature film. Nobody made the call," said Stipe. After reading Charlie Kaufman's screenplay, Stipe continued, "I made the call."
After meeting with Kaufman, Stipe and Stern then called Jonze, who was working on TriStar Pictures' now defunct "Harold and the Purple Crayon" adaptation, which was supposed to be Jonze's debut. Instead, "Being John Malkovich" took the lead, though financing fell through a couple times, according to Stipe. Eventually, the project found a home with Michael Kuhn at PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. "Even with the cast in place, it was a difficult sell," admitted Stipe.
For a script that lived or died on the participation of renowned actor John Malkovich, the actor himself said, "I don't think anyone reading this [script] who's ever lived or worked in Hollywood for more than a second would ever expect this film to get made." And why is that, persisted one of the journalists? "Because it's good. It's daring," continued Malkovich. "And of course, naturally, they probably never thought I'd make it."
For Kaufman, who had been writing for television, the feature project was never anything he expected to come to fruition. "I wrote it 5 years ago and I didn't expect Malkovich would ever even read it. And when I found out that he did read it and he laughed, I was thrilled." (Now Kaufman has several scripts in development, "Human Nature" at Good Machine, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" at Warner Bros., "Adaptation" at Sony, as well as a few others). With Malkovich aboard, other actors soon followed suit: John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, and Cameron Diaz.
For the actors, various expectations surrounded their 29-year-old leader -- some fulfilled, others changed. "For a kid who seems like a sort of goofball who's skateboarding, taking pictures, and doing tricks on his bicycle, he's very smart," said Malkovich. "And he has an exceptionally delicate touch, and he really watches you, unlike most directors who sit by the video [monitor]. He actually has quite strong opinions, he's very stubborn [and] a little bit relentless."
"I didn't have a clue what to expect," said veteran actor Orson Bean ("The Tonight Show"), who plays the strange Dr. Lester, an elder man with a curious Malkovich fixation. Bean commented on Spike's direction, "Instead of taking a weird and bizarre script and adding weirdness and bizarreness on it, as what might be expected from an MTV-type director, he played it very simple."
"Maybe his attention span is used to being more truncated," said Keener, also noting Jonze's short film background, "but for us, I found him more focused on the movie set in a very kind of benign, conservative way. He kept us all on track, all the time, without us even knowing what it was." But Keener has said about her director, "His personality is kind of like the story. Nothing is ever what you think."
When the small, unassuming figure of Jonze finally surfaced at our roundtable, the blond-haired director was first asked when he changed his name. "1933" came his enigmatic, squeaky-voiced reply. Shy as expected, Jonze did say that one of his biggest challenges in moving from short form to feature was "dealing with actors in an in-depth way. I knew that going into it, so that I knew that was something I had to focus on," he said. "I needed to learn a lot about directing actors and getting the performances I wanted."
Jonze is clearly a visual person, not the articulate auteur who speaks volumes of theory and background about his working methods; in fact, he can hardly get out a complete sentence. About his "unusual" experience working with Jonze, Malkovich even joked that, "He can't speak English."
For an insight into Jonze's approach, Cameron Diaz explained that her character's physical characteristics were established through a uniquely vision means. "There was no physical description of any of the characters in the script," she explained. "So Spike had laid out this collage of photographs that he had taken of people on the streets with a long lens camera. . . and we sort of pieced [the character] together."
The process seems a bit like trying to get inside Jonze's head, an elusive figure whose inarticulateness and seeming naiveté masks a brilliant, highly precise mind. We get pictures of him from various people, the actors he works with, other interviews, but Spike Jonze is one public figure who appears inaccessible -- at least the 15 minutes given to members of the press hardly scratched the surface. But that is, after all, one of the points of the movie.