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L.A. Film Fest: Spike Jonze Talks Music Videos, James Gandolfini, ‘Wild Things,’ Maurice Sendak & More

L.A. Film Fest: Spike Jonze Talks Music Videos, James Gandolfini, 'Wild Things,' Maurice Sendak & More

Yesterday, we brought you our first installment of the Spike Jonze and David O. Russell chat at L.A. Film Fest, where the filmmaker presented clips from his upcoming oddball romantic comedy “Her.” But now we’ve got a recap of the previous hour of the chat, a friendly and lively discussion between the two longtime friends and unofficial collaborators. Opening with with the 2007 skate video “Fully Flared,” Russell guided Jonze through a talk starting with his early days writing for the magazines Freestylin’ and Dirt, through his music videos, “Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are” and finally to his new project, “Her.”

Jonze felt right at home in the L.A. Live Regal Cinemas in Downtown L.A., as he pointed out that he had shot “Fully Flared” and “Being John Malkovich” just blocks away, as well as the video “Drop” for The Pharcyde (watch below). “I was really into their first record, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, I was always a fan of theirs and when they came out with their second record I wanted to do a video for them for the song ‘Drop,’ and since it had the reverse loop in it, I got a cassette made and I played it for them, it was of the song played backwards and all the lyrics sounded like gibberish, like [backwards rapping] and I asked if they could lip synch to that,” Jonze said about the concept. “And they were like ‘Yeah, yeah we can do that.’ I don’t think any of us realized how hard that was going to be, but they learned to lip synch to the song backwards, and they’d be like on tour, practicing, it was awesome to see these rappers doing their homework and practicing with their headphones on and lyric sheets— we got a linguist from UCLA to transcribe this gibberish phonetically, so you could say ‘eight car bar to to far’ and when you reversed it it would look like the lips were saying the real rhymes.” 

“We filmed them going [backwards rapping] and then forward would be like [regular rapping],” he added. “And they walked in a sort of strange way, they’d pop off the ground into the van. When we finished they kinda looked like superheroes in some way, because they looked larger than life.”

Meeting David O. Russell & The Arduous Edit Of “Being John Malkovich”
Jonze and Russell also discussed how they met, on a feature project that unfortunately never got made. “You hired me to help you work on a movie called ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon,’ which is from a very famous children’s book by Crockett Johnson — his estate was managed by a writer named Maurice Sendak,” Russell reflected. “Harold and the Purple Crayon” may have never materialized, but the failed feature ultimately proved to have a profound impact on Jonze’s life and career as he developed relationships with Sendak and Russell, who would prove to be important collaborators. Sendak obviously, is the author of the children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” that Jonze adapted into a film, and the pair have traded notes and read over each other’s scripts over the years.

After “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” Jonze spent a year working on a film with the Beastie Boys, living in an unfurnished apartment with Mike D, sleeping on an air mattress in the living room, and writing everyday, which he described as “this amazing time to get to hang out with them and they’re probably three of the funniest people in the world.” While that project never got off the ground, Jonze did read the screenplay for “Being John Malkovich” at this time and started to work with Charlie Kaufman. Russell described visiting the downtown L.A. set with Jonze pushing the limits of his budget and his schedule, saying, “There was a very intense day where you and your amazing cinematographer Lance Acord were running and shooting, and I remember Vince [Landay, producer] was shouting, ‘I don’t know what movie you think you’re making but it isn’t this movie, we don’t have the budget or the schedule to do what you’re doing right now. I don’t know what you think you’re doing.’ Those kind of moments happen all the time, and your best of friends are like ‘You’re fucked.’”

Even during the edit of “Being John Malkovich,” where Jonze was splitting his time between editing in L.A. and acting on set in Arizona for Russell’s “Three Kings,” there were moments of doubt that Jonze would prove himself as a feature director, including at the screening at the first cut of the film. Russell recalled to Jonze that after the screening, star John Cusack “comes up to you in the lobby, and I was right nearby, and he goes, he takes you by the shoulders and he goes [perfect Cusack voice] ‘You. Have. Got. A. Lot. Of. Work. To. Do.’ ” Jonze was frank in his response to this memory, saying, “I probably did have a lot of work to do. We were very… I was going to say slow, but yeah, meticulous editors. That one took a long time. And some of it had to do with me being in Arizona on ‘Three Kings,’ I’d go be in Arizona for 3 or 4 days and the come back to L.A. for 3 days and edit with Eric (Zumbrunnen, editor), and then go back, it did slow editing down, but it also gave us time to find the movie.”

Working With James Gandolfini On “Where The Wild Things Are”
The discussion of Jonze’s long edit process led them to ‘Wild Things,’ which took 18 months to lock picture and another year of visual effects. Jonze described the process of recording the voices live before shooting the film, which led to a few touching recollections about the late, great James Gandolfini, who plays one of the wild things, Carol in the film. 

“We shot the entire script with seven voice actors basically to get the sound live with them all interacting, but also to video tape what they were doing to get the references for guys in the suits— the suits had a sort of subtle, humanistic quality that we were trying to get. We were on a soundstage, the whole soundstage was blocked out with shag carpeting and all the steps were made out of foam cubes, and if we wanted a forest, we’d put the foam cubes in stacks as a forest, or make a cave out of foam cubes. They’re all in their socks and sweatpants and all clothes that don’t make any sound and have headbands on, so it looks like some sort of ’70s art piece or something,” Jonze reflected. “We’d shot some stuff before James got there, when he got there though, everyone was sort of used to each other and we’d rehearsed together, and then James showed up, and everyone didn’t know what to expect, and he came and, it was the kinda thing that you could feel really ridiculous doing cause you’d be like [roaring noises] and throwing each other and yelling, whatever, in the middle of all this. And James just came in and tore the set apart, the first scene where they’re all ripping down the huts, and he’d just start ripping down and throwing Paul Dano across the set and screaming and yelling and it just upped the electricity of the whole room, all of the actors, all of us had been there with this one vibe and he just took it to this other level and it was ‘Oh that’s what the movie is.’ It’s like he showed us what the movie was because it had that kind of potency and from then on for the next two and a half weeks, he brought this electricity to the shoot.”

Gandolfini remained dedicated to the film throughout the long post production process, as Jonze wrote and rewrote. “Every two months, we’d call him again and say, ‘Hey Jim, are you around? We wrote some more scenes,’ and he’d be like, ‘Ah, yes, fine,’ and he just kept coming back, two years we were in post basically,” Jonze shared. “And he just kept coming back and Eric reminded me the other day, there’s a scene where they built a fort and he wants to rip down the fort because it’s ruined and he’s sort of in this state, he’s having this tantrum, breakdown, and it was a big, emotional scene and we rewrote that probably six or seven times, and had him do it again and again. And he came in one day and he’s like ‘What are we doing today?” and he’s like ‘Ah, this shit again?’ and of course he would do it and every time he would just go there, he would go to this place where this man was crying and sobbing and screaming and he would give it to us every time, because he couldn’t do it any other way. He always had to be honest, and the only time he would ever get angry was if he got angry with himself that it wasn’t honest. He was amazing, an amazing man that just wanted to be true.”

Spike Jonze’s Approach To “Where The Wild Things Are” & Friendship With Maurice Sendak
That discussion of Gandolfini in ‘Wild Things’ led to more talk about how difficult it was to adapt the story, the ways that Jonze put his own imprint on the creatures by naming them, and what exactly he wanted to bring to the tale in terms of emotion and theme.”We set out to feel like the camera was, photographically at least, following Max, if someone was just trying to document and capture this. The kid is thrown in the middle of this mayhem, a kid in the middle of all these emotions, confusing emotions that are his and adults. As a kid, I think large, adult emotions are very confusing and scary and to be thrown in the middle of that, the camera’s just trying to capture that and it’s not even fitting in the frame, because it feels that overwhelming,” Jonze explained. “That, photographically, was how we tried to document Max landing on this island and being with these creatures.” 

And even though there’s an intimidating element to the creatures, Jonze had an ulterior motive for doing the film, and shares why he chose actual costumes over CGI. “When I was writing the movie, I couldn’t wait to build them to get to cuddle with them. I saw a photo of George Lucas making ‘Star Wars‘ and Chewbacca was hugging him and that photo is just amazing to me,” he shared. “On set when they’d run down towards you and it felt like a rhinoceros was running at you. I think that’s why we built the creatures for real and didn’t do CG. We went out in the wilderness with the camera with the boy and with these uncontrollable beasts— they’re puppets, they were people in suits they couldn’t see their marks— there’s a sort of wildness to wrangle the things, they would never land in the same spot twice and they would step on Max all the time and knock him over and that sort of added to it, they’d poke him in the eye with the claw, he got battered. Max Records, who’s the heart of the movie, was 9 when we shot that, he just came to work every day and threw himself fearlessly into the middle of all that. We’d be on the edge of these cliffs in Southern Australia and he was just fearless.”

Talk of “Where the Wild Things Are” wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of Jonze’s relationship with writer Maurice Sendak, and the documentary “Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak,” which Jonze co-directed with Lance Bangs. Jonze described him as “a great friend and a huge mentor to me,” and citing his advice about what it means to be an artist, saying “I so deeply admired him and would aspire to what he was saying, the ideas to live life to the hardest and keep following your voice and try to be authentic and try to be truthful and I think he did that in his every action and every conversation. It was impossible for him not to be honest, and he was a big influence in many ways.” Part of his motivation was to capture and share Sendak with others during their conversations when Jonze would visit Sendak in Connecticut, bringing a camera in order “to capture this man because I was so in love with him I wanted to capture him to share him with everyone.” Doing the documentary at the same time as ‘Wild Things’ was a helpful process for Jonze, because “it was just fuel for us, just gave us that much more inspiration.”

Though Russell lamented that Jonze is resistant to talking about his personal life, it was definitely an intimate and revealing chat among close friends and a illuminating discussion about the way Jonze works and his creative process. Russell summarizes Jonze well, in saying, “One of the fun things about Spike, is like Max in ‘Wild Things’ or a skateboard video, you never know when he’s going to throw a beatdown on you, and that just keeps it fun and keeps it young, he’ll just tackle you at any given moment. And when I met you, it was a big breath of fresh air for me. It was a great energy for me.”

Her” opens on November 20th. 

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