Spike Jonze’s Influences, Transitioning from Music Video to Films, and Writing ‘Her’
Spike Jonze, the multi-faceted filmmaker coming from the music videos Golden era along with Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham, who smoothly transitioned into feature films with BAMS thanks to his highly inspired collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, this same Spike Jonze did an ‘Ask Me Anything‘ (AMA) on Reddit about a week ago, to talk about ‘Her‘, his latest film with Joaquin Phoenix that has been nominated for the Oscars & WGA Best Original Screenplay and else.
Jonze answered a series of questions spanning from his debut as a music video filmmaker, to his cultural inspirations to “Her”. Below is a selection of his Reddit’s session:
- What would have happened to Being John Malkovich if John didn’t want to do the film? [by thefiction24]
“We don’t know. We tried to come up with alternatives, Charlie and I did, when the producers posed the same question, but we never could come up with a good answer so we kept blindly moving forward.”
- What made you want to turn Where the Wild Things Are into a feature film? [by Antlers]
What inspired me: well it was a book that I’ve always loved since I was a little kid, and it stuck with me as it did probably a lot of people. And I got to know Maurice Sendak in my 20’s through a movie that I worked on that didn’t end up happening, but we stayed in touch. He’s an amazing human. Completely original, absurd, very deep, very true, with a vastly sensitive and large heart and imagination. He’s hard to describe because he’s so large. I made a documentary a few years ago because I wanted to share him and the conversations that I got to have with him with as many people as possible. It might be on Netflix, let me see… nope, it’s not, but it was. It’s called “Tell them Anything You Want.”
Over the years, he had told me they were working on versions of “Where the Wild Things Are” and asked me if I wanted to be involved. Originally he asked me before I did “Being John Malkovich,” and then I just was so in love with the book and it seemed so simple yet so deep and strong that I didn’t know what I could add to it. And I didn’t want to add some external plot to it, so I told him that I thought about it really seriously, and told him I couldn’t do it. Then he asked me over the next few years two times, and it was the last time that i started thinking about the characters of the Wild Things and who they might be and I had the idea of developing them into the Wild Emotions in Max and in his life. Then suddenly the possibility of a movie seemed vast in terms of what we could write about. And I called Maurice very excited and told him some of my ideas, and he was very interested, and encouraging.
- What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker, or just any career advice in general. Especially when it comes to making the right connections, and getting yourself out there. [by FineLeatherJacket]
That’s a really hard question, I’m not sure if I have a good general question for that because it’s all so random, who you meet and how you meet them and the opportunities you are given. If I had to list the people who helped me or gave me advice or gave me opportunities to make things, it would be in the hundreds. But I can say (and maybe this is kind of general) that when my friends and I have made things that interest us or excite us or just make us laugh, and followed that more than following what we thought was going to be popular or whatever, that’s always led us to good places even if we made stuff that wasn’t popular, at least we made stuff we liked. I mean, Jackass is a great example of that. We thought it would last for 8 episodes and we were getting away with murder getting 20 minutes on national television to do whatever we wanted, and we were just making stuff with our friends and our video cameras, and making ourselves laugh. And we had no idea, we thought MTV would cancel it after 8 episodes and we’d have done something fun.
- What keeps you going? I mean, you’ve had a hand in almost everything I’ve ever been into, I’m just wondering how do you keep going? [by Antlers]
I guess in terms of advice and what keeps me going, maybe it’s a similar thing as to what I was talking about earlier, which is following what excites me or moves me or confuses me. And trying to do things I haven’t done before and don’t really know if I can do. Also, a lot of what keeps me going is collaborating with people that inspire me and challenge me. A lot of the crew I mentioned earlier, KK, Casey and Eric and our gang, I still work with now, and it’s been almost 20 years. I just always want to work with people I can learn from.
- What was it like working with Daft Punk for the movie D.A.F.T.? [by JM2845]
D.A.F.T. was a collection of music videos from their first album, and I directed the first video from that album, and it was “Da Funk.” And it was amazing because when I met them, they were probably 22 years old, they made the album in their bedroom (their first album was “Homework”), and they just were so fully formed and knew who they were. They knew they didn’t want to sign a major label deal that gave away all their rights to a major corporation. They have always kept control and the rights to everything they’ve ever done, and followed just what interested them. They are very genuine and sweet men, and obviously musical geniuses.
- What now? What is your next project? [by SeanRyanNJ]
I don’t have anything formal. I’m just starting to write and see where it takes me.
- Someone asked and deleted their comment “If you had a portal into someone else’s head ala Being John Malkovich, whose head would you choose and why? Also, what was it like directing Nicholas Cage in Adaptation?”
I am curious what it would be like inside George W. Bush’s head. I find him kind of sweet and sad. Have you seen his paintings? 15 minutes would probably be enough though.
You know what was wild about working with Nic on that movie, was that he just gave himself over completely. I asked him when we were in rehearsal how he liked to work and how he liked to be directed and he said, completely genuinely, “I want to work however you work.” And he said that he was there to learn new ways of doing stuff and he completely gave himself over to the movie and we spent 3 weeks rehearsing the characters, just the two of us, where I would be Donald and he would be Charlie, and we’d improvise a scene together. And then do the same scene where he would be Donald and I would be Charlie. And we created the characters that way, and the relationship with the brothers through making up scenarios as simple as Charlie coming home and Donald is giving him a message of someone who had called, and how they would relate in even a simple scenario like that, and what might annoy Charlie about Donald, or what might endear Charlie to Donald, for example.
- Why was Her originally called “The untitled Rick Howard Project”? I know you are friends with Rick Howard, but does it go beyond that? [by rjmcn4]
Rick Howard’s an old friend of mine, and obviously the president of Girl Skateboards, which we started in 93. He’s a very humble guy, always trying to deflect the spotlight to everyone else (also one of the best pros of the 90s, and best style ever). So when we finished the script a couple years ago, we didn’t have a title, so when we went to print it, we had to put something on the title page to send it out. And it seemed like a funny idea to call it “The untitled Rick Howard project” because I knew it would embarrass Rick. The best part of it was it ended up staying on the script for a long time, so when we made the financing deal and the various deals with the actors, it was for “The Untitled Rick Howard Project.” And when we had a production office at a studio in downtown LA the office was under The Untitled Rick Howard Company.
So when you drove up to the security gate, all you had to say is “I’m with Rick Howard” and they’d let you in.
- What went into the design of the future city [in ‘Her’]? Were you inspired by any particular dystopian novels or films? [by jeffersonalan ]
I can’t think of any off the top of my head that inspired us as far as design goes, although I’m sure there were some. But you know, the ideas behind the design were that we were trying to create a world where everything felt warm, and comfortable, easy, accessible, but even in a world where you seemingly have everything you’d want, there’s still loneliness and longing and the need to connect. That seems like a particularly contemporary form of melancholy.
So early on in design, KK Barrett (our production designer) and I decided that we weren’t going to worry about being futurists in any way in terms of technology and design, and let ourselves create a future design aesthetic that excited us and pleased us.
- How do you think skateboarding (both participating and filming) shaped you as an artist? [by jonspelledwrong ]
That’s such a hard thing to put into words. Because it’s been such a big part of my life. I think that skateboarding always attracted individual thinkers, and being a skater growing up, they had a big influence on me whether it was Mark Gonzales, Neal Blender, Natas Kaupas, the Powell Peralta videos, or the photographers Grant Brittan, Todd Swank, Dan Sturt, O, they’re all people who didn’t follow the norms and they weren’t on the football team at school, they were making zines or starting their own board companies. And I think I always found that inspiring. I remember seeing a photo of the first time Mark Gonzales and Natas had done a hand rail, and it was mind-blowing because everyone just had been skating curbs, and then that somebody thought they could ollie up and boardslide a rail, it seemed like somebody had invented fire. We’d walk by handrails a million times and didn’t think they were skateable until someone decided they were, Mark and Natas
- What are some books or movies that you love but that I’ve probably never heard of? [by zeekjr]
What are some books or movies…
Well it’s hard to know what you’ve heard of or not, so I might be saying ones that are obvious. But I’ll just list some movies I love: Being There
Oh you know what? there’s this one movie that I have to find the name of that I’m going to assume that you haven’t seen. It’s Japanese and it’s from the 60s and it’s incredibly surreal but very moving and gripping about this man who gets stuck out in the desert overnight and has to go to down into this hole to stay with this woman whose house is down in this hole. And he ends up not being able to get out of the hole. I don’t even want to tell you anymore because you gotta see it. But the characters are very real, and the relationship between them is very real, and it’s a very surreal sort of anxiety-dream premise.
It’s called “The Woman in the Dunes.” This is it for sure.
That also reminds me of another Japanese movie, called “Afterlife.” And in a way, it relates to what the earlier question from dubswaddy about what happens after we die. The premise of this movie is when you die, you go to this place for 7 days where you have to pick the one memory you’re going to bring with you to your afterlife, and you can only bring 1, and they have counselors that work there that help you figure out which one you are going to bring. But you don’t actually get to bring the memory, you have to recreate it with actors and film it, and you bring the film of the memory.
Here’s the trailer which doesn’t quite capture the tone, it makes it seem goofier than the movie really is. Also when I was finding this After Life trailer, I saw a video that we made for Arcade Fire’s song “Afterlife”. I know that wasn’t the question, but I thought I’d put that in there in case anyone was interested. We did this a couple of months ago and it was a live music video we made for the YouTube Music Awards. It stars Greta Gerwig. It starts with her in a kitchen. Did anyone see Frances Ha, by the way? Greta wrote it with Noah Baumbach, who directed it also, and it was one of my favorite movies of the year.
- What was the transition like going from directing music videos to narrative feature length films, and what have you learned making music videos that has helped you become a better filmmaker? [by JohnMotter ]
Going from music videos to features was definitely scary because I didn’t know how I would do in terms of working with actors. But that was the main thing I wanted to focus on, was the performances and learning what it meant to direct actors. Also the other thing that helped was all of my friends that I’d made working on music videos with came and worked on our first movie together. And Acord, KK Barrett, Casey Storm, Thomas Smith our first AD, Eric Zumbrunnen our editor, that made it a lot more comfortable and it felt like the first day on set was not as shocking as I thought it would be because I was like “oh I know all you guys!”
- How did u come up with the idea for HER and were Joaquin and Scarlett your first choices? [by sthylen]
The idea I guess I originally had almost 10 years ago, from when I had an IM chat with an artificial program online, and it was really limited obviously, it was Alicebot or one of those things (I can’t remember what the name was exactly). And from that I had the initial idea of a man having a relationship with an artificial intelligence program. But then it was probably wasn’t until 5 years later that I started thinking about it more as a way to write about relationships, and trying to understand them.
Joaquin was my first choice, and at first I wasn’t sure if he was right for this character but I knew he’d be amazingly compelling to watch onscreen. I love him as an actor, he’s so alive, and I knew that in a movie where you’re watching one person onscreen essentially he would be really compelling. But I wasn’t sure if he’d be right for this character. But I saw this interview of him on Letterman where he went on to apologize for being such a lunatic the year before when he “quit acting to be a rapper”, and in the interview Letterman was giving him a real hard time, and he was embarrassed and laughing and apologizing and Letterman kept saying “So you used this footage from my show and you said it was a documentary, so you didn’t have to pay for it, but it wasn’t a documentary, turns out it was a scripted movie, so I guess you guys owe me a million dollars?” And Joaquin was laughing, and they kept pushing him, and eventually Joaquin said “Can’t we just talk about this after the show?”
And it was from this clip that I saw this other side of Joaquin that was so endearing and playful, and I thought he might be great for the role. So I went back to LA after I’d finished the script and met with him, and within the first 5 minutes I fell in love with the idea of him being in the movie.
Scarlett came on later, she came on in post. We’d initially cast Samantha Morton in that role, who is one of the world’s greatest actresses and a good friend of mine. But what we had done wasn’t right for the movie, so we started auditioning people again. And I think in the end, between when we originally were casting and when we cast Scarlett, we probably read 30 different people. And it was an incredibly challenging role to find the right person for, and incredibly challenging role for Scarlett to pull off.
You can read the full AMA here.
Thanks to The Tracking Board