Spike Jonze has brought cinema-goers into the mind of John Malkovich, reimagined an iconic children’s book, and earned Nicholas Cage an Oscar nomination. For most film directors, these accomplishments would suffice for a whole career, but for Jonze they constitute only his first three films. In his career so far, Jonze has been a rarity in Hollywood, challenging through his innovation and insight. His work is eclectic, but no matter the material, he has always excelled.
Jonze began his career in the skatepark and BMX circuit, where he worked as an amateur photographer for Dirt, a youth magazine he set up with his friends. It wasn’t long before he was noticed in the music scene, where he joined a generation of young MTV filmmakers, including, among others, director Michel Gondry. Jonze became a mastermind of turning the three-minute music video into an offbeat visual venture, filled with references and wit. His credits include the Beastie Boy’s Sabotage, Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet, Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, and work with Kanye West and LCD Soundsystem. Today, though fully-fledged in feature-filmmaking, Jonze retains his musical links; in 2010, for example, he directed Arcade Fire’s short film, Scenes from the Suburbs, during the release of their Grammy-award winning album, The Suburbs.
Soon after entering the music video industry, Jonze was called upon to take his surreal visual sense and imaginative storytelling to the big screen. His move to cinema began when he was given a screenplay initially intended for his then-father-in-law, Francis Ford Coppola. The screenplay was Charlie Kaufman’s work, and it did not take long before Jonze and Kaufman were forging one of Hollywood’s most creative collaborations. Kaufman’s original and inventive stories were perfect for Jonze’s creative visual style. Kaufman’s initial idea for a film about “a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife” became Being John Malkovich (1999), a bizarre comedy in which a puppeteer (John Cusack) discovers a passageway into the mind of actor John Malkovich, played by himself. The puppeteer and his female colleague (Catherine Keener) begin advertising 15-minute ‘rides’ into the mind of the Hollywood actor. Naturally, things only get weirder from there. The film deservedly gave Jonze an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay.
Following the success of Being John Malkovich, Jonze was offered Star Wars Episode II, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but he turned all of them down to continue working with Kaufman. If Being John Malkovich blurred the line separating reality and fiction, this line was lost altogether in their next collaboration. Kaufman had been commissioned to adapt a novel, The Orchard Thief, into a film, but when he hit writer’s block, he instead began writing a screenplay based on his experience of adapting the novel. Many films attempt self-referencing, but are caught out for laziness; trusting Kaufman’s ability, Jonze encouraged him to expand it into a full feature, eventually leading to Adaptation (2002). Opening with the words “Do I have an original thought in my head?” the film explores every film cliché and plot device known, and all with perfect control; it’s enough to make a cinephile giddy. You are essentially watching the film being written, with the occasional gunfight fitted in. The film begins on the set of Being John Malkovich, with Nicholas Cage playing Kaufman and his fictitious twin brother. Jonze advised Cage to “ignore all of his acting instincts” for the role, and as a result, Cage received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Though there hasn’t been another Jonze-Kaufman collaboration since Adaptation, there are rumours the two are working together again on a political satire, to be released in the next few years.
With two successful films under his belt, Jonze began the mammoth task of translating Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s tale Where the Wild Things Are into a feature-length film. The challenge was obvious: while Jonze’s film had to fill nearly two hours, the source material was no more than 338 words. Past failures at cinema adaptation had led Wild Things to be placed in the ‘unfilmable’ basket. Jonze, however, was personally chosen by Sendak to take up the job, because he had “a spark that none of the others had.” With the aid of a large budget, Jonze was largely able to carry out his vision, though the production was plagued with studio disagreements. In fact, when the studio disliked Jonze’s quirky approach, Sendak even felt the need to defend him. All in all, it took seven years for production to be completed. At last released in 2009, the film was criticized for being too dark, though it was, after all, based on a novel that had been banned for glorifying childhood anger. While Where The Wild Things Are may not be perfect, however, Jonze’s whimsical, heartfelt and imaginative style is nonetheless there.
In more recent years, Jonze has turned to his own screenplays. I’m Here (2010), based loosely on The Giving Tree, and starring Andrew Garfield, tells an allegorical love story between two robots. While it lacks Kaufman’s twists and turns, Jonze retains his own strong dialogue and visuals. Her, meanwhile, a sci-fi romance starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, is due for release later this year. It’s the first time Jonze has written the screenplay entirely by himself, and his offbeat storytelling persists; Phoenix plays a lonely writer who falls in love with a computer’s voice and explores “the nature of love and the ways that technology isolates and connects us all.” In working from his own material, Jonze has demonstrated his capacity to explore new territories, reminding us that he is still at a very early stage in his career, and that more stunning films will surely follow.