Adam Spiegel got his nickname while working in a BMX store as a teenager. Known to the world as Spike Jonze, he is now forty, and has spent the last two decades carving out a rep as the slacker wunderkind behind BMX mags (Homeboy), skate vids (Video Days), gonzo-genius TV shows (see Jackass), commercials (Adidas, Miller, Gap), music vids (‘Sabotage’, ‘Praise You’, his latest for Kanye West) and movies (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.). Somehow, he’s always found a way to yoke the creativity to the commerce without letting the latter drag the former into the mud.
Where The Wild Things Are is Jonze’s most ambitious movie yet. Based on the beloved and apparently unfilmable children’s book by Maurice Sendak, it’s taken five years of Jonze’s life – and every ounce of his creative powers and anti-establishment mojo. Not only was the book considered impossible to film, Jonze had to stand up to the studio to protect his vision. They’d given this skater-punk nearly $100 million to make a movie. They had no idea what they were getting. What they got is something wild, original and elusive. Much like the man who sits in front of HUCK right now. Jonze smiles – guardedly, expectantly. As ever, he prefers doing to talking. He’s our kind of guy.
What were you like as a kid?
Um… [Exhales] I don’t know.
What’s an average day like for you?
I don’t know… Um. Er… I don’t know. I have a very fortunate… Like, I actually do feel like, as far as being privileged, I feel really privileged in terms of my life now, because I feel like I have the kind of job that I can kind of make anything. Like anything I’m interested in can become what I’m working on. And anything I’m working on, I’m interested in. So it’s sort of like… But I don’t differentiate between ‘this is a job’ and ‘this is what I’m doing for fun’. It’s sort of all simultaneous. And I don’t want to differentiate between ‘this is work that I’m getting paid for’ and ‘this is work that I’m not getting paid for’. It’s all the same.
Where do you live?
So what do you do when you’re not making movies?
Um… I don’t know.
Do you still skate?
Is it hard to find time these days?
Yeah, definitely. New York is actually… I haven’t been skating in the city. Um. Um. But, er… Yeah, and the longer you’re off a board, the longer it takes you to get your feeling back on the board. But it’s fun… The best is like, it’s like, I go on trips with Rick Howard, with Rick, and the Girl team, and that’s when I feel like I get back into skating. Because if I go out with them for a week, I’m skating every day. And skating also with those guys, they make you skate better, they’re all going down a set of stairs and they’ll make you do something, whatever it is, then it’s okay, and you end up, you know,skating. If I skate by myself, I’ll never try the things I would try with those guys.
As a filmmaker, do you object to people meddling with your vision? Are you a perfectionist? Or a control freak, even?
I kind of… Yeah, maybe… But I’m also, like, really open. I think ultimately I feel like I get the best results when I’m open to anyone saying an idea at anytime. But it’s my job to say which idea’s right. I know the movie I’m making and I have an idea for the way a scene can be played or the way somebody should be dressed or whatever it is. But if somebody else has an idea that’s better, that’s a better idea and that’s still right… Everyone can have a good idea, but I’m the only one that actually knows if it’s right or not. That’s the thing. I surround myself with people I have great respect for and who are really creative and talented and then it’s like I get to pick the best of all that.
Did it work that way on Where The Wild Things Are?
When I would be tired, they would pick up the reins. Or when they were tired, I would pick it up. We all worked like a real… Like, we would all like really have each other’s back. But, um, our crew, we were all really together. Lance Accord, our cinematographer, and all of us had worked together for the last fifteen years. KK Barrett, our production designer… Everybody in there is like a huge part of getting the movie made. It was like a big communal effort.
Did you feel a lot of pressure because it’s such a beloved book?
It was… it was something I was excited by because I’d love it for so long and I was anxious about because it meant so much to so many people. But I think early on Maurice really gave me… he insisted that I not be reverential to the book. He said you’ve got to make this your own. And make it personal. And that was very liberating and an important thing that Maurice said to me. Gave me permission to go off and not be tethered by the anxiety of what anybody else thought the book was. Trust my own relationship to the book.
What were the themes that were really important to you?
I guess there are themes for sure that I’m writing about but also I didn’t like… We kinda just wrote really intuitively. We just started at page one and… wrote!
It still feels very free and organic, despite your battles with the studio…
Our movie? Well, that’s the hope. Most of our movies… I think this got written a lot about on the Internet last year because we had disagreements with the studio. But really, that’s a very small part of the movie. And I think had that not been out, you wouldn’t have known that much about it.
Do you think your skate vids influenced your film style?
I’m sure, I’m sure they have. I don’t know how but I think it’s all, it feels, it all feels, like, I’m not sure… I don’t know. Do you think they have?
Not sure – that’s why we asked!
Okay. Then I don’t know.
So what do you think about the language of skate vids?
I definitely can… I mean, there’s certain things that… The way we filmed ‘Sabotage’, the Beastie Boys video, is the same way we filmed skate videos. Me and my friends driving around LA without anyone giving us permission to do anything and just, ‘Go over there, I’ve got a camera’. I tell my friend to go do this and that, you know… ‘Slide off the hood of a car!’ You know, it’s just… There are things that we shoot that are very much in that spirit. You know, with skate videos it’s you and your friends in a car and the equipment you can carry in that car. And I still shoot stuff like that, I like to shoot stuff like that when the idea’s right.
Where is cinema going? Who are the new wave of filmmakers following the likes of yourself, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola?
Errr… The only person I can think of off the top of my head – I’m totally spacing out on others… The one, the, er… Did you see the ‘Kids’ video? MGMT? That thing is amazing. That guy, Ray Tintori, I think he’s really interesting. And he made this other short film called /Death To The Tinman/, it’s on the Internet so you can look it up. It’s great. And I think he’s…. I know there’s others… I’m spacing out in the middle of this three-day-long press junket… But he’s the first person I think of in terms of somebody I’m excited to see what they make.
We’re huge fans of your ‘Sabotage’ video…
Do you think it’s one of your best ones?
Um, I like it. I don’t know. But I mean, I don’t know. This is, I mean… Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know. I like… I’m not sure about ‘best one’, it’s hard for me to quantify that.
Do you still enjoying making music videos?
Yeah. If there’s an idea that I’m excited about.
Can fully commercial work be classified as art?
I think so. I don’t really differentiate like that. If I have an idea that I’m excited about, then I’m excited about it.
Your Gap video, for example, is much more fun than many ‘arty’ films. So is it art, is it an ad or is it both?
Haha! Yeah. I just, um, I can never… I don’t know if I succeed, but I try, whatever I’m making, to make something I’m excited about, whatever form it’s in, whether somebody’s giving me a budget to do it or I’m just doing it with my friends. I basically approach it all from the same spirit.