Toward the end of this year's MTV Video Music Awards, as the prize for best-directed video was announced, about a dozen men and women wearing blue warm-up pants and tacky white tank tops swarmed out of the wings to join victorious British D.J. Fatboy Slim at the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," intoned Slim, by way of introducing his award-winning video's director, "Rrrrrrichard Koufey!" As the D.J. stepped back from the podium, a skinny, bearded, frazzled-looking figure clutching a gym bag emerged from the onstage crowd and hoisted the award statuette above his head in a gesture of weary triumph. "Awww, no!" he exclaimed in disbelief, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses. "The Torrance Community Dance Group and I have been together for seven years, and this is by far the most amazing thing that's ever happened to us!"
All the more amazing when you consider that the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance doesn't actually have a community dance group -- except in the video for Fatboy Slim's "Praise You." The troupe's "leader," Richard Koufey, isn't even a real person.
Koufey is a pseudonym used by Spike Jonze, a wildly creative and eccentric photographer, music-video and commercial director, and more-than-occasional prankster. He's just made a scene-stealing acting debut as a redneck soldier in Three Kings and directed his first feature film, the buzzed-about Being John Malkovich, which made its debut recently at the New York Film Festival and opens in theaters October 29.
But like Richard Koufey, Spike Jonze isn't a real person, either. Jonze is a pseudonym used by Adam Spiegel, a 29-year-old Bethesda, Maryland-bred heir to the $3-billion-a-year Spiegel catalogue business, who in June married Hollywood hipster princess Sofia Coppola at Francis
Ford Coppola's Napa Valley vineyard. The star-studded wedding -- Tom Waits played during the ceremony -- was celebrated with a page of photos in Vogue. But there wasn't a single picture of the groom.
Since the early nineties, Spike Jonze has been taking the images that make up America's visual vernacular -- TV shows, ad campaigns, B-movies -- and turning them inside out, upside down, and into vehicles for his sly, ironic humor. He first appeared on the mainstream map in 1994 when he directed the video for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," a gritty, winking homage to seventies cop dramas like Starsky and Hutch. But his frame of reference isn't limited to the usual Gen-X suspects: His 1995 video for Björk's "It's Oh So Quiet" riffs on Busby Berkley's choreography, and his award-winning clip for "Praise You" with the "Torrance Community Dance Group" reimagines the amateurism of America's Funniest Home Videos as Broadway spectacle.
Even Jonze's commercials are full of tropes and sight gags lifted from the pop-culture slag heap. His Lee Jeans ad sends up superheroes when the pint-size "Buddy Lee" doll jumps into a runaway automobile to save a baby -- who turns out to be in another car. His Levi's commercial mocks emergency-room dramas by having a half-dead patient and the doctors trying to revive him break into Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" to the faint bleat of an EKG monitor. That he's also directed a series of ads for Wrangler only testifies to his youth-culture ubiquity.
Up until this fall, Jonze had been a cult hero to the Beastie Boys' social circle and the hipsters who aspired to it -- a figure who created stars (the Happy Days parody video he shot for Weezer made their career) and synthesized subcultural styles (his dizzying action sequences brought the skateboarder aesthetic to the mainstream). But he's bigger than that. "This is contemporary art," insists photographer David LaChapelle of Jonze's work. "He is the contemporary artist. What he does is much more valid than so much going on in galleries now." Still, few people over the age of 25 could pick him out of a police lineup.
That's likely to change once people see the Michael Stipe-produced Malkovich. In the surreal comedy, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a struggling street puppeteer who works on the low-ceilinged "seven-and-a-halfth" floor of a New York office building, discovers a passage into the mind of actor John Malkovich (who plays himself). After that, things get deeper, weirder, and funnier when Schwartz and his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) decide to sell quarter-hour Malkovich joyrides to the public for $200 a pop. Eventually, Schwartz and his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) struggle for control of Malkovich's body. "Have you ever wanted to experience the world as somebody else?" Schwartz asks Maxine. "See what they see? Feel what they feel?"
Jonze has been experiencing the world as somebody else for fifteen years, and now that he's in danger of becoming famous, he's been working more furiously than ever to stay behind his self-created mask. "Keeping the public guessing is part of his thing," says Mark Lewman, one of Jonze's closest friends. So he avoids interviews, cancels press conferences, and routinely fabricates information about his past. In a recent British television profile, he presented himself as a Corvette-driving loudmouth dressed in a tank top and a do-rag.
The first time I spoke to Jonze, we talked on the phone for 40 awkward, rambling minutes -- virtually all of it about why he felt uncomfortable talking about his new movie, not to mention himself. He said he felt uneasy because I had contacted several of his friends. "I want to let people know we have a movie coming out -- but that's about it," he said in his high-pitched voice. "I've done a couple of interviews, and I realized how uncomfortable I felt as soon as I started talking." Then he went off to the Deauville film festival, where Being John Malkovich won the Grand Prix. A few days later, we spoke for just two minutes. "I know you weren't being malicious when you called everyone," he said. "But it just doesn't feel right to me."
Adam Spiegel's parents divorced before he was in high school, and his father, Arthur Spiegel III, lived in New York, where he ran an international health-care-consulting firm. His mother, Sandy Granzow, remained in Bethesda, worked in public relations, and often left Adam/Spike and his older sister to fend for themselves on weekends. "For all intents and purposes, the kid kind of raised himself," says Jay Metzler, the owner of the dirt-bike shop where Jonze worked when he was in junior high and high school. "He was basically a ward of the Rockville BMX store."