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Spike Jonze Unmasked


His co-workers there gave him his nickname because "he'd come to work without showering, and his hair was usually sticking straight up," says Metzler. "Everyone had a nickname: There was Tinkerbell, Wild Bill, Scooby-Doo, Nubby, and Root Girl."

But "Spike Jonze" wasn't just a nickname -- it was an entire persona. "It was a legendary shop, and Spike was its ambassador," says Andy Jenkins, then the editor-in-chief of the BMX magazine Freestylin'. When professional riders from out of town would visit the shop, "Spike would show up at the airport to pick them up in a little chauffeur uniform." Sometimes Jonze would even elaborate on the shtick, telling hayseeds from the Midwest that his father, the real chauffeur, was gravely ill, and he was supporting the family by driving customers illegally.

Jonze's outrageous alternate identities amused his friends, but they also served as a shield for the shy guy underneath. When he had to be serious, his demeanor consisted of "tons of stuttering, a high-pitched voice, flushed red cheeks, picking lint off his flannel shirt, and twirling a pen on his thumb," says Lewman. "That was his meeting persona. And that's pretty much how it happens to this day."

Jonze met Sofia Coppola on the set of the first music video he ever shot, Sonic Youth's "100%." "They were friends for years before they got together," recalls Kim Gordon, the band's bassist. "They were spending every day together, but for some reason, she just didn't get it."

When Jonze began to woo her, he did so in his own unique way. "He told me about this time he was going to pick up Sofia at the L.A. airport," says Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, another friend of Jonze's. "He stuck cotton balls in his jowls and put on a fatty suit and rubbed Vaseline all over his face so he was really greasy. When she got off the plane, she sorta, like, half recognized him. He made her feel really uncomfortable, when most people would show up with flowers or something."

As Jonze jumped from BMX biking to alternative rock to independent film, he added each to his repertoire of references, then moved on to the next subculture of the moment. When he worked at Rockville BMX, freestyle biking -- doing skateboard-style tricks on dirt bikes -- was blowing up. "It was billed as 'Break dancing on wheels! It's gymnastics! It's an art form!' " observes Lewman. "So naturally, it attracted the cream-of-the-crop weirdos, losers, and sociopathic kids. They were doing their own 'zines and setting up their own local shows." Immersed in this chaotic mix of culture and commerce, Jonze befriended the staff of the Torrance-based Freestylin'. "Spike had written us some letters, and he had panache," remembers Lewman, who worked with Jenkins at the magazine. "We needed another writer, and Andy was like, 'We should offer Spike the job.' " Jonze hadn't yet graduated from high school, but he left for California the day after finals.

For the next two years, Jonze and Lewman lived in a townhouse across a parking lot from Freestylin' headquarters and commuted to work by skateboard (seventeen seconds, door-to-door). "The first day Spike came to work, he was skating around the parking lot," says Jenkins, who is now the art director of the Girl Skateboard Company, which Jonze co-founded in 1993. "Bob Osborn, the owner, was like, 'Who's that kid skating in the parking lot? Get rid of him.' And then we introduced him to his new employee."

While BMX ultimately proved to be a fad, Jonze managed to gain a toehold in Southern California's subcultural elite when he began photographing bikers and skateboarders for Freestylin' and Trans World Skateboarding.

Jonze's first foray into video was Video Days, a twenty-minute-long tape of a skateboarding team named Blind doing tricks in various suburban settings. It's standard stuff shot on a single handheld camera, but Jonze brought something new to the form. "He was a really good skateboarder," says Jenkins, "so he could skate right alongside and shoot, which not many people could do." But it was Jonze's outrageous sense of humor that really set the video apart. The opening sequence shows prepubescent pro boarder Guy Mariano riding to the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" -- a bold and ironic departure from the usual hardcore-punk and speed-metal soundtracks found on skate tapes. To get permission to use the song, says Lewman, Jonze convinced his lawyers to tell the Jacksons' copyright administrator he was using it in an anti-drunk-driving film. To justify his claim, he then shot a sequence in which the team's mostly underage members swill booze as they hurtle down a dirt road in a giant blue Lincoln that eventually careens into canyon.

As Southern California's skateboard subculture began to intersect with alternative rock, Video Days became an underground legend. And when a skater friend of Jonze's showed it to two members of Sonic Youth, the band hired him to shoot footage of skateboarders for their "100%" video. That clip caught the eye of director Peter Care, who hired Jonze as a cameraman and eventually got him a directing contract with the Polygram-owned Satellite Films.

Rather than abandon his wise-ass skateboarder sensibility, Jonze brought it onto MTV in his funny, frenetic videos for alternative-rock groups like Weezer, Ween, and the Breeders. When he was in Chicago to film a video for the band Wax, "we stayed out all night drinking," says Dan Field, one of Jonze's skateboarding friends. Just after five in the morning, when the two were in a cab doing about 30 miles per hour, "I could tell that he was getting ready to do something, and I kept saying, 'No, no, don't do it!' " Field says. "He just opened the door and let himself fly out. I looked back and I could see him rolling. The sound of his head hitting the pavement was so loud and so gross -- it was like a bowling ball." When the cab screeched to a halt, Field ran back to his friend. "He kind of started laughing, but I could tell he was in a lot of pain. He put his hand behind his head and pulled it out, like in the movies, and there was tons of blood on his hand." For years afterward, Jonze bragged about the incident to almost everyone he met. "Deep in the back of his head," says Field, "Spike wants to be a stuntman."

While Jonze was busy becoming a fixture on MTV, Freestylin' was going belly up as its readers grew up and got driver's licenses. And when Jonze, Lewman, and Jenkins befriended the editors of Sassy -- Jane Pratt's amusingly subversive magazine for teenage girls -- "Our first question was, 'Why isn't there a boys' version of Sassy?' " Lewman says. "And they were like, 'I don't know; you should do it.' "

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