Spike Jonze Unmasked

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.”

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.’ “

Though it lasted only a few issues, Dirt (subtitled “Fuel for Young Men”) exposed Jonze’s amateur stunt photography to several hundred thousand readers and exposed Jonze himself to the Beastie Boys. The rappers (whom Jonze met when he photographed them for Dirt and not, as he has claimed, because his sister was in the same traffic-school class as Yauch) became friends and mentors who shared his cheeky, punk-rock sense of humor.

“For years, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz had been talking about doing a photo session as undercover cops – wearing ties and fake mustaches and sitting in a car like we were on a stakeout,” recalls Yauch. When the trio approached Jonze, he dove into the project literally headfirst, accompanying his subjects on a prop run to a Hollywood wig outlet. “Then, while he was taking the pictures, he was wearing this blond wig and mustache the whole time,” says Yauch. “For no apparent reason.”

The Beasties had so much fun playing dress-up that they hired Jonze to make the “Sabotage” video, where his do-it-yourself instincts helped create an authentically low-rent feel. “We’d done videos where the production people came up with these elaborate budgets, and it started to feel really awkward on the set,” Yauch says. “So we asked Spike to work with just a couple of people, so we could fit the whole production in one van. Then we just ran around L.A. without any permits and made everything up as we went along.” The video would have come in on budget if Jonze hadn’t accidentally destroyed two rented cameras. He ruined a Canon Scoopic by using it for an underwater shot protected only by a Ziploc bag, although he managed to convince the rental company that it had simply stopped working on its own. The Arriflex SR3 that fell from a van window became an $84,000 write-off – ultimately tripling the video’s cost.

Jonze has been trying to jump to the big screen since 1995. His first feature was originally supposed to be an adaptation of Harold & the Purple Crayon using animation and live-action footage. But when a version of Harold scripted by writer-director David O. Russell was in preproduction, Sony-owned TriStar blanched at the budget and pulled the plug.

Harold never made it out of preproduction, but it launched Jonze’s acting career when Russell created a part in Three Kings especially for him. Although his role as Private Conrad Vig – a hick sidekick to George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Mark Wahlberg – could have been mere comic relief, Jonze gave the often dislikable character warmth and nuance.

At first, not everyone on the set was a fan. “It’s always worrisome when somebody says, ‘I got a friend,’ and you’ve never heard of them,” says Clooney. “But within five minutes of meeting Spike, you just go, ‘Oh, he’s perfect for the part.’ “

“He just enjoyed fucking around,” says Russell. “For him, it was like riding a BMX bike off a ramp to see what it was like to act in a movie.” Perhaps more important, Three Kings gave Jonze a chance to realize some of his youthful fantasies. “All the guys did their own stunts, but Spike did some of the craziest ones,” says Russell. “The stunt coordinator gave him a picture of himself with this flaming car that looks like it’s about to collapse on him. I think it made him very happy.”

Nor was Clooney the only one Jonze won over. “In the first few weeks, the studio was flipping out at the dailies: ‘This guy’s a star!’ ” says Russell. “I kept teasing him: ’Die Hard 5 is yours, big guy!’ “

That’s probably the last thing Jonze would want – although he isn’t even saying that much. At the Harvard Club premiere for Malkovich, as a European television crew buttonholed Cameron Diaz, Michael Stipe, and Malkovich himself, Jonze sauntered in almost unnoticed. His Richard Koufey beard shaved, his hair combed into a mod-looking Caesar, he politely ran the velvet-rope gauntlet of grip-and-grins, then made for the buffet. And as the stars gravitated together toward the back of the club, Jonze stood inconspicuously between the raw bar and the D.J. booth, swapping stickers with a group of skateboarders.

“It’s funny with him,” says Jenkins. “I think he does have a master plan, but he never plays it like that. His agenda is never on the surface.”

Spike Jonze Unmasked