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Spike Jonze Unmasked

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."