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Movies: Spike Adapts

5 minute read
Joel Stein

An unfortunate amount of what you are about to read is true. It used to be a lot of fun to interview Spike Jonze because he would just make up stuff, but this time he doesn’t utter a single lie for me. In the past he has pretended to be his own assistant, canceling an interview with a reporter over and over again; he has acted like a Corvette-driving loudmouth for the BBC; he has staged a fight in a fast-food restaurant for Spin magazine; he has refused to admit he was the intentionally bad choreographer in his Fatboy Slim Praise You video. He used to care.

But now Jonze, 33, is all sweet and helpful. He suggests that he come to my office for this interview. And when he gets sick and has to reschedule, he shows up on time at the restaurant, with a grocery bag of gifts for me–a sweatshirt and T shirt from one of the three skateboard companies he owns. He’s like a divorced dad. But he doesn’t take the time to prepare any pranks. When I ask him why he can’t at least make the effort, he doesn’t have an answer. The sweatshirt means nothing to me.

When Jonze was just a skate-punk director of videos (Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, Weezer’s Buddy Holly, Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, which features a dancing Christopher Walken) and commercials (Nike’s Y2K spoof, Lee Jeans’ Buddy Lee series), and the producer who brought Jackass to MTV, he would mumbleshrug his way through interviews.

Now that he’s also a film director (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, which opens Friday), he gives long, well-thought-out answers. “We just kept cutting the budget until it wasn’t a major risk for the studios,” he says about Adaptation, an unconventional adaptation of New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, in which screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature and next month’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) writes about his struggle to write the screenplay. Jonze has learned to spend his creative weirdness in his work instead of on me.

He doesn’t even bother with cool camera tricks or slick-looking shots in the film. “This movie was so complicated conceptually that I tried to shoot it much more simply,” he says. “If you focus your energy on the camera, it takes away from the time you have to focus on the performances.” In the final cut, he excised the most indulgent scene of the movie–a long, violent fight between Aristotle and Charles Darwin–even though it meant having to take Nicolas Cage, who plays Kaufman, out to dinner. “Nicolas said it would never make the movie, and I couldn’t even believe he was thinking this,” Jonze says. He’s even earnest about his absurdity.

But it’s his earnestness that gets everyone involved. When Orlean read Kaufman’s script, she originally decided she didn’t want her real name in the movie because halfway through the film, Kaufman gives up trying to write an unorthodox screenplay and goes conventional, which means the movie’s Orlean sleeps around, gets homicidal and deals drugs. But after meeting with Jonze, she was onboard. “Spike seems really earnest and sincere. He’s not trying to be postironic ironic. I got this feeling that this was a very human effort and not an effort to be cool,” she says. “You feel like, ‘What a nice young man.'” Now the only thing she’s upset about is that her cameo was cut. He’s good, very good.

Not only did he get Amy Pascal, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment to green-light the film, but he also persuaded her to allow him to use her as a character in the movie. “Nothing Spike does is a parody,” she says. “It’s always real, and he always celebrates humanity.” Robert McKee, the screenwriting teacher whose classes are mocked in the movie, gave Jonze permission to use his name too.

Remember, Jonze is the guy who went to John Malkovich and suggested making a movie about people who live inside the actor’s head. “My intentions were pure,” he says. “I wasn’t asking people to do something that would embarrass them. Same with Malkovich. I was intimidated because he’s so smart, and you feel like he can read your mind. I was only nervous because we wanted him so much.”

When it comes to privacy, screenwriter Kaufman makes Jonze look like J. Lo. Kaufman refuses to be photographed or give his age (he’s fortysomething) and won’t talk about his personal life. So Jonze had to be the adult in dealing with the studio and the people depicted in the film. Jonze first got in touch with Kaufman after he read the Malkovich script, and Kaufman chose Jonze to direct it because no one else was interested. “When I heard Spike Jonze was interested in me, I thought it was the son of the bandleader who is also a producer out here. I didn’t really watch videos,” Kaufman says. He came up with the idea of inserting himself into Adaptation when he was stuck trying to write a film version of Orlean’s book. He ran the idea past Jonze, who was in the middle of directing Malkovich, and Jonze encouraged it.

That’s what Jonze is best at. He has become the big brother nudging other people to do the crazy stunts while he stays at home with his wife Sofia Coppola. The only prank he pulls on me during our entire lunch is when he tells me he purposely and of his own volition canceled the cable TV in his apartment. Like I’m going to believe that one.

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