Saki Knafo wrote a fantastic feature for the New York Times last week on director Spike Jonze’s trials and tribulations making a full length adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s timeless children’s masterpiece, Where The Wild Things. The book has sold more than 10 million copies, which makes it just about as daunting to turn into a film as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. It’s also a book that conveys pound after pound of pure 9 year old feeling in a mere 10 sentences, which – you’d have to think – would make the task doubly tricky.
In Hollywood, successful children’s movies operate on rules straight from the Joseph Campbell playbook. Heroes take journeys, they go on quests, they get lost and try to find their way home. Their motivations are precisely stated, their obstacles clearly identified. In “Shrek,” an ogre sets off on a quest to save a swamp and a princess; in “Spy Kids,” a brother and sister set off on a quest to save their parents. In “Where the Wild Things Are,” Max leaves home as well, but not on a quest. He sees his mother kiss a man who is not his father, and in the next scene, he’s standing atop a kitchen table, arms folded across his chest, shouting, “Woman, feed me!” The outburst escalates into a screaming match, Max bursts into tears and then he’s running — running nowhere in particular, just running, face flushed, tears streaking his cheeks. There are no princesses awaiting him, no swamps in need of rescue, only his frustrated, mixed-up emotions driving him onward. Max is confused about the way he feels, and that confusion, for Jonze, was exactly what it felt like at times to be 9.
Knafo provides plenty of background to show the arc of an already exceptional career, highlighting Jonze’s forays into feature film, skateboarding videos, music videos, and the quirkiest of quirky advertisements. All of his stuff – even Jackass – has wormed its way into the pop zeitgeist.
The NYT piece has been more in than out of my head, so I’ve been checking and rechecking the best of Jonze’s work through YouTube ever since I read it. I’ve been aware of his work for nearly 20 years, ever since he directed “Video Days”, arguably the most influential skateboarding video of all time (Jason Lee + Mark Gonzales = astounding), but little did I know that it was Jonze who did that poignant Ikea ad about the sad lamp that we shouldn’t feel sorry for, the Fatboy Slim video for Weapon of Choice (featuring a dancing Christopher Walken), or the best damn Gap ad of all time.
Jonze’s attitude, much more than the ability to spin an enthralling tale, is at the heart of who he is and why he matters to people. His music videos don’t tell stories; they capture a feeling. “Jackass” is probably the most successful plotless movie in American film history. The narratives in “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich” were formally groundbreaking, to be sure, but in both cases it was mostly Charlie Kaufman who supplied them. What Jonze contributed to those films — and what earned him most of the acclaim he received for them — was an attitude, a feel: a deadpan sense of humor, a do-it-yourself production style, an eye for naturalistic detail in everything from the set design to the performances. In nearly all of his works (as in the Torrance of his youth) the realistic and the banal merge with the fantastic and the extreme. To borrow a phrase that Sendak once used to describe his best-known creation, Max, Jonze inhabits a world in which one can “skip from fantasy to reality in the conviction that both exist.”
Here are several clips and trailers of his more iconic stuff below – sort of a Top 10 in no particular order of awesome. Each one is a reason why I can’t wait for Where The Wild Things Are, due in theatres across Canada on October 16th.
#1 Being John Malkovitch
Knafo on Jonze pitching “Being John Malkovitch” to the only person who could make it happen, John Malkovitch:
One day in December 1997, Malkovich told me, he got a call at his home in the South of France from Francis Ford Coppola, whose daughter, Sofia, had been dating Jonze for a few years. Coppola asked Malkovich to go to Paris and meet with Jonze. Malkovich made the trip, but the meeting didn’t exactly go smoothly. Jonze was nervous, and, as usual, he had some trouble finding words to express his thoughts. “He mentioned some projects he’d worked on, and they were interesting,” Malkovich told me, “but none of them showed that he was necessarily well-suited to make this film.” After about an hour, Malkovich asked Jonze if he was American. “I thought he was Czech,” Malkovich told me. “He had such a funny way of expressing himself. It sounded like he’d learned English as a second language.” Nevertheless, Malkovich said, Jonze was “funny and charming and strange, and he seemed to desperately want to do this film.”
#2 How They Got There
#3 Fatboy Slim “Praise You” (1999)
#4 “Sabotage” Beastie Boys Music Video (1994)
Knafo on the making of “Sabotage”:
They decided to shoot everything illegally, without permits. The band members dressed as plainclothes detectives in fake mustaches, polyester suits and aviator shades. Adam Yauch (another Beastie Boy) and Jonze did all the stunt driving. By the end of the two-day shoot, they had destroyed two cameras — the first, an $84,000 Arriflex, while speeding around a bend with the camera bolted to the hood, the second while trying to get an underwater shot with the camera protected only by a Ziploc bag. “We did it the way we did everything,” Jonze said. “Not necessarily the right way, but our way.” In 1999, MTV named “Sabotage” the seventh-best music video of all time.