This is how it goes trying to interview Spike Jonze by traditional methods, meaning I ask questions and he answers:
You’re getting a reputation for being a great filmmaker and a hellish interview. Is that intentional? Do you wear your secretiveness as a badge of honor?
Do I wear … do I wear? I don’t know … I don’t know….
Is there, in fact, anything you’re hiding?
I don’t think so. I don’t know. I mean, ah … from my perspective … I don’t know. I guess it’s hard to … I don’t think there’s any secret. I don’t know.
See? Long lines of dazed and confused journalists have run up against the defensive yet sincere stammering of this thirty-three-year-old Maryland-raised skateboard-freak-turned-rock-video-whiz-kid and Oscar-worthy auteur of Being John Malkovich and the just-released Adaptation. In Malkovich, you could enter a portal into the actor’s brain and find out anything you wanted to know for $200. Jonze doesn’t come that cheap. He is a major pop-culture phenom who prides himself on keeping the world from getting too close. In the past, he’s been a prankster — he makes things up. Take that name: Spike Jones was a bandleader who hit it big in the 1940s doing crazed versions of well-known songs.
Our Spike was born Adam Spiegel, of the $3 billion-a-year-in-sales Spiegel catalog business. What’s that like? He’ll never tell. During high school, he worked in a store that sold dirt bikes and skateboards. He parlayed that into jobs as an editor, writer and photographer for such zines as Freestylin’, Go and BMX Action. Bikes and ‘boards strengthened his love for pulling stunts. In Jackass: The Movie, which he co-produced, he teams up with Johnny Knoxville to tool around L.A. in old-guy makeup. He once picked up his wife, Sofia Coppola, the actress-director daughter of Godfather legend Francis Coppola, at the L.A. airport wearing a fat suit. When he married Sofia in 1999, the time-honored strains of “Here Comes the Bride” were growled by his pal Tom Waits. How do you deal with a guy who has turned his life into performance art?
Here’s how. Jonze has invited us to join him in Chicago, where Adaptation will be screened for an audience of college students. Nicolas Cage (born Nicolas Coppola), Jonze’s cousin by marriage, who steals the show not once but twice by playing twins in the movie, will be along for the ride. As will Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Malkovich and Adaptation.
Visions of this power trip kicking out the jams with college chicks in wreckable hotel rooms die the moment I enter the swank suite at the Peninsula hotel where Jonze and his buds are sedately and politely behaving themselves, excited to be speaking to students with — as Cage puts it — “no agenda.” Jonze — buttoned-down and bearded — looks more like a preppy grad student than the skate punk who brought Jackass to MTV, directed zeitgeist-connecting commercials (Nike, Lee Jeans) and videos (Beastie Boys, Weezer) and cast Cage in Adaptation as chubby, balding screenwriter twins, one of them a chronic masturbator.
As an interview subject, Jonze does speak when spoken to, but his answers often hit speed bumps.
I’ve been listening to your voice as I’ve transcribed our last talk.
You do stop and start an unusual amount, like a director always wanting a second take.
That’s funny…. Now I’m all hyper-aware of how I’m talking.
(This is followed by two separate but equal fifteen-second gaps of silence).
Jonze isn’t the only cinematic genius with issues in Chi-Town. Kaufman — a recovering TV comedy writer (Get a Life and Ned and Stacey) who’s fast establishing himself as the leading writer of daring cinema (he also wrote Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) — is famously shy. He adamantly refuses to have his photo taken. Ironic for a character who wrote himself into his own movie. “When I wrote the script, I didn’t think it was going to get made,” Kaufman says. “I felt more like I was drowning and I needed to grab onto something.” For the record, Kaufman — unlike the sweaty, balding, paunchy onscreen Charlie — is a slender, curly-haired fellow who resembles a slightly more grown-up Seth Green.
What we have here in this Chicago hotel suite is a recipe for interview dysfunction. But Jonze gets looser when he’s not speaking about himself: He raves about early Cage roles, in Vampire’s Kiss (in which Cage eats a real-live cockroach), and in Uncle Francis’ Peggy Sue Got Married (in which Cage’s wild turn as Kathleen Turner’s adenoidal middle-aged husband nearly got him fired). “These are movies my friends and I grew up watching and quoting lines from that Nic said,” Jonze recalls. “The story of Peggy Sue Got Married wasn’t something we were particularly interested in as fifteen-year-olds, but we rented it all the time because it was like, ‘Who is this guy? What’s he doing?’ I knew him a little through Sofia, but we got to know each other really well working together, and that was a big bonus for me.”
For a few minutes the conversation is actually flowing. Cage relishes the chance to talk about Adaptation, which has got to be more pleasant than talking about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, right? He clearly respects Jonze and Kaufman. “I felt like there was a kindred daredevil spirit there,” he says.
But step too far in any number of directions here and you’ll find yourself adapting to more awkward pauses. Kaufman doesn’t want to discuss what’s real and not real in Adaptation, such as the imaginary brother Donald who gets a co-writing credit. Neither does Jonze.
“I don’t know,” he says, looking down on the floor. “That’s a big can of worms to open. I’d rather …”
A long pause later — when it becomes utterly clear that Jonze has no intention of actually finishing his sentence — Cage rises to the challenge.
“Leave it to the token actor,” he says, and launches into a rambling monologue about how sea barnacles adapt to turbulent waters, then considers what makes Jonze and Kaufman such a good team. “They’re not afraid to step outside the box,” Cage says. “So far sometimes that you can’t see the movie from where the box is.”
On the limo ride over to the screening, Jonze reflects on letting go of the film he and Kaufman and Cage built in their own little world. “We’ve spoken about this lately,” says Jonze, nodding at Kaufman. “And I had this looming feeling that what was coming next was all this other stuff that would risk overwhelming my feeling that I’d made this thing with friends I really care about. But all this other stuff comes.”
“Being a movie star can be a drag sometimes,” Cage says, staring out the window. “When I decided to become an actor, I didn’t think it through that I would be asked to talk about every aspect of my underwear.”
The audience inside the theater is packed with students from such nearby colleges as Loyola, Northwestern, Lake Forest and DePaul. When one student asks Jonze about his influences, he gets an answer that’s pure Spike: “I’m influenced by my wife Sofia, Charlie, people around me. Wow, I don’t know….”
Weeks later, I spot Jonze at a Writers Guild discussion of Adaptation, along with the rest of his power trio. Jonze’s facial hair is gone; in a dark suit with his hair slicked back, he looks like a cool gangster, a reservoir dog.
Tomorrow he’ll probably look like someone else. Jonze is starting to remind me of a benign version of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, the trickster incarnate. Remember Kevin Spacey’s line? “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The devil should have met Spike Jonze.
Here are our last words together — my final desperate shot to get him to open up:
Any last-minute revelations?
I don’t think so.
Is it safe to say you’re less guarded in your conversation with loved ones like your wife?
Um, I don’t know … [the long pause that follows indicates I’ve gone too far] Hmm, I guess this is not … I don’t really. I guess I’m uncomfortable trying to discuss, to analyze myself in this way, so I prefer not to.
Do you on any level enjoy the idea that people want to know about you, or is all this interest simply repellent to you?
I like the idea … I like the idea of meeting you as a person and talking to you. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m saying….
Well, Spike, it was nice to meet you anyway.
It was nice to meet you. Thanks for finding time for me.
And then, poof, like something out of an elusive, trippy movie directed by Spike Jonze, he’s gone.