It’s a little over four days until the first annual YouTube Music Awards — featuring live performances by Eminem, Arcade Fire, Lady Gaga, Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator — is staged at New York’s Pier 36, and director Spike Jonze is frantically running around the set. “I’m in the middle of solving about a hundred different problems right now,” he tells Rolling Stone. “None of us have ever done an awards show before, so we’re sort of making it up as we go along.”
Unsurprisingly, Jonze, best known for directing fantastically bizarre movies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, is determined to do away with most awards show clichés. “This is not a red carpet, fancy, pre-packaged, pre-produced thing,” he says. “I like the idea of making it about music and videos as opposed to everybody getting dressed up.”
His first idea was to hold the event away from a traditional theater. “We have this warehouse with all these sets built around it,” he says. “We’re going from set to set, and in each set we’re making a different live music video. The idea is that most of these songs don’t have music videos, so we’re making them live in front of the audience, sometimes with the audience as participants.”
Different teams are working on each live video. “Most of the artist are performing the songs live,” Jonze says. “But they’re also elaborately choreographed. We’re getting all these different creative people together with different directors. It feels like a filmmaking summer camp in a way with all these artists and directors and dancers.”
The show will be hosted by actor Jason Schwartzman and comedian Reggie Watts, but they’re not preparing like you’d think hosts would. “They came into town about a week and half early to start work on the script,” says Jonze. “Over half an hour we started reading a script from all the notes we put together over the last month. I quickly realized that it wasn’t fun, so we decided to not have any script. Jason and Reggie will have cue cards with what they’re supposed to say, at least in terms of information, but other than that they aren’t going to have any idea what’s going on. We haven’t even invited them to the writing meetings. We aren’t going to even let them rehearse it. They basically know only a tiny bit more about it than any of the viewers showing up.”
Rather than bring in celebrities and have them read lame jokes off a teleprompter, Watts and Schwartzman will simply hand out all the awards themselves. “There’s no teleprompter and no script,” Jonze says. “We’re just trying everything. We figure it’s YouTube, so they’re giving us a lot of room to do what we want. I can’t imagine if this was broadcast television that they’d ever give us this much freedom.”
The YouTube Music Awards streams this Sunday at 6:00 PM EST.