Spike Jonze. 'It doesn’t matter what you’re making as long as it excites you.'
Spike Jonze. 'It doesn’t matter what you’re making as long as it excites you.' Photo by AP
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Joaquin Phoenix, left, and director Spike Jonze on the set of "Her." Photo by AP
A scene from "Adaptation."
A scene from "Adaptation."
A scene from "Where the Wild Things Are."
A scene from "Where the Wild Things Are."
A scene from "Being John Malkovich"
A scene from "Being John Malkovich"

Interviewing the American director, producer, screenwriter and actor Spike Jonze was a tricky experience. After refusing for days to be interviewed, he suddenly acquiesced. He seemed hesitant during the interview, uneasy with the idea of talking about his movies, ridiculing questions about them and occasionally even displaying some aggression. But he was also surprisingly warm and nice, even continuing to chat after the allotted time for the interview was up. He was also enthusiastically grateful for praise directed at one of his films.

Jonze was born Adam Spiegel (his father was of Jewish descent), in Maryland in 1969. He has directed four full-length features, all of which were both critical and box-office successes, as well as dozens of music videos (including for Fatboy Slim and the Beastie Boys), a number of skateboarding movies, some ads and numerous short features and documentaries. He has a number of film producing and acting credits as well as a television series to his name, and he previously worked as a stills photographer, edited youth culture magazines and was active in San Francisco’s BMX bicycling scene.

In light of his varied activities, and the special spark of his features to date — “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “Her,” it seems fair to say that Jonze is one of the coolest directors working today in America. 

Jonze, who arrived in Israel this week for the Jerusalem Film Festival, was supposed to teach a master class at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Wednesday but ended up cancelling it on Tuesday due to the conflict. "It felt like the wrong time for me to be talking about movies with everything going on," he said in a statement. Jonze spoke to Haaretz ahead of the cancelation. 

Two of your main activities are directing feature films and music videos. Is there a difference in the way you approach these two types of projects?

“The main differences are the obvious things, you know. A music video is shorter in time and you know a music video isn’t driven by a dialogue.”

But is your artistic approach the same in both cases?

“In essence, there is no difference. I feel like creating music videos or movies or skate videos or just creating something funny with my friends after dinner. My friend Olympia Le-tan who is a designer can sing Kate Bush really well. I heard her sing Kate Bush, and I happen to have a video camera with me at dinner from something I was shooting earlier in the day. It was really pretty out; it was dark, but the sky wasn’t dark yet. So we went out while were waiting for our meal, we made a Kate Bush video, where she was singing Kate Bush while she was walking through these little Paris alleyways. I don’t know, I feel like it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter what you’re making. And that’s why the differences are mundane. An idea that excites you.

“You know our last film ‘Her,’ which is about relationships. I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships, wanting to make a love story and this premise could be exciting or it’s whatever I’m excited about. It could be really fun to film the Olympia scene singing Kate Bush in little streets in Paris. It’s all just about trying to listen to what you’re excited about, not overthinking too much, and trust it and go deep into whatever that is. And to take it really seriously, whatever it is, whether it’s a music video or making jackasses out of me and my friends.”

When asked about the element of the fantastic that enters all of his films, he gives a cynical response.

“Yeah, if you look at all four films they all have the jealous human beings with feet, they all have skies, they all have like blue skies or different colored skies, they all have loneliness and love, and they have dirty floors or they have some dirt or have ceilings in them, and they all have food, and they all have longing, feelings, and animals.”

Still, is there something that attracts you to the combination of fantasy and realism?

“Yeah, probably. I don’t have a good answer for it.”

“Being John Malkovich,” which since its release 15 years, to a great reception, has become a cult film, will be screened as part of the festival in Jerusalem. Jonze says that in retrospect, he doesn’t know why it become a cult movie.

“I mean I don’t even know if it were any of those things. If you say it were those things, I’ll take your word for it. I mean, you are the best opinion. I’m not sure what – I don’t know, I’m not sure what anything is. I don’t know anything really.

“It was the first movie that me and Charlie Kaufman did. You know, we didn’t know what we were doing, we were just making something that we felt was funny and we had no idea what will happen with it. We just were in these funny little sets, making a strange little movie that made us laugh.”

He hopes to collaborate with screenwriter Kaufman again sometime.

“We always talk about it, we bounce ideas off each other. We had a few ideas we were excited about that we never got back to. I can’t imagine that one day we won’t end up doing something together. But right now we’re doing our own thing. He’s madly busy right now with so many things. He has a movie that he is supposed to direct, he has a pilot, he has a novel; he always has ideas for plays or musicals. His mind never stops.”

You’ve said in previous interviews that “Her” is above all a film about relationships, love, the connections between people, rather than a statement about technology in our lives. If that’s the case, why did you decide to make the main character an operating system, rather than a real woman?

“I mean, I know exactly what you’re saying but I think that stories being made give it so much potential to – there are so many things I couldn’t do. There are so many moments in that movie that exist because she doesn’t have a body, because she’s just a spirit. You know, I think there’s many reasons. The idea also, we don’t ever know anyone outside of ourselves and that’s the challenge and the certain beauty is trying to understand someone outside of ourselves and the leap of faith that you have to take to connect. And I think her being an operating system in a way was a metaphor for that. I don’t know, there are many many things. The intention is by having there be – instead of there being just two people, by having it be the story it was, it’s a metaphor that you can be poetic and metaphorical with your ideas. It can be many things. I’m trying to create a feeling and sometimes by having an idea that isn’t grounded in reality, it can actually have that feeling even deeper. It’s like a dream. Dreams are so emotional, evocative, impactful movies we watch. If you were to show someone your dream, it’s hard to translate that feeling, and I aspire to that.”

What about “Where the Wild Things Are”? Did you approach it as a film for children, or for adults?

“Neither, think of it as a journalist to talk about how things are perceived and I think our culture often does that. But I don’t create from that place. I don’t look at where these people are, I’m going to make this for these people, for this audience. I’m going to make this for this purpose. I’m not trying to make something so everybody will think what I think. That movie wasn’t for children or adults.”

If so, it’s a good thing you look at your films in your own way, and not as a journalist.

“And I definitely understand how on the flipside people receive them in different ways, people get them or don’t get them, people like them or don’t like them, or they’re touched by them, or they’re making them angry or uncomfortable or both. What happens, happens. That’s not what making films is about for me. But I’m also happily grateful that people watch them, that anybody watches them, and that there can be a conversation that you take to the time to watch them and write about them. I’m grateful for that part, I don’t want to come off like I don’t care about it.”

This will be Jonze’s first time in Israel, but he says he can’t wait. “I’ve wanted to go for a long time. When I got the invitation, I was really thrilled to be able to come and see the country.”

Did you have doubts about the visit because of the conflict?

“Yeah I thought about it in a way that only interested me more just trying to understand who everybody is. You know I think we’re all here just trying to live and survive, and thrive, and I think my nature is to try and learn and watch. I feel for the situation and I want to learn more.”

This interview was conducted ahead of Jonze's arrival in Israel on Monday.