L.A. Film Fest ’13: Spike Jonze on Sendak’s Influence, Gandolfini and His New Film “Her”

“Man, I’m a bad storyteller,” confessed Spike Jonze, mere moments into a conversation at the Los Angeles Film Festival intended to celebrate a body of work that proves the contrary.

In front of an audience that included many of his collaborators including Megan Ellison, producer Natalie Farrey and editors Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen, Jonze indeed go relatively light on behind-the-scenes anecdotes from his films, music videos and commercial work, often deferring to his close friend and fellow director David O. Russell to keep the conversation going. But as noted by someone in the audience once Russell opened up the discussion for questions, Jonze’s repeated allusions to the importance of truth and honesty in his work and the artists he appreciates meant that nothing was off-limits, in spite of Russell’s late-talk lament that, “You always manage to avoid talking about personal stuff and I always have to talk about personal stuff.”

As a result of those dueling personalities, Russell was able to coax more than his fair share of details out of Jonze, whether it was about a planned Beastie Boys movie that he spent writing in Mike D’s apartment for a year just before “Being John Malkovich” came onto his radar or how a picture of George Lucas hugging Chewbacca on the set of “Star Wars” made him want to direct “Where the Wild Things Are” because he couldn’t wait to build the creatures and “get to cuddle with them.” The two, who met when Jonze brought Russell on to help adapt Crockett Johnson’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon” shortly after he had seen “Flirting with Disaster,” wound up spending most of the conversation speaking to an intertwined past and how they would share notes and bring things in from each other’s directing philosophies.

Though a linear career retrospective was clearly what was planned, it simply wasn’t in the cards as the conversation stayed true to Jonze’s unconventional work. The director gave some brief reflections on his time working for Dirt Magazine and his music video work, which was represented with a recollection of the making of a surreal Pharcyde video for “Drop” where he convinced the rappers to spend hours rehearsing to perform the song backwards because of the single’s reverse loop in its sample for the clip shot not far from where Jonze was sitting now. But he wound up speaking far more about “Being John Malkovich and “Where the Wild Things Are,” only mentioning “Adaptation” when recalling how during the 13-month editing process there were 30 different versions of the film,  which isn’t atypical for Jonze. As Russell recalled with a laugh, he was at an early screening of “Being John Malkovich” where he was within earshot of a conversation between Jonze and Cusack where the veteran actor had told the first-time feature director, “You have got A LOT of work to do.”

“On ‘Being John Malkovich,’ I remember thinking about the idea that I wanted it to feel like the characters made the movie and that the characters led us through the story,” said Jonze. “I didn’t want to feel the filmmaking. I didn’t want to feel like the camera was placed by anyone other than just where the characters would have it and it takes a long time to get to that, to where you sand off all the edges and it doesn’t feel like our clunky hands manipulating it.”

Jonze went on to describe the long, meticulous process of bringing “Where the Wild Things Are” to life, having first met Maurice Sendak when the legendary author managed Crockett Johnson’s estate and worked together on “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” A clip was shown from Jonze and Lance Bangs’ moving 2009 documentary “Tell Them Anything You Want” about Sendak and Jonze credited him with “teaching me to be an artist,” a concept that Jonze said was very abstract to him at 26 when they first met. He also confided that after making “Where the Wild Things Are,” he went to visit Sendak in Connecticut once a month until the author passed away in 2012. Jonze also took the opportunity to fondly remember another collaborator on that production who suffered an untimely death in James Gandolfini, telling a great story about how the actor singlehandedly gave shape to the film during rehearsals.

“Before we went to Australia, we shot the whole movie with the voice actors on a sound stage [in Los Angeles] for like two-and-a-half weeks, including the great James Gandolfini, who rest in peace, passed away this week. We shot the entire script with seven voice actors basically to get the sound of them all interacting live and also to videotape what they were doing so we could give that as references for the guys in the suits so the suits had the subtle humanistic quality we were trying to get. So we were on a soundstage that was blocked out with shag carpeting and all the sets were made out of foam cubes. If we wanted a forest, we’d put the foam cubes in stacks or a cave, we’d make a little cave out of foam cubes. [All the actors were] all in their socks and sweatpants and clothes that don’t make any sound with headbands on, so it looked like some kind of ’70s art piece.

We’d had shot some stuff before James got there, but that first day everyone [else was] kind of used to each other and we’d rehearse together, then James showed up and everyone didn’t know what to expect. He came in and [acting out] the kind of thing that you’d feel really ridiculous doing because you’re going, “Rawrrrrr” and throwing each other and yelling whatever this dialogue was in the middle of all this. James just came in and tore the set apart. It’s the first scene [in the film] where [the Wild Things] all ripping down the huts. He just started ripping them down and throwing Paul Dano across the set and screaming and yelling and it just upped the electricity of the whole room. All of us had been there in this one vibe and he just took it to this other level. It was like, “oh, that’s what the movie is.” He showed us what the movie was because it had that kind of potency. From then on for the next two-and-a-half weeks, he brought this electricity to the shoot.

The other amazing thing about him, because of the way we make films — this process that keeps evolving as we get into post [where] we keep writing and rewriting, especially with voiceover — [was that] every two months, we’d call Jim again and say, “Hey Jim, are you around? We have some more pages and we wrote some new scenes.” And he’d be like, “Ahhh, yes. Fine.” And he just kept coming back for the two years we were in post. Eric [Zumbrunnen, the editor] reminded me the other day there’s a scene where they build a fort and he wants to rip down the fort because it’s ruined and he’s having this breakdown. It’s this big emotional scene and we probably rewrote it six or seven times and had to do it again and again, so he came in one day and was like, “What are we doing today?” [We told him it was the same scene.] And he’s like, “Aw, this shit again!!!” And of course, he would do it and every time he would just go there, go to this place where this man was crying and sobbing and screaming. He’d give it to us every time because he couldn’t do it any other way. He always had to be honest and the only time he would ever get angry it was because [he’d be] angry at himself if it wasn’t honest. He was an amazing man that just wanted to be true.”

Jonze also looked forward to the future, bringing with him two clips from his next film “Her,” which he described as “a movie set in the slight future of L.A. and Joaquin Phoenix’s character buys the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system.” SlashFilm has a detailed description of the two scenes he presented, which were the best kind of a tease, a term that might also be the best way to characterize Scarlett Johansson’s fun, flirty vocal work as Samantha, the computer that develops feelings for Phoenix’s Theodore Twombley and vice versa. Jonze said a la “Where the Wild Things Are” that the conversations between the actors were filmed live before transferring their interactions onto the screen as man and OS1.

Like the rest of Jonze’s oeuvre, “Her” appears to be pushing boundaries once more, something Russell said of their friendship when someone asked what the two directors have learned from each other.

“There’s too much to name,” Russell said of Jonze, who complimented Russell’s ability to not be “married to what’s on the page.” “But he makes me try harder.”

As to that other audience question about why honesty and truth are so important to Jonze in his work, the filmmaker was at a loss for words and turned to Russell for help, who whispered in his ear.

“After giving this some thought…” Jonze deadpanned, “I think children are brutally honest and I aspire to that truth.”

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