5 Trademarks of Spike Jonze’s Films, TV Series, & Music Videos
Writer/director/producer Spike Jonze is an iconic filmmaker with a bold, irreverent, often playful style that’s surprisingly rich with both danger and emotion. With characters who sometimes border on the neurotic, Jonze likes to blend the real with the fictional to get to the heart of his characters’ humanity.
His music videos and films push the edge when it comes to storytelling, taking the audience to places that seem off the map – whether it’s a story about having writer’s block, like in Adaptation (2002), a boy retreating into the wilds of his imagination, like in Where the Wild Things Are (2009), or a man dating the voice in his smartphone, like in Her (2013), the audience is guaranteed to experience something new.
Here are five of Jonze’s filmmaking trademarks that help to explore those strange yet familiar places and create worlds that are as treacherous to navigate as they are fun to inhabit.
All of Jonze’s movies center around outsiders who struggle to fit into society and his adaptation of the beloved Maurice Sendak book Where the Wild Things Are perfectly explores this trademark.
The story is about a boy named Max (Max Records), with a highly inventive imagination whose signature outfit is a wolf costume. When home life becomes too much to handle, Max escapes to an island of monsters where he finds purpose and respect when he becomes their king.
Thematically, the film explores the boundaries of boyish fear and anger, taking the protagonist on a journey to find a place where he truly belongs – a place where he can grow emotionally. In many ways, the below clip from the film seems to relate to all the male protagonists in Jonze’s films who feel like outcasts and seek a fun escape from reality.
Themes of Loneliness
One thing all misfit characters have in common is they are lonely. Loneliness is a theme in all of Jonze’s films and is perhaps best demonstrated in the character Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in the sci-fi rom-com Her.
Sad and isolated as a result of his failed marriage, Theodore begins a romantic relationship with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the helpful voice in his phone.
The central question of the film becomes: is Theodore’s connection with Samantha real and meaningful – or is it simply an escape from reality? On one level, his relationship with Samantha is safer than the one he had with his ex-wife because a computer voice is less likely to break his heart. But is any important, meaningful part of real-life safe?
Strikingly, Her suggests that the default state for all sentient beings is loneliness. This idea is perhaps best expressed in this scene where, as hard as Samantha tries, she is unable to alleviate Theo’s loneliness.
Mashup of Real vs. Fictional People and Things
In Being John Malkovich (1999), the real actor John Malkovich plays a fictionalized version of himself, John Horatio Malkovich, whose brain is entered by other characters for about 15 minutes each. Jonze has said it was his intention from the beginning to have the real Malkovich play the character Malkovich, despite numerous producers suggesting he cast another actor to play the role prior to Malkovich signing on.
In Adaptation (2002), screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage in the movie) was inspired by his own writer’s block when he attempted to adapt the 1998 book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. The movie mashes up fictional plots with elements of the nonfiction book and invents the character of Kaufman's twin brother, Donald Kaufman, who’s also given a writing credit on the movie, blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
Jonze loves to film the human body in motion. Starting his career as a BMX rider and skateboard photographer as a teenager on the East Coast, Spike Jonze (born Adam Spiegel) soon developed a dysfunctional relationship with gravity, testing the limits of how a human body could move through the air and capturing it on film. So, it’s no surprise one of his very first successful video endeavors was the Jackass franchise for MTV, which featured testosterone-addled daredevils engaging in outrageous, dangerous stunts and hilarious pranks. Still involved as a producer, the fifth Jackass movie, Jackass Forever, was released in February of this year.
But the Jackass brand really transforms into artistic revelry in the film Where the Wild Things Are. In the dirt clod fight scene, you can see how Max is living out his biggest fantasy by having his own testosterone-addled skirmish with his new monster friends. Jonze has no trouble tapping his inner child to tell stories from the perspective of a young boy exploring his physical limits.
The Fun and Wacky World of Dance
Jonze has a deep love for dance and many of his award-winning music videos showcase singers and actors getting their boogie on, whether it’s Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” video inspired by the French musical Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Christopher Walken’s killer dance moves in Fat Boy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” or a troop of amateur dancers (including Jonze himself!) in “Praise You,” also from Fat Boy Slim.
But it’s in the film Being John Malkovich where Jonze transcends dialogue and uses dance to express the state of John Malkovich’s psyche. Called the “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment,” this sequence really takes storytelling to a heightened level. If George Bernard Shaw once said, “[Dancing is] a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire,” then perhaps this dance is a perpendicular expression of a desire for a nervous breakdown.
ScreenCraft is delighted to have the brilliant and enigmatic Spike Jonze as a speaker at this year’s ScreenCraft Writing Summit. Don't miss your chance to hear from him, as well as Sofia Coppola, Michael Schur, and many other amazing filmmakers and screenwriters on June 25th through 26th. See you there!