We got to talking to Spike Jonze over the weekend. It was the one-year anniversary of the death of Adam Yauch, his friend from The Beastie Boys and a handful of very, very fine films and life in general. He was so cool about it we’re printing the whole thing.—James Goux, Hulu
Hulu: You’ve directed multiple videos for a few artists—none as many as the Beastie Boys. Their videos span almost the entirety of your video career, so what was it about that particular relationship that kept drawing you guys to collaborate with each other?
I met them when I was really young, even before I started making videos, and even before I knew them they were always a big influence on me. I loved their music. As we became friends in my early 20s, there was really nobody like them, they just had a way of doing things that was so independent and their own. Back then they were just putting out Check Your Head and they did things entirely independently and even though they were on a major label and instead of taking a big advance and spending it all on expensive studios, they took the advance and built their own studio out in Atwater Village in this sort of sleepy little neighborhood near Glendale. Rent was cheap and they just spent very little on making their own studio and could spend as long as they wanted making their own music. On Check Your Head I think they took about two years just playing and recording and figuring out what they wanted to do.
It was just inspiring being around them because they were truly independent artists and did what felt right to them and did what they thought was funny. Yauch took that same spirit and applied it to everything else he did, whether it was Milarepa or Oscilloscope, there was a sort of guilelessness to the way Adam did everything. He’d say, “I don’t like what’s happening in Tibet so why don’t we start something that draws attention to that or raises money for that.” Or he always loved film, so the film company was started with a childlike “Let’s have our own film company.”
So working with them always had that spirit of, “Yeah let’s do this. That would be hilarious if we dressed up as 70s cops and made up our own 70s cop show.” The next week we’d go to the mustache shop and buy all the mustaches and be shooting it. It was more like getting your friends together and making something and it was like that right up until the last thing we did together. There wasn’t a lot of overthinking anything or dealing with the record label. It was just coming up with something we thought was funny and just going out and making it.
It felt like your experience with skate videos, in visual style and attitude, was drawn upon a lot for your videos with the Beastie Boys, was that culture something that was part of their spirit?
Yeah, for one, Yauch grew up skating and was really into skateboarding and the studio in Atwater was called G-Son, they had a half pipe in there and a mini-ramp and we’d skate or random people would just drop by and skate, so that was always part of the world. But I think coming from skate videos that was just how I made stuff, it was me and some friends driving around in a van and finding spots and running and grabbing them, we did a lot of those videos back then in that same spirit: just a really small group of people driving around in a van and stealing locations. The “Sabotage” video was basically done like a skate video, the crew was just as many people as could fit in a van and we would just drive around L.A. and steal locations.
A couple of your videos, like “Sabotage and “Don’t Play No Games I Can’t Win,” have these very narrative or filmic drives to them. I’m curious what the genesis was of those ideas, what the conversations were like between you and the band, or how else involved Adam was.
“Don’t Play No Games” was all Adam’s idea, that was something he was going to direct. He had just finished Fight for Your Right Revisited, it’s epic and the last thing Yauch directed. It’s a half hour, surrealist Beastie Boys video where Danny McBride, Seth Rogan, and Elijah Wood play the Beastie Boys from the License to Ill days and it starts with them stumbling out of that apartment and it’s an absurdist take on these guys playing the Beastie Boys. It ends with a big showdown where they meet another set of Beastie Boys that’s Jack Black, John C. Reilly, and Will Ferrell and they have a battle at the end. That was the last thing Yauch did and it was the first video on the last record, everybody’s in it, there’s probably 50 cameos of every actor/comedian, they shot it on the Paramount lot and it’s this epic Nathaniel Hornblower piece.
Yauch was going to do this other video “Don’t Play No Games,” so he had written the whole story, built the sets, the costumes — done everything really — and then a few days beforehand he couldn’t do it because he was sick and dealing with that. So I stepped in to do it, so really that was Yauch’s idea, and it was really fun to do because everybody that was there was all his crew and had worked on videos with him for a long time. So we were all there in the spirit of “What would Yauch want?” So we were there three days in this little warehouse in Brooklyn coming up with stuff that would crack Yauch up and so we sent it to him and he loved it.
So really that one was entirely Yauch’s and he did a lot of their videos. He did “Intergalactic” and that video is pretty amazing. They shot it in Tokyo.
Since Yauch was a director, both for their videos and other films as well, did you take anything from him and incorporate it into your repertoire as a filmmaker?
More in the attitude in which he made films which was that there was nothing precious about cameras to Yauch. I think we broke two cameras and it was just, “Let’s get a camera and make something,” and there wasn’t a whole complex overthinking of stuff.
I remember when we were going to do the Sabotage video the production company that I was working at made a budget for the idea that was twice what we wanted to spend and had cops and it had permits and it had the proper way you’re supposed to do stuff and I kept telling the production company “No, we want to do it this way without cops” and they were like, “No we can’t do it this way, that’s an insurance risk, etc.”
They had all their sort of beurocratic right way to do things and anytime someone told Yauch that it would make him bristle and ask why. So we had this meeting at the production company and Yauch said, “If you guys don’t want to do it the way we want to do it then we’ll just do it with another company.”
And they said, “Hold on a second,” and came back to us with the budget that we wanted it to be and we did it the way we wanted to do it, which was just us in a van driving around. I think Yauch was definitely a big influence on me with his fearlessness to do it our own way and not let someone else say this is the way it’s supposed to be done. That was a big influence on me as a filmmaker.
It seems like he and the other guys, particularly in Sabotage, took on characters really easily? What was it like watching that transformation happen?
It was super hilarious, they had this shared collective memory of all these people they’d met over the years and they would always pop back up in different ways. Like the guy that owned the deli down the street from their first crappy apartment in New York. There were all these different people and they would conjure up characters out of nothing. We’d have wigs or costumes and just put that stuff on and out of that would come characters.
And obviously there was Hornblower, the Swiss filmmaker Yauch had created and was directing under that name even before I met him. He was a Swiss filmmaker who always wore lederhosen and was a very avant garde, abstract thinker who spoke in half nonsense. That Hornblower character popped up many times.
One time when we were at the MTV Video Awards and we lost an award to REM Yauch was in full Hornblower regalia, red-headed and a Swiss man in lederhosen with a big curly mustache and one of those hats with a feather in it. When we lost he stormed the stage and in a broken English with a Swedish accent attested to why we should’ve won the award but then turned it into how we had created all the ideas for Star Wars and went on this incredible rant. Michael Stipe was standing behind him going, “What the !@#$?”
It was live television and a lot of people used to watch these awards, so of course the producers took it really seriously, going “Who is this crazy person?” and throwing him out the back door while the talent wranglers were like rushing to try to get him because he had to go and change and perform in ten minutes and it was a huge scene between the security and the talent wranglers trying to get Nathaniel Hornblower back into the building.
What was it like working with Adam and (Yauch’s co-founded film company) Oscilloscope on Tell Them Anything You Want?
It was perfect. Yauch and I had wanted to do stuff together since he had started the company a couple years before that so we were always trying to figure out what to do. I’d been around the company a lot anyway just because I’d go over to visit and the studio was on the same floor across the hall.
Oscilloscope always felt like an indie record label form the early 90s. There was no corporate boss at all, it was run by people who loved movies and loved indie film. They were all young and it was just this office that felt like it hadn’t been touched since 1950, it looked like a 50s wood-panel detective agency. It was this old, old building on a canal.
I’d always wanted to do something with them so when we wanted to do this Maurice [Sendak] thing, I asked Yauch and he loved Maurice, too. So it seemed like this perfect thing. For me, both Yauch and Maurice were these big influences on me and big parts of my life, both creatively and personally, so it just seemed so perfect that it worked out that way with Oscilloscope.
Working with him was effortless, there were no battles. I think it comes from Yauch being an artist and a musician and having worked with labels for so long. When a filmmaker makes something that’s personal to them, everything that comes out of that needs to come from what feels right for the film. Their packaging was always beautiful and their press releases were more absurdist than anything else. Yauch always wrote them and he gave you the facts, but barely. Mostly it was just ridiculous. It was just a company that didn’t take itself seriously and it was fun to be around and to work with.
At the same time they did great films. They did Wendy and Lucy which was a beautiful Kelly Reichardt film. The Messenger with Woody Harrelson, which is a really strong anti-war film. They did real films — real serious films that got a lot of attention and were important. I think it’s a special company that came out of who Yauch is and his love for film.
For Tell Them Anything You Want, I thought it would be cool to get your elevator pitch for what made Maurice Sendak so fascinating and special that you wanted to capture that?
It’s funny because Maurice is actually a lot like Adam in that he always did things his way. He’s an artist and he truly didn’t give a shit. When it came to what he believed in, what he thought, and what he wanted to say, he said everything.
There’s a quote in the movie, the title is talking about the way he always perceived kids. He didn’t believe in “this is a child, they’re not people,” he viewed them as fully complex as us. Their experience might be different but their emotions are as complicated as us, they’re as intelligent as us, they see everything and understand everything. He always believed, “Tell them anything you want, as long as it’s the truth.”
He believed in speaking the truth and really didn’t censor himself in any way, creatively or in life. I think when you see the documentary it’s a man who speaks from his heart and he also happens to be one of the most articulate, poetic, and hilarious people I’ve ever met. So I think when the documentary came out of me just having these incredible conversations with him from which I would learn, I would laugh a lot, I would get inspired by.
I kept thinking, “I want to capture this,” so it’s a portrait of this artist in the last chapter of his life. He’s someone who I’ve known for 15 years and he’s always talked about death and dying. He’d had a heart attack in his 30s and there was stuff in his childhood that had happened that he talks about in the documentary so he had an awareness and, beyond awareness – obsession, that he was going to die. He was about to turn 80 when we made the documentary and it’s from that perspective that he’s an artist speaking so honestly and so rawly and so hilariously about his life and I’m just so grateful that I got to have him in my life. And out of that I got to make this with Maurice and have this document of who this man is.
What you said about approach towards children as people spoke to something that I wanted to ask, I was really stunned by how characters in Where the Wild Things Are the Wild Things felt like such full, real, and complete people. Since it’s coming from such a brief book, and the book doesn’t have a chance to build out those characters in those ways, how did you go about making them that fully realized?
From the beginning, Maurice’s only directive to me, he wasn’t precious about the book, he said “This is what I made when I was your age. I was in my early 30s and now you’re in your early 30s. I want you to make your movie,” but his only directive was “Do not condescend to children, do not pander to children. Be honest, and make it personal.” He was really just an artist making sure that I rose to the occasion.
So for a long time I steered away and was scared to do that book because I didn’t know what I would bring to it that wouldn’t ruin it, like some external plot device that would be lumped on top of it. But when I finally started thinking about the characters of the Wild Things and who they were, they never spoke in the book but who they were to me: they were scary and charming and alluring, I couldn’t understand them but I was drawn to them. It hit me that they could be raw emotions, out of control emotions and the things that were most scary to me as a kid were emotions from other people that were close to me that I didn’t understand, including my own.
That was the key: if I’m just writing them as wild emotions then I could write forever on that subject from the point of view of being a person at age 9 or whatever point in your life so it kind of came out of that. The Wild Things became a set of characters that were created to be true to what it felt like to me to be that age in my life. People have different childhoods, some are completely safe and some are really wild and out of control environments but I think unless you have the most perfect parents ever, and I don’t know who does, there’s a sort of scariness to things you don’t understand and you’re navigating a world that seems out of control. So that’s where that all came from.