Spike Jonze is someone that needs very little introduction. He has directed many of the most interesting and critically lauded movies of the past decade, from Adaptation to Where the Wild Things Are. So what happens when a director known for his artful execution of big ideas decides to make a “little” film?
In the interview below, Jonze opens up about why he opted to create I’m Here, his most recent film about two robots in love in L.A.
Eddy Moretti, of The Creators Project: Let’s talk about your newest film, I’m Here. We screened it throughout the summer, and it just came out on DVD too.
Spike Jonze: Oh yeah. We also just put out an I’m Here book, that comes with the DVD and a soundtrack. The idea behind it was that instead of just putting out a DVD, we thought it would be cool to put out a photo book of images too. I wanted to make this film in a very loose way. I wanted to have an idea and just go with it. To have this idea in my head and just go make it. It’s a much looser, faster way of working. And you know, some of the artists that I worked with hadn’t worked in film before, and that was fun. I was very inspired by that. Like working with Sonny Gerasimowicz—he worked with me on Where the Wild Things Are, but he’s still not like “a movie person.” In I’m Here he played the robots with me, and Oscar did the music, and Meryl Smith did the rats. So the book is more focused on documenting that.
The process and the people—the little community around the film, that’s what this project means to you.
It was also about confidence and about getting back to knowing that I could do something fast.
Really? You needed to prove that to yourself?
Yeah. To know that I could have an idea and go make it. I did a short film with Kanye West, and it was also something produced quickly. To just have an idea in my head and to do it, to not question it, with no long drawn-out process.
Do you also still love the long, drawn-out process of making a studio picture?
Yeah, because what I think you get out of the longer process is you really get to meditate on something and think about it. Having that time lets you think about the same ideas from different sides, different perspectives. And that just makes it richer. You can keep going back into it and make the characters deeper. You’re thinking about the themes of a piece when you’re just living your life. When you get to work on something that long, it just gets richer. And that was the case on our first two movies working with Charlie Kaufmann. We did many drafts and I could do that. It’s a good process, it just takes real discipline and stamina.
It definitely gives you the chance to get lost in a good way—inside a concept or idea or material, so that you really become closer to the work
Yes. You explore it from more angles. With I’m Here it’s more about exploring a kind of relationship. It’s sparser.
It’s definitely more like a short story than a novel.
Exactly. I guess that’s the big difference. I don’t know if I could do a movie in that way. Unfortunately people go back and forth and spend a few years on a movie. They go into it and then they come out. They have an idea for something else and can be done in a few months, or even be done in a day. I made a video with James from LCD Soundsystem, and we had an idea on a Saturday and we shot it on a Sunday. It’s a super fun way of working.
But you love having both in your life.
You wrote the screenplay, or the scenario, for I’m Here by yourself. Is that the first time that you wrote fiction alone?
Yeah I guess so, other than music videos and that kind of thing. Oh no, I guess I wrote that one with Kanye.
Do you like writing alone?
Well, I’ve done other short films before.
Is there a drawer of shorts that you wrote but never made?
I have some things, yeah. They’ll come back in other things, in other forms. Not a full idea, but they’ll come back.
An idea will just kind of persist and evolve, and then come back over time?
Lance Bangs made a little film about I’m Here. In it you’re quoted as saying that the film tries to recreate that feeling of being in your early 20s, living in LA, and stealing moments here and there. It’s also interesting that the characters come from a community of second-class citizens.
I’m Here started as a relationship story, and then the world and the setting came in. I wanted it to be in LA, when you are in your early 20s – when you’re not really part of the city. You and your friends have your own scene, and that’s what she opens him up to. The second-class citizen idea and all of this other stuff kind of came out of that.
One thing that struck me was the subject of love and how it’s handled differently here than in your other feature films. How do you see this love story in terms of other love relationships, in, say, Adaptation or Being John Malkovitch or even elements of the adult relationships that we get in those few scenes of Where the Wild Things Are?
To me, this felt like the first time I really tried a love story. In Adaptation there is quite a bit of yearning, and longing, and romantic moments. To me, I’m Here is much more focused on a love story, whereas Adaptation has a lot other elements in it.
A lot of people are reacting to the powerful, simple, and central idea of I’m Here, and the film does put forward a very extreme idea of what it means to love someone. It’s extreme, and yet it comes across as being the ultimate gesture, and it comes across as being selfless and incredibly tender. The emotions are really powerful maybe because it is a short film, because it’s not complicated by a lot of the other ideas or the challenges of a feature length film. I think Where the Wild Things Are is your most complicated film – a successful narrative in which there are almost no real plot points or traditional narrative moments.
You think that makes it more complicated?
Yeah, WTWTA is definitely the most complicated narrative that you’ve written.
It seems like Adaptation is the most complicated narrative, because we have so many ideas we’re trying to sustain.
You are trying to pull off a lot in Adaptation, yes.
All of these totally incongruous stories unified by themes—we were trying to make it a fluid emotional path through all these different ideas. When me and Eric, my editor, finished Adaptation, we thought it would never be that hard again because editing that took over a year. But then Wild Things was really hard.
I can imagine.
So in a way, it was complex too.
Maybe complex is the wrong word. With Where the Wild Things Are, maybe it was more experimental, with the writing and the story you were trying to tell. The structure of it doesn’t have acts, it just had like 5 or 6 movements, and an inner logic of its own – like the inner logic of being a kid. It felt like a really intense afternoon of being a child, which involves lots of play, punctuated by moments of hysterical emotion, where someone inevitably gets hurt. Where the Wild Things Are is more experimental because it is trying to approximate the actual experience of being young.
Yeah that’s definitely part of why it took so long – to make it work without a plot. The plot is his inner emotional life, or I don’t know if there is a plot, but the movie is about his inner emotional life, and to make it sustained and exist in the emotional life in a nine year-old.
I think it will go down as being the biggest experimental film in history.
One last thing that struck me about Wild Things, why I say it’s so experimental, is that I feel that children’s films generally end up being adult narratives in a lot of ways. They’ll have adult love stories that feel too adult for children, or they feature really complicated plots—the hero has to do this and that and get a secret medallion, etc. They’re logical, in a way that child-life isn’t. There’s something wild and free about childhood that is so different from “children’s films.”
Well that was our hope, although there were wide debates and it got attacked a lot for not being a “children’s film.” I think there is a place for all kinds of films for children, just as there’s a place for all kinds of films for adults.
I agree. But every season, Hollywood, and cinema elsewhere, creates new sets of characters for children to look at and to introduce into their lives. It’s like a blue fish one year, and then it’s a green monster, and then a purple dinosaur, and it’s this and it’s that. I just feel a bit of children’s character overload. Maybe I’m just being too harsh about children’s films as a genre. Did I ever tell you about the David Brooks review of Wild Things?
He’s a prominent conservative critic who writes for The New York Times—he’s on a lot of talk shows, a really highbrow guy. He wrote an excellent review for your film the weekend it came out. He was totally blown away and it was in The International Herald Tribune . He talks about it in terms of notions of identity and how very few films champion the notion of exploring identity like Wild Things.
So you come out of making this very big film – Wild Things – over a long period of time, and then you get to do something much more in the short story form of film with people that aren’t necessarily from the film world with a capital “F” and you found that fun and it restored your confidence that you could do something like that. How did it feel when you had put all the elements together and watched it through in its final form? How happy are you with I’m Here?
I’m happy with it because I judge the success of what I do by the feeling. When I first start, before I even put a word down, does it have the feeling of what I’m trying to capture. When you are making something it changes so much and the specifics of what it looks like in your head changes—you come up with better ideas, you cast somebody that brings ideas or something to it that you would have never thought of. Or the production designer or someone comes up with an idea. It changes so much, the specifics, I mean. If it feels like what I set out to make, then I succeeded. But the other thing is, you were saying that when you watch it I feel like “this.” I don’t get that feeling as much at the end, but I get it in little moments. I’ll have it on the set. I’ll be shooting a scene and I feel it between the characters. Or when we’re editing, and we make an edit that connects two images together that really make the scene come alive emotionally, then I’ll get that feeling. Or as we put music in—something that we’ve done that’s new. I’m watching it from a different place in the room and it just sort of touches me and I recognize the feeling. It’s in moments throughout the process that I feel we’ve got there—or we’re getting there.