A notoriously shy prankster with a penchant for skateboarding and tall tales, Spike Jonze might not have been the most obvious candidate for "most promising director" or "best first feature" status. With the release of Being John Malkovich in the fall of 1999, however, those were exactly the kinds of superlatives being lauded upon the impetuous wunderkind.
Purportedly an heir to the Spiegel catalog empire, Jonze was born Adam Spiegel in 1969 in St. Louis, MO. Nicknamed "Spike" at a young age -- he was fond of buzz haircuts -- he would adopt the "Jonze" later in life as an homage to the comic bandleader of the 1940s. After his parents divorced, Jonze spent most of his formative years with his mother in Maryland, where he cultivated interests in skateboarding, freestyle biking, and photography. He opted out of college to take a position at one of his favorite magazines, Freestyle, and before long, he was creating his own monthly, Dirt. The nationally distributed publication promptly failed, and Jonze returned to his bread and butter: shooting photo spreads and videos of skaters.
It was Jonze's skateboarding photography which brought the attention of the rock group Sonic Youth, who enlisted him to contribute skate footage to their "100%" video in 1992. From there, video offers streamed in, and Jonze's distinctive clips for bands such as the Breeders, R.E.M., and Weezer quickly made him one of the most sought-after video directors in the business. Even within the confines of a three-minute spot, Jonze would find ways to subtly reference pop culture: his "Sabotage" video for the Beastie Boys aped the look and feel of 1970s cop shows; in the Breeders' "Cannonball," he gave a nod to the 1956 children's classic The Red Balloon; and Jonze transformed Björk's "It's Oh So Quiet" into an elaborate musical fantasy number inspired by Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
It didn't take long for the movie industry to take notice, and in 1995, Jonze was offered the chance to direct the film adaptation of Harold and the Purple Crayon, with a script by The Player scribe Michael Tolkin. After much pre-production work, however, the project went into developmental limbo, and Jonze continued to work on videos and advertisements while he searched for the perfect debut material. It arrived in 1997 in the form of Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman's dark, surreal comedy about the havoc wreaked when a disaffected puppeteer discovers a portal into the mind of the titular actor. Instead of playing up the script's more fantastical elements, Jonze chose to approach the film with an almost deadpan realism, exhibiting his skills with cinéma vérité as well as a particularly uncanny knack for re-creating corporate training films. In 1999, The National Society of Film Critics named Malkovich best picture of the year, and its director was rewarded with best debut feature awards from both the New York Film Critics Association and the Independent Spirit Foundation. Though Jonze would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, the film was shut out of the Best Picture category.
Malkovich wasn't the only film for which Jonze was receiving praise in the fall of 1999. After a handful of bit parts in such films as The Game and Mi Vida Loca, he was cast as a dim but well-meaning soldier in director David O. Russell's Gulf War saga Three Kings. Critics noted Jonze's ability to bring depth and warmth to the somewhat stereotypical role of the impudent loose cannon from the backwoods, Private Conrad Vig. 1999 was also the year that Jonze married into one of the most venerable filmmaking clans in America, as he exchanged vows with longtime girlfriend and fellow director Sofia Coppola.
Following up Being John Malkovich proved to be no easy task. At the turn of the century, Jonze laid low, lending his skills to more music videos and commercials, and teaming up with skating buddy Johnny Knoxville to create Knoxville's immediately infamous weekly revue of self-mutilation, MTV's Jackass. Around this time, Jonze learned of Kaufman's assignment to translate Susan Orlean's best-selling nonfiction account The Orchid Thief to the screen for Columbia Pictures. Unbeknownst to the studio, Kaufman had decided to write an account of his own difficulties penning the script, an idea aided and abetted by Jonze. The resulting film, Adaptation, arrived in theaters in time for 2002's awards season, and garnered reviews just as favorable as the duo's 1999 effort. Citing the film's sure-handed, matter-of-fact direction -- encompassing two separate but seamlessly integrated Nicolas Cage performances -- critics noted Jonze's skill at managing a wide swath of performance styles, from the two mannered Cages to a contemplative Meryl Streep to a chameleon-like Chris Cooper. Not surprisingly, Kaufman's script and all of the three leads in Adaptation were remembered for Academy Award nods -- with Cooper taking home the statue over Catch Me If You Can's shoo-in, Christopher Walken -- but Jonze found himself shut of the crowded Best Director category.
Still, Jonze could take consolation in his considerable box-office returns from 2002: not for Adaptation, which, despite a more aggressive marketing push, failed to top Being John Malkovich's modest 22-million-dollar total. Instead, producers Jonze and Knoxville saw their no-budget, big-screen installment of Jackass power past 60 million dollars, grossing more than a dozen times its cost and sparking many a debate over the death of cinema, the limits of "reality" entertainment, and the merits of inserting sundry implements into one's bodily orifices.
Although he and Sofia Coppola ended their marriage after just a short time, Jonze kept busy with a variety of projects including creating a television show and overseeing a DVD collection of many of his best music videos. He produced another feature length Jackass movie, and he took on the responsibility of bringing the beloved children's book Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen. In 2010 he pitched in to help the Jackass crew with their third feature film.