Spike Jonze had been out drinking. He was in Chicago to shoot a music video for the band Wax; the band is forgotten but the video - a man on fire running slow motion in a single shot down a block, trying to catch a bus - is indelible. That night in Chicago he was in the back of a cab with Dan Field, a skateboarding friend of his, when he got it in his head that he wanted to jump out of the moving taxi. Field tried to stop him, but Jonze opened the door and - at 30mph - flew out. He bounced down the street, smashing his head on the pavement. When Field ran back to Jonze he found his friend laughing, but the director was bleeding pretty good.
This isn’t one of those stories that explains a turning point in Jonze’s life. It’s a story that explains Spike Jonze. To filmgoers he’s a wry, ironic arthouse darling. But to his friends he’s still the mischievous skate punk who came up outside of Baltimore.
"Deep in the back of his head," Field told New York Magazine back in 1999, when Being John Malkovich was being released, "Spike wants to be a stuntman."
That’s a big part of what made Spike Jonze a perfect fit for Jackass, and Jonze is a big part of what defines Jackass. To the outsider Jackass is a bro show, a frat boy bit of stupidity and excess. It would be easy to believe that if Jonze - the guy whose new film, Her, is one of the most beautiful examinations of love and loneliness I have ever seen - wasn’t one of the founding producers. Sure, it’s a show of stupidity and excess (and let’s not forget cheap gross out gags), but it’s not frat.
In fact when a Vice interviewer called Jackass a celebration of fratboy culture, Spike bristled.
“We all came out of skateboarding, which was the polar opposite of that,” he explained. “Most of us guys were anti-frat.”
1980s skateboarding culture defined Jonze, and gave him his career. Growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, young Adam Spiegel found himself often alone. He gravitated to Rockville BMX, where he got the nickname that would become his professional identity. The worlds of BMX and skateboarding were closely entwined, and Jonze fell in love.
Skateboarders had a weird go of it in the 80s. While athletic, they didn’t engage in the kind of competition that defined high school sports. They were chased away from the railings and staircases that offered them great trick opportunities, and over time skateboarding was criminalized in many municipalities. What had begun as street surfing in Los Angeles had turned into an underground counterculture closely aligned with punk rock and rebel attitudes.
“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, no one cared about skateboarders,” Jonze told Maxim. “There was no Internet, no other way to communicate, so everyone just made their own videos, and that’s how skateboarding communicated with itself.” Armed with VHS cameras they filmed each other doing insane stunts, and those tapes would be traded around a nationwide network of skaters.
Jonze cut his teeth there, eventually working as a photographer for Freestylin’ Magazine, and his pictures got a lot of attention. In 1992 he shot his first music video, for Sonic Youth’s 100%, which featured flannel-clad slackers and black and white footage of the kind of skaters Jonze knew so well. The crossover was complete, and in the next few years Jonze would become one of the greatest music video directors in the history of the medium (his 1994 Sabotage video being one of the high points of the form) and a successful commercial director as well before making the leap to features in 1999.
But Jonze stayed close with his old friends, including a guy named Jeff Tremaine. “When I was 12 I heard about this kid ‘Heffy’ who was a BMX dirt-jumper,” Jonze told Vice. “He was like the local legend. I met him one day at the mall where we'd all hang out. He had big tuck wheels – went big, landed really hard. We went riding and built ramps a lot together, and ended up going to the same high school.”
As Jonze found himself in the alternative rock world, Tremaine was working as the editor of Big Brother, a seminal skateboarding magazine. It was enormous in the street skating world, and it mixed pictorials and articles about skateboarding with funny. edgy pieces like a how-to guide to suicide and instructions for making fake IDs. It was to Big Brother that an out-of-work actor named PJ Clapp pitched an article where he would be pepper sprayed, tased and eventually shot (while wearing a bulletproof vest); other magazines had turned it down out of fear of legal repercussions should something go wrong. Big Brother ate it up.
It should be noted that PJ Clapp went by the name Johnny Knoxville.
The video of Knoxville getting assaulted became a viral sensation the old fashioned way - tape trading. Tremaine knew they had something big on their hands, so he roped in Jonze for his expertise. The trio shopped a vague idea for a stunt-related TV show and almost got a recurring segment on Saturday Night Live before they opted to go where they might have more creative control - MTV.
What makes Jackass unique, what makes it more than just dumb guys doing dumb things, is what made the early skate videos special. Watching those old videos in the 1980s you didn’t just get into the tricks being executed, you truly became fans of the guys on the boards. There was a lot of mugging for the camera and screwing around and a certain fun to be had in wiping out, and it made stars of guys like Mark Gonzalez, named the most influential skater of all time in 2011. Tremaine and Jonze smartly found a group of guys (recruited from Big Brother as well as from the Camp Kill Yourself crew back east) who audiences wanted to hang out with.
Almost all of the Jackass guys came from the world of skating, and they brought with them the outsider sensibilities of that culture. They’re not jocks, and they’re not hateful. They’re party guys with way too much energy and low impulse control. Skating culture is a creative one, with a huge openness to art and offbeat music. They’re knuckleheads, not meatheads, and there’s a world of difference between the two.
There’s a weird sweetness to a lot of the Jackass stuff. The sketches are never about hurting or humiliating innocents - the jokes are always on the guys in the crew. The hidden camera stuff is always about capturing reactions to Knoxville and friends doing something stupid or embarrassing, not trying to make innocent bystanders look bad. That feels like a Spike Jonze influence to me.
If you want to understand how the guy who directed something as delicately wonderful as Her could also be involved in a TV show and film series where a man snorts wasabi until he pukes, just look at the opening of Where The Wild Things Are. Max, full of energy and mischief, chases the cat down the stairs, growling. In his room he has created an elaborate and gorgeous model world - a true work of art - but outside of that room he has unfocused energy that gets him into trouble. Max might grow up to one day hurl himself out of a moving taxi, and to find new Wild Things to surround him. He might even help get them a TV show.
This article will be published in the January issue of Birth. Movies. Death., which will celebrate Her. Look for it at your local Alamo Drafthouse soon!