Spike Jonze’s road to success is a fairly unique one. He began his filmmaking career as a teenage photographer, capturing the stunts of BMX riders and skateboarders for Freestylin’ Magazine and Transworld Skateboarding. He used these early experiences as a springboard to move into the world of cinema, shooting low-budget skateboarding films that include his hugely influential 1991 short, Video Days, the success of which made him one of the most in-demand music video directors of the 1990s, birthing collaboration with the likes of Sonic Youth, R.E.M, Beastie Boys, Kanye West, Fatboy Slim, Weezer, Björk, and Arcade Fire.
The heightened style and fast-paced energy of his music videos morphed into something far more cerebral when he began directing films like Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), both films that blend genres in the most mind-melting and intoxicating way. So where did he learn his craft? Well, the skate scene seems to have had a big impact. As well as giving him the opportunity to get to grips with camera equipment, some of the characters he met during his early career went on to influence the artistic outlook that would come to define such films as Her and Where The Wild Things Are.
There was perhaps nobody more influential n this regard than the skateboarder Mark Gonzales. In a recent interview, Jonze explained the impact of ‘Gonz’: “I think he’s up there with the people that have influenced me the most, in terms of the way he thinks and the way he lives his life. He thinks really abstractly.” As an example, Jonze used the occasion Gonzales suggested to use a John Coltrane tune for Video Days. “That’s the way Mark skates, he skates like jazz, improvisational but masterful,” the director said, before adding: “With [that video] I was trying to capture what it felt like to be around Mark.”
It was also Mark Gonzales who introduced Jonze to one of his favourite films of all time: “One of the movies [Mark] showed us was Harold and Maude,” Jonze began. “It’s funny because it’s one of my favourite movies now but Mark showed it to us when we were around 19, 20, at his house one night, and at the end the character drives a car off the cliff.” According to the director, that famous ending went on to inspire the crash at the end of Video Days, in which Jonze attempted to recreate the shot almost shot for shot, cutting the sound until the very last moment.
Harold and Maude follows the story of a morbid young man in his early 20s named Harold Chasen, who is obsessed with death. At a funeral, he meets the 79-year old holocaust survivor, Maude, with whom he forms a friendship that gradually transforms into a taboo romantic relationship. At once heartwarming and deeply dark, Hal Ashby’s cult black-comedy is, to this day, an unsettling, weird, and yet frequently funny film that has inspired many more aside from Jonze, including Wes Anderson.
On reflection, it’s easy to see why Jonze was drawn to Harold and Maude. It seems to operate within its own universe, following none of the rules that many of Ashby’s contemporaries operated by. Like Gonzales, Asby’s characters are outsiders looking at the world around them in a uniquely abstract way.