08 November 1999

Being Michael Stipe

WHILE HE’S PUBLISHED BOOKS OF HIS PHOTOGRAPHY, MICHAEL STIPE IS BEST KNOWN as the frontman for supergroup R.E.M. For most of the past decade, he’s also quietly gone about a mission of changing the face of American movies. As a producer, he’s put his interests and time behind projects both large and small, such as the remarkably funny documentary on no-budget filmmaking, American Movie. But his biggest splash to date is Being John Malkovich, the surreal, subversive comedy of what goes on in the minds of those who wonder what goes on in the minds of celebrities, written by first-timer Charlie Kaufman and directed by video wonder Spike Jonze.

Being John Malkovich takes big chances, starting with its nutty concept, its casting-against-type (John Cusack as a sniveling puppeteer; Cameron Diaz made ordinary as his unloved wife) and working through to its weird and farcical conclusion. It’s filled with the kind of artistry that doesn’t come from formula. We talked on a recent Saturday morning in New York, Stipe walking into the room with a freshly made omelet and hash browns.

Playboy.com: So what prompted you to produce?

Michael Stipe: I’ve been working in film for 12 years, which most people don’t know. Probably the only thing that came out with something of a wide release was Velvet Goldmine, the Todd Haynes glam-rock film. But I’ve done six feature films. Most of the stuff I’ve done is really under the radar.

PB: What do you like about film?

MS: Like music, it’s a very powerful medium. I’m drawn to it. I’m a photographer myself, and I have a lot of friends who work in the film business. There was a point in the early Nineties where I’d been working on very, very guerrilla independent films for a couple of years. Then I wanted to go Hollywood! I knew a lot of people who were incredibly frustrated with the material that they were offered as actors or directors or editors or writers or lighting people or what have you. Naively, I thought, Well, I’ll just create another film company that will make movies that don’t suck. It’s just as easy as that.

PB: So, most movies suck?

MS: Yes. I was on vacation in Athens for a week, having just come off tour with my band before I had to come up for this thing, and I really just wanted to just relax and go see movies with my friends. With all the multiplexes in Clarke County, Georgia, out of 35-odd films playing, I couldn’t find one fucking thing worth seeing that I hadn’t already seen, which was about three of them. I thought The Sixth Sense was wonderful.

PB: American Beauty is what everybody’s talking about.

MS: That was my movie! Seriously, I wanted that script. I thought it was great. We wanted to make it, but we were outbid.

PB: So Being John Malkovich counts as going Hollywood?

MS: This is it. This is my Hollywood. How d’ya like it? This is it.

PB: Did you know Malkovich before?

MS: We met after this project. Actually, we spoke on the phone years ago. I walked into my house after a fact-finding mission to South America and the phone rang. I picked it up, it was John Malkovich. I was asking him to this charitable, human rights thing, which he declined. But we met through this project. I don’t call that a relationship — a refusing phone call! But it was my brush with the greatness that is Malkovich.

PB: Was it always John Malkovich?

MS: Yeah. The short list of alternatives was really dire. And [screenwriter] Charlie [Kaufman] can’t answer, “Why John Malkovich?” For whatever reason, he always just shrugs his shoulders. There is really no one else who could have pulled it off.

PB: Did you ever consider a backup celebrity if Malkovich wouldn’t do it?

MS: No. There’s nobody else who really could have filled that. It was original enough of an idea that we could have tried to insert someone else, but I don’t think it would have worked.

PB: Why?

MS: Y’know, I can’t say. And honestly, believe me, we had a short list of “What if Malkovich is horribly offended and wants to sue us?” and “What if he says this is a crock of shit and I want nothing to do with it?” Who else could do it?

PB: There’s a rumor that Steve Buscemi’s name came up.

MS: Buscemi would be okaaaaay. But there’s something about Malkovich that’s more than his public persona. Which he so brilliantly sends up, and that takes, I’m sorry, that’s a lot of balls to really send yourself up like that.

PB: The obvious dumb question is, What would someone see with a portal into your brain?

MS: [Laughs] The scene where Lotte and Maxine are being chased through his subconscious [witnessing a dozen childhood humiliations]. It’d probably be not dissimilar to that.

PB: Anyone whose eyes you’d like to see through for 15 minutes?

MS: I don’t feel like I need a portal to see into people’s heads. It’s not that hard.

PB: If you sent yourself up musically, what would it be like?

MS: It would be not unlike some version of this film with the Spice Girls. I would go for the biggest buck. I would probably hire teenagers to lip-synch along and disguise my voice so it’s not Michael Stipe. I would hire beautiful young teenagers and strap them into latex and put them on stage.

PB: The Spice Girls?

MS: [Smiles] I wouldn’t do it. I would key into whatever was the next coming musical thing and do that.

PB: Do you find the movie business or the music business more treacherous?

MS: That’s such an easy answer. Film. Hands down. The music business is a walk in the park, because with MP3 all you need is a tape recorder and a guitar.

PB: Any interest in directing?

MS: No desire at all. I know directors who wake up in the morning and they see movies in their head and it’s their place in life. I’m 39 and pretty much I’ve made my mark in music and I’ve had an interest in film since I was 22 and I’ve been a photographer since I was 15. Those are my three creative outlets.

PB: The scenes when Malkovich goes into his own mind is deeply troubling, and so is the end where Malkovich becomes a conduit for dozens of souls.

MS: Yes, the woman on the piano is terrifying. I thought both scenes were brilliant plot twists and a fine ending for a film. It begs the questions, What are we? Who are we? How separate are we, one from the next? It asks all these questions of gender, questions of identity. I’m just hoping this film puts a few more chinks in the armor that is the studio system. [Originally published at playboy.com.]

01 November 1999

Being Spike Jonze

FAME IS PAIN AND FAME IS CONFUSION.

That's one of the underlying messages of Being John Malkovich, an insane premise for a movie developed with its own dear, cracked illogic. It might be brilliant or a masterpiece; the likes of Esquire magazine have already anointed Spike Jonze's masterful direction of Charlie Kaufman's inspired screenplay with those dangerous encomiums.

Being John Malkovich is a terrific shaggy-celeb fable, developing and elaborating on the rules of its world with uncommon diligence. In contemporary Manhattan, Malkovich plays "himself," a deracinated version of a celebrity of whom everyone on the street can (and will) recite the same handful of sloppy factoids. John Cusack is Craig, a greasy-haired, rotten-hearted puppeteer who wants to crush a world that doesn't appreciate his genius. Cameron Diaz, under a mud-and-stick colored wig, plays Lottie, Craig's animal-clutching, love-starved wife. And, as the lust object of most of the movie's men, the always wonderful Catherine Keener makes hay with her particular beauty (and just a dollop of extra cerise lipstick). One day, Craig makes a discovery behind the filing cabinets of the odd office where he works -- a portal that allows entry into the mind of John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes, you're ejected into a muddy ditch alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. An entrepreneur is born. Who wouldn't want to be someone else for fifteen minutes?

Jonze restrains his rambunctious rock video-trained eye and conceptual swagger to serve Kaufman's script. Rules are established, genders are bent, the idea of becoming "someone else" is more frightening by the moment. It's a different can of existential worms than, say, King of Comedy, wherein Jerry Lewis' talk show host reflected his own notorious prickliness as well as Johnny Carson's cool reserve. Malkovich is playing an idea more of celebrity, of elevated existence, than any reflection of whatever may go on in his head. Try not to hear too much before seeing the movie: I'll just mention that when Malkovich attempts to take the trip into his own head, he disguises himself as a tourist, with an I Love N.Y. cap pulled down over his expansive brow.

Jonze, 30—born Adam Singer—is widely admired for his video and commercials work, but he's not known for long moments of introspection. (He make his big-screen acting debut this fall as well, in David O. Russell's Three Kings.) While Kaufman's script had made the rounds for almost five years, Malkovich committed to the film after Jonze visited him at his home in France. "We didn't have to pitch it or anything. He read the script and he liked it for the same reasons we all liked it. It's funny, it's original. Y'know, complex character and relationships. He just had to figure out if it was something he really wanted to do or not. There wasn't anything we could say or do, he just had to say yes or no."

The film is as twisty as anything out there, and it's not a one-joke twist, like certain surprise endings that have made a mint this year, or the "discovery" in The Truman Show. Jonze hopes there are a few surprises for audiences after the first weekend. "I love watching movies where you don't know too much about it."

For someone whose work hadn't demonstrated knowing too much about directing actors, there's a consistency of tone that impresses. Probably the greatest challenge was how to direct someone playing a version of themselves. "Yeah, yeah," Jonze agrees. "It's like, 'John, you're not getting the character right. Malkovich would do this.' All the scenes with Malk where he was playing Malkovich, we talked about him as a character. So, John, this Malkovich thinks of himself as a lover and a ladies' man.' He'd just laugh and say, 'Okay.' He read the script so he knew what was up."

So the movie went according to plan? "I dunno," he says, pausing again. "Overall I wanted things to be played like Charlie's writing, you can enjoy on a lot of different levels, the comedy, these really interesting ideas, these characters and these relationships. Playing those as our priority in terms of the acting, the art direction, the music, the wardrobe, and just play these characters, these people. All the other things, the ideas would be that much more interesting and the humor would be that much more fun."

Did he miss all the toys from his other work? "Um. No. I think there are certain scenes that required more complicated camera stuff. For the most part, we only had a certain amount of time to shoot the movie, and we had to make sure everything you were going to spend your time and money you really wanted and needed."

Jonze thinks for a long time when he's asked if his first feature held any surprises. "I dunno. It turned out basically... um. Everything changes in preproduction, casting, the script, all these little things keep developing, yet it turned out overall the way I wanted. It's the small stuff that changes."

[Newcity, Chicago, 1 November 1999]