Spike Jonze Can’t Stop Dancing

When director Spike Jonze was preparing his first movie, “Being John Malkovich,” 20 years ago, he couldn’t stop listening to “The Rockafeller Skank,” otherwise known as “The Funk Soul Brother,” a hit song by Fatboy Slim. He had a vision of filming someone, maybe himself, dancing to it on a crowded sidewalk.

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When director Spike Jonze was preparing his first movie, “Being John Malkovich,” 20 years ago, he couldn’t stop listening to “The Rockafeller Skank,” otherwise known as “The Funk Soul Brother,” a hit song by Fatboy Slim. He had a vision of filming someone, maybe himself, dancing to it on a crowded sidewalk.

As Jonze, 48, recounted it in a phone interview from Los Angeles, one night after work he gathered a boombox, some dorky clothes and hair gel, and drove with a cinematographer to Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. There, in front of a crowd of cinephiles waiting to watch a Stanley Kubrick retrospective, he showed off his moves on the Walk of Fame and spontaneously created a character.

In the footage shot that night, the character — more of a nebbish than a funk soul brother — cites his professional dance credentials. But as the puzzled reactions and smiles of onlookers show, his were not the moves of a trained dancer. They were the moves of a goofball having a great time.

The fun might have ended there, but Jonze sent the footage to Fatboy Slim, who figured out that this goofball was the director whose credentials included standout music videos that are at once silly, clever and hip: Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Would Jonze repeat the sidewalk stunt in a video for Slim’s next song, “Praise You”?

Jonze pushed the idea further, giving his alter ego a name, Richard Koufey, and a fictional crew, the Torrance Community Dance Group. In the faux-amateur video, they execute their awkward routines outside a movie theater, earning the disapproval of the management and the love of the crowd. At the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, the video won in three categories, including best choreography. Jonze accepted as Richard Koufey.

“Being John Malkovich” was also a success, and soon Jonze would be accepting awards for it, on his way to becoming famous as a director of imaginative, oddball feature films like “Adaptation” (2002) and “Her” (2013). He might have left dance behind. But he keeps returning to it — see this year’s Apple HomePod ad, displaying the charming moves of FKA twigs — not as a stunt but as serious play. It’s no exaggeration to call his music videos and commercials some of the best dance films of recent decades.

Which is why this year’s Dance on Camera Festival (July 20-24, presented by the Dance Films Association and the Film Society of Lincoln Center) includes a 47-minute compilation of Jonze’s work in dance, which he selected himself. Liz Wolff, a curator of the festival, said: “We like to celebrate an artist working in the genre in a different way. Spike is the perfect candidate because of the brilliant choreography he creates for the camera.”

The program, scheduled for Saturday evening, is called “Spike Jonze Is a Dancer.” But aside from “Praise You,” Jonze does most of his dancing behind the lens.

When he was a teenager, he said, he was more inspired by music than by film. For him, the dance that mattered — this was the 1980s — was “obviously” in Michael Jackson videos. Also formative was the Talking Heads video for “Once in a Lifetime,” the one where David Byrne works up a sweat doing kooky convulsions in a bow tie. “Wait, you can dance like that?” Jonze remembers thinking.

As a filmmaker, he got his start making whimsical street skateboarding videos like “Video Days” (1991). That led to music videos for bands he loved, like Sonic Youth and the Breeders. But he didn’t think about filming dance until he directed a video for Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” (1995). It’s set in an auto-body shop, and every time the music explodes with emotion, the people around Björk start sliding and spinning as if they were in an old Hollywood musical.

“It felt so natural,” Jonze recalled. “Filming dance was like filming skateboarding. There’s one place to put the camera to make a trick work. The camera and the skater or the dancer are collaborating and when you lock together, it’s so emotionally satisfying. I got hooked.”

“It’s Oh So Quiet” would prove characteristic of Jonze’s work with dance. Although “Being John Malkovich” has a moody sequence called “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment,” dance in the videos is usually an escape into liberating fantasy.

In Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” (1998), Christopher Walken is a tired businessman in a hotel lobby. Music makes him dance and eventually take flight. In the 2016 ad that Jonze directed for Kenzo World perfume, Margaret Qualley is a young woman bored at formal function. When she goes wild in dance, the camera follows her rampage adoringly. These videos have an element of prankishness. Jonze is also a creator of the “Jackass” franchise. But not even “Praise You” qualifies as satire. “I never feel like I’m making fun of any character,” Jonze said. Character is what moves him: “The character comes first and the choreography comes out of it.”

Much of the Kenzo ad grew out of Qualley’s response to ideas that Jonze threw at her: Argue with your hand, skulk around and shoot people. But Jonze also brought in the choreographer Ryan Heffington, as in the earlier videos he had used the assistance of Michael Rooney.

“I’m some kind of choreographer, but not quite an actual one,” Jonze said. “I can come up with moves, but I can’t really repeat them. I love having a real choreographer shape it with me.”

Why does he use dance in some projects but not others? “I’m always chasing after something that excites me,” he said. “Sometimes dance seems appropriate, sometimes it’s bad mustaches and wigs.” And might he ever do a feature-length dance film, like a musical? “When I have a story I love that needs to be told that way,” he said.

When making features, he noted, he seldom ever operates the camera. “But with dance,” he said, “so much of what makes it correct is the camera moving when it’s supposed to move, and by the time we film, I’ve been rehearsing that for weeks. Also, it’s so fun, like doing a duet with the dancer.”

While selecting clips for the retrospective, Jonze said he was surprised to remember all the names of the dance moves invented for “Praise You.”

“That was me dancing as good as I can,” he recalled, adding that he had to work really hard to get the other dancers down to his level.

But as his work behind the camera shows, there are other ways to be a great dancer.

“Spike Jonze Is a Dancer”

Saturday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Manhattan; filmlinc.org.