Interview: VICE’s Jesse Pearson on Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze, and the Future of VICE Films & VBS.TV
Posted on Friday, October 16th, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
Obviously, the staff at /Film collectively views Spike Jonze‘s Where the Wild Things Are with a certain reverence. The film is simply a win all around, tastefully exploring and modernizing the notions of imaginative nostalgia and vice versa that are so often exploited these days in the name of “geekdom” and “hipsterdom.” On a related note, I’ve always found it a bit profound that Ain’t It Cool and Vice magazine were started within two years of one another (’96 and ’94, respectively); both went on to make a positive, DIY impact on culture in the aughts unlike anything in new media this side of negative influencers like Matt Drudge and Rupert Murdoch. Back then, I remember thinking that Austin’s Harry Knowles was fat off movies (and ‘shrooms?) and the Brooklyn staff at Vice was lithe off drugs and deadlines, but there was something in common: they both ignored Old Media (now dying), didn’t give a damn about design trends, and did things the way they should be done, with knowledge, a cultivated attitude, and enthusiasm.
One the main and most important guys who has helped Vice see its way to 23 offices around the globe, millions of readers, and untold cultural influence is the mag’s long-term Editor-in-Chief Jesse Pearson. He also plays a role in the company’s video website, VBS.tv, where WTWTA director, Spike Jonze, serves as the creator director. On the eve of Vice‘s 15th anniversary and a coinciding $250K Halloween party in Brooklyn, we spoke with Pearson about the future of the company’s Vice Films (where Jonze is also involved) and regarding the mag’s recent, highly recommended Film Issue. He also shared a few of his favorite films and welcome ideas about the state of cinema, the ever-controversial fast-moving zombie, and the “Chaos Reigns” fox in Antichrist (not to mention the fetching photo shown above.)
Hunter Stephenson: Hi Jesse. Vice has released a film issue that arrives during a very interesting, chaotic time for cinema, especially in the States. And Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is an important film that I think signifies a steamy unification between two of the aughts’ biggest influential youth movements; to the eye rolls of many on both sides: the geeks and the hipsters. And as such, it seems a great time for /Film and Vice to have a chat. Since Spike is the creative director at Vice‘s VBS.tv, what are your thoughts on his latest film in terms of its cultural relevance and do you agree with these notions?
Jesse Pearson: Right now, all I really feel qualified to gauge in terms of cultural relevance is the film’s trailer and all of the general advance expectations surrounding the movie. I know that I have rarely, maybe never, seen a trailer create so much visceral excitement in so many people. Friends have told me that they cried watching it. That seems a wee bit over the top to me. But, to partially answer your question, I think that the amount of drooling going on in advance of Where the Wild Things Are is very interesting and very telling. What it means to me is that people, lots of people, maybe people in the two much-maligned, very amorphous and perhaps not-really-existing-in-the-way-that-most-people-mean-it-when-they-say-it groups that you mentioned, geeks and hipsters… Wait, where was I going with this?
OK, I think that there is a lot of crossover between the people that some might call geeks and the people that some might call hipsters, and I think that at their best they share a certain discerning intelligence; and I think WTWTA has the promise of being a film that can satisfy both of their specific group desires at the same time. Now, speaking as someone who has seen the movie, I am really, really curious about how it will be received. I know this has been said before by other people, but this is not a children’s movie. That’s not to say that children shouldn’t see it. They should. I mean it’s not a children’s movie in that it’s not a simple movie. In fact, I think it’s pretty challenging. I guess this isn’t surprising, but it reminds me of Synecdoche, New York. WTWTA is nowhere near as difficult as Synecdoche, but it does do similar things in creating a totally alternate universe in which our rules don’t apply and our general perceptions are sometimes useless. Also, it ignores some conventions of narrative filmmaking in really interesting ways. Also, it looks really, really cool.
I look at WTWTA as a possible gateway film—this weekend’s box office, willing—in that it looks to kick start a time when original, mainstream films from visionary artists are more acceptable and accepted by studios. Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and David Gordon Green’s Your Highness are further examples. Such cultural movements in cinema are said to be cyclic, the ’70s being a primary example. What do you think?
Jesse Pearson: I’m looking forward to hearing more about Your Highness, and it’s interesting that Gondry is doing Hornet. But to my thinking, the closest recent parallel to that ’70s era you’re talking about would be There Will Be Blood. I read your review of it, so I am assuming that you agree. [Me: Definitely.] That film, to me, is on the same scale as some of those big, heavy ’70s motherfuckers like The Deerhunter.
What I really like about Vice‘s film issue, and Vice in general, is that you guys don’t apologize or offer elitist standpoints for featuring directors therein like Werner Herzog, Gaspar Noé, Jonze, and David Lynch. They aren’t presented as under-appreciated per usual or working beneath an “indie shield.” These are simply smart guys who represent the best today’s cinema has to offer, and they are filmmakers everyone should know about. As an editor who works in culture, is this something you gave thought to or have started to? And do you feel a responsibility, because I definitely do, to tip the spotlight away from the hacks and on to guys (and women) who make cool fucking movies—not just for art and film school kids but essentially for everyone?
Jesse Pearson: I’m glad you like the Film Issue. Thanks. I didn’t really feel the need to preface those interviews in any way other than very factually and anecdotally, but that’s the way I like to do all of our texts. We’re lucky in that it’s often safe to assume that if someone has picked up Vice in the first place, they probably don’t need to read a longwinded explanation as to why we respect an artist enough to feature them. And yes, I do feel like it’s important to offer directors like these guys the chance to talk at length, which is something that the mainstream press doesn’t always do. Other outlets spend a few seconds telling you about how David Lynch, for example, is “weird,” then follow that up with a brief synopsis of whatever his latest work is. The opposite of that is the academic stuff, which would take up 20 pages to dissect a tiny little portion of Lynch and which is totally alienating to anybody who didn’t read lots of Zizek in college. That whole world is a circle jerk.
I just like to hear a person talk about their life, their work and their ideas. We try to do that in a natural and a direct way in the magazine. Am I answering the question?
Sure. With WTWTA, I don’t recall another film that Vice has supported this much. However, last year Vice Films released Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which saw one of the company’s co-founders, Suroosh Alvi, interviewing a civilian rock band over there for several years and encountering numerous realizations along the way. That film is my fave about the U.S. occupation of Iraq thus far—it’s an incredibly intimate look at life outside the Green Zone. It was also one of my top 10 films of 2008. As one of the senior dudes at Vice, what is the future of Vice Films? I know that you’re releasing White Lightnin’ next…
Jesse Pearson: Yes, and we are looking forward to covering film more frequently on VBS in various ways, maybe by profiling directors for our series Art Talk! As for Vice Films, we are going to be developing, producing and distributing documentaries and narrative features. A couple of our upcoming projects are musician Cass McCombs—he’s one of my favorites, please tell your readers to check him out—and filmmaker Aaron Brown‘s The Pretender, which is basically a mythological musical, like a really trippy rock opera; and The Ride, a feature-length documentary that uses the professional bull riders’ circuit as an entry point into the life of the modern day cowboy. Good shit. Vice Films is run by Monica Hampton, who was the producer of Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Fahrenheit 9/11. There are six other films being developed right now but I’m not allowed to talk about them yet. …Sorry if that’s weird.
Let’s switch it up. I’m curious to know what you consider your top three favorite films. Can you tell me a little about why you consider each film to be superlative and the personal appeal they have for you?
Jesse Pearson: It might be easier to do favorite directors…or things that I return to a lot. But it feels strange to commit to stuff. Off the top of my head, I would think immediately of Mike Leigh, with Naked and Career Girls being favorites. Then I really like a certain era of Woody Allen that to my mind starts with Hannah and Her Sisters…but I think my favorite of his is Husbands and Wives. To get a little variety in there, I guess one of the movies I’ve watched most often and still can throw on any time and be totally immersed in five seconds would be George Romero‘s original Dawn of the Dead. That never, never, never gets old. But I don’t really do favorite films lists. Like you, I’m sure, I love so many movies from every single genre large and small.
I hate lists. That question was a trick. In the film issue, you once again interview David Lynch, who, it must be said is a fellow practioner of transcendental meditation. You’re obviously a fan of his work. Here’s a hypothetical for fun: What does a Where the Wild Things Are directed by Lynch look and play like in your head? How would it compare to Jonze’s?
Jesse Pearson: There would be a lot more garmonbozia in it, to start. But yeah, maybe there are some parallels, sort of. Spike has said a lot that the Wild Things in his film represent wild, uncontrollable emotion. That sort of sounds like BOB from Twin Peaks and the way he functions inside his hosts. I don’t know. That’s a stretch I guess, but still kind of funny. I think that if Lynch did a Wild Things movie now, it would be shot on consumer-grade video and it would focus a lot more on the deep, dark id nature of the Wild Things—maybe by having them be less verbal. It would likely end with Max being either possessed or eviscerated, and there would be a lot more —in this case actually valid—debate about whether people should take their kids to see it. For the record, any kid who can’t take, and in fact enjoy, Jonze’s Wild Things is a big wussy.
I just want to say that what I love most about Lynch is his relationship to creativity. He’s brave enough to let what he calls the unified field dictate to him. He is but a vessel, in some ways. I think a lot of directors could stand to calm down, loosen up, and just let their brains talk to them a little more.
What film or films do you consider to best represent the last decade in terms of aesthetic, message, and the general nuttiness that has ensued?
Jesse Pearson: I’m trying to decide whether to be positive or negative here. [Me: laughs] The most controversial development of the last decade for me was probably running zombies. I did like the remade Dawn of the Dead, and I do like the 28… Later movies, but running zombies still rub me the wrong way. Also in terms of horror, the whole torture porn thing, specifically the Saw films, is kind of ridiculous to me. It’s too elaborate, it’s corny, it’s too technical… it isn’t scary.
Thinking of the 28 movies reminds me of the handheld video thing which, when done well, I find very appealing. I love the camera work in the first one. I love the camera work in [David Lynch's] INLAND EMPIRE. I also love the camera work in Michael Mann‘s Miami Vice and Public Enemies. [Me: ...] On the opposite end of that sort of work, another thing that bugs me about the last decade is all of this overly baroque, insanely intricate stuff that was spawned by The Matrix films. I don’t need every single bullet to be slowed down and panned around. I didn’t see that garbage Wanted, but the preview alone was enough for me to know that it was the pinnacle or maybe the nadir of that whole school of shooting. Hopefully it will stop now.
I am thinking about what movies may have resonated most with me recently in terms of current events, and The Hurt Locker comes to mind. But what I’d really like to say is that the greatest single moving image achievement of the last decade, to me at least, was the entire run of The Wire on HBO. I don’t really think I need to elaborate on that.
Jesse Pearson: I do agree. And I would also add [Werner Herzog's monologue from Burden of Dreams].
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila/gmail and on twitter.