“WE’RE THE SAME AS TIME WARNER. WE’RE THE SAME AS BERTELSMANN OR VIACOM. WE’RE JUST YOUNGER AND WEIRDER.Shane SmitH
If, in the mid-’90s, you’d asked Shane Smith, punk-rock enthusiast and always-affable party guest, what his plans were for Vice—the free, monthly, gleefully impudent, mercilessly irreverent, and occasionally offensive youth-culture magazine that he’d founded with two friends in Montreal as a carnival of obscure bands, druggy tales, naked girls, and skater irony—there is a good chance that he would have, without hesitation, offered some approximation of “world domination.” So it’s heartening that nearly two decades later, Vice Media—the mini-conglomerate of which Smith serves as CEO, and which has come to consist of not just the magazine (now published in over 30 countries), but a book imprint, a record label, an ad agency, and a film and television production arm—appears to be on the cusp of a kind of global conquest, although one quite different from what Smith was likely envisioning.
Vice magazine began in 1994 when Smith and two friends, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes, effectively co-opted a government-funded paper for Haitian immigrants called Voice of Montreal, which the trio infused with more music and street-culture coverage, and injected with an abundance of attitude, shortening its name to Voice, and later, Vice. In 1998, they relocated to New York, where the magazine gained further traction, remade as a fly-weight glossy with photography by the likes of Terry Richardson and a young Ryan McGinley. They soon began to expand internationally and helped usher in the Great Trucker-Capped Millennial Hipster Bloat, commanding a certain constituency of young cultural consumers that existed not just in Williamsburg, where the company had conveniently set up shop, but in the more figurative Williamsburgs that were emerging around the world. But while most of mainstream media has struggled with shifting platforms and declining ad dollars over the last decade, Vice Media has flourished, redefining their business around online content, betting big on video, forging partnerships with MTV and CNN, and launching large-scale verticals and events underwritten by big brands—among them, the Creators Project, which Vice produces with one of its biggest agency clients, Intel.
It’s Vice’s foray into doing news and documentary work, though, that remains the most intriguing aspect of its evolution. The launch of VBS.tv in 2007 proved a turning point. The site, initially created as part of a joint venture with MTV, was conceived as an online video hub that attempted to apply the magazine’s sense and sensibility to short- and long-form documentary programming (and provide the network with content to repurpose on the channel). Spike Jonze was brought in to serve as creative director. Though a lot of what VBS produced in its earliest days was more predictable fare (e.g., interviews with models, profiles of extreme sports people, videos of rock bands), it also yielded heavy Metal in Baghdad (2007), a feature-length documentary directed by Alvi and fellow Vice-man Eddy Moretti, which began as a story in the magazine about the members of an Iraqi heavy-metal outfit called Acrassicauda, who lost its practice space after it was bombed during the Iraq war. Heavy Metal in Baghdad went on to screen at numerous festivals to enthusiastic response. But the film’s success—and how it came about—got Smith and Alvi thinking that the pathways that they’d created through Vice’s expansion could be used as something other than a delivery system for advertisers. (McInnes parted ways with the company in 2008.) They began to canvas their offices for ideas, pulling together rag-tag film crews—frequently headed by Smith and Alvi—to parachute into the dark (and often dirty) corners of places like Congo, North Korea, Bulgaria, and Pakistan. But unlike most conventional news operations, the pieces that Vice produced were not designed to be exhaustive or even authoritative; in fact, they were more often narrow and haphazard. But in applying Vice’s dueling obsessions with the substantive and the sensational to international reporting, they offered a perspective on issues of war, political upheaval, human-rights abuse, and civil discontent that was—and continues to be—different from anything on traditional television. One prime example: The Vice Guide to Liberia, in which Smith travels to the West African republic, which was settled by freed American slaves and is now among the most impoverished nations on the continent. There, he meets a former warlord named Joshua Blahyi, who had led a guerilla army of child soldiers during the country’s brutal civil war. Blahyi, who had since renounced his past and reinvented himself as a minister, was known in his warring days as “General Butt Naked” because he fought without clothes. He was also known to have routinely committed human sacrifices and practiced cannibalism. The piece follows Smith and company as they dip into some of the more desperate realities of Liberian life, touring brothels and beaches strewn with human feces, and exploring Blahyi’s apparent search for redemption—which, at various moments, appears both earnest and dubious—against the backdrop of the very palpable threat of renewed strife that seems to constantly bubble beneath the surface.
Vice’s growing library of dispatches runs the gamut, from more discrete ones on surviving alone in Alaska and “the Jersey Shore of England,” to others that rub up against harder news subjects like illegal border crossings from Mexico and slave labor in the Middle East. Recently, though, the Vice newsmakers seem to have hit their stride. The crew on the run with fugitive antivirus software magnate John McAfee? They were from Vice. Dennis Rodman sitting front row at a basketball game in North Korea with Kim Jong-un? That was Vice’s work, too. This month, HBO will begin airing a new series entitled simply Vice, which Smith has described as “6o Minutes for young people,” and features newsmagazine-style reports from all over the planet. The show, which is hosted by Smith, is executive-produced by Bill Maher, and counts CNN’s Fareed Zakaria among its consiglieri. A separate 24-hour online news network is also planned.
At 43, Smith, like Vice, is no longer a brash young upstart. He is now married, a father, and the CEO of a media company that has developed a cultural currency that a lot of other media companies envy—albeit the kind who still listens to Bad Brains and drinks cheap beer. Jonze, who continues to work with Vice, recently spoke with Smith in Los Angeles, where they discussed Vice’s unlikely ventures into both newsgathering, higher consciousness, and, for lack of a better term, adulthood—as well as his own.
SPIKE JONZE: Mr. Shane Smith?
SHANE SMITH: Yes?
JONZE: You sound battered and beaten and worn and tired right now, so I might get the best interview ever because you might say some things that you don’t mean to say. You might reveal something that you wish you hadn’t. Why are you so tired right now?
SMITH: You know, I’ve been traveling a lot to a lot of bad places‚ and apparently, along the way, I picked up some hitchhikers . . .
JONZE: Yeah, tell us about that. What’s in your belly right now?
SMITH: I don’t know. It’s not good. I have a helmet-headed, flesh-eating parasite in my bowels.
JONZE: How big is it?
SMITH: I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
JONZE: What are they doing to get rid of it?
SMITH: I have to take very strong antibiotics. I also have a hernia that I got while shooting, and I can’t get the hernia fixed until I get the parasite out of my gut. And then I also have some sort of amoebic parasite from West Africa.
JONZE: Holy shit.
SMITH: Shit is right, my friend.
JONZE: Does it affect your shit?
SMITH: Oh, yeah. I don’t look at them anymore because I’m afraid I’ll see something with an eye and teeth.
JONZE: Are they solid?
SMITH: My shits?
JONZE: For the Interview readers who don’t know, tell us why you’re traveling around the world right now.
SMITH: Well, we have over 34 offices around the world now, so we inherently need to travel. But we’ve also been shooting this show for HBO, which involves taking the best stories from all of our offices around the world and putting them into a sort of documentary-news format. So it’s the best stuff we’ve ever done.
JONZE: I’ve seen the first two episodes and they’re really good. I’m proud of you, Shane.
SMITH: Thank you.
JONZE: Not that I had anything to do with these, so in my unbiased opinion . . . I’m also part of the company, so I’ll just acknowledge that right now.
SMITH: That means that you’re biased.
JONZE: Oh, yeah—biased! Exactly. So I have a biased opinion—and I don’t know vocabulary that well. But I guess it’s been almost seven years now since you first started doing video content, and I feel like you’ve gotten so much better at it. I mean, right off the bat you were doing good stuff, like heavy Metal in Baghdad . But how do you think you’ve matured or grown as a news journalist?
SMITH: I think we started out doing more cultural pieces that were perceived as news. Heavy Metal in Baghdad was a movie about kids in Baghdad, but because mainstream media was so sort of propagandist, people would see that piece and say, “Oh, I learned so much more about the war in Iraq by watching that movie than watching the news.” And then things like the North Korea piece that we did—it wasn’t really news, but because we got a different side of North Korea, it really resonated with people. We also went to Liberia and showed a different side of Liberia, and that resonated with people. So I think what we do has changed in the sense that we’re doing more stories that are more quote-unquote “traditionally news” now—you know, stories about suicide bombers in Afghanistan or refugees from North Korea or assassinations in the Philippines. We’re not necessarily in the news cycle, but we go to the places that have been in the news cycle. For example, I just got back from Iraq, where we’re shooting this story on the toxic after-effects of war that no one really talks about, because once the war is done, everyone leaves. But then, actually, if you look at Vietnam, there was a whole generation of kids that were destroyed with birth defects caused by Agent Orange. The same thing is happening in Iraq now.
JONZE: From what? Toxins?
SMITH: In Fallujah they actually have more cancers and birth defects than there were after the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
JONZE: What are the weapons being used in Iraq that are causing that?
SMITH: The thermobaric weapons that were used in house-to-house fighting, among other things.
JONZE: What is a thermobaric weapon?
SMITH: It’s like a bazooka and it delivers a missile that sends out a huge heat blast and shock wave, which fries everything in the house; it knocks down the house and then it sucks all the oxygen out of the thing so that your lungs explode. All of the dust and the particles become toxic, and that toxic waste gets into the water and the air and the soil, and so they have birth defects and rare cancers there now that are off the charts in the areas where there’s been the most urban fighting—with Fallujah being the worst.
JONZE: Wow. Let’s talk about the Liberia piece. It’s one of my favorite ones that we’ve done—you know, when you went to Liberia back in the day and hung out with ex-General Butt Naked, who was one of the leaders of the revolution. That piece was basically a character piece. It told the story of the civil war through this one—
SMITH: Crazy general.
JONZE: A crazy general who seems to have redeemed himself by becoming a pastor, but you’re trying to figure out how sociopathic he is. Do pieces like that still fit into the HBO show?
SMITH: Yeah, we definitely are still doing the pieces we love doing that are character pieces, that are cultural pieces, that are immersionist pieces.
JONZE: So Vice, now, is a lot of things.
SMITH: You’re a lot of things.
JONZE: Yeah, I know I am. But when you sit next to my mom at dinner and she says, “What is Vice?” how do you describe it to my mom?
SMITH: I mean, it’s a pretty normal company. It’s a media company, and like most media companies, we do magazines, TV, online, mobile, movies, music, and books. We’re a media company.
JONZE: Are you the same as Time Warner?
SMITH: We’re the same as Time Warner. We’re the same as Bertelsmann or Viacom. We’re just younger and weirder. Look, every generation has a changing of the guard in media. We do the same stuff that everybody else does, but we just do it differently. We do our content online differently. We do our magazines differently. We do our TV differently. We never had anyone tell us how to do magazines, so we just developed it in a different way. We didn’t have anyone who knew about TV—except for you—so we just developed it in a different way. But if anyone asks me what we are, we’re a media company.
JONZE: So how would you describe your different way? How do you do things differently than Time Warner or Bertelsmann or Viacom?
SMITH: I would say that we do things differently in every way. One, our concentration now is online, and if we do TV or film, then great—it’s a bonus. But everyone else is really concentrated on TV and film. We get the best shooters and cutters right out of school so that they haven’t been tainted yet by working on TV or commercials or videos or anything—so they’re virgin—and guys like you and Bernardo [Loyola] and our people teach them how to be better storytellers. So we tell stories in a different way and we have a different language. We also put them up in a different way and we cut them in a different way. We don’t cut for 22 minutes or 44 minutes, like traditional TV. If it’s two hours, then we cut to two hours. If it’s two minutes, then we cut to two minutes. We don’t care. So I think that in what we do, there is a different voice and a different way of speaking to Gen Y. You can’t really try to do it—you can’t get a vernacular expert. I mean, we shoot differently, we cut differently, our stories are different . . . I’d say that every single thing is different except for the fact that you watch it on a TV or a computer or a phone, just like you do with everybody else’s content.
JONZE: How is the way that you tell stories different?
SMITH: I think we come at it from more of a documentary-filmmaking standpoint. What does that mean? It means, a lot of times in news, they say, “Here’s the story: China is hacking American companies. So go get that story. They’re called B3866 and here’s where they’re located. Go get that story.” Now, a lot of times you go, “That’s not the story. The story is that it’s these gamers who could be hackers, who the military then co-opted . . .” But you’ve gone there and you’ve been paid and you have three days and you have to get your copy back. So you just sort of go there and go, “Okay, here’s the place, here’s the thing, and they were hacking us.” Whereas we’ll go there many times. For example, we went to Liberia, but we didn’t go to meet General Butt Naked—he was one of five or six or eight generals we met, but he, for whatever reason, sort of took us along and showed us around and was very honest with us.
JONZE: He became the most compelling subject you met.
SMITH: And so you just go, “Okay, that’s the story now.” You have to be dynamic. You have to be able to change. So a lot of times we’ll go to a country or go meet people, and then while we’re there, the story changes and you have to be able to go with that. And then the story comes out in the editing room, which is a very documentary sort of process—not how news works. So that’s different. Also how we do it is different. We go, and very often we don’t stay in hotels—most of the time we stay with the people, we hang out with the people. We call it “immersionism,” believing that the whole idea of objective news is impossible because no one is really objective. If you’re coming from America to Iraq, then how are you supposed to be objective? I mean, you could pay lip service to being objective, but how are you going to objective when you’re embedded with the Marines? The Marines are saving your life every day and they’re protecting you. But when you’re sort of living with people who are there, we just press record and let them tell the story. What’s happening here? What did you see? What are you doing? It seems very simple, but most people don’t do that anymore. They don’t just sort of go live there and let people talk.
JONZE: Because . . .
SMITH: It’s a lot harder. It takes a lot more time. A lot of times, you won’t get a story. That’s why we do a lot of character pieces, because maybe it’s not news but it’s a compelling story. Butt Naked is a really compelling guy, but at the same time, so many people came up to me afterward and said, “I had no idea that America built Liberia. I had no idea they were freed slaves. I had no idea that was our sort of colonial thing. I had no idea that we were supporting Charles Taylor.” When that happened, we were like, “Oh, that story of Butt Naked got people into the fact that America was complicit in one of the worst civil wars in Africa’s history . . . ”
JONZE: What’s the biggest criticism that the Vice news stuff has gotten so far?
SMITH: It’s interesting because I was saying this to somebody else. When we first started, we were really known for “Dos & Don’ts,” so I’d say the comments we got initially were about 50 percent positive and 50 percent negative. What we did was sort of Gawker-esque and sort of bitchy. We were in that kind of media. But now, for example, if you look at Twitter or look at our news pieces or our documentary news pieces on YouTube, which are doing very well, the comments are incredibly positive. What’s happened now, though, is that because the comments and the metrics on the news stuff have been so positive, all of the other stuff that we’ve been doing—the fashion, the lifestyle stuff, the cultural stuff, the music stuff—gets sort of harshly criticized, because people are like, “Why do I give a shit about this band? I want to see gun markets in Pakistan,” or like, “Who cares about Fashion Week Internationale? I want to see North Korean slaves in Siberia.” So it’s actually changed our brand to the effect that we can’t do anything funny anymore or we get in trouble. [both laugh] We get in shit a lot now if we’re not serious—which is weird because we were never serious before. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.
“I HAD A DECADE WHERE I HAD VICE AS A CRUTCH. IT WAS DOING WELL, SO I COULD DO WHATEVER I WANTED. BUT AT THE END OF THAT DECADE, I HAD A HANGOVER.Shane Smith
JONZE: I’ve known you for 12 or 13 years now. You came from writing and creating and being an editor of your own magazine. You and I have talked about making movies and, obviously, at some point you’re going to write books. I don’t know when you’re going to do that—maybe once you’re not such a mogul. But right now you’re producing, you’re directing, and you’re on camera in a lot of the content that’s happening. But you’re also the CEO of the company. You’re out there selling. You’re out there making deals. You’re out there doing business stuff. How do you balance being the creative guy and being the business guy? Are you more of the business guy now than the creative guy? Or are you equally both?
SMITH: First of all, you’re a business guy and a creative guy, too. As you used to tell me, “I was shrewd even back then.” You run a big business—and a lot of different businesses. You’re also a partner in a lot of different businesses. When you come out with Being John Malkovich  or Adaptation  or Where the Wild Things Are , people don’t say, “So, Spike, how is it to run a skate company and do videos and do Jackass and make these movies?” They say, “Hey, did you like making the movie? How is making the movie?” I think that one of the unique things about Vice—and one of the reasons why we have the best people working for us—is because they can point to me and say, “Oh, he makes our most popular stuff,” or “He makes our best stuff.” It’s actually kind of a good kick in the ass for me because I have to continually challenge myself to do well, because I am sort of like the leader of a group of very creative and talented people who are much younger and smarter than me. So I have to keep going and keep trying to make the content better. You know, we were talking a little bit before about how in our twenties, you and I had a similar trajectory. Yours was much more rapid and blistering and successful than mine.
JONZE: I don’t know about that.
SMITH: I plateaued there for a decade.
JONZE: Why? What happened in your twenties?
SMITH: Well, I started building Vice, and then came to New York in my thirties and sort of plateaued for a decade when I was partying, and then started again. Your trajectory was more like a rocket ship to the moon.
JONZE: I don’t know about that.
SMITH: I forget the exact quote, but it’s like, “When I was a child, I acted like child, but when I became a man, I put away such childish things.” When I was 20, different things made me happy—like getting wasted and getting laid, and, I don’t know, just sort of really facile things. Then in my thirties, I was just trying to work toward something, but I didn’t know what it was. When you get a little older and you have kids, it’s really funny because you start giving a shit. You give a shit about the environment. You give a shit about war. You give a shit about those kinds of things because you don’t want bad things for your kids. I don’t care if I die—look, I’m old—but you want your kids to have good times and a good life. I became sort of aware. I used to get so angry. People always laugh because I’d be in traffic and I won’t just get angry at the traffic jam—I’d get angry at the politicians and the infrastructure and the car-manufacturing companies. I’d get mad at Henry Ford for stifling fucking public transportation. I’d get mad at gas. I’d start railing against all of these things. In L.A., you can be stuck in 12 lanes of traffic at 2 a.m. on a Sunday night and you’ll hit a traffic jam and be like, “How is this possible?” It just doesn’t make sense—and it’s going to get worse and they’re making more cars . . . I’d start freaking out. I was getting mad at the system or the politicians or the government, and then I realized someone should talk about this stuff, and I have a big, multinational global-youth platform of kids who are going to change the world. So I was like, “I should be doing that. I should be showing this to people. That’s my job.” And since that time, I’ve been very happy.
JONZE: Which time?
SMITH: Sort of coming out of the pond and realizing that instead of talking about sneakers, we could talk about real issues. Everyone told me, “Don’t ever talk about international stuff,” and “Don’t do long-form content online,” and “Don’t get too serious in news,” and “Don’t be too heavy”—all this stuff, all the rules. But we broke the rules, and that, ironically, has led to some of our most successful stuff. It’s the same thing on YouTube. They said long-form content doesn’t work, serious stuff doesn’t work, news stuff doesn’t work. But there are people watching 28 minutes of our news stuff on YouTube, which is unheard of. So I love that shit. I love it when you’re blazing a new trail. You know, we were in Pakistan shooting the segment “World’s Most Dangerous Borders” right when the Malala [Yousafzai] shooting happened—you know the Malala story, with the young girl who was shot. The Taliban went on her bus and shot her in the head because she was advocating for education. So she became a big rallying cry in Pakistan and around the world. We were in Pakistan right when it happened. All the journalists were told to go to the Serena Hotel in Islamabad, and then we got word that the State Department was saying that the Serena Hotel was now a target because they know all the journalists are there. Up until that time, the Taliban were attacking military and police, but they said now all journalists are going to be targets because people were writing about Malala—and especially Western journalists. If they even saw a camera, they would shoot you. So we went to North-West Frontier Province [now renamed Kyber Pakhtunkhwa], which is close to the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, and they were like, “Look, if you’re not wearing these shoes they call peshawari chappal—like, if you’re not wearing the outfit from there—they’re going to know right away. So we had to wear shades to hide our eyes. Thank god we had grown our beards long. We wore Peshawari chappal. It was funny because everyone—even Jake, our cameraman—had a really long beard. I had a really long beard, and they kept saying to Suroosh [Alvi, Vice co-founder], who is Pakistani-Canadian, “Oh, you’re a religious leader.” They thought I was a religious leader because I was dressed fancier. They thought Jake was Taliban because he looked Central Asian. So we could walk about Peshawar or we could walk around North-West Frontier Province and people just thought, “Oh fine.” But if we wore jeans and T-shirts, we would have been gone.
JONZE: If anyone tried to speak to you, what would happen?
SMITH: I’d nod or just keep going.
JONZE: Or let Suroosh talk?
SMITH: Yeah, exactly. I was dressed up in my religious-leader outfit, and we were in this bus driving up to the Afghani border, and I was like, “Fuck. This is a lot of fun.”
JONZE: So you’re addicted to the front line?
SMITH: No. I’m addicted to when people are bringing you around their country, telling you their stories. They become so enthusiastic, so passionate. And also, in a way, you’re seeing what’s really happening. If you go to Jamaica, you’re going to these all-inclusive resorts where they’re playing calypso and a bit of reggae or whatever. But if you go to Kingston, it’s run-and-gun battles in the streets, it’s abject poverty, it’s incredible violence—and then also the best parties in the world. You know, the dancehall parties. But if you’re white, you can’t really go. So it’s sort of like, “I don’t know if I’d be happy in an all-inclusive resort if I knew, oh, everybody hates you, and they’re living in absolute squalor, fighting each other with machine guns.” I’d rather know the real deal than be playing in the sand.
JONZE: I know we talked about this before, but going back to your twenties and thirties—because I met you when we were in our early thirties, and you were definitely a wild man. You would drink beyond recognition…
SMITH: Well, compared to you.
JONZE: Well, compared to me. But you were definitely a wild man. And you were still doing the business—the business was doing well. But it wasn’t until your later thirties, when your priorities sort of changed and your life changed, that the business really did take off. Will you talk about that?
SMITH: Yeah. I think that you realize, especially when you go travel around the world . . . I always say you only get one shot at it, and I’ve had about three or four shots at it, so I’m very lucky.
JONZE: “It” being . . .
SMITH: Success. Money. Fame. Whatever you’re going after. You have one kick at the can, I always say. It’s very rare that you have many kicks at the can. You’re there at the right place at the right time, you have your shot, and it either works or it doesn’t. And I’ve had many shots.
JONZE: Well, this show is on HBO, which is the best possible place for it.
SMITH: But we had to fuck up a lot to get there.
JONZE: You had the four shitty TV shows before you had the good one?
SMITH: Yeah, we fucked up on VBS. We fucked up on our other TV shows—not just in America, but around the world.
JONZE: That one on MTV?
JONZE: What was that like?
SMITH: It was great. [both laugh] But we’ve failed a lot. You have to work at it. You have to make those mistakes. You have to do the work. You have to fail. I also realized that I should practice what I preach, which is that if you only do get one kick at the can . . . When you go to places like Africa or Asia or the Indian sub-continent, you realize that a lot of the people there don’t ever get a kick at the can. There are no “kicks” at the can—you just don’t have that shot. If you’re lucky, you can buy rice for your family to eat. And so when you realize that, then it’s like, “Shit, I better . . .” If you look at our lives, then you shouldn’t be—or, as I used to say, you’re not allowed to be—unhappy. You’re not allowed to be sad. All you have to do is go out there in the world and look at your life versus the majority of people’s lives. Look, I’ve had four kicks at the can. You’ve had a tremendous career. We’re also happy. We’ve loved. We’ve lived. We don’t starve. We haven’t been shot in the gut. So at that point, I started getting a little more serious about the content we were making and the business and building the business. I also became more serious about life and being happy. I got married, I have kids—I’m happy at a cellular level now. I don’t go to bars and stuff like I used to, but I live each day to make something. Actually, you were a big influence on me. I remember when we first started hanging out, I was like . . . I had a decade where I had Vice as a crutch. It was doing well, so I could do whatever I wanted. But at the end of that decade, I had a hangover. In that decade, you’d won video awards, made Being John Malkovich, made Adaptation, made Jackass. At the end of that 10 years, Spike Jonze was like a cultural hero of generation—and I was just sort of over-weight and tired.
JONZE: I like the way you’re portraying us. This is very flattering to me.
SMITH: Well, I’ve since overtaken you. [both laugh] But yeah, at that point, I woke up. I was like, “Look, you can do anything you want—and you want a lot of things, so you should get to work.”
JONZE: Now we’re in our early forties.
SMITH: Very, very early forties. Beginning forties.
JONZE: We’re like men. What do you want to do in the next 20 years?
SMITH: I want to continue to build Vice up. I think we’re right at the cusp of things. I always used to say that I wanted to be the next MTV, the next ESPN, the next CNN rolled up into one, and everyone would laugh at me. But now I think that people are finally wising up because, digitally, you can do that. We just stuck our toe in the water with YouTube last year, and between the number of video views we’re getting and our ability to monetize it, we will be the next MTV and the next CNN. So my hyperbolic boasting to media companies and venture capitalists is now a truism.
JONZE: When we first met, you were always like, “People are freaking out about what we’re doing! They’re freaking out!” And I always used to just look at you a little crooked—like, “Okay, I’ll take about 30 percent of what you’re saying at face value.”
SMITH: Thanks, buddy.
JONZE: I know I gave you shit about it at the time. Not that Vice wasn’t already doing great shit at the time, but I do feel actually like now a) you’re a calmer man, and b) you’ve delivered on all that stuff you were saying and built a company that is everything you said it was going to be.
SMITH: Andrew Creighton, who ran Europe for us and who now runs the company day-to-day, would always go to the people he would hire and say, “Look, I don’t know what it is, but whatever this guy says comes true because he’s got some sort of weird self-fulfilling-prophecy thing.” And that’s exactly right. The reason I was so bombastic or whatever was because you have to believe it. Everyone will tell you that you can’t do it. Everyone will look at you and say, “Okay, Shane. Have another drink.” Even my parents were like, “Okay, what’s he on about now?” Everyone.
JONZE: What were you saying?
SMITH: That we were going to be the biggest thing in the world. That we were going to be the best magazine, the best this, the best that—and I’m sure everybody looked at me cockeyed. But if you don’t believe it, then it’s not going to happen. If you don’t believe it, no one else is going to believe it. But if you believe it and keep saying it, then slowly one person will believe you, then two, then three, then four . . .
JONZE: You also have to deliver, and be out there working hard and making it and doing it, like you were. That’s the other 99 percent.
SMITH: But you have to believe it’s going to happen for things to work.
JONZE: Did I hurt your feelings when I said that?
SMITH: No. You’ve only said that to me 500 times! I’ve got it by now. I know the script.
JONZE: But as much as I like giving you shit, I also always knew you were doing it—you were living it, making it, doing it. I was excited, and I’ve been excited to be your friend and to watch you do what you’ve done.
SMITH: You like to do two things: You like to give me shit, and you like to hit me.
JONZE: I like to hit you, and I like to coddle you.
SMITH: That’s true. You’re kind of an S&M guy in that way.
JONZE: A coddly S&M guy, yes. Not many grown men will have sleepovers where they stay up all night talking.
SMITH: No. That’s nice.
JONZE: That’s really nice. Speaking of which, we should turn off this recorder and get in bed and watch a movie.
SMITH: We should.
JONZE: But before we go, you’re now into this next chapter. What do you want to do in this next decade?
SMITH: That’s a great question, Spike.
JONZE: Thank you.
SMITH: We’re really excited about this HBO show—we’ve been working hard. So 2012 was a big year for us because YouTube got us this news audience and it’s sort of a fanatic audience—they’re like, “You guys are the saviors of journalism!” I’m really surprised at the passion and the number of comments we’ve gotten. Now the next phase of that is HBO—to do a gold-standard TV show on a gold-standard network. And then the really big thing is that we’re launching a 24-hour international online news network.
JONZE: Is that through YouTube?
SMITH: YouTube is potentially going to be one of our platform partners. But we also have terrestrial TV partners and newspaper partners.
JONZE: Terrestrial TV—that is a new one. That means “traditional TV”?
JONZE: What about extraterrestrial TV?
SMITH: Well, satellite is one. Then there’s digital.
JONZE: You’ve got your lingo on lock.
SMITH: I do. [laughs] But we’re launching in 18 countries and maybe in 18 languages. It started when we did a call for the HBO show. We called out to all of our editors around the world because we needed about 40 stories to put the show together, but we wound up getting 4,000.
JONZE: Just through the offices?
SMITH: Just through our offices—and the majority of them were really good. So that’s when we were like, holy shit, we have enough stuff that we could just be on air all the time—like, “Go to Sweden. Now we’re in São Paulo. Beijing is going to be our biggest office in Asia this year. We’re going to have offices in Bangalore, New Delhi, and Mumbai. We’re building a big campus in Mumbai, which is fucking fantastic. We’re also increasing our Brazilian, Mexican, Argentinean, and South African business exponentially. Germany is a big hub for us. The U.K. is a big hub for us. So that’s all really exciting.
JONZE: So what do you want to do differently? What do you want to do that we haven’t done yet?
SMITH: Well, I think what we’ve been really poor at to date has been technology. With news, incorporating things like bespoke Twitter feeds is really exciting because then you’re not just watching—you can actually communicate with people who are there. We’ll show something on Syria and then you’ll be able to see what they’re saying in Syria and comment and talk to the people there. So I think technology is going to be a big part of things. Also, moving into mobile—we’re doing a lot of new stuff on mobile. But it’s been great to do this HBO show because it’s forced us to be better. Now we have that rigor that we have to apply to everything we do, because we just want to get better and better and not go backward.
SPIKE JONZE IS A LOS ANGELES-BASED WRITER, DIRECTOR, ACTOR, AND PRODUCER, WHOSE FILMS INCLUDE BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999), ADAPTATION (2002), AND WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (2009).