A packed house welcomed David Letterman back home with whistles, cheers and a standing ovation as Ball State’s favorite son returned to Emens Auditorium on Monday for a 90-minute discussion with filmmakers Spike Jonze and Bennett Miller.
From the opening riffs of the Foo Fighters to the last comedic smirk and a wave, Letterman poked fun at himself and, through his guests, offered the mostly student-filled audience insight into what motivates and inspires two of Hollywood’s hottest directors.
Watch highlights from Dave at Ball State.
“I’m excited because they’re here, and I’m a little scared because they’re here because it just doesn’t get any better than these guys,” Letterman said as he welcomed the filmmakers onstage.
The presentation moved quickly, as both Miller and Jonze opened up about the successes and challenges they’ve faced over the course of their careers. The event opened with a montage of clips from blockbusters including Jonze’s “Her” and Miller’s “Moneyball.”
“Directing is hundreds of decisions a day, and each one of them is shaping the film,” Jonze said. “On one hand, it’s hard and grueling, and on the other hand, it’s a dream job.”
For his part, Miller added, “If you’re not exploring and discovering (the story), and searching through the thing that’s ethereal and in your gut, you don’t know how it’s going to manifest ... . You have to be open to your plan not being perfect. You have to show up and try it.”
The audience erupted in laughter when Letterman recalled the story of his single scene in the movie “Cabin Boy,” a 1994 comedy directed by Adam Resnick and with producers including Tim Burton and starring comedian Chris Elliott. Both Elliott and Resnick worked for “Late Night” in the 1980s.
After watching the clip on the screen above the Emens’ stage, Letterman admitted, “I am embarrassed.”
But, Jonze and Miller were allowed to reconstruct the scene by working part of the day with Ball State seniors David Merten from Cincinnati, Ohio, and John Banes from Mishawaka, Indiana.
Banes said he was amazed he was selected to replace Letterman.
“Bennett and Spike worked with us today to get our roles done, but they wanted to be more scary,” he said. “However, I thought Dave had more fun with the role. In the end, you simply can’t be David Letterman.”
Merten said he and Banes dropped everything to take acting lessons from the two filmmakers.
“I can just say it was simply a whirlwind day because we didn’t know we were doing this until noon,” he said. “They are such interesting, down-to-earth people. They made us feel so comfortable.”
The evening opened with an announcement from university President Paul W. Ferguson that the 68-year-old Letterman would give the university memorabilia from his career including props and sets from his time hosting “Late Night” and “Late Show.”
“In his return home tonight, we all celebrate his national legacy as well as a new chapter of this storied relationship between Ball State University and David Letterman,” said the president. “Important to both Dave and Ball State is his continuing legacy for Ball State students, who will learn from his example and impact on the entertainment and broadcast industry.”
Letterman has long demonstrated his commitment to his alma mater.
“I’m so lucky to have been invited back. I want to thank everybody here, everybody on campus and the people who run this university,” he said.
"Bennett and Spike worked with us today to get our roles done, but they wanted to be more scary. However, I thought Dave had more fun with the role. In the end, you simply can’t be David Letterman."
— John Banes
Ball State senior
Jonze, who admitted to Letterman that he didn’t attend college, is a director, producer, screenwriter and actor whose work includes music videos, commercials, film and television. He started his feature film career with “Being John Malkovich” in 1999 and “Adaptation” in 2002. He created movies from his screenplays with “Where the Wild Things Are” in 2009 and “Her” in 2013.
Jonze is also known for his music video collaborations with Fatboy Slim, Weezer, Beastie Boys and Kanye West. He was a co-creator of MTV’s “Jackass.” He is currently the creative director of Vice Media Inc. and is part owner of Girl Skateboards, a skateboard company.
Miller, who has been nominated twice for the Academy Award for Best Director, is best known for “Capote” in 2005, “Moneyball” in 2011 and “Foxcatcher” in 2014.
Earlier in the evening, the two filmmakers spent nearly an hour in a closed session discussing moviemaking with Ball State students who are studying film, theater and acting.
Nearly two dozen students attended the event in Strother Studio Theatre, where Miller and Jonze discussed their processes and inspirations.
“When I got an opportunity, I would make the most of it,” Jonze said, discussing how his career took off after he went to California to work for a magazine where he began taking photos. The photos turned to videos, and ultimately Jonze found himself making films.
For his part, Miller got his start after, at age 27, he “realized I was going about (filmmaking) in an irrational way.”
“I decided to walk away and believe in myself,” he said. “What I felt like doing was making a documentary portrait of a semi-homeless tour guide in New York.”
The project took Miller four years and resulted in him getting lots of attention.
“That’s when doors started to open.”
By Lisa Renze-Rhodes, director of media strategy
and Marc Ransford, senior media strategist