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Director Spike Jonze Goes "Where the Wild Things Are"

Even if you missed seeing the the Morgan Library exhibit of Maurice Sendak's drawings and text from his classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are, or director Spike Jonze's cinematic interpretation, released in theaters last year, you can now see it on the newly issued DVD. The Wild Things, one might say, have come home to roost

Whether it be his few features or his music videos, Jonze has never done things quite as expected. This is the guy, after all, who created Being John Malkovich (1999), a film about someone discovering a portal that gains access to the inside of the quirky actor's head. Jonze also directed the award-winning film Adaptation (2002), which is ostensibly about a screenwriter struggling to adapt a book to film but it is much more quirky than that.

Now Jonze has taken one of the finest example of children's fiction as art — with about as many words and pages as would make a 10-minute short — and transformed its premise, about a disobedient young boy's retreat into his fantasy world where strange, benignly monstrous talking creatures exist, into a full-length feature. Using the book as a platform, Jonze and co-scriptwriter Dave Eggers delved into a 9-year old boy's lonely, disaffected brain and came up with a surreal look into how such fantasizing helps a child work through problems.

When Jonze came to the Apple store in Soho to preview Where the Wild Things Are, the event was worth attending considering simply for the fact that Jonze approaches doing a live interview as uniquely as he does making a film. In this case, rather than sit with one interviewer and be grilled as to the what and wherefores of his movie, he brought cast and crew members on stage to discuss the filmmaking process before a small audience and expose everyone to the special dynamic that made this picture. The following Q&A is pulled together from that event and my own questions.

Q: What motivated you to make this movie?

SJ: I always loved the book, but I also didn't know how to do it. I didn't know what I'd bring to it. But there was a point where I started to think about the wild things and wild emotions, who the characters of the wild things were. I started writing them as really complicated characters with very complex performances, and then fleshing out who [the child protagonist] Max was. That was the key to it — being really open, and I could go anywhere with that.

Q: What was it like to collaborate with its creator Maurice Sendak?

SJ: It was amazing. At first I was not really excited about it but then I was also nervous, because his book means so much to everybody and I could only make what the book was to me.

Basically at the beginning, Maurice early on said, "You can't worry about any of that. Don't worry about what I think. Don't be overly reverential to the book. You have to take this and make it your own and make something personal."

His only rule was not to pander to children, and make something honest. He really pushed us and has always been so supportive of us, and it's been an amazing friendship. He's a producer, but he's so much more than that —  he's our mentor and our friend.

Q: You said that this was six years in the making. How did it come to you, and what those six years were like?

SJ: I guess the first couple was [spent in] writing the script. I had moved to San Francisco to [write] with [noted author] Dave Eggers, and then after that it was probably about six months or something of trying to get it made or get it financed. We were at one studio and going into another one, and then it was about a year of making the costumes and going and shooting in Australia, and then about a year and a half of editing and then a year of visual effects to do all the faces. So there are a lot of different sets, and each one probably took twice as long as we thought it was going to be.

Q: How did you and Dave get together on this?

SJ: I've known Dave for awhile, and I loved his writing and I've loved him as a person. It seemed like he was my first choice.

Q: What do you do to start out a day?

SJ: Normally, we'd get to a set, clear it and then it would just be the actors and we'd rehearse it and then block it out. And then Lance [Acord, the director of photography] would come and be watching and we'd start to figure out where to put the camera.

This was a whole different film. It was such a complicated thing [that] it couldn't be that loose, but we somehow tried to keep it loose. We were most of the time at really distant locations, where we'd have to go in and set up a little village of tents. There'd be huge anxiety when I'd show up in the morning and see about 40 trucks and I'd be like, "Oh, this movie's too big."  

And the art department was really big, too. It was basically K.K.'s [Barrett, the production designer's] idea at the beginning [that] we were going to art-direct nature — we were going to go into nature and use it as a canvas. So he would go into a forest that had been burned out, and put in ground cover and put in saplings for color.

Then in places where we wanted it to look like the forest came right into a desert, K.K. would build for us on that location so the camera would be able to move through the trees into the forest.

Q: What kind of feeling were you going for?

SJ: One of the things early on that Thomas [Tull, the executive producer] mentioned to us as he was scheduling it was that he was afraid we would run out of cover sets. A cover set is where you go when it rains, and since there's so much of the movie shot outside, we ran out of cover sets early on.

When Lance and K.K. and I talked about it, we [decided] if it rains that day, or if there's a storm or whatever, we would embrace that and use that weather as part of the texture of the film to add to the wildness of the island and the location.

Q: What were challenges in making this film and finishing it with the studio?

SJ: We brought the movie to Warner Brothers, and they were very encouraging and very excited. They sent us off to Australia, but it was during editing when they started to see what the film actually looked like and felt like. I think they were surprised by the texture of it and the emotional intensity of it.

I think the movie is what it is and we all love it and are proud of it. The studio was like, they had expected a boy and then I gave birth to a girl, and maybe she was a wild child of some sort. But they've learned to love the baby, and we share the duties and I'm not stuck with always breast feeding at home by myself, and it's nice.

Q: Casting the character of Max must have been a real process.

SJ: Lance Bangs found Max [Records] for us in Portland, Oregon. We'd been looking everywhere and it was getting down to the wire, so we started [calling] friends that live in different cities. We started looking in smaller cities or smaller areas.

We were thinking of looking more at artistic cities, like Austin [, Texas] —  we had a friend in Austin  — or a friend in Athens, Georgia; Amherst, Massachusetts;  Lance in Portland. Lance started putting kids on tape there.

We thought [Max] was really beautiful, but we didn't know what his acting ability was because he'd never acted before. [Catherine Keener, who played Max-the-protagonist's mother] was shooting Into the Wild in Oregon. So she went and met with Max on a day off.

The great thing about him and his family is they're not stage parents in any way. They were nervous about this whole thing. Max's dad [Sean] came down to LA and we did the final audition, and we cast Max. When Sean got the call, I think he was sleepless for three nights wondering, "What are we doing?"  

I think that in the end they did it more as a family experience. All four of them moved to Australia and said let's do this as a family experience, as opposed to some career move for a 9-year-old. I think that because they're so levelheaded, their son is really levelheaded.

Even though he's 9 years old, in the middle of 150 crew members all paying all this attention focused on him, he really looked at it like he was there to do his job, just as the lighting person was there to his job or [costumer] Casey [Storm] was here to do his job. He had amazing humility, and I think he's a real soulful kid, which is partially why he's so great in the film.

Q: Did Max have a passion for film and drama?

SJ: He is a very deep, thoughtful kid, and also he saw everything that was going on. He had a front row view to everything.

I think it's a testament to kids — you think, oh, they don't see that, or they don't understand this — but they see everything and understand everything.

Me and Lance were like mom and dad fighting. I think he even said that, like, "Mom and dad are fighting."  He was watching us all and seeing the adults stressing out trying to make this thing.

The way we worked with Max was [that] we took him really seriously. Obviously we were protective of him, but we also demanded of him what we demand of any actor:  to be real, to be present, focused, and take it seriously. Max did take it seriously. Whenever the time was tight or whatever [we] needed, I said, "Max, we gotta focus here," and he would go from being a kid and playing and running around to being focused and listening.

We couldn't always stage what was happening behind camera. There'd be something like a Wild Thing throwing another Wild Thing, or something that we needed the camera to be close on Max and we need his reaction to that. But we couldn't always stage these things, so we'd come up with something else.

We had a little kit [for] whenever we'd have an idea to say, "Thomas, we need some fire extinguishers," and Thomas just kept collecting this kit. It was like what you'd put on a play with in your garage. So we'd be doing these little plays behind camera with light sabers.

One day we had Natalie [Farrey], who runs our office, sitting in a chair crying, and Max came into the set and then the light faded upon her. It wasn't hard for her to cry, because we were down there in Australia and it was a really hard shoot on everybody and she probably cried once a week anyway.

Q: Even though it was a long and hard shoot, did the process bring out the inner kid in you?  

SJ: I don't know... did it? The inner kid was what the script came out of, but I don't know. We all moved to Australia together and everyone brought their families.

Basically, the philosophy was: if there are lots of kids around, they can go anywhere. They can go in any of the trucks — go make something in the art department truck, or go put the wolf suits on, or get fake blood from the makeup trailer, or go into one of the sets and make a movie. The idea was like summer camp — this is your set.

But also, [it was for] Max and all the kids on the set to have this group to play with and hang out with. The idea was [that] the set was open for the kids to come whenever they want. Max was there every day with some other photo doubles that played Max in the movie. So there [were] always at least four or five kids, and then on a good day there were probably 15 kids, when everyone's kids would come.

Q: When the picture wrapped, how did everyone feel on that last day of shooting; did you feel you really made something amazing or were you just excited to start editing?

SJ: The big one was in Australia where all the kids [were there], so it was pretty amazing. We let the kids direct the last shot.

Q: Were there any scenes in the film that you had to take out for running time? Was that hard for you?

SJ: Oh, that was hard, yeah. It's all hard to take out because you're so attached to it.

Eric [Zumbrunnen] and I are slow editors and we take a long time. Our first movie took nine months to lock picture, and then Adaptation took 13 months to lock picture. This one took 20 months to lock picture.

Every time we'd finish a movie, we're like, next time we're going to work a lot faster. We're going to be looser and we're going to let go of stuff more. I haven't been able to do that yet. But next time I will, Eric.

For more by Brad Balfour:


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