It has taken Being John Malkovich and Adaptation director Spike Jonze more than five years to bring Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen. Maurice Sendak, the writer and illustrator of the best-selling children’s book (which has sold upward of 20 million copies), identified Jonze as the only man he trusted enough to render his story on film. That story focuses on Max, the boisterous boy in wolf pyjamas who, when sent to his room for bad behaviour, journeys in his imagination and travels to the realm of the Wild Things, a gaggle of hairy monsters who proclaim him king. The book contains only a few hundred words, and yet Jonze has created a full feature film, as wild as the source and as dark and brooding as any ancient fairy tale. The director joins Maurice Sendak and some of his key collaborators to explain exclusively to RT how they shaped the world of Where the Wild Things Are on the big screen.
When I started working on the book back in 1960, I didn’t really know why I’d written it. I think the inspiration came from a lot of our family’s relatives who used to come from the old country to visit, and they were really unkempt, they didn’t speak English, their teeth were horrifying, their hair all crazy and they’d pick you up and hug you and kiss you and would say ‘Arrghhh, we could eat you up.’ And my brother and sister and I knew that these people really would eat anything, so I decided to render them as Wild Things.
I had gotten to know Maurice about 15 years ago. We worked on a movie that didn’t happen and through that became friends. One day he talked to me about doing Where The Wild Things Are. I was excited by it but also really nervous about it because the book is so short but I didn’t want to add some storyline or some plot. I’d look at it and say, ‘How could you add to this?’ And anything I felt like adding would just sound cheesy. But over the years, as I started thinking more about the book, I suddenly thought that the Wild Things could be wild emotions. Suddenly out of that everything tumbled and it felt like I could build from inside the book.
Spike wanted to make sure that what he remembered feeling through his childhood corresponded with what kids think today. He interviewed lots of kids of Max’s age, and it really confirmed that they all deal with very deep emotions. So with the screenplay, the Wild Things embody those emotions. The film really is about childhood. It’s about what it’s like to be eight or nine years old and trying to figure out the world, the people around you, and emotions that are sometimes unpredictable or confusing.
We never set any rules about whether it would be a movie for kids or for adults. Maurice Sendak didn’t consider himself a children’s author; he wrote about what it felt like to be a kid. So it was really important that we got the main character right. For Max I wanted a real kid, not necessarily an actor that was going to give a typical ‘movie-kid’ performance. I wanted someone who was going to give a real, emotional performance, and after a very long search I found Max Records. He really is the heart of the movie, and he has such depth to him as a person. It doesn’t feel as though he’s acting at all. It’s such a natural performance.
One of my favourite scenes is the dirt clod scene, where the Wild Things and Max are chucking all this dirt at each other. I had a scene where I had to run through the forest and it was like a minefield with all these dirt clods exploding everywhere. That was maybe my favourite scene. My favourite moment was sliming Spike. There’s a scene where I get licked by a Wild Thing and covered in all this goo. So I got our revenge by covering Spike with goo, too!
Obviously Max and I didn’t know each other when we arrived on set, and I had to show him that he could trust me. I tried to play quite hard with Max, and encouraged him to really let loose. It’s funny, I have a young son who was on set and he asked me why Spike didn’t live with his mum and dad. I said it was because he was an adult, but that says a lot about Spike.
Spike is very much in touch with the child within. In fact, even more so than the man without! No, seriously, we had a wild time on this movie. We improvised with this wonderful dialogue everyday and had such terrific fun. We’d do a lot of childish things and go really nuts. Which was just what Spike wanted.
The Wild Things are such a strange invention of Maurice’s and it’s weird to think that at some point they did not exist in the world. For me, since I knew it as a kid I knew thes designs, I knew these characters, and it is as though they always existed in this strange surreal dream-like way. Maurice had tapped into some primal thing when he created them. They are furry and cuddly but giants with teeth and nails, and they’re dangerous. But then they have the proportions. Their heads are half the size of their body so they are baby-like in that way. And they’re hairy. They have really captured something. It is creativity at its best. They are as close as you can get to creating something that really is magic.
We didn’t get inside the suits — they had other actors for that — but we did the voices and Spike captured our facial expressions to layer onto the body suits, to get the facial expressions and so forth. Once, he even interviewed us as characters, to build a little back-story for us, so we could get a better handle on who were and how we viewed our universe.
When we first screened the movie to the studio they were a bit freaked out. They thought it was too scary for kids. But we didn’t make this movie just for kids. This is a movie about childhood; for everyone. Thankfully, though, they learned to love our movie. The kids weren’t scared, it was just the executives that were scared. I think kids are just like us. They see something that’s honest and they are attracted to it. Kids are attracted to things that are funny but I think all of us are also attracted to things that are true.
No one could have guessed that when I created the Wild Things they’d have such a hold over people, even today. Lots have people have wanted to make the movie, but I only wanted Spike to make it. He’s crazy and whacked out and wild, but he’s so gifted, creatively and dramatically. I think he’s done a wonderful job bringing my book the screen. I’m so pleased that I pursued him.
Where the Wild Things Are is out in the UK this weekend.