Spike Jonze on the making of Where The Wild Things Are,
By standing up to the studio bigwigs and staying true to his subject, Spike Jonze consistently makes the film he wants to make, writes Fiona McCann
SPIKE JONZE is slim and sprightly, with a shot of blond hair that seems to fizz from his head against an enormous hotel room sofa that threatens to swallow him whole. He looks young, younger than you’d expect for someone who’s 40 with three acclaimed films behind them. He’s also enthusiastic and engaging and full of energy and ideas that are impossible to transcribe. Not because their contents are too complex to contain within one small article, but because the audio file containing our interview is mysteriously distorted on playback.
Perhaps the “Wild Things”, the big, lumbering monster-like characters that populate his latest film, got at it. Either way, the sound is audible only in snatches, like right at the start where he begins the interview by interviewing me. “How did you get the job?” he asks. Thankfully, my reply is lost forever to white noise.
But Jonze is clearly interested in stories other than his own, the one he has to tell over and over to every journalist that opens the door of this room at London’s Claridge’s Hotel. They’re all here to interview him about Where the Wild Things Are, his new film based on the Maurice Sendak book of the same name, which may explain why the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation is turning the tables. If he’s going to talk about what he does for a living and why, it’s understandable that he might want a little of the same back. I mutter something about doggedness, and when I fire the same question back about how he got where he is today, his reply is initially simple. “Same,” he tells me, then gives it some thought and admits that he never really set out specifically to become a movie-maker. “I never had that vision.”
Yet it’s Jonze’s vision – and his doggedness in turning it into reality – that has produced some of the best music videos of all time, like his homage to 1970s crime shows in the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, or his dance troupe performance in Fatboy Slim’s Praise You. He also directed the video for Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, with its Astaire-like turn from Christopher Walken.
Then there are the films: his 1998 debut about being inside John Malkovich’s head for which Jonze, a relative unknown, recruited Malkovich himself, and then Adaptation, his film about the adaptation of a book into a film, which followed in 2002. After that, for the general movie-going public at least, things seemed to go silent for a while. Until the appearance of the extraordinary, vivid Where the Wild Things Are, the film that almost didn’t make it.
It started a long time ago. The idea for adapting the Sendak book came, Jonze tells me, from Sendak himself. The octogenarian children’s writer approached Jonze and said that if anyone were to make a film of his book and avoid the saccharine kidflick interpretation, he was the man.
Yet there were obvious obstacles to overcome. The book is only nine sentences long, and is one of the most beloved childhood tomes of all time, having sold some 19 million copies worldwide since it first came out in 1963. No wonder Jonze was a little leery even to touch it, let alone attempt to expand on such a classic. But Sendak was persuasive, and his endorsement got Jonze past his own reservations, and through his long battles with movie studios about his interpretation of the book.
“Maurice was everything,” says Jonze categorically of Sendak, who is credited as producer on the film. “He’s the reason I did it.”
With Sendak on board, Jonze kept ruminating on the book’s cinematic potential, until he hit on the key that made the whole thing possible. He had, he says, “this idea that the Wild Things would be wild emotions”.
“I like making movies when I have an idea for a movie that I have to make” – Spike Jonze
The result is a film that remains faithful to the spirit of Sendak’s book, while taking its own flights of fancy into the land of the Wild Things, giant live action figures voiced by James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker and Lau
ren Ambrose (Claire, from Six Feet Under) among others. To help him script it, he enlisted probably the only writer who matches him for hip: San Francisco-based Dave Eggers.
Eggers had approached Jonze years back
to make a film of Eggers’ own work, A Heart
breaking Work of Staggering Genius. “I’d already read his book and loved it,” recalls Jonze with no trace of the kind of smugness you might expect from someone sought out by acclaimed authors to bring their work to the big screen. Perhaps it’s because Jonze didn’t automatically agree to do so, and in Eggers’ case, he admits he was stumped. “It’s so self-contained. It’s such a complete work.” So instead of making the film of Eggers’ book, he got Eggers to work on the film of Sendak’s book. Add in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, a former girlfriend of Jonze, for the soundtrack, and some Arcade Fire for the trailer, and the whole project begins to feel almost impossibly hip and, well, adult. But isn’t it supposed to be a movie for kids?
“We didn’t set out and say ‘Oh we’re going to make this for a demographic’.” The intention, he explains, was to make a film that was not necessarily aimed at kids so much as faithful to the experience of being a kid. And Where the Wild Things
Are is as joyful and lonely and fearful as being a kid can be, something which reportedly upset the studio bigwigs who
stalled the project asking for changes to tone down the terror so that they could release it with a kiddy cert. Jonze was adamant. “They’re not a demographic!” he says of this notion of a homogenous target market of minors. “They’re people!”
Jonze made the film he wanted to make, casting the conveniently named Max Records as Max. Adamant that he didn’t want his lead to exhibit any child actor twee or self-awareness, Jonze devised a number of techniques to elicit natural reactions from Records, including hiring fire swallowers to peform behind the camera. He also fitted a small earpiece in Records’ ear, and would speak to him during shooting, or play music to spark the reactions he was looking for.
Records is somewhere in the Claridge’s Hotel too, and Jonze enquires as to whether we have met. We have not, though for all I know he could be in the next room. Film publicity events are too managed and artificial to allow the possibility of bumping into the film’s young star in the corridor. It’s a subject – the artificiality of the interview set-up – that Jonze warms to as he acknowledges the constraints of the 20-minute hotel-room interview.
While he’s been sitting there going through his roster of promotional interviews, I remind him, the journalists in question may well have been doing the same. And to make that point, as well as to name-drop a little – because who doesn’t want to impress Spike Jonze? – I tell him that I’ve just come from interviewing Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s gratifying to see the man who’s friends with Dave Eggers, has dated Karen O and has been married to Sofia Coppola, look impressed.
“Wow. He’s so cool,” he says in that childlike way he retains, his eyes wide. “I’d like to interview Daniel Day-Lewis.” Next thing you know, we’re talking about the actor and not Spike Jonze, and our time is quickly swallowed up. Jonze does me, then, a kindness, requesting an extension of our time from the studio representative hovering at the door with her next interviewer. “We’ve been rambling,” he explains gently. So I get to ask him what the next project is, which he tells me is “a robot love story” to be screened at Sundance, and called I’m Here.
It all sounds promising and very Spike Jonze, though the question of whether it will make it to a wider cinema audience remains. In the meantime, those Jonzing for some more from the maestro may have to wait for a man who clearly takes his time. After all, three films in 11 years would hardly be described as prolific.
“You’re saying I’m not prolific?” he interrupts, and then gives it some thought. “I guess I’m not prolific in terms of movies, but I feel like I’m always making stuff and doing things.”
Like his work as creative director with VBS. tv, the online television network, not to mention recording with Beck and producing a rockumentary. He’s just careful about choosing his projects. “I like making movies when I have an idea for a movie that I have to make.”
Where the Wild Things Are opens today
and is reviewed on
This movie is about a young boy called Max who longs for someone to play with, as his mother and sister are too busy with their own problems.
One night Max falls out with his mother and ends up biting her, causing her to shout insults at Max and he storms out of the house. Angry, frustrated and dressed in a ridiculous costume, Max finds an abandoned boat and sets sail, not knowing where it will take him. Max eventually comes across an island, which he sets off to explore and discovers a tribe of monsters whose relationships are falling apart.
Max befriends a monster called Carol, who is confused and has some anger issues. Max presents himself as a king with mystical powers. The movie goes on and shows the adventures they encounter. I particularly disliked Where
the Wild Things Are because it made no sense, and some scenes were so completely random that they made you lose track of what was going on. Director Spike Jonze spent too much time working on the visuals and sound effects rather than creating a good dialogue and a story that kept you interested and excited. I found it uninteresting to watch because it lacked direction and the story didn’t flow.
I doubt that young children will find the monsters appealing as they would have done in other monster movies.
However, the movie wasn’t all bad, as there were one or two funny scenes that made the audience laugh. Also, the animation of the monsters was quite good.
I would not recommend this movie to older kids or teenagers because i was bored throughout most of it. I would say that only children from ages 5-10 would find it partly enjoyable.
On the basis that the visual effects were good, I’m giving
Where the Wild Things Are a