When Spike met Maurice: Bringing ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ to the screen
It seems like everyone at the Los Angeles Times wants to write for Hero Complex now, and I couldn’t be happier. This blog reached 1.2 million hits in July and is one of three finalists in the category on blogging commentary at the upcoming Online News Assn.’s Online Journalism Awards in San Francisco. One of the key reasons is the excellent exclusive content contributed by my fellow Times colleagues. Today, Chris Lee, a star writer for the Calendar section, writes up this conversation with Spike Jonze, who has some “Wild Things” on the horizon. — Geoff Boucher
When bestselling children’s author Maurice Sendak contacted Spike Jonze at the start of this decade and broached the idea of a big-screen adaptation of his illustrated classic “Where the Wild Things Are,” the filmmaker demurred. The book was a childhood favorite for Jonze, but how could he possibly translate a sweet story of a mere 10 sentences into a feature-length film?
“I was very hesitant in terms of, like, when I first started talking to him about ideas,” Jonze told me last month during a conversation about the process of creating a distinctive look for the movie’s big beasties.
Jonze warmed to the idea, however, during a frosty patch in his own life. He re-read the storybook about a little boy in a wolf suit who imagines himself in a magical neverland at a low ebb in his life — it was during the break-up of his marriage to Sophia Coppola in 2003 — and the director had a thunderbolt of creativity, a sudden moment of clarity. He phoned Sendak, spewing a torrent of ideas about how to bring “Wild Things” to the screen.
“I was telling him things I wanted to do and ideas of what the movie was about,” Jonze recalled, “but I also wanted to make sure that this doesn’t betray what the book is.”
Instead of being proprietary about all the new narrative twists and embellishments, Sendak encouraged the director — or to be more precise, he demanded that the “Being John Malkovich” director be bold enough to put his own stamp on things.
“His attitude is so counter to that, to protecting anything,” Jonze said. “His assignment to us was, ‘Take this, make it your own. Make it something personal. This book was something I made when I was your guys’ age.’ It was almost like he handed it to us.”
Jonze enlisted big-deal literary sensation Dave Eggers to co-write the screenplay but continued to solicit Sendak’s input. Because of his health, though, the 81-year-old author was unable to travel to Los Angeles to give his OK to the movie’s monsters, plotting and overall production design. Undeterred, Jonze sent Sendak reams of drawings and photos of the work in progress. And from 2004 to 2006 he took every opportunity to travel back to Connecticut to meet with Sendak in his studio, an old converted barn.
“That’s where we got all the tweaks on the characters,” Jonze remembered. He added, while laughing: “He was like, ‘The muzzle is too long on the bull’ or ‘The feathers on the rooster could be much more flamboyant!’ ”
Once the production moved to Australia for principle photography, Eggers’ younger brother Toph — who happens to be the co-protagonist in the author’s breakthrough memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” — was consigned to shoot and edit a video diary for Sendak. For his part, the author remained fully committed.
“To be empowered by an artist whose work you respect and whose work has effected you for so much of your life was not only liberating, it was a mandate,” Jonze said. “Like, OK, we gotta go there. We can’t compromise it in any way.”
At Comic-Con International in July, Sendak left little doubt that he continued to have Jonze’s back after seeing the finished product.
“I’ve never seen a movie that looked or felt like this,” Sendak said. “And it’s his personal ‘this.’ And he’s not afraid of himself. He’s a real artist that lets it come through in the work. So he’s touched me. He’s touched me very much.”
— Chris Lee
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