October 16, 2009 in Features

Jonze focuses on childhood in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

Mark Caro Chicago Tribune
Warner Bros. photo

Max Records, portraying Max, right, is shown with the character Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini in “Where the Wild Things Are.” Warner Bros.
(Full-size photo)

The critics’ take

•“It’s a gorgeous film … intricate and rough-hewn at the same time, dreamlike and earthy. What keeps it from reaching complete excellence is the thinness of the script.” – Christy Lemire, Associated Press

•“In honor of (Maurice) Sendak’s writing frugality, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is best described in one word: amazing.” – Rick Bentley, Fresno Bee

•“As a children’s film, it’s a bore. … (director Spike Jonze) got so lost in the ‘things’ that he’s left the ‘wild’ and the fun out.” – Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel

The promotional materials for Spike Jonze’s new film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” kick off with this quote from the director: “I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood.” Warner Bros. has reason to emphasize this distinction: Although Jonze’s “Wild Things,” opening in theaters today, reveres the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 picture book, it’s quite a different beast.

Max, the troublemaking kid at the center of the action, is older. So, presumably, will be the film’s audience.

Author Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonze, says the movie’s influences certainly went beyond the standard kiddie fare.

“The movies that we talked about at the very beginning – ‘Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Black Stallion’ and ‘My Life as a Dog’ and ‘400 Blows’ – were about childhood and did it from a child’s-eye view as opposed to more like, I call them confections,” Eggers said recently over lunch with Jonze and actors Max Records (who plays Max) and Catherine Keener (who plays his mom).

Although a seven-minute, animated “Wild Things” was made in 1973 (and updated in the 1980s), Sendak later spent years trying to launch a feature-length film. He eventually approached Jonze, whom he’d befriended on a project before the director made his 1999 breakthrough film “Being John Malkovich.”

Eggers, the author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and founder of the independent publishing house McSweeney’s, had been friends with Jonze since writing him a fan letter about “Malkovich.”

The director didn’t care that Eggers had never written or even read a screenplay when he asked him to collaborate about five years ago.

“I think Spike has a fondness for untrained or self-trained people,” said Eggers, noting that Jonze also hired singer Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a first-time composer.

“Yeah, and Max had never acted in a film before,” Jonze said of his now-12-year-old star, who previously had appeared in a Death Cab for Cutie video.

“To me, it’s not so important finding somebody that has had the experience. It’s more finding somebody who has the right taste and qualities, because I feel like you can’t teach somebody taste, and I want to be with somebody whose taste is going to teach me something.”

By the time Eggers signed on, Jonze had fleshed out a back story that had Max living with his divorced mom and older sister, who was losing interest in him.

“I started thinking about who the Wild Things were and the idea that they were wild emotions,” said Jonze, who wanted to make a movie “that felt like being 9 in the world, trying to navigate this new place you’re in.”

That the movie Max was older than the one on the page was something Jonze said he never considered “until I started telling Maurice about what I was writing.

“I was like, ‘OK, Max is like 8,’ and he said, ‘Oh, wait. Max is 5.’ As I was thinking about what the story was, it just felt like 8 or 9 was the right age.”

Sendak, who retains a producer’s credit, was OK with that change.

But the iconic, 81-year-old author-illustrator took more convincing on another one: Instead of having Max’s room turn into the forest where he encounters the Wild Things, the movie sends Max in his wolf costume storming out the front door and onto his adventure.

“That was the one thing that he really couldn’t believe we wanted to do, and he really fought it,” Eggers said. “He kept coming back to it.”

The writers said that, although they love the transition in the book, the film needed that extra shot of realism.

“If you’re going to watch a whole movie, and if it seems like the whole thing’s a dream or all in someone’s mind,” Eggers said, “I think it feels like a cheat.”

Perhaps Jonze’s riskiest decision was to make the movie live-action in a multipart process: The actors who played the Wild Things (including James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara) performed their voice work on a soundstage before the production moved to Australia, and Records acted alongside local actors in oversize puppet costumes whose mouths eventually were computer-animated.

Filming began in 2006, and in early 2008, some test footage of Records cavorting with oversize, non-mouth-moving puppets leaked out over the Internet amid rumors that the production was in trouble.

Warner Bros. announced it was delaying the release so Jonze could keep working.

Jonze said he took director/ friend David Fincher’s advice and didn’t respond to the gossip, though he admitted that he and the studio were in conflict.

“It wasn’t fun, but we made it through it,” he said, noting that the delay turned out to be a blessing because now the studio is giving the film a wide, well-promoted release.

“In the end, I guess the only thing that matters is that I got to make my movie. I feel like we made this thing that is true to what we set out to do.”

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