First published in 1963, Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are earned a Caldecott Medal and went on to touch millions of readers worldwide, and is perpetually ranked by Publishers Weekly as one of the 10 all-time best-selling books for children since the 1970s.
The movie tells the story of Max (Max Records), a rambunctious and sensitive boy who feels misunderstood at home and escapes to where the Wild Things are. He lands on an island where he meets mysterious and strange creature who are desperately looking for a leader to guide them, and they make Max their king.
But the little boy finds that ruling his kingdom is not so easy and his relationships there are more complicated than he thought they would be.
Where the Wild Things Are marks Spike Jonze’s third directorial feature, after helming the indie films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Known as an innovative writer/director, he has collaborated with Maurice Sendak to bring this classic children’s book to life.
Did you read this book as a kid and how did it touch you?
I loved the book and think anything I say now is as an adult trying to analyze it. But, as a kid, I loved it. Anything that feels honest you relate to as a kid. Where the Wild Things Are has feelings about it that you just recognize as a kid. It feels true to being a kid.
I think that kids respond to things that don’t condescend to them and Maurice’s work doesn’t condescend to them. And that’s what he told us in this movie, ‘Don’t pander to children. Children are smart’.
Was it hard to find a child actor to play Max?
Yeah, it was a demanding role for any actor and that’s why it took so long to find the casting because we needed to find somebody who could play the wild, playful, reckless side and also the internal, interior part of Max.
I wanted a real kid – not necessarily an actor who was going to give a ‘movie kid’ performance, but someone who was going to give a real, emotional performance. So, every day was full on. Sometimes we had Max Record (who plays Max) running through a field for a hundred takes in a row.
Sometimes, it was jumping into water and swimming or going underwater. If it wasn’t that, it was some more intense, emotional scene. It was a big role; one of those roles where the character is in every shot of the movie so Max never had a day off.
Can you talk about the use of puppets in the movie?
I wanted to build and shoot the Wild Things so that Max could touch them, lean on them, shove them, hug them. I wanted them to be there so people could feel their breath, their size and their weight in a visceral and immediate way and I couldn’t imagine doing that wholly in a computer or on a soundstage.
You liked the book as a kid but I’ve read that it took you a couple of years to say ‘I’ll try this’.
I didn’t want to make something just to make something. I wasn’t like ‘Oh, I get to make Where the Wild Things Are and I love that book’. I think for all the same reasons I was thrilled about the journey, I was also very hesitant to take it. So, I ended up passing on it a couple of times because I didn’t want to just come up with something to put my fingerprints on it.
I think the idea that I finally came up with I felt like it came from within the book as opposed to something I was putting on top of it; the idea of making The Wild Things wild emotions and fleshing out who The Wild Things are as people. Then it felt like the story came from within the book because I felt like those were things that were already in the book.
Were there things you wanted to explore from the book?
There were a lot of things I was feeling that I wanted to explore. The main goal was trying to make a movie that feels like what it’s like to be nine years old. That was the idea. I didn’t look at it as trying to make a children’s movie. I just wanted to make a movie about childhood.
Now that you’ve done this will you go back to the indie world where you have more control?
In the end, on this, it wasn’t always easy but I got to make the movie I wanted to make and the movie required a certain scale. In a way I think we got away with murder. We got to make this movie that’s very personal and intimate, yet on a scale that’s very big and epic.
Now they are releasing it in this very big way. So, for all the difficulties we had last year, they’ve really come around and embraced the movie and are putting it out. I just got back to L.A. yesterday and there are billboards everywhere and I think what’s cool about it is the billboards look like our movie.
They’re not selling it as something else. The trailers aren’t trying to make it look like some safe thing. It looks like what it is. That’s pretty exciting.