Where the Wild Things Are: Interview with Director Spike Jonze

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Spike Jonze is the director of "Where the Wild Things Are," the feature film adaptation of the popular Maurice Sendak children's book of the same name. The film is being released October 16, 2009 by Warner Bros.

A Film From the Heart

"I didn't set out to make a children's movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood," says director Spike Jonze, whose big-screen adaptation of the captivating Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are was truly a labor of love."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–which is really the challenge of negotiating relationships all your life," he says. "It's no different at that age."

"In a way, it's an action movie starring a nine-year-old. There's a lot of physical mayhem like dirt clod fights and rampaging in the forest," says Jonze.

Its enduring appeal, notes Jonze, is in how it "taps into genuine feelings that kids have and takes them seriously without pandering. Kids are given so much material that's not honest, so when they find a story like this it really gets their attention. I remember myself, at that age, being so eager to hear that other kids were going through the same things I was and having similar thoughts." ?

Ultimately, the film was a combination of Sendak and Jonze's stories and recollections. Says Jonze, "Maurice based the book on themes and feelings from his life, his childhood. I was picking up the baton."

Creating Realistic Creatures

As much as Jonze wanted to present Max as a real boy, he sought to give the story's imaginative elements a realistic execution, explaining, "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."

Says Jonze, "I knew it was going to be a complicated process. It seemed that every choice we made turned out to be the hardest possible way to do it. Building the creatures alone took eight months. But we decided what we wanted it to feel like and worked backwards from there on how to achieve that, and stuck to it."

Max

"First and foremost I was concerned with who Max was and what was going on in his life," says Jonze. "I wanted to make a movie that takes kids seriously but Maurice said, 'Make sure you don't just take the heavy side of the kid seriously; take his imagination seriously, his sense of joy.' We never set any rules about whether it would be for kids or adults. We just went where it took us."

"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," says Jonze, who goes on to concede, "As we progressed, it became clear that it was going to be hard to get the two sides of Max in one kid. He would have to be a really deep, internal kid, who had a lot going on in his head. A close-up of him should reveal his thinking and feeling. Simultaneously, we needed him at times to be totally out-of-his-head gleeful and wild. We could find one or the other, but finding both was hard."?

As part of his preparation, Jonze sought to get to the bottom of children's genuine concerns from their own point of view, saying, "I interviewed a lot of kids to get inspiration and ideas. I talked to them about things that made them angry, fights they had with their parents, how it makes them feel. It's dramatic, when you're that age." ??"When we shot the movie, I just let Max read the script once and said, 'I don't want you thinking about it. I want you to just show up on the day and see what you're going to find,'" Jonze offers his strategy. "I wanted it to be fresh. The complexity of the dialogue is very demanding. To get these things to not just be dialogue but to be really thought and felt and coming from a specific place, is hard. What I was asking Max to do would be hard for an adult actor." ??

"I would always be inspired by Max. He worked really hard but he knew how to have fun. No matter how hard the scene was, I'd come up to lunch and he'd have his wolf suit off and be running around with the other kids. It helped me remember that making movies is supposed to be fun," Jonze reveals. "I developed a lot of different relationships on this movie but the one I had with Max was in a class by itself. Max was my partner in making the heart of the movie come through. He is the heart of the movie."

Vocal Performances

"Everything started with the voice actors," says Jonze, who eschewed the traditional method of recording voice performances from lone actors in sound booths, in favor of throwing them all together on stage to act out the entire movie in a kind of physical pre-visualization. This way, their actions as well as their voices were recorded. "We were going into a movie that incorporated puppets and animation. Both those mediums are inherently not spontaneous. So we decided to shoot the whole movie on a soundstage over two weeks. We needed the spontaneity of what these incredible actors did in the moment."

Another advantage to staging the vocal performance was how it later benefited the Australian actors as they donned the gigantic costumes to physically animate the Wild Things on location. Says Jonze, "The costumed actors would watch footage from the voice recording and mirror what the voice actors did. They took the essence of what they were doing and adapted it to what the costumes could do."

"It was interesting to see how the characters started from everything the voice actors did," Jonze observes. "But it's a combination of what they did in creating the roles, plus what the costumed actors did and what the animators did with the facial performances. It was three totally disparate elements that make one character."

 

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