Tell Them Anything You Want: Portrait of Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak, world-renowned author and illustrator of children’s books, does not believe in sugarcoating the truth when it comes to communicating with kids.  “Tell them anything you want,” he says.  “If it’s true, you tell them.”

Debuting WEDNESDAY, OCT. 14 (7:00-7:45 p.m. ET/PT), just two days before the premiere of Spike Jonze’s feature film adaptation of his landmark book “Where the Wild Things Are,” the intimate HBO presentation TELL THEM ANYTHING YOU WANT:  A PORTRAIT OF MAURICE SENDAK looks back on the life of this complex, defiantly independent artist.  The documentary is highlighted by freewheeling conversations between Sendak and Oscar nominee Jonze, who directed the film along with Lance Bangs.
In TELL THEM ANYTHING YOU WANT, the 81-year-old Sendak reviews his life from infancy to the present, musing on fame, childhood, mortality and more.  Featuring stills from Sendak’s early life and excerpts from his books, the film paints a fascinating and often hilarious portrait of an artist who vividly identified with children, even as a young man.  “I have adult thoughts, experiences, but I’m never going to talk about them,” he explains.  “I’m never going to write about them.  Why is my needle stuck in childhood?  I don’t know why.”
This perspective gives Sendak an uncanny ability to connect with the young readers who have devoured his books over the years, even as some adults fought to suppress them.  “In the Night Kitchen,” which features drawings of a naked young boy, was No. 25 on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990 to 2000.
A longtime admirer of the author, Jonze decided to make the documentary after developing a friendship with Sendak, whom he consulted during the development of the “Wild Things” feature film.  Along with Bangs, he began filming in 2003 at Sendak’s Connecticut home and studio.  In addition to wide-ranging and revealing conversations between Jonze and the author, TELL THEM ANYTHING YOU WANT features conversations with actress Catherine Keener, a friend of Sendak’s who starred in Jonze’s 1999 film “Being John Malkovich.”
Sendak discusses his difficult relationship with his parents and his deep love and appreciation for his older siblings Jack and Natalie.  “My good fortune was in my siblings,” he tells Jonze.  “I was very lucky to be the youngest…they were the best things that happened to me.”  Sendak goes on to describe working with his brother on the delightful wooden children’s toys he made 60 years ago, recalling, “He did the carving and figuring out how it worked, and I did the painting.”  But Sendak also bares more complex issues that have helped shape his unique imagination, such as a lifelong fascination with death, which he attributes to seeing a newspaper photograph of a toddler’s corpse — the kidnapped son of aviator Charles Lindbergh – as a child.
For Jonze, who has built his filmmaking career largely on expressions of the offbeat, TELL THEM ANYTHING YOU WANT provided a chance to pay homage to a kindred spirit whose enormous influence is often underestimated.  During one of their conversations, Jonze states, “You sort of fluctuate between finding the lack of satisfaction in that nobody recognizes your other books besides ‘Where the Wild Things Are’…but people are inspired and moved by all of your stuff…But you won’t find satisfaction in it.  No matter how much praise you’ve gotten.”  Sendak answers simply, “It seems I never can satisfy some need in me to achieve something of incredible height for my sake.  It puzzles me deeply and it sours my life.”
TELL THEM ANYTHING YOU WANT coincides with the Oct. 16 release of Warner Bros.’ big-screen adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” co-written and directed by Jonze, and starring Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker.
Spike Jonze is the versatile filmmaker behind the acclaimed “Being John Malkovich,” for which he received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Director, and “Adaptation,” for which his three stars — Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper — received Academy Award® nominations, with Cooper going on to win Best Supporting Actor honors.  “Where the Wild Things Are” is his third directorial feature.  As a producer, Jonze’s credits include Michel Gondry’s first film, “Human Nature,” and his frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York.”  He is also one of the creators and producers of the popular “Jackass” TV show and films.  In addition, Jonze has directed numerous music videos, commercials, short films and documentaries, and is an accomplished photographer.
TELL THEM ANYTHING YOU WANT:  A PORTRAIT OF MAURICE SENDAK was directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze; produced by Perry Moore, Hunter Hill, Allison Sarofim and Vincent Landay; executive produced by Donna Bascom, Warren Dern and Mary Wharton; edited by Jeff Buchanan.