Where the Wild Things Are: Max is the Heart of the Movie

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Max Records as Max

Casting for the lead role of Max was crucial. It involved a search of more than a year and spanned continents, as the filmmakers employed not only standard methods with casting agents but also reached out personally to friends and colleagues who might know of a youngster who fit the criteria. ?

“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.”

Jonze found this duality in a boy coincidentally named Max–Max Records. Not entirely inexperienced in front of a camera, Records had appeared in a couple of music videos. He and the director immediately connected. Says Landay, “It was fascinating to see Spike work with him and basically channel Spike’s inner Max to him. He never compromised and said, ‘Well, he’s just nine, it’s all I can get out of him.’ He expected as much out of him as he did from James Gandolfini.”

Records’ work on the film split into two phases: Max’s home life, and then his journey across the sea to confront the untamed wilderness.

“It’s somewhat chaotic at home for Max, where a lot of things are out of his control,” says Eggers. “His parents are divorced, his sister has reached adolescence and is sort of abandoning him for other interests. He reaches a point where all these people are too busy to see that he needs attention so he puts on his wolf suit and goes charging around the house. The next thing you know, he’s running out the door.”

These early scenes offer a sense of the myriad questions, as well as the creative impulses, frustrations and powerful emotions that might collide in the active mind of a young boy trying to get a handle on the world and his place in it–and the reasons why, oftentimes, a child might yearn for a world where he’s in charge.

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.”

Catherine Keener as Connie, Max’s Mom

“Where the Wild Things Are” stars Catherine Keener as Max’s loving but stretched-to-the-limit single mother.

After wrapping her early scenes with Records, Keener, also an associate producer on the film, remained onboard through a portion of the subsequent location shoot in Australia to serve as Jonze’s acting collaborator and extra set of eyes for working with Max and the Wild Things. “The whole experience of working with Max resonated very deeply with me,” she says. “His naturalness and purity of spirit really come through in every scene. It was months of hard work and he brought joy to it all the time.”

“Catherine helped me a lot,” says Records. “For instance, there’s a scene where I go into my sister’s room and I have to be really mad. Beforehand, Catherine was getting me to scream. She got me to yell all the swears I could muster.”

?Records also had a mentor in Jonze, who soon learned that directing a youngster required a different approach than he was accustomed to and was much more physically taxing. “There was very little time to sit down. I was always running around because working with Max has to be interactive,” he says. “It wasn’t just like I could watch his takes and give him notes. I was always moving with him, whether it was jumping up and down, or yelling, or talking to him to get a reaction. Whatever it was, it was very interactive directing.” ?

The lengths to which the director went to elicit reactions or guide Records through a specific emotion became a memorable series of performances in their own right that the young actor now recounts with delight. “He was doing all these crazy stunts. He had these big flamethrowers going off behind the camera to make me scared. They hired a bunch of guys from a sideshow to do tricks, and Spike learned fire-swallowing. The fire-swallowing thing really worked because he wasn’t very good at it. Spike’s tricks really did make me feel scared at times. The only drawback was that I wasn’t scared I was going to get eaten by the Wild Things; I was scared Spike was going to burn up his tongue.”

Among the shoot’s high points, Records cites Max’s epic dirt clod battle with the Wild Things as a personal favorite, especially as some of the action was enhanced pyrotechnically. “One scene that was really fun was when I was running through the forest. It’s practically a minefield because all these dirt clods are being thrown and just exploding on the ground. The special effects team had hidden little explosives in the leaves and all around me was ‘boom, boom, boom.'”

Records’ least-favorite scene was one in which Max must slide through the giant mouth of one of the Wild Things and into its stomach to hide. The worst part wasn’t the tight fit or the heat, or even the cables strapped to his back; it was being slathered in a gel he calls “the slime that smelled like rotten lemons.”

“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.”