Wild Things: Spike Jonze and Max Records Interview
Where The Wild Things Are is an adaptation of the classic children’s novel by Maurice Sendak which sees Max travel to a faraway land, where he meets the Wild Things, a bunch of monsters who seem to have as much trouble relating to each other as Max does to his own family.
I spoke to the director Spike Jonze and child star Max Records about adapting one of the seminal works of children’s literature, finding the right soundtrack for the movie and keeping actors on their toes.
Do you feel glad it’s done now, because it’s been a long time coming?
Spike Jonze: Yeah, I felt really glad. I remember the morning it came out in the US, I felt different when I woke up that morning I think. We;’ve done a lot of promotion up to that morning so it just felt like the end of five years, like a huge weight off my shoulders. What about you Max?
What was it about Max that stood out when you were casting?
SJ: Um…look at him, he’s special! You’re special Max, you’re special. Just watching him on camera was really captivating. We needed an actor that could play the range of the role of the character that we’d written, that had moments of quiet introspection and sensitivity as well as wildness and recklessness and it was actually really challenging to find somebody that could do all of that and as soon as we started to audition with Max, we saw that he’d be amazing and we’d be able to go anywhere with him.
This is your first script that you’ve done without Charlie Kaufmann. His scripts are very verbose and this was very sparse. Was that an attraction in a way, to try something completely different?
SJ: I think so…yeah, I don’t know if it was an attraction. I think the attraction was initial just the book and the feeling I was trying to capture, but certainly as I got into it, I thought that what’s required to tell the story is not to be cerebral about it and to be much more intuitive. Because the story’s from a nine-year-old, you’re telling the story of a nine-year-old and so I wanted the movie to work in the way the mind of nine-year-old works.
Max, Spike set up a great soundtrack for this film. If you were given the option, who would you like to have on it?
Max Records: I also really really like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The White Stripes and The Raconteurs and all sorts of stuff, like alternative rock stuff
SJ: Tell them about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound check you guys went to.
MR: Oh, in Portland where I live, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing the day before my school was coming out of summer break and because the show was happening at midnight, they let us come to the sound check instead and they took requests and stuff and the place was completely empty and we got to slide around on the floor.
SJ: It sounded awesome; it was a concert for like four kids.
Did you always have Karen O in mind for the soundtrack at the beginning or was that something that evolved?
SJ: No, that’s from the beginning. As soon as a started writing, I talked to her about it.
Were you happy with the result; was that what you asked her to do?
SJ: I really just wanted her to write from her heart and it’s the first time we’d ever gotten the music as we were editing so we had stuff to cut to. When we were shooting, we’d send her footage and send her long sequences, like 20 minutes from a sequence, just unedited, raw dailies. We’d never done that before, we’d always just cut picture and scored it afterwards. In a way it made the music that much more intertwined with the film.
What did it take to get inside the mind of a child? Was that particularly influenced by your childhood memories?
SJ: Yeah probably, that would be the most immediate thing. As you’re writing that subject, that’s where you’re at. The longer you’re in that place, the easier it is to connect to that.
In terms of child actors, what are some of the differences in working with Max and working with a grown up like say, Nicolas Cage?
SJ: Nicolas Cage didn’t beat me up! You know, it’s interesting that you mention Nicolas Cage. Nicolas, because of the way we made that movie (Adaptation, 2002) was more similar to working with Max than a lot of the other actors because with all the other actors in movies, they were playing opposite other actors but Nicolas, since he was playing twin brothers, I’d often played the other brother. So that was actually in a way, practice for this movie because that’s how me and Max worked together.
Max, how was it working with Spike? Did you have fun?
MR: Yeah! Spike, his strategy is to…he knows exactly what he wants and he also know 63 variations of that exact thing that he wants.
SJ: I think Max stopped believing me when I said, let’s do it one more time.
MR: I think our record was 54 takes for one scene.
SJ: 54, one more times.
I heard that Spike let off some gas canisters to make sure you were surprised?
MR: Yeah, that was one of the ones that really really worked. He did all kind of behind the scenes stuff to try to give me something to react to. He would spray somebody with a fire extinguisher, put somebody up on wires and have them fly or have the Wild Things have light sabre fights. He hired a few guys from a side show to come on set so there was a fire swallower and a sword swallower, a guy that was juggling chainsaws.
SJ: The idea was to give him something to react to. It was like a movie where you could just have an actor off camera paying a scene that’s written because the actor that’s off scene is a Wild Thing throwing another Wild Thing and things that we didn’t have day to day, so we had other things that we could stage. It was more like doing a little play behind camera to give him something to react to. Instead of just having an actor in front of a green screen and just saying, “There’s a spaceship exploding in here and your dad’s dying right there and action!”
How have kids reacted to it?
SJ: Yeah, the thing about kids is that there’s no one reaction because they’re all different, in the same way that there’s no one reaction to the film from adults.
MR: We had a screening in September before it came out at my school and there were 400 kids in a theatre watching the movie. And some of the younger ones, the third graders, some of them were like “what is this?!” and closing their eyes and their ears and stuff but all the kids that were older than third grade, totally totally loved it.
I think Maurice came out and said to people to who thought the book was too scary for kids, I think he said they were stupid was the quote. Do you agree with him?
MR: Slightly stronger words that than I think!
SJ: I think that when the book came out, the book was considered too dangerous for children and Maurice got into a lot of trouble. There’s a lot written about him and the book being not for children and there were supporters of it too but a lot of librarians, child experts and…
SJ: Yeah, were against it and what happened is that after a few years, more and more kids started taking it out of the library and loving it and the kids are the ones that made it what it is and now it’s this classic. So I think that there’s a knee-jerk reaction to things from parents. I think that kind of parents are more scared of it than kids are and that sort of goes back to the problem with the studio. I don’t think it was anything to do with kids, I think it was to do with their own anxieties and it was a fight against the studio’s anxieties.
The Mighty Boosh has put you top of their hit list to direct their forthcoming feature. Is that something you’d be prepared to take up? Are you aware of their existence?
SJ: Yeah, they’re hilarious. Actually, it’s Karen O’s favourite show. Karen gave me the DVD and I thought it was hilarious but I don’t know what they think I could do.
Do you have a project you’re working on now?
SJ: Yeah, I’m just finishing a short film I wrote called I’m Here and I’m just finishing that and I’m going to show it an Sundance and put it out. It’s a half hour, so I’m not sure how to put it out, it might just be on TV.
MR: After that he’s going to direct a movie called Unicorn vs. Narwhal With A Vengeance.