Hollywood history is overflowing with sad tales of storytellers unwilling or unable to share their vision with someone else. And when you look back on barely speaking “collaborators” like Mark Steven Johnson and John Irving (“Simon Birch”), Tom Clancy and Phillip Noyce (“Patriot Games”) or Zack Snyder and Alan Moore (“Watchmen”), it’s no wonder that such unusually matched folks had trouble finding common ground. Much like the classic children’s tale “Where the Wild Things Are,” however, the behind-the-scenes story of Maurice Sendak and Spike Jonze had a happy ending.
When now-81-year-old Sendak originally published his beloved tale of a boy named Max and his adventures, it seemed unlikely that “Where the Wild Things Are” would ever be a movie, and the decades that followed only reinforced the notion that it was unfilmable . In the mid-’90s, however, visionary filmmaker Jonze took the industry by storm — and if he could make us believe we were inside John Malkovich’s head, why not Sendak’s fantasy land?
“I think of it as this perfect little poem,” Lauren Ambrose, who provides one of the voices in the film, said of the unique challenges Jonze had in taking on Sendak’s work. “People can come to it, and it means a lot at any age and any place in life. And I think that spirit has been maintained for the film. Spike did a really good job of capturing the danger in the wildness and the imagination of a kid in this movie.”
A lot of that resulted from the fact that Jonze made a point to not exclude Sendak from the film’s production. Instead he embraced the author, consulting him on many key decisions, and the results showed this week when both men walked down the red carpet together at the “Where the Wild Things Are” premiere Tuesday night in New York. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, this is an extremely rare occurrence.
“[The biggest pressure on] Spike was to do the right thing by Maurice, because they’re friends,” explained Catherine O’Hara, who also provides a voice in the film and said that such harmony between creative voices makes the job of an actor easier. “[Because of that,] I don’t feel any pressure. Knowing Spike and working with him and being friends with him, I didn’t have any doubt that it would be his own and a beautiful piece of art of his own. [He was determined to make the film] akin and equal to Maurice’s work.”
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It was especially important for “Wild Things,” because the book is so famously brief. Extra effort would be needed to expand Sendak’s nine sentences into a full-length movie, and if the director and author weren’t sharing a vision, the film could be extremely disjointed.
“[Sendak's approval of Jonze adding material] gives us a lot of room,” Forest Whitaker said. “It gave Spike room to create and to try to find something new. [And, in turn, Jonze] was always pushing us. Clearly, the movie is Spike’s vision, with all these other artists who gather together — actors and puppeteers and all this stuff.
“Now that the author says it’s OK, and Spike says, ‘Keep pushing it,’ [Sendak] is happy,” Whitaker explained. “[We were free] to see what we can find, see what we can do.”
“It’s a blessing,” O’Hara agreed. “There are a million people that could have done these classic characters that have lived in people’s imaginations forever — and we get to do it.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “Where the Wild Things Are.”
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