Interview: Director Spike Jonze Talks Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is one of the most beloved children's books of all time, not to mention one that many felt was unadaptable to the big screen. Warner Bros. disagreed, and hired Spike Jonze, notorious in the indie world for directing Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, to helm the project. The result is, at times, a touching ode to what it's like being a child. At others, it's a dark, imposing work that definitely challenges the definition of a "family movie." I got to sit down with the press-shy writer-director recently to discuss what went into transporting audiences, as well as his child-hero Max, to the Land of the Wild Things.

Cole Haddon: Where the Wild Things Are, the book, touched the lives of millions. Most of them are now parents or even grandparents. What do you want these fans to take away from the movie adaptation, and what do you want kids just coming to the story for the first time to take away from the experience?

Spike Jonze: I didn't have any thoughts about it. I don't know what you should take away from it. I think anybody can take away whatever they feel connected to or not connected to in the movie. The one thing I hope is that there would be some conversations, and that a parent might actually be able to talk to their kid in a different way and ask their kid what they think, and not worry about how they're going to turn out. But be curious as to who they are.

CH: Were you ever worried that the movie's tone might be too scary for kids?

SJ: We were just trying to make a movie that feels true to what it feels like, at times, to be nine years old. I think, as you're growing up, your emotions are just as deep as they are when you're an adult. Your ability to feel lonely, longing, confused, or angry are just as deep. We don't feel things more as we get older. We just have a better understanding of how to navigate those feelings, and a better sense of how to navigate our relationships and separate our emotions from them. I also don't think of this as a dark movie. It has moments that are intense, for sure.

CH: The book is only 20 pages long, and has only nine sentences in it. Can you talk about the process of expanding the story for a feature-length movie?

SJ: I wrote with Dave Eggers, who is a writer I love and a person that I got to know. We basically approached it, at the beginning, by not over-thinking it too much. We tried to write it really intuitively, at the beginning, and just write scenes. And we overwrote. We just wrote from our gut. Later, it became a little more laborious, in terms of editing and shaping it more. But, we tried to just approach it the way a kid's intuition approaches things. We tried to do a lot of things like that. The music was written in that sense, of not analytically, but just intuitively. We just tried to keep that spirit of not over-thinking it too much. My other movies are much more analytical or cerebral films. With this one, because the main character was nine, I wanted to turn that part of my brain off and not approach it so cerebrally.

CH: Did that decision to write intuitively also carry over into how you decided to shoot the movie?

SJ: Yeah. We just approached it intuitively. It wasn't necessarily an easy shoot. It was very complicated. We made a series of decisions, early on, by shooting the creatures real live-action on location, with a boy in the middle of it all. That was a very challenging way to shoot it. Once we made those decisions, we just agreed to take whatever weather, lighting, and wildness that [came with that] way of shooting. We tried to keep the whole film in the spirit of a kid, and tried not to put our adult stuff into that. That being said, we had some tantrums along the way, because the shoot was so stressful and difficult. I've worked with [cinematographer] Lance [Acord] and [production designer] K.K. [Barrett] for so long, and we did this whole movie as an adventure. The whole group of us moved to Australia, and all lived in neighborhoods near each other. It was just a very group experience, where we went off into these woods and deserts, and made this film. We lived the movie, in a lot of ways.

CH: I found the Land of the Wild Things to be pretty dark, hence my earlier question about the tone. Was there a reason you avoided making it a little more wondrous as might have been expected?

SJ: It stemmed a little bit from taking [the protagonist] Max seriously. We wanted to take this nine year old seriously, so if he's going to imagine that he's going to a place, it's not going to be some fantasy version of it. For me, it just connected more to really being there with these wild animals, in this forest and on these beaches, with sand and dirt and leaves in their hair, and have that level of reality to it. It makes it more dangerous and, in a way, more exciting because you're really there. The whole movie is shot from Max's point of view, where you're discovering it with him. Every scene in the movie is from Max's point of view. We also tried to give it its wonder, where it was relevant to the story, like when Max wakes up in Carol's arms, and he's carrying him through this beautiful forest with leaves falling everywhere. Those moments have their place, where it's hopefully more wondrous or spectacular.

CH: How conscious were you of how personal you were making what many might have expected to be a broader, even more commercial movie?

SJ: The idea is mixing intimate with epic at the same time, and being able to have those dynamics. The best songs are the ones that have that kind of dynamic. Arcade Fire [for example] has such intimacy and epic-ness, at the same time, and that's really inspiring.

CH: Thanks so much for the interview. Do you know what you're doing next yet?

SJ: No, not yet.

CH: Might you head back down the indie path?

SJ: I don't know. I'm just going to make whatever. I don't look at it with a label. That's weird. I just want to make whatever is exciting.