CHICAGO — The promotional materials for Spike Jonze’s long-gestating new film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” kick off with this quote from the director: “I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood.”
Warner Bros. has reason to emphasize this distinction: Although Jonze’s “Wild Things” reveres the spirit of Sendak’s 1963 picture book, it’s quite a different beast.
Max, the troublemaking kid at the center of the action, is older. So, presumably, will be the film’s audience.
Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonze, said the movie’s influences certainly went beyond the standard kiddie fare. “The movies that we talked about at the very beginning — ‘Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Black Stallion’ and ‘My Life as a Dog’ and ‘400 Blows’ — were about childhood and did it from a child’s-eye view as opposed to more like, I call them confections,” Eggers said over lunch recently with the director and actors Max Records (who plays Max) and Catherine Keener (who plays his mom) in a downtown hotel.
“It wasn’t like we were making this anti-kids movie,” said Jonze, whose bright green crew-neck sweater was as pristine as Eggers’ San Francisco Giants’ baseball cap was dirty. “We were working from the inside out in terms of what we wanted it to feel like, as opposed to the outside in in terms of what shelf it was going to go on in the video store.”
But Jonze’s approach launched him onto a journey at least as long and perilous as Max’s. Although a seven-minute, animated “Wild Things” was made in 1973 (and updated in the 1980s), Sendak later spent years trying to launch a feature-length film and eventually approached Jonze, whom he’d befriended on a project before the director made his 1999 breakthrough film “Being John Malkovich.” At that point, the movie was set up at Universal, though disagreements would prompt its move to Warner Bros. (Pixar founder John Lasseter had even worked on a computer-animated version for Disney before he made “Toy Story.”)
Eggers, the author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and “Zeitoun” and founder of the independent publishing house McSweeney’s, had been friends with Jonze since writing him a fan letter about “Malkovich,” and Jonze didn’t care that Eggers had never written or even read a screenplay when he asked him to collaborate about five years ago.
“I think Spike has a fondness for untrained or self-trained people,” said Eggers. He noted that Jonze also hired Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a first-time composer.
“Yeah, and Max had never acted in a film before,” Jonze said of his now-12-year-old star, who previously had appeared in a Death Cab for Cutie video. “To me, it’s not so important finding somebody that has had the experience. It’s more finding somebody who has the right taste and qualities, because I feel like you can’t teach somebody taste, and I want to be with somebody whose taste is going to teach me something.”
To Keener, who wound up with an associate producer’s credit after relocating to Australia to keep working with Records long after her scenes had wrapped, Jonze’s working method fostered great camaraderie. “It’s not like a proprietary group of people,” she said. “Everyone’s excited about what you’re going to show me. It’s like a bunch of dogs who come back with stories of their walks, you know?”
Jonze and Eggers cracked up.
“You know what I mean,” sighed the good-humored Keener.
By the time Eggers signed on, Jonze had fleshed out a back story that had Max living with his divorced mom and older sister, who was losing interest in him. “I started thinking about who the Wild Things were and the idea that they were wild emotions,” said Jonze, who wanted to make a movie “that felt like being 9 in the world, trying to navigate this new place you’re in.”
Was Jonze a Wild Thing?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think I was just 9 years old.”
“All 9-year-olds are Wild Things,” Records said knowingly.
That the movie Max was older than the one on the page was something Jonze said he never considered “until I started telling Maurice about what I was writing. I was like, ‘OK, Max is like 8,’ and he said, ‘Oh, wait. Max is 5.’ As I was thinking about what the story was, it just felt like 8 or 9 was the right age.”
“If you’re going to really put a kid on a boat in an ocean, 5 isn’t going to cut it,” Eggers said. “It’s just too young.”
The iconic, 81-year-old author-illustrator Sendak, who retains a producer’s credit, was OK with that change but took more convincing on another one: Instead of having Max’s room turn into the forest where he encounters the Wild Things, the movie sends Max in his wolf costume storming out the front door and onto his adventure.
“That was the one thing that he really couldn’t believe we wanted to do, and he really fought it,” Eggers said. “He kept coming back to it.”
“(He’d say) ‘This is your movie — you’ve got to make it however you feel it needs to be — but why can’t the bedroom turn into a forest?’” Jonze recalled as Eggers laughed.
The writers said that, although they love that transition in the book, the film needed that extra shot of realism.
“If you’re going to watch a whole movie, and if it seems like the whole thing’s a dream or all in someone’s mind,” Eggers said, “I think it feels like a cheat.”
Eggers was less successful in selling another of his ideas.
“I wanted to have Max light the whole forest on fire. That didn’t happen,” said Eggers, who grew up in Lake Forest, Ill. “In the suburbs here, that’s what we did for fun — not lighting the whole forest, but there was a lot of fire-oriented activity. Maurice didn’t like the fire part. And I think it might have been impractical.”
“I started trying to figure out, ‘How do you burn a whole forest?’” Jonze said.
Eggers stressed he wished to show that “it’s not always good to get everything you wish for ... not that you should be burning down forests.”
At any rate, the director and co-writer said Sendak proved to be supportive of their artistic freedom and a more astute critic than the studio reps.
“Sometimes me and Dave would try to put something in there that was maybe a little bit pandering or cringy or a little on the nose, and it was always the thing that the studio loved and Maurice hated,” Jonze said.
“And, of course, we had to go with Maurice.”
Perhaps Jonze’s riskiest decision was to make the movie live-action in a multipart process: The actors who played the Wild Things (including James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara) performed their voice work on a soundstage before the production moved to Australia, and Records acted alongside local actors in oversize puppet costumes whose mouths eventually were computer-animated.
Such a strategy was bound to be tricky, though Jonze said he had no idea the film would take so long to complete and release.
“I knew it was going to be complicated,” said Eggers, who went on to co-write “Away We Go” with his wife, Vendela Vida. “I was the voice of reason.”
“He kept trying,” Jonze said, “and I was like ‘N-n-n-n-n-n-not listening.’”
Filming began back in 2006, and in early 2008, some test footage of Records cavorting with oversize, non-mouth-moving puppets leaked out over the Internet amid rumors that the production was in trouble. Warner Bros. announced it was delaying the release so Jonze could keep working.
Jonze said he took director/ friend David Fincher’s advice and didn’t respond to the gossip, though he admitted that he and the studio were in conflict. “It wasn’t fun, but we made it through it,” he said, noting that the delay turned out to be a blessing because now the studio is giving the film a wide, well-promoted release.
“In the end, I guess the only thing that matters is that I got to make my movie,” he said. “I feel like we made this thing that is true to what we set out to do.”