Inside all of us is…everything we've ever seen, everything we've ever done, and everyone we've ever loved.
Innovative director Spike Jonze collaborates with celebrated author Maurice Sendak to bring one of the most beloved books of all time to the big screen in "Where the Wild Things Are," a classic story about childhood and the places we go to figure out the world we live in.
The film tells the story of Max, a rambunctious and sensitive boy who feels misunderstood at home and escapes to where the Wild Things are. Max lands on an island where he meets mysterious and strange creatures whose emotions are as wild and unpredictable as their actions.
The Wild Things desperately long for a leader to guide them, just as Max longs for a kingdom to rule. When Max is crowned king, he promises to create a place where everyone will be happy. Max soon finds, though, that ruling his kingdom is not so easy and his relationships there prove to be more complicated than he originally thought.
"Where the Wild Things Are" is directed by Spike Jonze from a screenplay by Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak.
Inside All of Us Is a Wild Thing
"I didn't set out to make a children's movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood," says director Spike Jonze, whose big-screen adaptation of the captivating Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are was truly a labor of love. In it, he further explores the themes Sendak introduced and which Jonze believes remain relevant to every generation. "It's about what it's like to be eight or nine years old and trying to figure out the world, the people around you, and emotions that are sometimes unpredictable or confusing--which is really the challenge of negotiating relationships all your life," he says. "It's no different at that age."
"Where the Wild Things Are" offers a fresh look--and for many of us, a look back--into the many facets of childhood. It invites audiences of all ages to join in the discovery and challenge and pure feral joy of a young boy's brave journey to the island of the Wild Things, a special place that's sure to stir thoughts of the wild things that live in all of us.
"In a way, it's an action movie starring a nine-year-old. There's a lot of physical mayhem like dirt clod fights and rampaging in the forest," says Jonze. Indeed, the island offers up every youngster's fantasy: the freedom to run and jump and howl, to build and destroy and wrestle and throw things as far as he can… most of all, to do only the things he wants to do, with no one saying he can't. Resplendent in his wolf costume, young Max soon becomes King of the Wild Things by proving his superior ferocity over the giant creatures who live there. But it's an uneasy reign because the Wild Things are just that--wild--and there is always the possibility they might decide to eat him after all, with their great sharp teeth. Being king just might not be as easy as Max imagined.
At the same time, the story follows Max's first steps toward growing up as he becomes aware of the complex relationships the individual Wild Things have with each other and with him, and how doing everything he wants isn't always the best choice. Told with unabashed honesty from a child's point of view, "Where the Wild Things Are" reveals Max's increasing understanding of his own feelings and the feelings of others.
The film began with Jonze's abiding affection and respect for the book, written and illustrated by Sendak, another strong believer in not talking down to young people. Published in 1963, it earned a Caldecott Medal and went on to touch millions of readers worldwide, perpetually ranked by Publishers Weekly as one of the 10 all-time best-selling books for children since the 1970s.
Its enduring appeal, notes Jonze, is in how it "taps into genuine feelings that kids have and takes them seriously without pandering. Kids are given so much material that's not honest, so when they find a story like this it really gets their attention. I remember myself, at that age, being so eager to hear that other kids were going through the same things I was and having similar thoughts."
Max Records, now twelve, made his film debut as Max in "Where the Wild Things Are" and agrees. "The book reflects what it's actually like to be a kid. It's a book that could not only be respected by kids but it really gets to the heart of everything you feel growing up and even beyond that."
It was that idea of "beyond" that led Jonze to realize what he could contribute to the story. Adapting the slim volume into a feature film gave him the opportunity to take the adventure further, to delve deeper into Max's world, the unknown terrain of the island and the impetus that brings him there. He could examine more fully the Wild Things themselves, those volatile and endlessly expressive creatures which are "the wild emotions inside of Max and inside all of us."
From that point, the possibilities were limitless.
Jonze selected acclaimed novelist and fellow Wild Things fan Dave Eggers to collaborate with him on the screenplay, though Eggers had never written for film. This did not surprise Vincent Landay, Jonze's longtime collaborator and a producer on "Where the Wild Things Are," who offers, "Spike's instinct about Dave was based on knowing him as a person and knowing he had the right sensibility and the right take on what he wanted out of these characters. Spike likes to put people into situations where they might not have been in before because you often end up with a fresher result."
Before long, the two met with Sendak in his Connecticut home to go over their plans for the movie. Unquestionably, they wanted to keep it true to the author's values and intention; otherwise they would not attempt it. Of their initial discussions, Eggers remembers, "We wanted to make a movie that didn't look down at a kid but got inside him. Most kids in movies are 'de-fanged.' They have no wildness. What we figured out pretty quickly was that we all clearly remembered what it was like to be a boy, to be a little wild and get into trouble. We understood who Max was. We didn't need to focus-group it or ask a child psychologist about what a child thinks or believes; we knew it in our guts."
What ensued was an old-fashioned brainstorming process of two first-time screenplay writers locked in a room, hammering out ideas and dialogue together, acting out characters and melding their very different methods. "Dave is a very disciplined writer. If he gets stuck, he puts in a placeholder and keeps going whereas, for me, if it doesn't feel right I will stay in that place until I find what works. I don't want to let it go," Jonze admits, to which Eggers adds, "Spike's method is the definition of organic. I often saw myself as the facilitator, helping to put his ideas on paper and fill it out."
"First and foremost I was concerned with who Max was and what was going on in his life," says Jonze. "I wanted to make a movie that takes kids seriously but Maurice said, 'Make sure you don't just take the heavy side of the kid seriously; take his imagination seriously, his sense of joy.' We never set any rules about whether it would be for kids or adults. We just went where it took us."
Serving as a producer on the film, Sendak was fully involved from those early conversations and throughout production. He says, "Spike immediately had his own point of view. I trusted him. I knew he had a vivid sense of what the book was about in his head, which was the same with me when I wrote it.
"He's given me a renewal of respect for young people," the author continues, saying that so few people he encounters have Jonze's "bite," nor his interest "in history, or the world they came from. They just want to be what they want to be, without the luxury of learning about it. Spike is like a throwback, in that he reminds me of the young people I remember from the 1960s; kind of crazy but in the most wonderful, adventurous way. For me, the 60s was an exuberant and splendid time."
It was an inspired creative match, attests producer John Carls, who has worked with Sendak for 17 years, since the two formed Wild Things Productions in 1992. "He and Spike are very similar as artists. They're both bold and innovative thinkers, constantly challenging the status quo; they're both hard-working perfectionists who pour everything into their work; and they're both in touch with their childlike selves, which gives them a perspective that connects authentically with children."
Ultimately, the film was a combination of their stories and recollections. Says Jonze, "Maurice based the book on themes and feelings from his life, his childhood. I was picking up the baton."
"Spike is an incredibly gifted young man and courageous," says Sendak. "He didn't do an homage to the book; he did something that belongs to him, which makes him a real filmmaker and a real artist. I love the movie. It's original. It has an entire emotional, spiritual, visual life which is as valid as the book. He's turned it into his 'Wild Things' without giving up mine, in a brilliant, modern, fantastical way which takes nothing from my book but enhances and enriches it. They are two very different works of art and I like them both."
Capturing the Look, the Feel, the Breadth and Breath of It
As much as Jonze wanted to present Max as a real boy, he sought to give the story's imaginative elements a realistic execution, explaining, "I wanted to build and shoot the Wild Things so that Max could touch them, lean on them, shove them, hug them. I wanted them to be there so people could feel their breath, their size and their weight in a visceral and immediate way and I couldn't imagine doing that wholly in a computer or on a soundstage." Read more
Max is the Heart of the Movie
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." Read more
The Wild Things Find Their Voices and Reveal Their Personalities
Drawing greatly from the book's illustrations, Jonze and Eggers developed Sendak's motley band of horned, clawed and hairy giants into a group of individual personalities, each with his or her own impulses and motives. The actors cast to voice the Wild Things were instrumental in forging their distinct identities. They also focused on the ways in which the Wild Things interacted with each other: at times bickering and conflicted, at other times playful and comforting. Read more
"They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws."
When it came to design, what mattered most about the Wild Things' big-screen debut was that they had the depth of feeling, humor, ferocity and tenderness the story required. They had to be alive. Sendak was offered "the last word on what they looked like and how they moved. Yet, at the same time, I didn't want to lock them into place so that they were stuck rather than creatively excited by the prospect of what the monsters looked like," the author said. "When I was doing the book, nobody bugged me. Nobody said the monsters should look like this or that, because nobody knew what they should look like." Read more
"…and he came to the place where the Wild Things are."
"When you think of the setting for the characters in the book, they're in some type of woods, on an island, a beach," says production designer K.K. Barrett, marking his third collaboration with Jonze on "Where the Wild Things Are." "We wanted the environment we put them in to be gritty and realistic, with natural elements. We wanted it to feel like somewhere no one has visited before." After considering places as diverse as Argentina, Hawaii, New Zealand, California and the Southern U.S., the filmmakers found a home for the Wild Things in the hills, quarries and shoreline areas of outer Melbourne, at the southern tip of Australia. Here, says Jonze, "It felt like the edge of the world, on this rocky cliff." The area's barren forest proved a perfect graphic background for the action and suited the film's overall palette. Read more
Music to Soothe the Savage Beast
Accompanying Max's discoveries on both a grand and an intimate scale is the film's music, composed by Karen O and Carter Burwell. Jonze worked previously with award-winning composer Burwell on "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" and with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O on many music and film collaborations in the past. He counts them both among the most intuitive and creative people he has ever met. Overall, suggests Jonze, "The music provides not so much a score as themes." Read more
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
SPIKE JONZE (Director/Screenwriter) is the versatile filmmaker behind the acclaimed films "Being John Malkovich," for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and "Adaptation," for which its three stars--Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper--received Academy Award nominations for their performances, with Cooper going on to win Best Supporting Actor.
"Where the Wild Things Are" marks his third directorial feature.
As a producer, his credits include Michel Gondry's first film, "Human Nature," and frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York." He is also one of the creators and producers of the popular "Jackass" television show and films.
Jonze has also directed music videos, commercials, short films, documentaries, and is an accomplished photographer. He most recently co-directed "Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak," which will air in October on HBO.
DAVE EGGERS (Screenplay) is the author of six books, including his most recent, Zeitoun, a non-fiction account of a Syrian-American immigrant and his extraordinary experience during Hurricane Katrina, and What Is the What, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. That book, about Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the civil war in southern Sudan, gave birth to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, run by Mr. Deng and dedicated to building secondary schools in southern Sudan.
Eggers is the founder and editor of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house based in San Francisco that produces a quarterly journal, the monthly magazine The Believer, and Wholphin, a quarterly DVD of short films and documentaries.
In 2002, with Nínive Calegari, he co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for youth in the Mission District of San Francisco. Local communities have since opened sister 826 centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, Seattle, and Boston. In 2004, Eggers taught at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and there, with Dr. Lola Vollen, he co-founded Voice of Witness, a series of books using oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world.
A native of Chicago, Eggers graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children.
MAURICE SENDAK (Author/Producer) has, for more than forty years, written and illustrated books which have nurtured children and adults alike and have challenged established ideas about what children's literature is and should be.
Winner of the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are, in 1970 Sendak became the first American illustrator to receive the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, recognition of his entire body of work. In 1983, he received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association, also for his body of work.
Beginning in 1952, with A Hole Is to Dig, by Ruth Krauss, Sendak's illustrations have enhanced many texts by other writers, including the Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik, children's books by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Randall Jarrell, and The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm. Dear Mili, Sendak's interpretation of a newly discovered tale by Wilhelm Grimm, was published to extraordinary acclaim in 1988.
In addition to Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Sendak has both written and illustrated The Nutshell Library (1962), Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1967), In the Night Kitchen (1970), Outside Over There (1981), and We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993). He illustrated Swine Lake (1999), authored by James Marshall.
Since 1980, Sendak has designed the sets and costumes for highly regarded productions of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and "Idomeneo," Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen," Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges" and Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."
In 1990, Sendak founded The Night Kitchen, a national theater company devoted to the development of quality productions for children. In 1997, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton and, in 2003, the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, an international prize for children's literature established by the Swedish government.
Sendak was born in Brooklyn in 1928. He now lives in Connecticut.
THE ART OF ADAPTATION