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Where the Wild Things Are Interview

Where the Wild Things Are
07 December 2009

Maurice Sendak’s classic book Where the Wild Things Are comes to the big screen in an adventure tale for every generation.

Directed by innovative filmmaker Spike Jonze, “Where the Wild Things Are” follows the adventure of Max, a mischievous young boy who is sent to his room after rebelling against his mother. However, Max’s imagination is free to roam, and it soon transports him to a thriving forest bordering a vast sea. Delighted, Max sets sail for the land of the Wild Things, where mischief reigns and Max rules.

In attendance:  Max Records, Vincent Landay (producer) 

How did you go about expanding on the book?   

Vincent Landay:  Yeah, we had to add a lot.  Well the main thing was we’d been working with Maurice (Sendak), the author on a different project years ago and they’d been trying to market this into a movie for years and nobody had cracked it. This was 14 years ago or so that he first started bringing it up and Spike said, “It’s my favourite book, I don’t want to be the guy that wrecked it by turning it into a movie”.  I have so many images of what that book means and everybody who reads it tends to come away with that.  

Time passed and we kept thinking about it and Maurice kept bringing it up and we finally felt like, ok, I think we’ve got an approach that I think will work that doesn’t impose an artificial plot to what is a beautiful poem, but rather take what’s there and the spirit and themes of that an apply it to cinema. 


Were you conscious of the attempts at making Wild Things?  There was a 1973 animated short and an opera in 1980. 

VL: The 73 one was just like the book.  We’d seen that and it was just someone animating the book and having someone read and even the animation was pretty crude; it wasn’t bringing it to life.  We knew through Maurice that he’d done an opera and we’d seen some photos of that but weren’t using any of that necessarily as a basis with what to do with this.  We didn’t look at any of the previous material because somebody had storyboarded the whole animated version of the movie at one point. 


Max, you get to do a lot of running about and smashing things.  Do you have lots of fun on set doing that? 

Max Records: Well there was a lot of smashing and crashing around for all who were involved.  The environment on the set didn’t really feel like a workplace.  It felt like a bunch of people had got together to experiment with really really expensive equipment.  We were beating the expensive equipment with sticks. 


Which was your favourite character? Who was the scariest? 

MR: My favourite is probably Douglas.  He’s more steady and even headed, more so than the others.  Scariest…probably the dragon from the book. 



Who was inside the costumes? 

VL: What we did is, we hired voice actors in America and recorded all of them together and then we videotaped that and we had a camera on every actor and a couple of wide cameras.  That was a very loose and freeform experience.  We shot for three weeks.  It was more like a theatre rehearsal than a film set.  Basically we covered the stage in heavy curtains and carpeting and bought big foam pieces in all different sizes and shapes:  big block or a long tube.  And we taped the microphones to the actors’ heads so it wouldn’t be on their clothes so if they interacted you wouldn’t hear the rustling of the clothes.   

Then they could show up in sweatpants or tracksuits or whatever they wanted and it was a great way to get very naturalistic and impromptu performances.  They could improv, they could do what they wanted, and they could overlap dialogue which never really happens in an animated movie.  And then with that as a basis we edited that before we went to Australia to film the movie, we gave a version for each character to the actors that we cast to wear the suits. 

And they weren’t your typical…there’s a whole industry of people who wear these suits and they walk around and do that and we kept being told that we have to hire those people because regular actors won’t know that if you move your arm this much, then it comes off as a big movement in a big character.   

But we as usual didn’t heed that advice and cast just really good actors and put them through physical training for two months, so they could have the body strength to handle this and as a result then they studied…so the person playing Carol got to study James Gandolfini’s performance with an isolated camera showing what he did on set, so he could just mimic that or interpret and go “oh ok, I understand the intent of what he was trying to do here” and it really gave us incredible performances by the Australian actors because it was almost like they were there on set with the voice actors. 

They understood who the character was supposed to be and could translate that physically as well as interacting with Max, giving Max real characters to perform with rather than you know, puppeted suits or if you were going to create all the characters on a computer, it would be a tennis ball on a stick – because of the eye line – “that’s the big furry creature that’s about the eat you, be scared”.  That’s too artificial. 

We had that for three weeks in Los Angeles. Technically on this movie nothing’s incredibly groundbreaking but we just borrowed the way that people had done things and put it together in a different way.  If you look at a traditional animated movie, the record the voices first and the animators draw out the characters, so we borrowed that from animation – we recorded the voices first.   

But usually, due to actor availability and maybe because they don’t put a high importance on interaction, they record those actors one at a time in a sound booth over a day or two.  Instead, we asked our actors to make themselves available for three weeks, so they could do the whole thing together. 


What prompted the design choices in terms of style?  The book’s quite colourful, it’s quite ostentatious.  The film’s a little bit more subdued, a little bit more “realistic”.  Why did you decide to go with that approach? 

VL: Spike decided early on when he was going to do the movie, the idea was to make this as naturalistic, as realistic as possible in hopes that the emotions and everything comes across much more directly to the audience.  If there’s something that feels too artificial about it, it might put up this false wall, it might somewhat be a membrane to the emotions coming across.  So his interpretation before we even started was, “I want it to feel like a nature documentary.  That we went to where the wild things are and we found these creatures.  So I don’t want these beautiful dolly moves, I want a documentary where we’re trying to find them in the frame” and as a result, everything else had to follow into that pattern of naturalism – the performances, the production design, the creatures themselves.   

And we stayed true to proportions of the creatures, which is probably the greatest deviation from naturalism but we looked at Maurice’s designs and looked closely at bringing them to life.  For instance Carol, in the book, he’s got these triangular things on the legs.  For a long time there was a discussion about what those should be and we kept going to the real world of ok, what are the real textures?  What exists on animals?  So those could be scales or they could be feathers.  

So all those needed to be interpreted and we found an artist who hadn’t really done anything like this before to work with us and he was the main one who pulled references from the real world and real animals. 


How much input did Maurice Sendak have? 

VL: Oh, quite a bit!  He’s like our guru, our mentor.  He can’t travel, so he wasn’t able to be there on set, but all through pre-production, we’d share versions of the script and get his feedback.  Our production designer went to meet with him early on to show him some sketches of what we wanted to do and obviously Sonny, our creature designer worked really closely with him.  And then we’d record video diaries from Australia and send them to him from the set. 


Max, what traits do you share with the Max in the movie? 

MR: Things we have in common…we’re about yay tall….similar complexion.  Ummm…me and my friends will take PVC piping, the big plastic pipes and mattress foam, wrap them around the PVC and duct tape it to make swords or something… 


Did you both read the book growing up or was it something you came to later?  Was it something you were very conscious of? 

VL: I read the book growing up and then by the time we first started working on the movie, I already had the book for my kids and was reading it for them. 


Were your childhood memories influencing the way you thought about it?   

VL: I think Spike had a stronger connection with it and Dave (Eggers).  For me it was more about not necessarily what I remember from the book, but what I remember about childhood and that feeling and that’s really what was great about the script and I think the film brings that across too – what it means to be a boy at that age and not to be able to articulate it, but to feel it. 

MR: That book is kind of a staple in my family for young kids.  My parents started reading it to me when I was super super young and as soon as I was learning to read I was reading it myself.   


What effect did it have on you?  How did it inspire you? 

MR: I don’t know if it had an effect or anything as much as you know….when you’re that teeny you can’t really articulate things.   

One of the changes from the book to the film is in the film he seems to be a bit more constrained, as if he’s reacting to his family.  Is that what you remember from your childhood? 

I think an amazing thing about childhood that we all need to hang on to is being able to transport yourself into another world and let your emotions out and enjoy that.  I think as you get older, you start to get more reserved and repressing and there’s such a freedom to that.  Maybe your interpretation is anger but that’s what I feel from the film and that’s what I get from the book too – just to be able to go off and be the king, it’s fantastic. 


If you could be a wild thing for the day, what would you like to do?  If you could do anything for one day? 

MR: Honestly, I’d be pretty psyched up to have Spiderman powers.  To be able to climb and the psow psow, web-sling thing.  

Are you a big comic fan than? 

MR:  Yes, but not really Spiderman or any of those.  I like Bone by Jeff Smith and then lot of Manga, so Osamu Tezuku (Astro Boy).  The kinds that I read are more like visual novels rather than superhero types. 


There seems to be something quite pertinent about having Daniel Johnston in the main soundtrack.  Was he a deliberate choice? 

VL: That’s probably more a question for Karen (O).  She was involved from the script writing on and we worked with Carter Burwell before on our previous movies and so he was a natural choice but Karen came across the Daniel Johnston song (Worried Shoes) and tried to experiment with a cover of it.  We assumed everything she was going to do was original.  We didn’t set out to tell her to do that, but when she did it worked so well and we thought “we gotta keep this, it’s amazing”. 


You didn’t think of putting a Metallica cover in there then? 

Part of the thought is, we want you to be in this world of the wild things, so we don’t want any pop song which takes you out of this world.  This amazing thing about music is that everyone associates something with it when they hear it and that sticks with you.   We don’t want you to bring that to the world of the wild things.  “I remember when I first heard it, I was driving down the M2”.   No, we don’t want that, so that’s why the majority of what’s there is original music. 


You’ve got this working relationship with Spike, but what is that special thing which makes you continually want to work with each other? 

VL: We have a good time.  We can run around on set with Max and throw sticks and stuff like that but most importantly, he’s always looking to do something unique and amazing and original and that’s exciting for me.  I think every aspect of this movie is unique.  Not only the process to make it but the end result, to have a movie that feels so personal, yet appeals to so many people at the same time, is really rare. 


Do you think it’d be a good movie for parents and children to see together? 

VL: I think it’s excellent for that.  We’ve always hoped that would happen.  Being a parent, there are so many movies that are made for family.  The world “family film” makes the hair on my back stand up and so often kids find out about movies just because of the onslaught of television adverts, so all of a sudden it’s “oh, I really want to go see this movie” and as a parent you realise it’s going to be the most painful 90 minutes of your week and you hope they have a friend whose parents are willing to take them, so you don’t have to go.   

The idea to make a movie that appeals to all ages, that as a parent, you’re willing, not only willing but want to go to and on top of that be able to come out of it and be able to talk to your children about it.   Some of the best feedback we’ve gotten from families is, “It’s so great, because we walked out of the film and our kids started bringing up topics to talk about that we’ve never been able to broach or talk about before and this movie gave us a way in to do that” and we couldn’t have a higher compliment.


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