It's been a wild ride for Spike Jonze trying to bring Maurice Sendak's classic children's book to the big screen. He vividly remembers his mother's voice when she read him the story of 9-year-old Max leaving home and finding himself king of the Wild Things on a strange island. But Where the Wild Things Are (opening Oct. 16 from Warner Bros.) is not child's play; it represents a nearly decade-long adventure to find the right cinematic touch for such emotionally raw material about childhood fears run amok. And it marks an artistic leap for the sensitive and iconoclastic director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Jonze sat down with Fandango for an exclusive chat about his cinematic journey.
Q: You turned this down a couple of times before finally saying yes. What was the deciding factor in taking this on?
Jonze: I didn't want to take this book that I loved so much just because I had the opportunity to add something on that didn't deserve to be there. But the idea that I had come up with when I started thinking about who the Wild Things were was dealing with their wild emotions. As a kid, I found unpredictable, wild emotions very scary and confusing and unsettling -- wild emotions in myself and people around me, and so it suddenly [came alive].
Q: You found a portal to the movie?
Jonze: Exactly. And then suddenly it was wide open and writing the Wild Things seemed very exciting. And to imagine what their performances would look like when you had these giant, 12-foot-tall creatures, especially those types of performances, it all seemed so exciting. It was like a flash of all these possibilities.
Q: Did you pick Maurice Sendak's brain about the psychology of these characters? They seem like a manifestation of Max's wild emotions.
Jonze: It's funny -- he doesn't analyze his stuff like that.
Q: Did you?
Jonze: We tried not to be overly analytical like I did on my first two movies. Since this is about a 9-year-old boy, I tried not to come at [it] cerebrally as much.
Q: You stayed within a child's head?
Jonze: Yeah, they're more intuitive and in the gut, and we tried to make this movie that way as much as possible. I tend to be cerebral and intellectual, [so] I tried to turn my brain off for this movie and not be too clever about it. We really just wrote what felt true from moment to moment, and how the character would feel from moment to moment.
Q: That's how you approached the whole process of making the movie?
Jonze: Yeah, we did. On a visual effects movie, you do 75% or 80% of the work in the last two months, and all that other time is finding it. We moved to London during the last three months and just sat with the animators every day. The level of performances that they got out of the shots was so exciting. These guys were just putting themselves into the movie, and putting themselves into the shot, frame by frame. I was just so impressed.
Q: Talk about the anxiety expressed by Warner Bros. and how it affected your re-shoots.
Jonze: We didn't have to re-shoot; we just did. We always do. I assume that's what everybody does.
Q: But the studio was anxious about your vision and wanted to see a rough cut?
Jonze: What happened was that when that anxiety arose, I was already scheduling the additional stuff I wanted to shoot. And so it wasn't like they made me shoot -- they actually made me stop shooting. They wanted me to somehow make it into something else. And so basically the process was persuading them to let me shoot my movie. I don't know how I ever would've made it something else. A: I don't think it's in the movie to be something else. B: I don't think it's in me to make it something else. C: I'm not going to work on something this long and care about something this much and compromise it even a fraction of an inch.
Q: What's been the reaction among kids?
Jonze: It's interesting because I don't think kids are that different from us. I think we think they're a lot different. But the depth of their feelings is as deep as ours. When they're in love with somebody, they feel it just like we do; when they're lonely, they feel it just like we do. All those things are there.
Q: But they can't process it and control it?
Jonze: That's exactly what this movie is about. And I think that's what this book is about: Max acting wild, and his mom doesn't sit down and teach him a nice lesson about it. She reacts and calls him wild things and yells at him. And, as Maurice says, it would be nice if she did [teach him]. But moms make mistakes, too, and we're all fallible. Going back to your question, "how do kids react," there are people that love our movies and hate our movies. And what's really interesting is that I talk to 9-year-olds and they have the same reaction: some love it and some are bored by it; some think it's hilarious, some think it's really sad. That's amazing. Nobody has to have the same reaction. Same with adults — and that's OK.
Q: What did you get out of the journey?
Jonze: I don't know. Maybe I'll see it clearer in a few years, but I've just finished it now.
Send feedback on this column to