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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The beloved children's book "Where the Wild Things Are" has been adapted into a movie directed by my guest, Spike Jonze, who also directed "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich." Jonze co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers.

"Where the Wild Things Are" is an unlikely book for a film adaptation. It's a short book with fantastic illustrations. Some pages have no writing at all, others have one to three lines. As Jonze says, the book is almost like a poem.

The story in the book is about a boy named Max who has been mischievous, so his mother sends him to his room without dinner. Alone in his room, he imagines his ceiling hung with vines and the walls becoming the world all around with an ocean on which he sails to where the wild things are. The wild things are fantastic creatures.

The film is not animated. The 10-feet-high wild things were created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The boy is played by Max Records. The wild things are voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker and Paul Dano.

Here's a scene with Max and Gandolfini.

(Soundbite of movie, "Where the Wild Things Are")

Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI (Actor): (as Carol) Well, this part of your kingdom is not so good.

Mr. MAX RECORDS (Actor): (as Max) Why?

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (as Carol) Look, this, this used to be all rock. And now it's sand. And then one day it's going to be dust. And then the whole island will be dust. And, and then I don't even know what comes after dust.

Mr. RECORDS: (as Max) Carol.

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (as Carol) Mm-hmm.

Mr. RECORDS: (as Max) Did you know the sun was going to die?

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (as Carol) What? I never heard that. Oh, come on. That can't happen. I mean, you're the king, and look at me. I'm big. How could guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun? Huh?

GROSS: The idea that Spike Jonze adapt "Where the Wild Things Are" was proposed by the author himself, Maurice Sendak. They've been friends for about 14 years since working together on another project. Jonze declined several times before saying yes, and even when he agreed to do it, he was unsure how.

Mr. SPIKE JONZE (Director): As I started to think about, you know, just what's in the book and thinking about expanding what's there and Max, you know, at this moment of Max acting wild and out of control and yelling at his mom and his mom yelling back at him and what that would really mean, just sort of going deeper into it and what would the moments in Max's life at home be about and what would be happening in his life that led him to that, and then if Max gets to the island, what would the wild things be like?

And I started to try and just go inside the book as opposed to thinking of stuff I'd put on top of the book, and in thinking about who the wild things were and when Max shows up and meets them or interacts with them, what would they be like? And I started to imagine them talking like us and sounding like us, and that seemed really funny. Like a funny idea to see these giant wild things, giant heads and giant eyes then speak, you know, like us and not in like monster voices but, you know - and, but then that didn't seem like enough of an idea for a movie. That was like a funny idea but not like an idea for a movie.

You know, or as I kept thinking more about who they'd be, I started to think of them as wild emotions and that idea seemed like a big one, like in terms of something that can seem, you know, can seem scary, like out-of-control emotions. I mean it seems scary as a kid and it can even still seem scary and, you know, and out-of-control emotions in yourself or the people you're close to and like how to navigate those. And as a kid, that seemed like a big idea.

And so, you know, that was the way in, and it was sort of like that was the key. And I soon as I had that idea, it seemed like it was like a little riddle that had always been there for me in some way, that the wild things were wild emotions. And that was - and I called Maurice and said I think I'd like to do this and talked to him about it, and he was really encouraging of me.

He never said if that was the right or wrong thing. And even when I was nervous of, like, well, and this book means so much to so many people, I was nervous, you know, that my idea was just sort of what the book meant to me. Maurice was very encouraging. He was like almost belligerent in his like, you know, his encouragement and like basically said you can't care what anybody else thinks, you just got to make something that's personal to you and make - and that was like his assignment to me.

GROSS: One of the most famous things obviously about the book "Where the Wild Things Are" are the wild things themselves, the monsters that Maurice Sendak created, which are, you know, a little scary but also kind of adorable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And they have all these like human elements. Like one of them seems to be almost wearing like a striped T-shirt and a couple of them have actual feet instead of, you know, clawed hooves. And what was it like for you to have to figure out how to adapt these two-dimensional creatures? Well, I guess a movie's two-dimensional too. But I mean they're just drawn on the page. How did you decide whether you wanted to go animation or, you know, live action, or some combination of the two?

Mr. JONZE: I mean I guess the initial idea of doing it live action with, you know, building the creatures and shooting them for real with a, you know, with a real little kid and a real location was just a, you know, I don't think I analyzed it that much. It's just - that's what felt right. And then as I started - as Dave Eggers and I started writing together, we started to talk about why that was important. And I think we realized, or I realized, that that decision was sort of, you know, important to taking the character seriously and taking his, you know, this is his world.

And, you know, I think - when I read the book and I imagined being Max, I didn't imagine being Max in like some animated version. I would imagine, you know, in the same way like when you play war with your friends as a kid, you're playing war and you're - it's totally real to you. And I think just taking - it's another extension of taking Max seriously, is just like put him in this situation and for real and you're not making like a movie version of it.

We wanted a real kid, not a movie kid, and a real family situation, and by extension, you know, taking his imagination seriously and making him -allowing him to go to a real place with these creatures that are there in front of him that can push him, hug him, and pat him on the head, and with their claws sort of swiping close to his face. And there's just the physicality of it and the naturalism and would add a visceral realism and also add a danger to it. It would have more presence that would be dangerous.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Spike Jonze, and he co-wrote and directed the new movie adaptation of the Maurice Sendak children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are." He also directed the movies "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" and a whole lot of rock videos.

The actor who plays Max, his name is - the actor's name is Max Records. How did you find him? Did you do a big, like, standard audition for children?

Mr. JONZE: Yeah, we did. We did - probably for about a year we did casting in all the big cities around the country and we found, you know, amazing kids - like some kids that got, that we were really close to casting, actually. But we realized what we'd written and basically the role we'd written for Max in the movie was a really complicated, challenging role, and the level of performance that we were looking for and the range of performance that we were looking for, we started to realize like we were looking for like an eight-year-old Sean Penn or Daniel Day-Lewis.

Like, you know, just that you could hold on his face and that a lot is unspoken and you can see what he's thinking and feeling and that at times he can be reckless and free and guileless and gleeful. And at times he can be internal and introspective. And we were looking for a lot. Eventually what happened was we started getting down to the wire and hadn't found our, you know, found Max yet. So we sort of came up with another plan.

Instead of going through the traditional casting agents in all these big cities, we started to think maybe we should be looking for, like, if we're looking for a really interesting kid, maybe we need to look in areas that are more - have more creative artistic communities. And so we got friends of ours, like we got a good friend of ours who's a graphic designer in Athens, Georgia, another friend in Amherst, Massachusetts, or a friend of ours, Lance Bangs, a documentarian in Portland, Oregon who ultimately found Max in Portland, and we got those people to go out and just start putting kids on tape.

And Lance Bangs found Max and he had never acted before. But, you know, on the tape it was just clear that there's something really special about him and beautiful and soulful. And...

GROSS: Let me stop you a second. What did he film him doing if he'd never acted before? What was the tape like?

Mr. JONZE: The tape - I think the initial tape was reading the scenes a couple times. It wasn't like a real in-depth audition. It was reading a couple scenes and then just having him run around. And I think he had him like take a plastic sword and sneak out into the backyard and attack his parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONZE: And then he sent it to me and there's just something sparkling about him. But it wasn't clear if he could act or not. And so then Catherine Keener, who plays the mom in the movie, but also she's a good friend of mine, and because I've worked with her so closely on my previous movies, I sort of sucked her into the movie in terms of - in all different ways. And first she was helping me like read with kids.

The two of us would go in and sort of tag team and audition with kids. And so anyway, Keener was up in Oregon at the time shooting "Into the Wild," Sean Penn's movie, and Lance Bangs brought Max over to Astoria, where they're shooting and on a day off Keener put - auditioned with him and sort of dug deeper into some of the scenes and sent the tape to me. And that was when it was clear that he could act and not in like a movie kid way, but like touching, you know, going there. And it was just clear that he was the person that I could make this movie with.

And, you know, he carries the movie. He's the heart of the movie and, you know, he's in every scene in the movie. The whole movie's told from his point of view. You know, these silent reaction shots on him that sort of guide us through the movie and tell us what he's thinking and feeling.

GROSS: I think the color palette of your movie is kind of different than the book "Where the Wild Things Are." The book has a lot of kind of pastel colors. I mean they're like light shades of, like, slightly washed-out blues and greens and yellows and pinks. And your movie tends more toward, like, sepia-tone type of colors. And I'm wondering why you made that choice?

Mr. JONZE: Um, I don't know. I guess I never analyzed the difference in color palette. I think what, you know, there's a couple things with the book that we were trying to maintain. One, which is the graphic quality of the book, and the scale. Those are things that we tried to translate into our approach, which was this, you know, photo-real naturalistic approach, and it turned out to be a lot harder to do than we thought because, you know, I guess initially we were like, went and looked at jungles, and both K.K., our production designer, and I, we both sort of realized that jungles are really, you know, lack depth. They sort of just turn to mush, and it seemed like a really limited way to shoot the movie. There's just so much undergrowth and they're kind of visually boring.

We needed to find nature that was more graphic. And one of the first discoveries K.K. found was a burnt-out forest, a forest that had had a fire in it about six months earlier, and so all the undergrowth was gone. All the trees were charred black, the ground was charred black, and it became this sort of this canvas basically for K.K. to art-direct nature in, and that became sort of the touchstone for what we were -what K.K. ended up doing - K.K. Barrett, our production designer - which was art-directing nature. So we had this photo-real naturalistic setting that then he can go and create the sort of graphic quality that's in the book.

And so he, you know, in this forest, for example, he went in and sort of art-directed the ground cover, like a lighter leaves that would give contrast to the trees and then went in and placed these little saplings, you know, throughout the forest. You know, it was just throughout all the locations trying to sort of, you know, that became K.K.'s job, is to art-direct nature and create the look of the film.

GROSS: My guest is Spike Jonze. He directed and co-wrote the new movie adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Spike Jonze. He directed and co-wrote the new film adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak illustrated children's book, "Where The Wild Things Are." Jonze also directed "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich."

So can you describe a little bit more what it was like to create the wild things for the movie with actual actors in costumes, but how did you get the faces of these monsters to move like they were alive?

Mr. JONZE: You know, we edited the movie for almost a year and a half and like, we really were adamant that this - we never were going to let this be a visual effects movie where, like, the visual effects were driving the process. And so we always just considered it a character movie and we shot it in that way and we edited it in that way.

And I think traditionally in visual effects movies, as you're editing, you're locking sequences and giving those to the visual effects department to start to work on. And on this movie we didn't do that. So it made the process almost twice as long because post-production normally is overlapping and we - ours wasn't.

Once we finished editing and we locked the picture last year, then we started the visual effect process, which was creating the facial performances of the wild things. You know, we had all the videotapes of the actors from the voice shoot when we shot them initially, and so it was a combination of referring back to those and seeing, you know, when that applied or didn't apply and it was going in and meticulously frame by frame animating these performances.

And what we were looking for was really internal, subtle performances and my dream was that when you'd put the camera on a wild thing it would be the same as putting the camera on Meryl Streep or Nicolas Cage or James Gandolfini; you'd be able to just sit there, have the camera rest on their face as they're listening, or not even talking, just listening. You'd see what was going through their head and what they were feeling.

GROSS: But when you were actually directing the actors who were in the costumes, what were you looking at, their real faces? Because the animation kind of happened afterwards.

Mr. JONZE: Well, it was basically, we made the movie three times. We made it a lot more than that but in terms of the wild things, we made the movie three times. We made it once with the voice actors, once on location with the suit actors, where they're - we're focusing on the movement of the body and what's being communicated by, you know, just the most subtlest head tilt.

And then we made it a third time when we did the faces in post-production. And you know, so the creation of the wild things are basically three disparate elements and trying to make them all work together to create one fluid performance.

GROSS: Now, did you hold auditions for the suit actors, for the actors who were going to be in costumes as these, you know, animals or monsters? And we're never going to see their faces because their faces are going to be animated, but they still have to - they have to move in the spirit of the character and their moves have to be big because they're big creatures.

Mr. JONZE: Their moves had to be big but they had to be subtle. I think one of the things that happens sometimes in puppeteering and animation, which works for, you know, certain type of story but wasn't appropriate for this is the performances become very broad and indicated and, you know, the way, you know, just the way somebody animates a character, sometimes their entire body is saying a word and it's not often how we speak.

And I thought it was exciting to try and take these giant creatures and have them perform and behave and think and feel and emote more like us. And that seemed interesting and exciting and strange. And the suit actors we cast, we did a whole broad casting call for people that had been in suits and hadn't been in suits.

And we were basically looking for people, it was like casting an actor who can - who is right for the part, who has the essence of that character, that can perform that and, you know, that combined with who can actually survive inside that suit for, you know, four months on location and - because it physically was really challenging for those guys. And so we were looking for, in the demeanor of somebody who wasn't going to, like, have a panic attack in there or stress out.

And we're looking for, you know, for very even, level people but also looking for people with a judgment that I trust. And in the end we cast people that had never been in suits before because those were the actors that I found whose judgment I trusted the most for that part.

GROSS: Are there other actors who are professional suit actors, who almost always perform in suits?

Mr. JONZE: Yeah, they are - they are like, you know...

GROSS: What kind of roles do they get?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How many roles like that are there?

Mr. JONZE: I mean, I guess there's a lot, you know, whether it's, like, on children's shows or they're playing gorillas or, you know, whatever it might be - bears, telephones, talking telephones for TV commercials.

GROSS: Were you with Maurice Sendak the first time he saw your movie version of his book?

Mr. JONZE: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you watching his face instead of the movie?

Mr. JONZE: I can't remember if... I mean, I think I was probably trying to. I think Maurice was as nervous as we were. And - but I don't know, there's something early on that gave me - that I can't remember what it was but - maybe it was a laugh early on or something that I could just tell he was in the movie and feeling it. And you know, and when the lights came up, you know, he gave me a big hug and was really proud of me and proud of the movie and, you know, above and beyond anything that was - that's the approval that I value the most.

GROSS: Spike Jonze, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. JONZE: Okay, cool, thanks.

GROSS: Spike Jonze directed and co-wrote the new movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are."

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