An Interview: Spike Jonze


I have to admit, I'm caught up in the flurry of excitement surrounding the release of Where the Wild Things Are.  I grew up having the book read to me and then read it to my little sister years later.  It is the first book I can remember that took me through a range of emotions.   I would squeal when Max first arrived in the land of the Wild Things,  pop my head in and out of the covers in terror when the fearsome looking monsters emerged and then would cheer when Max danced with them as he is crowned king.  While the book only has nine sentences, the drawings led me into a world that was both real and surreal. I can't think of a better director than Spike Jonze to bring the story to life.

Pitchfork did a great interview with Spike Jonze that talks about how it all came together.  I particularly like when Jonze addresses the emotions and memories of a child:   "My memory is that nothing is explained to you, you've got to try to figure it out, pick up clues from the people around you, try to figure it out from their reactions. And the things that are out of control are scary-- I mean they still are, to me. But I think even more so at that age, when you really have no sense of control of your life."

Go on, read the whole interview and gear up for the release on October 16th.


by Scott Plagenhoef for Pitchfork

Creating a film adaptation of a beloved work of literature is difficult enough with a novel, even a novella or short story. But how about a 10-line children's book? Spike Jonze took on that challenge in his long battle to bring Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are to the screen. With Sendak's encouragement, Jonze began work on the film in the early part of this decade, with the project then attached to Universal. Many years later, the film-- eventually scripted by Jonze and author/publisher Dave Eggers-- is finally being released in the U.S. via Warner Bros. on October 16.

Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is not a children's film, which is to say it's not pandering, or cute, or repetitive, or simplistic. This is instead an art film about childhood, about the feelings and fears and needs of being young. In Jonze's hands, the film's young protagonist, Max, is the product of a broken home, with an overstretched mother, an older sister who has her own life, and a social structure that doesn't include him. These evocative early passages hint at the restlessness, the playfulness, the fright, and the untethered anger of being a child-- the needs for safety, belonging, and community, and the consequences of not getting them.

When Max flees to where the wild things are, these sensations become manifest. Already feeling adrift and unloved, he's thrust into a world populated with wild animals, where he is expected to serve as their king. This situation-- a young person being charged with caretaking, without instruction on how to do so-- draws easy parallels to Eggers' life, as detailed in the memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The wild things themselves, rather than created with CGI, are portrayed by two sets of actors-- physical thesps in suits, and well-known actors doing voice work. As Jonze explains, this decision was to ensure that Max felt in the presence of the wild things-- "that they could hug, and yet he could be eaten at any time."

This potentially odd decision leads to a quintessential Jonze move-- Wild Things is a fantastical film shot in the director's now-familiar hyperrealist way-- even though it grew from necessity. Navigating a world in which a child needs the love and support of monsters is all too common for many kids, and Jonze's rendering of these emotional challenges and obstacles may guarantee Wild Things is neither a blockbuster nor Oscar bait but it helps retain a strong connection to Sendak's original vision. Jonze and Eggers had an almost limitless number of ways in which they could fill in this open-ended story, but rather than simply construct a narrative, they instead dig deeply into the scarred psyche of a young boy-- exploring his imagination, tapping into the heart of his anger and insecurities. It's a brave way to film a largely plot-free tale and it's also true to the spirit of the book.

After a recent screening to benefit 826 National, a collection of non-profits "dedicated to helping students, ages 6-18, with expository and creative writing," we had a brief opportunity to speak with Jonze about his new film and the long road it took to completion.

Pitchfork: I'm not sure if you were in the theater tonight. Do you enjoy watching your art with an audience?

Spike Jonze: When we put out a music video DVD [for the Director's Label series], we would do 90-minute screenings, and those were really fun. Normally when you put it out you don't get to watch different people, so that's just really fun.

Pitchfork: I was trying to think of anything in your past that had any connection to this narrative, and the one thing I could think of was your Daft Punk "Da Funk" video, because it's a mirror image opposite of Where the Wild Things Are-- one animal in a world of humans.

SJ: Yeah, I never thought about that.

Pitchfork: Obviously, the story itself comes from Maurice Sendak however: How did you end up hooking up with Maurice?

SJ: I had known him for a number of years, because he was producing another movie that didn't end up happening, but through that I got to see him as someone whose work I liked.

It was a book that he had talked to me about over the years a few times, and it was a book that I loved, and when he brought it up to me I was very excited but also very apprehensive, because it was something that I thought was so great and so perfect in its form-- What am I going to add to that? I was so apprehensive to add something just for the sake of adding it, for the sake of a movie, and not really having a reason to make it, basically. But eventually I came up with the idea that you see what you see there, and Maurice was great, he was insistent upon that taking it there.

Pitchfork: He was very generous about allowing you to create your own film?

SJ: Yeah, I really don't think we could have done it without that. I would have been too nervous to make something he wouldn't like. And I didn't want to do that.

We were really nervous with the first script, because we didn't know what he would think. He read it three times in a row. The first time he read it, he was like, "It's not like my book." And then he said, "Oh wait, I told them not to make it like my book." And then he said, "Let me read it again," and he started to be able to feel it. By the third time, he was totally detached from anything before, and was able to feel it for what it was, and he called us up and told us he wanted to do it.

He had script approval, so if he didn't like it, we just wouldn't have done it. So it was a big call to get that call from him telling us that he liked it, and good luck.

Pitchfork: How long was that gap between those readings?

SJ: He read it three times in one day.

Pitchfork: So he called you after the first reading, and said--

SJ: No, luckily he didn't call us then. He went through that process on his own and called us, and then afterward he told me.

Pitchfork: When you first started to imagine it, did you do so in more cinematic terms or narrative terms? It's virtually a picture book, and some of the power of it is that it's less a book someone would read to you as it is a book that a child can get lost in.

SJ: Well, cinematic terms. I knew I wanted it to be live action; I wanted to build the wild things for real. I wanted to be on location. I wanted it to be a real boy with real creatures, in a dangerous, unpredictable environment, where you're with wild animals. But that wasn't enough to make a movie. It was more the idea that gave me confidence that there was a movie there was that the wild creatures were wild emotions, and Max was trying to understand things that were confusing and frightening, and made him anxious-- things being out of control, and him being sort of emotionally wild himself.

Pitchfork: Did you see it as a childhood thing, in terms of the emotions, or are these more just human emotions to you? The adult relationships in the film have the same needs and fears in some ways.

SJ: The emotions I felt were true to a child, were true to what it feels like to be a kid. What the world is like from a nine-year-old's point of view. Like when you're nine, you haven't figured out how to process all this.

My memory is that nothing is explained to you, you've got to try to figure it out, pick up clues from the people around you, try to figure it out from their reactions. And the things that are out of control are scary-- I mean they still are, to me. But I think even more so at that age, when you really have no sense of control of your life.

And so the things that are really out of control, and scary, are emotions-- of people around you, that are unpredictable, or those in yourself which are unpredictable. Like having a tantrum. The thing I remember most about having a tantrum is not the rage during the tantrum, but the being freaked out afterwards, and embarrassed, and guilty. It's scary, to lose control of yourself. We wanted the movie to feel like it was made by a nine-year-old, on some levels. So like you're in the headspace of a nine-year-old, and you're in the world, you're on the island with Max, trying to understand this foreign place. It kind of feels like being a kid, you've just shown up to this place, and there's no road map to it.

Pitchfork: Were there other examples of children's art that you were looking at? Things that were sort of about childhood, rather than for a child?

SJ: It wasn't so much that we looked at them; there's things that we knew did it right, but we didn't reference them, we went back and watched them. Like The Black Stallion, that I loved, in 1981, it's beautiful. My Life as a Dog. The 400 Blows. there are a couple others, just films that feel like they're from a kid's point of view looking at the world.

Pitchfork: How did you and Dave Eggers end up working together?

SJ: Because I had known him for a few years, and I love his writing, and just like him as a person. It just felt right, it was one of those intuitive things, like, "That's who I want to write this with." Just sensibility-wise, his first book, the way he wrote about a young character. I don't know, just the way he writes, and we're very similar, we're the same age, just the way we grew up influenced and in love with Maurice's work. It wasn't even too thought out, it was just like, "That's right."

Pitchfork: Talking about your ages. Do you think there is something about this story that makes it so beloved with our generation specifically?

SJ: I'm not even sure if it's just our generation. I think it might be that if you're five years old and you read that book, you're like, "I recognize that." It's in the language of a kid, of monsters and of things being giant. And it's like when you're a kid, adults really do feel giant. Monsters are a part of your subconscious. You have even less control of your emotions than you do now. I think it's all in the book. And he is really speaking the language and what it feels like at that age.

Pitchfork: So you guys had almost an open-ended structure to build a narrative. Was all that freedom helpful, or more difficult? Did you go a lot of different routes before you got the script you wanted?

SJ: Not a lot of different routes, but we definitely wrote a lot of different drafts. We shot, and then had the footage... the way I work, I like to constantly evolve, and try to find a better way to do something; searching and seeing what else can be discovered. And so yeah, there were many things where we were like "That's an amazing idea!" and that was it for a week and then "No, no this is a better idea!"

Along the way, the things that stay are the things that really deserve to stay. I love that process, of not feeling overly pressured, "this is the movie," and some people can do that, like the Coen brothers, their movies I think they write, the script they write is very, very close to the movie they put out. And they shoot exactly what they need, you know I probably shoot about four times as much film as them. They're like, "Oh, we got it." And I'm like, "Oh, what else can we do? And what if we try it this way?"

You take that leap and you don't know exactly how it's going to turn out, but you know what it is that you're aiming for. You know your goal.