Despite the age difference, Spike Jonze (40) and Max Records (12) come across as unlikely brothers. There appears to be a quiet understanding, a certain meeting of minds between the director and actor of the upcoming film Where The Wild Things Are.
The pair were in London for the UK premiere of the film and I caught up with them for a brief chat.Throughout the interview, Records directs virtually all answers to questions at Jonze rather than his interrogators, as if seeking some sort of guidance. Yet he also continually pokes gentle fun at his senior, "He’s weird. Look at him," Records says of Jonze at one point. "Come on. Look at him." Jonze laughs along.
Where The Wild Things Are is an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's much loved 1969 illustrated children's book of the same name. Through a series of images and a handful of words, the book tells of a young boy, alone in his bedroom, who imagines a fantastical world full of monsters, the "wild things". From such foundations, many have questioned the logic behind stretching the childhood favourite into a feature film, though it was made at Sendak's instigation and with his blessing. Jonze wrote the script with author David Eggers, who has subsequently also published a novelisation of Sendak's original.
The film is Jonze's third following the critically adored, Oscar nominated efforts Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. The film is a bold departure for the director who originally came to fame with his ground-breaking music videos; Where The Wild Things Are is his first film not made in collaboration with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and the budget of between $80m and $100m dwarfs those of his previous works.
Five years in the making, Where The Wild Things Are has been a labour of love for Jonze; the lengthy gestation period included reported difficulties with the film's backers Warner Bros, and at one point it was rumoured that the director might even be taken off the project after clashes over edits of the film.
You said you didn't set out to make a film specifically for kids or for adults. Were you concerned that this might be storing up trouble with the studio? In that they like to have something that they can specifically market.
Spike Jonze: Not to the degree that it did [laughs].
Can you talk us through that? What exactly happened?
SJ: In the editing they saw the movie and they were surprised by exactly what you were saying: the film isn't what's a traditional children's film. But, you know, we got through it and made our movie. But it wasn't necessarily fun.
There are some visceral scenes in the film; did you think that it might be a bit too much for some kids, too brutal?
SJ: I think it depends on the kid. Probably for three, four year-olds I think it's too intense. Not only those scenes, but it's an emotionally intense film. But I think, kids seven and eight and up, it doesn't seem to be too intense for them. But I was speaking to a friend from France the other day and she took her niece, who's five years old, to see it and there was no subtitles, and she kept saying 'are you following it?' to her niece, and the kid was like [nods and whispers] 'yeah.' I don't how, but… what's interesting is as a kid sometimes you don't totally understand, as you're watching adults, I don't know if a kid always understands the specifics of what we’re talking about, but they understand the feeling of what we’re talking about. They understand if somebody is anxious or if an adult is upset, they understand the feelings of it. So maybe she watched it on that level. My friend said that her niece, as she was leaving, she was crying so she must have followed it on some level. Which is exciting to hear.
Did you feel more pressure having the weight of a big studio and their budget on top of you, or the weight of people's love for the book?
SJ: Yeah, the love for the book, well both probably, but first was the love for the book where I realized that as I started to write this and I talked to people about it, they were like, 'oh I love that book' and they would talk about what it was about to them. And I started to understand how these people think the book is theirs, everybody does. I thought the book was just mine! So, I got really worried about it because everybody has a feeling of this book and I was just making a version of what it was to me. Actually I talked to Maurice about it and he was the one who sort of set me free because he said that 'you can't worry about that, it's not your responsibility. All you can do is make your version of it.' He really empowered me and that was sort of the last time I thought about it. I had such a panic attack and he sort of purged me of it and beat it out of me. After that I had to commit to what I was doing.
How easy did you find it to reconnect with your nine year old self?
SJ: I think once we started writing, you know, we sort of, Dave [Eggers] and I really got in that zone. We started writing from that place.
Did you do much research in writing it – speaking to kids etc?
SJ: I think it's interesting because not having children - Dave and I didn't have children at the time - we wrote it from our memories of childhood as opposed to our experiences as a parent observing a kid.
Did you have the audience in mind when you were making the film?
SJ: Well, eh, no, not as much as, I mean, certainly we would screen it for people and see how it was working and were people with it, you know, as we were editing, which is a process we always do. Sitting there with an audience you can feel whether people are with it or not. But writing it was just writing in a place of trying to get to a feeling and a mood of what it can feel like at times to be nine years old. I think that's always the compliment I enjoy the most is when people do feel that they come out with a sense that we captured that feeling.
Film is obviously a visual medium but its basis is a written script. How do you find the process of turning text into images? Is it difficult?
SJ: No because text is so visual anyway. So descriptive. So that when you read a novel you have a whole picture of it. That's what's interesting is that no two directors would take the same script and make the same movie, in the same way no two people would read the same book and picture it the same way. Which I think goes back to this book; no two people read this book in the same way, because this book is so sparse, it gives you so much room to have your own impression of it. I don't know, does that answer your question?
Max, did you get wilder as you made the film?
SJ: Did you get wild?
Max Records: I don't think so because I was too busy sleeping it off.
SJ: I think he was tired.
Is Max Records your real name?
It's too good a name.
SJ: Yeah, it’s an amazing name.
Max, what do you think the character learns in his journey?
MR: I don't think he really learns anything, I don’t think it’s really a learning, moralistic film.
SJ: I think it's a movie that we've let people have their own individual interpretations. I think everyone would have a different reading of the book and what Max is feeling and going through. Our hope was to let the film's feel be that too. What's interesting is hearing different people's responses – both adults and kids: What they're thinking about, what they’re feeling. But everybody's different and every kid is different.
Max, do you want to do more films after this? Did it give you the acting bug? Was it traumatic or fun?
MR: Well of course it was traumatic, he was involved [points to Jonze]… I don't know. I think acting is sort of like, if I ever did more acting, I would pursue it as a hobby rather than an occupation. But if something sounds cool comes along then I'll do it.
Was the film test screened? If so did you tweak it as a result?
SJ: Well, we screen all out movies every month, like I said, working in the edit room it's a great way to get some perspective on it. You know, invite some friends over and screen. We had one formal test screening from the studio and it didn't score in the way, like they have all these categories. It becomes a real quantitative statistic based thing and it's something we've never done on our other movies. And I don’t think this movie works that way.
MR: It isn't statistical. It's anti-statistical.
But they didn't put pressure on you to make it conform to their statistics?
SJ: Oh, they did. But we didn't listen.
What do you think makes a good director?
SJ: I don’t know, when I think of directors that I love, and there’s loads; it’s imagination and humanity. I think of Hal Ashby who made Being There and Harold and Maude, I think he’s that perfect combination of those two things.
Your real name is Spiegel; why did you change your name, and you also have some other personas… why?
SJ: It's like clothes.
MR: He sheds them.
Are you going to bring back the dance troupe leader from the Fatboy Slim video?
SJ: I don't know. If my country needs him.
How did you meet Maurice Sendak?
SJ: He was producing a film based on Howard and the Purple Crayon and we worked on that. It never ended up happening but through that we got to know each other.
How important was it to have him as such a staunch ally during this rather fraught creative process?
SJ: It was essential. It was essential that we were united, we were all, it was against…
MR: The machine
SJ: Yeah, the machine. It definitely got dark and hard and knowing that he was there and you know, always on our side, was everything.
Despite the fraught process, were there fun moments during the shoot?
SJ: It was definitely fun. There was so many people and we had so much equipment and such a big thing, it was like an army. And being out on such locations, with old friends of mine that we work with together and new friends from the crew that we made in Australia. And there's always something absurd going on to keep us from going mad. Do you remember when Simon showed up in his Speedo?
SJ: Our cameraman showed up with his steadicam rig on in just his Speedo on the beach one day and it looked absurd.
MR: Did anybody get a picture?
SJ: Yeah, do you remember at the party somebody had taken a photo and I asked them to make a headshot, so I printed it up and it was like 'Simon Harding, Steadicam operator' and he's standing there in his Speedo and we printed up a thousand of them. So when everyone came in to the wrap party they got one. You never saw them at the wrap party?
Are you likely to revive your partnerships with Charlie Kaufman and Michel Ghondry in the future?
SJ: Yeah, definitely. Charlie and I will definitely do something together. And I met Michel about 13 years ago, we were both directing music videos around the same time, and when we first met we talked about producing each other’s films and I produced his first film and at some point I want him to produce a film for me.
With the trailer you used an Arcade Fire song, and the lyrics from it are quite similar to the sort of mood of your film. Aside from the book was there much other music and films that influenced the film?
SJ: Well, yeah, that album actually I wrote a lot to, I wrote the script listening to Arcade Fire's first album Funeral. The album is a lot about childhood. And so, that song meant a lot. We got to use the song in the trailer because it was a song that was deeply connected to the film in terms of the writing and when we were shooting. A lot of time on set we would play music to give Max and the actors and the crew a feel of the scene we were shooting. And that’s a song we played quite a bit. We had a halfway party halfway through and we wanted to put together a little bit of what we had been shooting to show the crew to, you know, assure them that we weren't wasting they’re time.
MR: Which of course we were. They just never found out.
SJ: I know. At least not until the end. So we cut together a piece with footage to that song and it was amazing. It was such a special night. We were all out together and we were all dressed up, Max was in a white tuxedo, and we were halfway through shooting, we still had another two months to go and everybody was just dancing all night and then we stopped the music and played the piece. I think it really, I don't know, bonded us all. It was like, as hard as the shoot was, sort of everyone, a lot of people were tearing up, and as soon as we play it once, everyone was like, 'play it again!' And we played it three times in a row.
Where The Wild Things Are is on general release tomorrow