Bringing ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ to the Screen (The New York Times Magazine)

In February 2008, a blogger named Devin Faraci led off a post on the Hollywood news site CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under Development) with a solemn proclamation: “We’re on the verge of losing a movie.” He was referring to “Where the Wild Things Are,” a big-budget adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book for children. According to Faraci, executives at Warner Brothers had deemed an early cut of the film “too weird and ‘too scary’ ” and were now contemplating extensive personnel changes and reshoots. The news rippled through Hollywood’s online underground. At Slashfilm.com, it generated 88 reader responses. At Firstshowing.net, another 25. Some readers pleaded with the studio: “Please please please follow through with the original.” Others took a more authoritative tone: “Do not turn ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ into something common and forgettable!” There were calls for fan solidarity and several threats of boycott, or worse: “I will personally face-punch anyone who stands in the way of this film being released.” Such variations aside, though, a common theme emerged: “Jonze is brilliant”; “Jonze is an artist”; “Trust Jonze!”

Spike Jonze, who is 39, has directed just two feature-length films, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” Both were critical and commercial successes, praised for their originality and absurd humor, and yet they represent only a small fraction of the work that Jonze’s fans admire. He is part of the first generation of filmmakers to come up through the music-video world — in the seven years between 1995 and 2001, he was named best director three times at the MTV Video Music Awards — and his inventive, adventurous style is evident not just in the Hollywood movies he has worked on but also in his videos, skateboard-company promos and TV commercials for companies like Ikea, Nike and the Gap. These miniatures, which Jonze considers to be of no less artistic merit than his longer works, will be celebrated next month as part of a 10-day retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, an unlikely honor for a filmmaker with his background. He never went to film school — or, for that matter, to college. When “Star Wars” had its first run in the movie theaters he went to see it eight times, but he didn’t see “Citizen Kane” until he was well into his 20s, he told me, and he has never seen a single movie by Howard Hawks or John Ford.

Jonze avoids Hollywood, preferring to stick close to the fashionably scruffy neighborhoods where he lives and skateboards (Los Feliz in Los Angeles and the Lower East Side in New York). Even so, the Hollywood establishment has largely embraced him. In 2000, “Being John Malkovich” was nominated for three major Academy Awards, including best director. Two years later, Jonze was an executive producer for “Jackass: The Movie,” a desultory collection of stunts and pranks that was made for just $5 million and became an unexpected hit, ultimately grossing more than $79 million at the box office. In 2003, “Adaptation” garnered four more Academy Award nominations and one Oscar (Chris Cooper’s, for best supporting actor). Jonze, it seemed, was that rare breed, an American filmmaker who had managed to find mainstream success without doing anyone else’s bidding. And then, that summer, he decided to make his first big studio movie.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is arguably of a piece with Jonze’s earlier works; it features moments of transcendent beauty and moments of profound silliness. Just as in “Jackass,” characters smash things and throw things at one another. But it is clearly Jonze’s most personal film to date, and it is also his most ambitious. To bring Sendak’s characters to the screen, Jonze used a complicated mix of computer animation and giant monster suits. He shot in the forests of southern Australia, which required convening a crew of more than 150. The costume department alone was larger than the entire crew of “Being John Malkovich.” Variety put the film’s budget at $80 million, and other estimates go as high as $100 million. Jonze’s next most expensive film, “Adaptation,” cost only $19 million.

“Where the Wild Things Are,” in other words, cost about as much to make as did “Shrek” and “Madagascar,” and yet in almost every other way it represents a sharp departure from those family-friendly blockbusters. Most kids’ movies are brightly, mouthwateringly colorful; Jonze favored a mushy-vegetable palate of greens and browns. Most kids’ movies have a clearly defined plot and an unambiguous moral lesson; Jonze’s film has about as much plot as an episode of “Jackass.” Most kids’ movies crackle with one-liners; in “Where the Wild Things Are,” the characters talk over one another and spend a lot of time stumbling over their own words as they try to articulate their feelings. Jonze told me that one of his models for the dialogue was the work of John Cassavetes, which may be exciting news if you’re a fan of avant-garde cinema, but might not sound quite as good if you’re the president of Warner Brothers. Cassavetes, who once said that he found scenes with crisp dialogue “corny and boring,” is arguably one of the most brilliant American filmmakers of all time, but his movies never made much money, and he was effectively banished from Hollywood by the time he was 40.

Last winter, I spent an afternoon with Jonze at a postproduction studio in West Hollywood, where he had sequestered himself with members of his trusted creative team, a group he referred to as his “pack.” Jonze has worked with many of the same people for almost his entire career, including Lance Acord, his director of photography, and his production designer K. K. Barrett. Many of them had no feature-film experience before Jonze plucked them (as he himself had been plucked) from the margins of the industry. “I like hiring people based on a feeling — this person gets it — rather than what they’ve done in the past,” he explained. When I visited, the newest member of the pack was Sonny Gerasimowicz, a 36-year-old art-school dropout Jonze had hired first to work on the design of the creature suits and later to wear one of them in the film. At a recent office party, Jonze decided that it would be fun to try to throw Gerasimowicz through a wall. A Gerasimowicz-size hole in the Sheetrock attested to the success of that endeavor.

Along one wall of Jonze’s office was a bookshelf lined with DVDs that he referred to while making the movie — “The Black Stallion,” “E.T.” and “The Red Balloon,” along with various dirt-bike and skateboard videos. Jonze was perched on a couch with a copy of Sendak’s book on his lap. “It’s amazing how few words there are but how strong the sentences are,” he said, slowly turning the pages. “You can just stare at the drawings and take in all the detail.” Jonze has bright blue eyes, a bony nose that twists slightly to one side and a skateboarder’s spare physique. From the ankles up, he dresses like a 1950s studio director, in tailored suits of gray and tan, but then you look at his feet and see he’s wearing skateboard sneakers. He speaks in a small, halting voice and sprinkles his sentences with words like “cool” and “awesome.” Although he has no children of his own, his feeling for what it’s like to be a child seems to be stronger and more immediate than that of most people his age, and children are often drawn to him. Catherine Keener, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work in “Being John Malkovich” and who plays a divorced mother in “Where the Wild Things Are,” told me that her 10-year-old son, Clyde, once asked her why Jonze didn’t live with his parents; apparently Clyde didn’t realize that Jonze was an adult.

In Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” a child hammers some nails into a wall, is sent to his room without any supper and finds solace and wild fun on an island of monsters who pronounce him king. Considering Jonze’s own propensity toward mischief, it was tempting to see his fight with the studio (which, by the time I sat down with him, was more than a year old) as an embodiment of the eternal struggle between freedom-seeking child and authoritarian parent. Jonze chose a different family metaphor. “It’s like the studio was expecting a boy, and I gave birth to a girl,” he told me. “And now they’re learning to love and accept their daughter.”

The studio, for its part, was doing its best to give the impression that it had fully embraced Jonze’s vision. “This is an incredibly personal and intimate movie, and that’s going to work with all audiences,” Sue Kroll, the head of marketing at Warner Brothers, assured me. But observers both inside and outside of Hollywood remained skeptical. One former high-placed Warner Brothers executive I spoke to said that the studio had, in recent years, become less hospitable to unconventional directors like Jonze. Faced with a strange beast like “Where the Wild Things Are,” he explained, Warner’s executives didn’t always know what to do. “The studio is set up to be a big-movie, big-star, big-spectacle money-making machine,” he said, “and it views anything other than that with enormous trepidation.”

For a time, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the prospects for unorthodox moviemaking in Hollywood appeared promising. Prompted by the phenomenal success of “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, the big Hollywood studios tentatively opened their gates (and their wallets) to a new generation of “independent” directors, among them Jonze and his friends David O. Russell and Alexander Payne. In 2003, when Jonze was just starting work on “Where the Wild Things Are,” Warner Brothers established a boutique division that went on to put out movies like “Before Sunset” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” But five years later, Warner Brothers Independent, like many other prestige units in Hollywood, was shut down by its parent studio, and “Where the Wild Things Are” began to feel a little like a relic, an artifact from some freewheeling, irretrievable past. When I sat down with Jonze, I’d just seen a rough cut of the movie, and although I’d been expecting something unusual, I hadn’t quite been prepared for either the Cassavetes-speak or the lack of any clear conflict or resolution. I told Jonze I’d imagined something more along the lines of a traditional children’s fantasy film, something like “Harry Potter,” for example.

He looked at me as if I’d let him down. “It’s in the visual language of, like, some sort of fantasy film, and it is a fantasy film to some degree,” he acknowledged, “but the tone of it is its own tone. We wanted it all to feel true to a 9-year-old and not have some big movie speech where a 9-year-old is suddenly reciting the wisdom of the sage.” He hadn’t set out to make a children’s movie, he said, so much as to accurately depict childhood. “Everything we did, all the decisions that we made, were to try to capture the feeling of what it is to be 9.”

When Spike Jonze was 9, he was Adam Spiegel, a shy, sensitive kid growing up in Bethesda, Md., a suburb of Washington. His father, Art Spiegel III, the grandson of the founder of the Spiegel catalog company, lived in Manhattan, where he ran a multimillion-dollar health care consulting firm. When Adam was 2, his parents divorced, and his mother took Adam and his older sister first to New Jersey, then to Philadelphia, before finally settling in Bethesda. At home, Jonze would later write, discipline was “erratic.” At school, Adam fared poorly. “What they were teaching didn’t interest me,” he told me.

What did interest him was BMX, or bicycle motocross. The sport originated in the late 1960s, when 12-year-old boys began racing their dirt bikes on motorcycle tracks, though by the time Adam bought his first bike, BMX was less about racing and more about emulating what skateboarders were doing — riding on half-pipes and quarter-pipes, doing tricks in the street. Adam, by many accounts, was a very good trick rider, and he wound up with a job at a bike shop in a local strip mall, selling grips and cranks to other teenagers. Except for the 19-year-old owner’s family members, who took occasional shifts behind the register, all of the employees were under 21. They all wore surf shorts, and they all had nicknames: Tinkerbell, Wild Bill, Rootgirl, Sweetness. Because of his unruly hair, Adam became Spike.

In the summer of 1987, the day after his senior-year final exams, Jonze and a friend packed their belongings into the trunk of a beat-up brown Plymouth Colt and struck out for the West Coast. The college-application process had not gone as well as Jonze had hoped. Of the six colleges to which he’d applied, only Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, accepted him. The top film and art schools — U.C.L.A., CalArts, N.Y.U. — turned him down. Not that he particularly minded. “I was only going to go to college because that’s what I thought you were supposed to do,” he told me not long ago. Fortunately, Jonze had a backup plan. In high school, he wrote a handful of freelance articles for Freestylin’, a BMX magazine, and when he and his friend reached California, they steered the Colt to Torrance, the industrial city half an hour south of Hollywood where the magazine had its editorial offices. The editors, Andy Jenkins and Mark Lewman, were 21 and 19. They had been looking to hire someone new — not a professional journalist but a BMX kid like themselves, a young person who knew the sport and loved it. They chose Jonze.

One afternoon in February, Jonze drove me around Torrance in a white 1969 Porsche that he borrowed from Lance Acord, his cinematographer. (When Jonze is by himself, he gets around on a Vespa.) He was dressed stylishly, if a bit raffishly, in an untucked lavender dress shirt and a gray tie with lilac stripes. There was a skateboard in the backseat. For most of the ride, he was chatty but not particularly forthcoming, asking nearly as many questions as he answered. We turned into the sprawling industrial park where the editorial offices of Freestylin’ were once located, and he slowed the car and grew quiet. A sign on a warehouse said “Global Communication Semiconductors Inc.” Jonze pointed to the sun-bleached concrete building where he and his friends used to work. “There were so many amazing people, and we had such an amazing time, but it’s the most banal place,” he said. Behind the warehouse, Jonze told me, was the low-rise, low-rent apartment complex where he lived after arriving in Torrance, sharing a living room with two other teenagers and a drum set. The carpet was spotted with grease stains from people constantly tearing apart their bikes. Kids drifted in and out, crashing on the floor for weeks at a time. (“There was a guy living in the dining room for a while,” Jenkins told me.) In the mornings, Jonze and his roommates would throw their skateboards over the wall in a back alley and glide to the office through a couple of parking lots. After 5 p.m., the members of the editorial team — none of them older than 21 — had the company warehouse to themselves. “We had a refrigerator full of film,” Jonze told me. “We’d skate ramps. We’d build rails. We had everything. It was, like, way better than any college.”

Although Jonze had been hired at Freestylin’ as a writer, by the end of his first year he was mainly taking photographs. “He was always experimenting,” Lewman told me, “climbing on top of something high or hanging out the door of a van or lighting a fire or wrapping somebody in tinfoil and shooting him with flashes.” Jonze and his friends started a skateboarding magazine called Homeboy, and it was through Homeboy that Jonze met Mark Gonzales, a famously innovative local professional skateboarder. Jonze idolized Gonz, as he was known. “He just looked at the world in a different way,” Jonze told me.

When Gonzales started his own skateboard company, Blind, he hired Jonze to make a promotional video. For all skate culture’s reverence for rebellion and self-expression, skate videos, which were generally commissioned by skateboard manufacturers and sold at skate shops, tended to stick to a rigid formula; they showed the company’s sponsored skaters performing one trick after another. Jonze’s video was different. Many of the qualities that would come to characterize his work — the roguish sensibility, the technical ingenuity, the formal originality — first appeared in this 24-minute video, titled “Video Days.” It was the only skate video, certainly, to depict a carload of skateboarders consuming what appeared to be vast quantities of Bacardi rum before plunging into a canyon. (To get the shot, Jonze placed a brick on the gas pedal.) Among skateboarders and within the alternative cultural circles in Los Angeles and New York that admired the skateboard ethic, the video was hailed as a minor masterpiece. “We were amazed by it,” Mike Diamond, a member of the Beastie Boys, told me. “Instead of a perfunctory sports video, there was this whole imaginative narrative, which, at the time, people hadn’t really done.”

One day, in the parking lot at a Sonic Youth show, Gonzales walked up to Kim Gordon, the bassist for the band, and pressed a copy of “Video Days” into her hand. Six months later, Gordon hired Jonze to contribute some skate footage to the video for the band’s song “100%.” Jonze’s profile grew, and Satellite, a small music-video production company, invited him to join their roster of directors. By this point, he had started yet another magazine with Jenkins and Lewman, this one called Dirt, a boys-only spin-off of the irreverent girls’ magazine Sassy. Jonze photographed the Beastie Boys for the cover of the debut issue. The band had recently built their own recording studio near Griffith Park with money that their record label had set aside for renting studio space, and Jonze was deeply impressed. “They were operating outside the record label, doing whatever they wanted to do,” he told me. “They would just have an idea and make it.” After Dirt folded in 1994, the Beastie Boys asked him to shoot a video for “Sabotage,” the first single off their new album.

Jonze and the band members had been spending time at an apartment in Los Feliz, where the band was hanging out and cultivating an appreciation for afternoon cop shows like “Starsky and Hutch” and “The Streets of San Francisco.” One day Jonze showed up at the apartment wearing a white tank-top and a gold chain with a freshly grown mustache and his hair slicked back. According to Jonze, it was the combination of that 1970s outfit and those 1970s television reruns that inspired him and the band to create their very own three-minute 1970s-style police drama. They decided to shoot everything illegally, without permits. The band members dressed as plainclothes detectives in fake mustaches, polyester suits and aviator shades. Adam Yauch (another Beastie Boy) and Jonze did all the stunt driving. By the end of the two-day shoot, they had destroyed two cameras — the first, an $84,000 Arriflex, while speeding around a bend with the camera bolted to the hood, the second while trying to get an underwater shot with the camera protected only by a Ziploc bag. “We did it the way we did everything,” Jonze said. “Not necessarily the right way, but our way.” In 1999, MTV named “Sabotage” the seventh-best music video of all time.

“Sabotage” played on MTV in heavy rotation in 1994, and at the MTV Video Music Awards it was nominated for best video and best director. It didn’t win, but along with a few other Jonze videos, it captured the attention of John B. Carls, a producer who had just started a family-film production company with Maurice Sendak. Carls and Sendak had signed a production deal with TriStar Pictures and its parent company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and they were searching for someone to adapt “Where the Wild Things Are” into a movie. They had also bought the rights to several other children’s properties, among them “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” an acclaimed 1955 picture book by one of Sendak’s mentors, Crockett Johnson.

“Harold and the Purple Crayon” tells the story of a boy who lives in a world of his own imagining; whatever he draws becomes his reality. It was in many ways the perfect vehicle for Jonze. “Spike is Harold,” Vince Landay, Jonze’s longtime producer, told me. “He’s an imaginative kid who for one reason or another has been allowed to fully explore his imagination.” Carls wanted Jonze to direct the movie, and he arranged a meeting between Jonze and Sendak. In spite of their 42-year age difference, the two men hit it off. “They’re both still very much connected to that child self,” Carls told me. “There’s a valve in all of us that shuts itself off between childhood and adolescence and adulthood. With Maurice, there’s a leaky valve. Spike is the same way. He sees the world as a big playground.”

Jonze spent more than a year on the “Purple Crayon” project, supervising a team of storyboard artists and production designers. He planned to combine live action and animation in a way that had never been tried before. “In the third act,” Carls recalled, “you had a live-action boy riding an animated rocket out into real space where he battled live-action characters to rescue a real space mission.” But two months before principal photography was scheduled to start, TriStar pulled out. When I asked Carls about this, he told me that there’d been a regime change at the studio and that Jonze’s vision was a bit too “bold” for the new executives.

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