He made the unfilmable filmable. He turned ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’ and a bunch of trippy videos into perfect vehicles of his surreal, almost childlike vision. But what he’s done with ‘Where The Wild Things Are’—a children’s movie that’s not really for kids—is truly scary
By Chris Heath
many years ago, when he was a twentysomething skate kid turned video director, Spike Jonze was asked to direct a film adapted from the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon. For a year and a half he worked away, planning out an unusual mixture of animation and live action, but this first encounter with the movie industry would not be a happy one.
“I realize now I didn’t really know what I was up against,” he says a little ruefully, “trying to work in a machine like that.” There were so many dispiriting moments along the way: “It had slowly, day by day, moved away from what I was trying to do. I didn’t realize how things get corrupted not all in one fell swoop, they get corrupted millimeter by millimeter by millimeter, and only when you look back and you see where you were trying to go and where you came from, only then do you really realize how far adrift you’ve gone.” On the day the plug was finally pulled, Jonze and his collaborators held a ceremony at sunset to mark their liberation. They carried an eight-foot plastic crayon they had been given to the roof of the twelve-story building they were working in. “We threw it off and watched it fall and then shatter into a million pieces,” he remembers. “And I just had this huge sense of relief.”
Determined that this would never happen to him again, Jonze would soon go on to make two remarkable, and remarkably unusual, movies, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, each a different kind of proof that when people did trust him to follow his own peculiar instincts and seek his own idiosyncratic truths, the results could be wonderful. What reason, then, to flinch from making a film of another classic children’s tale? He had now shown what he could do when left to his own devices. Besides, the book was just ten sentences and forty pages. What could there be to worry about?
‘Adaptation,’ Spike Jonze’s last movie, was released in 2002. Where the Wild Things Are, which he began work on not long afterward, finally comes out this month. When I first meet with Jonze, in May, he is on the top floor of a building in central London at a company called Framestore, in a room that is filled with row upon row of computer screens, the faces of various wild things frozen upon many of them. “I’m just deep in the throes of this thing,” he says.
For the benefit of anyone who was never a child, or who has somehow forgotten, the slender text of Maurice Sendak’s book describes how a misbehaving boy called Max finds himself on an island inhabited by a motley collection of toothy monsters known as wild things who make Max their king and romp with him while also letting slip that he might make good eating. For Jonze’s movie, the wild things have been filmed in real life, played by human “suit performers” in wild-thing costumes with static, impassive wild-thing faces. At Framestore these faces are being brought alive with the painstaking digital additions that will animate every single wild-thing expression. It’s quite a job.
Jonze shows me how the wild things’ expressions are determined. Worried that digitally created facial movements tend toward cliché, resorting to a constrained repertoire of simplistic emotions, Jonze devised a complicated work process. When the actors who provide the wild things’ voices recorded their parts, they did so together, acting out each scene as well as voicing them, and as they did this each actor had a separate camera focused on his or her face. It is this footage—of real-life expressions with all their unpredictable nuances—that the special-effects experts here are using as a reference. I watch as a technician clicks from the face of the wild thing called Ira to the raw footage of Forest Whitaker saying the same line. “Just making sure everything has an intention, comes with a thought,” Jonze explains. This seems a typical Spike Jonze decision: to embark upon an unmapped, inconvenient, cumbersome, labor-intensive process that others might consider unnecessary with faith that the end result will be imbued with a kind of realness that might, perhaps undetectably, make all the difference.
The history of Where the Wild Things Are is strangely tied up with the children’s-book adaptation Jonze didn’t make, Harold and the Purple Crayon. When Jonze was first taking studio meetings in the mid-’90s about possible films (early on, he turned down the second Ace Ventura movie), at one such meeting he spotted a copy of Maurice Sendak’s book lying on a table. Where the Wild Things Are was a story his mother had read to him as a child. “I can still totally hear the inflection of all the lines through her—I hear her delivery of them,” he says. “I do remember it being hypnotic. Just totally engrossing. Not even wanting to be Max, but just in being Max.” The book was there because Sendak had a production deal with that studio; Harold and the Purple Crayon was one of the projects he was producing. That was how Jonze got to know Sendak, and Sendak Jonze. The author, who is known for being prickly and protective when it comes to his work, liked what he found. As Sendak would later describe: “He was the strangest little bird I’d ever seen. He had fluttered into the world of the studios, and could he not be swatted dead, I knew he would manage. I had total faith in him.” It was then that Sendak first suggested Jonze might be the man to film his most famous book. Jonze wasn’t sure. “I’d percolate on it for a month and put the book next to my bed and read it before I went to bed and think about it,” Jonze remembers. Eventually he said no: “I turned it down because I had no idea what I could add to it.”
Sendak asked Jonze again after Being John Malkovich came out, and then once more after Adaptation. That was when it clicked. “It just hit me that wild things could be wild emotions,” says Jonze. “It was that simple of an idea. And all of a sudden, it seemed infinite where I could go from there.”
Jonze can be almost phobically reserved about the specifics of his early life (“Um, I just grew up in… I don’t know…in America?” he responds to my first direct question on the subject), but sometimes, as when he’s talking about childhood emotions, he’ll open up in a way that illuminates both movie and maker. “As a kid, that was really scary and confusing—both the wild emotions in me and the wild emotions in the people around me,” he says. “Unpredictable emotions, positive or negative—you don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know what they mean. Especially negative emotions. Your own behavior—you don’t know why you’re acting a certain way and it scares you, or you don’t know why somebody else is acting a certain way and it scares you. Big emotions that are unexplained are really scary. At least to me. I guess it’s anger, or sadness, guilt—or guilt for being angry, you know. Just the whole big mess that we’re sort of thrown into. Emotions are messy and hard to figure out. Hard to know where you start and the next person stops. Even as an adult, that’s a hard thing to know. As a kid it can be really confusing, because it’s all new and you’re trying to sort of make your map.”
That was what Where the Wild Things Are would be about.
it seems that there is a secret fact many people believe they know about Spike Jonze and can’t wait to share with me: that he is actually the heir to the Spiegel-catalog fortune. Grateful as I am for such pointers, they are making two mistakes. One is in believing that this information is truly secret. In fact it has been mentioned in print many times, often by reputable sources. For instance: “Jonze is a pseudonym used by Adam Spiegel, a 29-year-old Bethesda, Maryland–bred heir to the $3-billion-a-year Spiegel catalog business, who in June married Hollywood hipster princess Sofia Coppola at Francis Ford Coppola’s Napa Valley vineyard” (New York magazine, 1999). “Spike Jonze, the hip film director, didn’t let the fact that he was born Adam Spiegel, heir to the clothing-catalog fortune, sink him into a slough of pampered despond” (The New York Times, 2003).
The second, more fundamental mistake when it comes to this secret fact is that it is not a fact at all. Jonze is heir to nothing of the sort—the slur that he’s a spoiled brat slumming with the cool kids is a false one. Jonze insists he often used to set the record straight. “I think I gave up,” he says. When he did say anything, he would explain that his real name is Adam Spiegel but that he is only distantly related to the catalog family. That, too, is slightly misleading. The catalog was started at the beginning of the past century by the German émigré Joseph Spiegel and his son Arthur. Given that Spike’s father is called Arthur Spiegel III, this suggests that the genetic link is a pretty direct one; Jonze confirms this. “Yeah. I guess, my great-great-grandfather. But my family hasn’t…They sold it. So it’s by name only.” (His mother has been variously described as a writer, a communications consultant, and having worked in public relations; his father used to run a medical-consulting business.)
Nor is the name he now uses an alias he adopted to distance himself from his privilege. It came when he was about 13, when he would hang out at the BMX shop in Rockville, Maryland—the nexus of the teenage obsession that would eventually plug him into BMX and skate culture and lead him, the moment he left school, to head west to California as a writer and photographer for skate magazines. “Spike” was inspired both by the haircuts Jonze used to give others and by his own youthful skyward hair; “Jonze” completes a homophone of the old-time eccentric bandleader Spike Jones. Nothing at all to do with escaping the stigma that might accompany what I refer to as “a multimillion-dollar catalog fortune.”
This is a description Jonze takes real exception to.
“I thought it was multibillion-dollar,” he insists. “That’s the one I heard.”
armed with his “wild things = wild emotions” insight, Jonze worked on his own for about six months, writing pages and pages of notes and filling out the story of Max’s adventure with the wild things. He was excited by what he was coming up with, and Sendak was mostly supportive. “At a certain point,” says Jonze, “he was like, ‘I don’t care what’s in it. As long as you make something that is personal and that is dangerous and that takes it seriously and that doesn’t pander to kids and is honest, you can do whatever you want.’ ‘Take kids seriously,’ that’s what Maurice said, and that weaves right into my natural aesthetic and what I want it to feel like and what excites me.”
Jonze had never written a movie script before, but to him this seemed no impediment. “I never knew how to do anything before I did it, really,” he reasons. “Those are the situations that I find the most exciting. It’s most fun just to decide, ‘Okay, I’m going to choreograph this. I’ve never choreographed before, I’ve never really danced before, but I know what kind of dancing I like, so I’ll do that.’ ” It seems to him that such resolutions are less leaps of grandiose self-confidence than a way to reprise the unworried and unfettered creativity of childhood. “Like, if you were going to make a fort in your backyard,” he says, “you’re not going to go, like, hire someone to make your fort or go buy plans. You’re just going to have an idea for it and go make your fort.”
After a while, however, he decided it would be more fun to build this new fort with someone else. He asked Charlie Kaufman, who’d written both of his previous movies, but Kaufman was otherwise engaged. So he called Dave Eggers. They’d been friends since Eggers approached Jonze about filming his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. To write the Wild Things script, Jonze moved up to San Francisco, where Eggers lives, for several months, and they worked together in a rented room near the Castro. Eggers remembers how Jonze mapped out what he intended: “That it was going to be live-action, that there was going to be real danger, that it was going to be—like Maurice’s work—not necessarily written for kids even though it’s about a kid. I was always the guy, at least in this first year and a half when no one else got involved, that just kept on wondering how the hell he was going to pull it off. When we would write something, I would say, ‘Well, how are you going to do this?’ And he didn’t want to think about it then. It was really just about what’s best for the story. There was kind of a stunning, relentless commitment to that.”
Max was someone with whom they both strongly identified. “Spike is still half Max, probably, to this day,” Eggers says. “He’s still got a lot of boy in him.” (To this Jonze takes mock umbrage. “I’m 39!” he protests. “I’m a 39-year-old man!”) Though Eg-gers did the typing, this doesn’t mean he was in control. “Spike’s vision drove it all,” he says. “For every word on the page, there was an hour of talking, maybe. The recurring impulse was: Every word that went down had to be true, and it had to be right. It had to be something that was so true it hurt, I think. Efficiency, or deadline, didn’t factor into it.” He mentions one other facet of their nontraditional process: “I’ve never known a grown man to take as many naps as Spike does. ‘Yeah, it’s one o’clock—let’s take a nap.’ ” Eggers would get on with his own work until Jonze woke again.
“I like naps,” Jonze says. “I don’t drink coffee.
there seems no easy explanation for Spike Jonze’s speedy rise, as it is usually told, from BMX kid to skateboard photographer to innovative music videographer (the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”) to filmmaker. Jonze gives me the impression that he was a somewhat aimless high school student with no clear ambitions. Whether through modesty or his aversion to sharing, Jonze may be underplaying how early he blossomed. When I call his old photography teacher, Frank Stallings—the one school inspiration Spike mentions—Stallings paints a vivid picture of a small Mohawked boy who struggled academically but was inventive and popular and highly motivated, often away riding on BMX tours but already obsessed with filmmaking. “He ate and slept video,” says Stallings. “He was just so talented. I didn’t need to teach him.” In fact, Stallings says, a short film Jonze made and acted in back then won both county and state film competitions.
Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich script was apparently considered brilliant but unfilmable. The expectation could have been, from a very superficial knowledge of Jonze’s videos, that he would make the weird weirder, the wacky wackier, the gimmicky more gimmicky. But his smartness, and the source of the movie’s power, was to never lose track of the very human desires and foibles that lay at the center of all this strangeness. His videos thrived on what Eggers identifies as their “commitment to concept,” but the concept he committed to in his first two movies was an old-fashioned one—that, amid all the strangeness, at their center lie real, subtle emotions and the complicated, unpredictable ways these shift as an odd world changes around them.
After Being John Malkovich, Jonze agreed to film an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but then backed away. “It was at a studio [Paramount] that I just didn’t hit it off with,” he says. Instead he turned back to Charlie Kaufman and Adaptation, which he calls “probably the best script I’ve ever read.”
They had planned a third movie together. After Adaptation, Amy Pascal, head of Sony, had suggested that Jonze and Kaufman make a horror movie. What they came up with, says Jonze, was not the regular horror pulp but “illness and mortality and heartbreak and loss—things that were actually horrifying.” That turned into Synecdoche, New York, a movie Kaufman would end up directing himself. By then, Jonze was too busy with creatures of his own.
originally, Jonze was to have made Where the Wild Things Are for Universal, but the studio eventually decided not to proceed. Its reaction to Jonze and Eggers’s script was the first presage of the rough times ahead. When I ask Jonze about Universal’s decision, it is before I have seen the finished movie.
“I could show you the movie, and then you can try and guess why they didn’t want to make it,” he says. “I’m sure it’s probably the same issues we had last year when we were editing and Warner Bros. was really anxious about the movie we were making. Because it’s just not what they pictured. It’s not what they think of when they make a children’s movie. The tone of it…it’s not like ‘a movie kid.’ It doesn’t have that movie reality. I tried to make it true to my memory, my experience, of being a human being at that age of life—what it’s like to be 9 and be alive. That was my goal. This movie is going to be in the children’s-movie section at the video store, and that’s fine, and our other movies were in the comedy section.” His expression seems to suggest that there is no point in being anything other than stoic in the face of a world that scrunches up and classifies everything in this manner. “I mean, they’ve got to put it somewhere. It doesn’t matter where it is.”
And when they put this in the children’s section?
“That’s fine, but I didn’t set out to make a movie they could put in the children’s section. I set out to make a movie that was about being 9 years old.”