Where the Wild Writers Are
You wonder what children see. The life of a child; what they see and what they hear, and what they don’t discuss with you. Or choose not to discuss.
IN 1963, Maurice Sendak published Where the Wild Things Are, a slim book of illustrations and 10 sentences of narrative about a misbehaving boy, Max, who is sent to his room without supper. Max imagines himself traveling to a land of wild creatures as raucous as himself, who crown him their king. It was condemned as a dangerous book by reviewers and influential psychiatrists, in part because Max’s mother loses her temper too and had failed to discipline her child. But children returned to borrow it from the library, and it soon entered the canon of American children’s literature.
Though the brief book offers oceans to the imagination, it puts forth little in the way of plot and thus seemed an unlikely movie adaptation. Sendak wanted to see it done, however, and throughout the course of 10 years frequently raised the issue with Spike Jonze, whom he had met while attempting to produce his own mentor Crockett Johnson’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon.
That project never came to fruition, but Jonze developed a friendship and appreciation for the author, filming conversations between them over time and piecing them into a short documentary for HBO, Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak.
In the documentary, the intimacy between the two men is transparent. They share a natural appreciation for each other’s work, but Jonze’s profound sense of play is offset by Sendak’s darker fixations with his own mortality, alienation, and inability to accept happiness.
During one revealing sequence, Sendak confides to Jonze, “It seems I never can satisfy some need in me to achieve something of incredible height. It puzzles me deeply, and it sours my life. So there’s a permanent dissatisfaction . . . It’s like something is dead inside.” Jonze hugs the older man.
“I wish I could satisfy you as a friend,” Sendak offers.
“You are. You do.” “... And be a normal human being,” Sendak adds, smiling up at Jonze.
“I wish I could just strangle you and slap you,” concludes Jonze, “and make you realize you do find joy, and why isn’t that enough?” But in his documentary, Jonze explores the depths of Sendak’s solitude and perhaps even the source of Sendak’s “permanent dissatisfaction” as well as his artistry: “My obsession with death, which a lot of my friends laugh at because I’m always on it, comes from the Lindbergh baby and the idea that you could die as a child—it’s an infamous insight for a child. Infamous.” Jonze’s skateboarder manner brings light into their dynamic.
Their creative collaboration might beg a comparison with Jonze’s affinity for, and emotional bond with, a not dissimilarly burdened friend and collaborator, iconoclastic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Although seeming no less aware of life’s more painful propensities, Jonze broke ground in music videos, short films, and commercials.
His work exhibits childlike playfulness, often sardonic or tinged with pathos, but never heavy or lacking in wonder.
The Wild Things script is painted more in emotion than with plot; the journey itself is the nine-year-old Max’s trip Through his turbulent feelings, struggling to understand them and those of his divorced mother, who is desperate to simply maintain their lifestyle and keep her head above water. After Max acts out at home and bites her, he runs from the house and then sailboats to the land of the Wild Things. He lands ashore and creeps through the woods to find the creatures acting out their own frustrations and loneliness, ready emotions on their sleeves, while their actions, relationships, and difficulties mirror many of Max’s own back home.
Once Jonze found his own lodestar into the story, Jonze enlisted Dave Eggers in 2004. “Maurice was the first person to read each version of the screenplay, and he was our best editor and our strongest supporter,” remembers author Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), with whom Jonze eventually shared screenplay credit on Where the Wild Things Are. Perhaps accordingly, Eggers published a novelization of the film, taking scenes and a backstory that didn’t make it into the final version.
“[Spike’s] the filmmaker, and I knew he was the one who would have to take whatever we wrote and spend the time and effort—years of it—to get it made,” Eggers explains. “So there was always vigorous discussion about any given line.
But I deferred to him, to his vision for the movie. Over the years, the movie evolved in the editing and tweaking, and the final movie has a lot of writing in it that Spike did after we finished writing together. In the end, Spike and I figure that the movie is more his version of Maurice’s book, and the novel is more my version.” There is something guileless and childlike about Jonze that would make him the obvious hire for an adaptation of Sendak’s work. The result is an unconventional film, to say the least, and a studio “learning to love and accept” the film he delivered to it, as Jonze has said—much like any parent must with an unruly but precocious child. “It’s like the studio was expecting a boy, and I gave birth to a girl,” he told the New York Times. “And now they’re learning to love and accept their daughter.” Rob Feld: What was your way into the story? What made it finally click?
Spike Jonze: I’ve known Maurice [Sendak] for 14 years, and whenever he’d bring it up I’d be very excited. It’s a book I loved, images that are deeply ingrained in my consciousness from when I was a little kid. It’s a powerful, original work that would be exciting but also daunting to adapt; I’d be deeply hesitant for all the same reasons. Twice I really thought about it; like a month where I’d brainstorm it and consider what I could bring to it—and at the end of the month, both times, I would call Maurice back and say, “I just don’t know what I could add storywise to this that would feel necessary.” I didn’t want to add something just to add something. Like, Wow, I get to make a movie about the Wild Things!
So both times, reluctantly, I passed. It was only the third time that I started thinking about it differently. What would the Wild Things be like? I started thinking about who they would be, and what they would be like when Max showed up and encountered them on the island, and less about what would happen. My first reaction was, Wouldn’t it be funny if they just talked like us? But that wasn’t really an idea for a movie.
Going further, I started thinking about them as us and as our wild emotions. As soon as that idea came in, it seemed like it was inherent in the book. Maybe I always knew that— though I never confirmed it with Maurice and don’t even know if it’s true—but it always seemed very true to me.
Max is emotionally wild in the beginning of the book, and I got really excited about this idea that he goes to this place where everything is wild; the geography is wild, the weather is wild. That started to make sense to me in terms of making a movie about what it’s like to be nine years old. The world is uncertain. You’re trying to navigate it all and decipher this place where you just arrived. There’s no map for it and things that are out of control are scary as a kid and still can be—certainly among [scary things] are the emotions you can’t control in the people around you and those inside yourself. Those are scary. When that came, it tumbled into something that had infinite possibilities in what you could write about it. Suddenly, the excitement far outweighed the hesitation and anxiety of it.
What did Sendak say to this?
I called Maurice, told him I was excited and that I had an idea that made me want to do it. We probably talked for two hours and one of the strongest things I remember him telling me came without any note of an artist protecting his work; it was a mandate pushing me to make something that was my own. He said that I need to make it personal and not make something that panders to children; to not be precious with the book. As for the book, when it came out, it was considered dangerous for children because of the way it showed Max’s and his mom’s behavior. The kid lost control of himSelf, but the mom lost control of herself also. She wasn’t there to help the child through his emotions. There wasn’t an easy lesson taught that you could walk away with, but it captured what it feels like to be a kid. For those reasons, that book was revolutionary. And for those same reasons, it still resonates so deeply with generations of kids.
I agreed, no mother should do that. But I also agree that mothers and children are human beings and they will lose their way occasionally and do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing.
Maurice Sendak, Tell Them Anything You Want Once you made that decision, what was your subsequent development process? Did you start sketching out this constellation of characters/emotions?
For probably six months I wrote notes with no rhyme or reason. Images, ideas for characters, scenes, dialogue. Kind of like the way I write music video treatments; I’d put the song on and disappear into the song, writing any image that came to mind, not thinking about how they were going to go together. Just free associate off the feelings the song gave me.
Then I’d come back and look at this long list of ideas—most of which are bad—but one might make me say, Oh, that’s exciting! And that kind of goes with this thing; and those two things combined might make a strong idea. So I wrote in that form, no sense of what was going to stay or go, fit or not fit, or where it was really going. Then I came to Dave [Eggers] with probably 40 pages of images, notes, ideas, characters, dialogue, moments; some that were fully formed scenes, some that were fragments.
What did you articulate to him at that moment about what you were trying to do? The core idea, that each Wild Thing represents a wild emotion?
Probably, with a lot more details about what the characters were, who Max was. It was taking the book and going deeper into it. Who was Max and who were the Wild Things? Letting the plot and narrative come out of the characters and their relationships and interactions.
So you were still talking much more in terms of themes than plot?
At that point definitely more themes and scenes. We tried not to approach it from the outside in; not to approach it from an outline, then working out the scenes. We went the other way, which is probably more painful because you wind up writing and throwing out so much. We tried not to over-think it on the first draft. We wanted to write more like the way a kid would write—intuitively and from the gut. Then, as we wrote more drafts and got our heads above water, we got a different perspective; probably we did more construction. But the initial idea was to not think about it too much.
Were you trying to craft moments that might articulate a specific emotion, like abandonment or jealousy?
Honestly, I don’t know if initially we were that predetermined.
I can’t really remember. We rented a house, and I think got through the first draft in four months. Then we took a beat for the two of us to read it separately and come back together. But those first four months, we just started on page one and wrote. We would overthink things that didn’t make sense, like, Why is this character doing this? Or, Where is this character at? Trying to make this ensemble come to life, rather than just focusing on two characters. We didn’t want to shortchange the group dynamic, which we felt was powerful and important. This group is like an organism and a family, and they each come out of a different place. We’d write or improvise a scene, speaking the dialogue and writing it down, then go back and reread it.
So the stuff that mirrors his home life in the Wild Things’ world—like Max helping to literally destroy the homes being similar to his fear that he’s figuratively doing the same with his family—it sounds like you didn’t plan or outline that stuff, that it emerged more organically?
I think so. Some of those places naturally arrived, and Some we did when we went back to the script. We wrote in such a loose way, and we wrote so much—our first draft was really, really long and we didn’t question or edit it. We just went with it, knowing we could go back later from a more analytical place. I learned that from and was inspired by the way Charlie Kaufman writes. He doesn’t know where he’s going and just writes from his intuition and gut, and what he’s interested in, and just follows that through. The first pass of his scripts are sometimes 250 pages long before he goes and whittles it down. Watching him work and the way his brain makes connections was very inspiring.
In Wild Things there’s a detail that stuck with me of Max playing with his mom’s stocking under her desk, which was a scripted moment. Tell me how you use those.
In a film what captures your imagination, or my imagination, are all the little details that make it vivid and visceral. In The Black Stallion, which Maurice also loves, the little boy is sitting there holding the mane that had to be cut because he was holding onto it so tightly he passed out—it’s such a vivid detail, just the way he’s looking at it. That’s what makes a script be alive and exciting to film. Not generic. Specific. On some level every scene is made up of details. Sometimes you write or shoot stuff that doesn’t make it in, but it’s those details that help me know what the scene is and to be grounded in it. Even sometimes things that don’t make it into the script.
Maybe a specific visual detail or the texture of something. Or sometimes it’s an intention behind a character’s line. I sometimes overuse the parentheticals, putting in a whole line of description, and end up pulling those out before we shoot so I’m not overwhelming actors with that stuff. It’s more for me.
It could be a shot or a detail of what the character’s doing or a close-up that gives texture.
We’ve talked in the past about the subjective stance from which films like The Black Stallion and E.T. were presented. Wild Things is very much in that position.
I’m not sure there was even a discussion about it. I just think it was decided from the get-go that this was about being inside the head of a nine-year-old and feeling the world from his point of view. The confusion, excitement, anxiety, yearning— wherever he’s at, to be with him. We wrote a challenging role—I didn’t realize how challenging until we started auditioning kids—but I feel like with the role we wrote we were looking for a nine-year-old Sean Penn, somebody whose face you could hold on without him speaking and understand what he’s thinking and feeling, in a very complex, emotional way. It’s interesting because The Black Stallion obviously had an influence on me (a boy and a creature on an island, the subjectivity and the naturalism of the performance), but it also seeped into my consciousness in ways that weren’t as specific.
How did you talk about the thought processes and dialogue of the Wild Things themselves? “I have to eat my feet,” or childhood emotional things like, “It’s necessary to destroy the huts.” That’s always a hard thing to put into words and was at the time too. I knew it in my head but in talking about it, it was only through examples of what was and wasn’t their world.
There were specifics that we didn’t understand or relate to, but we understood the emotion of it or the feeling behind it. It’s my memory of the way I would experience the adult world, where you’re just picking up clues along the way about how everything works and what everything means. You’re picking up clues usually off of somebody’s emotional reaction to it; if it’s good or bad, dangerous, negative or positive. I don’t know if I was fully conscious of why we were writing it that way at the time, but now I can see more clearly what we were doing and give it some pseudointellectual analysis.
Did you go off to listen to the way kids speak?
At some point later on, I interviewed some kids, but not so much for the way they talked as for the way they thought.
We had already written the script, and it let me feel that we were sort of going in the right direction. [It reinforced] that the depth of kids’ emotions are just like ours, it’s just that the specifics and ability to understand it all are different. Talking to kids about things that they were scared of, or that upset them, or their nightmares and bad dreams. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t trying to overly burden Max with things that weren’t in the mind of a kid. But talking to kids reminded me that no, we weren’t.
I love that you have this really short scene where he’s playing in the school yard and you didn’t make him into the outcast, loner type, like you see in so many children’s movies. He’s a kid playing with other kids. Was that a decision?
It was definitely a conversation along the way. It’s not like he has major social problems, a loner. He’s a normal kid that we wanted to make this about. It wasn’t drawn out though. When we got to that page, we had that conversation and moved on.
People talk over each other a good deal in the movie, which is uncommon enough in commercial film, let alone one with an expected child audience. What was your influence or thought behind that? I’m fishing for Cassavetes.
Cassavetes wasn’t actually an influence in writing it.
The motivation for writing was more to be Max’s point of view on this island with all these Wild Things, just landing there and trying to decipher it. The way we shot it, too, always puts you in the middle of it as Max tries to take it all in, and we’re bursting out of the frame, always from below and from his point of view. The overlapping dialogue came from that place. As we were going to shoot it, it was Catherine Keener who suggested we watch Cassavetes movies. We watched Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence and got excited about that idea of how alive it feels when you can get performances like that. It was an influence and inspiration in shooting the dialogue more than writing the dialogue. There wasn’t a lot of stuff for the writing that came from other movies. There’s other movies we loved that we thought had done it really well, but we weren’t analyzing them to see how they did it, that this worked or didn’t, or that we could do that better, or learn from their mistakes.
We weren’t writing from that place. We were more trying to feel who Max was and understand how we could make a movie that felt like being nine could feel like at times.
I think what I offered was different but not because I drew better than anybody or wrote better than anybody, but because I was more honest than anybody. In the discussion of children and the lives of children and the fantasies of children and the language of children, I said anything I wanted because I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe there’s this demarcation, “You mustn’t tell them that! You mustn’t tell them that!” You can tell them anything you want if it’s true.
Maurice Sendak, Tell Them Anything You Want So you really set out more to make a movie about being nine than to make a children’s movie, whatever that is. In the short documentary you made about Maurice, he talks about how he doesn’t believe in childhood, in delineaTions of what is appropriate for children or not, other than the truth.
My friends would ask me, “So wait, it’s a children’s movie?” I really didn’t know how to answer. Of course I wanted children to see it, but I wasn’t writing it for an audience in that way. That’s again sort of coming at it from the outside, and, again, working with Charlie, we never did that. Our other movies are in the comedy section in the video store, but we never looked at them as comedies or classified them in any way. We were just making what we wanted to make. I knew this would be in the children’s section of the video store, but the goal was to make something that felt like childhood.
Kids respect and respond to being told the truth, even if they can’t fully digest it.
Yeah! And it’s weird—I think about movies I loved as a kid. I was about 11 when I saw The World According to Garp, but for some reason I totally identified with that movie!
They lose a son in a car wreck while the mom is giving a blowjob to some other man. It’s totally intense, but I think the spirit of Garp and his relationship with his mom, I totally related to. I didn’t relate to the specifics—I related to what he felt. He’s trying to be light, but life doesn’t always allow him to be light. The experience of life and the things that happen to you as you go through life, even as a kid you feel that sort of tug. As a kid you can listen to a song you don’t necessarily understand. I remember as a kid, like seven years old, loving the song “I Will Survive.” For some reason I loved that song, and when my mom wasn’t home, I’d put it on really loud and sing along to it. Or “The Day The Music Died,” at seven years old. Those are songs that, as a kid, you don’t fully understand the experience that the songwriter is writing about, but you fully understand the feeling the songwriter is writing about. And, speaking for myself, as a kid I gravitated toward like, That’s a feeling I know. And you crave that. And that’s why I would sing along to “I Will Survive” at top volume. You kind of know what the song’s about, but that’s not what it’s totally about to you. It’s about the sentiment of being scared and alone, and coming back and being able to do anything, and being self-empowered. Those are feelings kids totally relate to and I related to—being alone, feeling self-empowered, and triumphing over it.
Things are never in Max’s control, even when he’s king. He’s just trying to keep up. His life is constantly under threat. KW [a Wild Thing] becomes a safe place for him, is never a threat, though there is an earlier version of the script where she too doesn’t want to let him go after hiding him in her mouth; there’s a moment of panic before she finally releases him.
I guess I’m less into analyzing how things changed. But more generally, you start out wanting to include all your ideas, then the fight is to try and include as many of them as possible while not burying your movie in them. The movie at a certain point rejects the things that don’t belong there, in the same way a body would reject an organ. It’s your job as a filmmaker to listen to that or try to keep forcing it in there.
Tell me about the secret life of children as it relates to Wild Things and the delineation between Max’s fantasy world and that with his family. We once spoke about a brutal fight you saw as a child, which made no sense and terrified you as you hid, watching, but you didn’t tell your mother about it.
I guess my experience of being a kid was not knowing how to talk about these things. You’re reading all these things as a kid. When people are talking, there’s two levels of communication going on—one is the spoken and the other is the unspoken.
Things are being implied by the intonation or body language or expression, and kids are so in tune with that, eating it all up. Even if they’re being told one thing they’re feeling another. That’s why Maurice comes back to “be honest with them.” Because they see it all, though they’re getting messages not to talk about this or that. I guess the difference is that as adults we feel a lot of the same things, but as we’ve gotten older we’ve formed a construct in which we’re going to navigate the world and relationships.
Hopefully, it’s still changing and we’re open to change. But at that age you haven’t formed that yet, you don’t have a construct to decipher and navigate all this stuff.
The range of emotions Max and the Wild Things experience in the film felt very raw and familiar to me even now, as an adult.
We’re not all that different. It’s exciting to hear you say that. Our goal was simple: to make an experiential movie that feels like what it felt like to me being a kid.