The promotional materials for Spike Jonze's long- gestating film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are kick off with this quote from the director: "I didn't set out to make a children's movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood."
Warner Bros. has reason to emphasize this distinction: Jonze's Wild Things reveres the spirit of Sendak's 1963 picture book, but it's quite a different beast.
Max, the troublemaking kid at the center of the action, is older. So, presumably, will be the film's audience.
Author Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonze, said the movie's influences certainly went beyond the standard kiddie fare. "The movies that we talked about at the very beginning — Wizard of Oz and Black Stallion and My Life as a Dog and 400 Blows — were about childhood and did it from a child's-eye view as opposed to more like, I call them confections," Eggers said over lunch recently with the director and actors Max Records (who plays Max) and Catherine Keener (who plays his mom).
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"It wasn't like we were making this anti-kids movie," Jonze said. "We were working from the inside out in terms of what we wanted it to feel like, as opposed to the outside in in terms of what shelf it was going to go on in the video store."
But Jonze's approach launched him onto a journey at least as long and perilous as Max's. Although a seven- minute, animated Wild Things was made in 1973 (and updated in the 1980s), Sendak spent years trying to launch a feature-length film and eventually approached Jonze, whom he'd befriended on a project before the director made his 1999 breakthrough film Being John Malkovich.
Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Zeitoun, had been friends with Jonze since writing him a fan letter about Malkovich. Jonze didn't care that Eggers had never written or even read a screenplay when he asked him to collaborate about five years ago. "I think Spike has a fondness for untrained or self-trained people," said Eggers.
"Yeah, and Max had never acted in a film before," Jonze said of his star, now 12, who previously had appeared in a Death Cab for Cutie video. "To me, it's not so important finding somebody that has had the experience. It's more finding somebody who has the right taste and qualities."
By the time Eggers signed on, Jonze had fleshed out a back story that had Max living with his divorced mom and older sister. "I started thinking about who the Wild Things were and the idea that they were wild emotions," Jonze said.
That Max was older than the one in the book was something Jonze said he never considered, "until I started telling Maurice about what I was writing."
Sendak, 81, the iconic author-illustrator who retains a producer's credit, OK'd that change but took more convincing on another: Instead of Max's room turning into the forest where he encounters the Wild Things, the movie has Max in his wolf costume storming out the front door.
He'd say, "This is your movie — you've got to make it however you feel it needs to be — but why can't the bedroom turn into a forest?" Jonze said.
The writers said the film needed that extra shot of realism.
Perhaps Jonze's riskiest decision was to make the movie live-action in a multipart process: The actors who played the Wild Things performed their voice work on a soundstage before the production moved to Australia, and Records acted alongside local actors in oversize puppet costumes whose mouths eventually were computer-animated.
Such a strategy was tricky, although Jonze said he had no idea the film would take so long to complete.
Filming began in 2006, and in early 2008, some test footage of Records cavorting with oversize, non-mouth-moving puppets leaked on the Internet amid rumors that the production was in trouble. Warner Bros. announced that it was delaying the release.
Jonze said he took a friend's advice and didn't respond to the gossip. "It wasn't fun, but we made it through it," he said.
"In the end, I guess the only thing that matters is that I got to make my movie," he said. "I feel like we made this thing that is true to what we set out to do."