'Wild Things' a struggle and a joy for director

October 8, 2009 

SAN FRANCISCO -- Maurice Sendak wasted few words writing his 1963 children's picture book "Where the Wild Things Are." A scant 10 sentences were all he needed to tell the story of Max, a boy who is sent to his room without supper and imagines himself in a world of friendly creatures. It was originally to be horses, but Sendak, who also illustrated the book, couldn't draw them.

Director Spike Jonze has done what seemed impossible: he's turned those 10 sentences into a feature film that opens Friday. It stars Max Records, Catherine Keener and the voice talents of James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose. (Listen to Max read Sendak's story in a special interactive that includes production photos and interview audio clips).

Early reviews of the book were mixed, but it's now considered a masterpiece of American children's literature. It was awarded the 1964 Caldecott Medal, given annually to the artist of the most distinguished American children's picture book. And it is an American Library Association Notable Book.

"Where the Wild Things Are" ranks 32nd on Publisher Weekly's list of best-selling paperback children's books with nearly 4 million copies and is 63rd among the all-time best-selling hardback children's books with 2 million sold.

Kari Johnson, Children Services Coordinator for the Fresno County Library, says the book is extremely popular with local readers.

"It goes over really well with children who really enjoy the story line and the concept. It is certainly a classic children's book," Johnson says. "I just hope the movie keeps the same concepts of the book."

At the end of October, Jonze talked about taking the much beloved book from printed page to the screen.

Question: Maurice Sendak asked you to make a movie of his book. Was that a blessing or cause for concern?

Answer: It was a book I loved so much, as excited as I was when Maurice asked me if I wanted to make a movie of it, I was also equally as hesitant. It's easier to adapt something that's not so perfect. Adapting something perfect is scarier, especially with something that you love like I do this book.

Did you feel any pressure because of the book's large number of fans?

I did at the beginning -- a lot. I felt that, at a certain point, I either had to completely let go of that or not do the movie. I felt there was no in-between. It was Maurice who said, "You can only make your version of this book and not only is that what you should do, it's what you have to do."

He said, "This book was something personal I made at your age and now I'm giving it to you so you can make something personal and not be reverent to the book." He was really sincere.

Were you surprised by that?

What he did was totally counter to the protective artist. He really gave it over.

Did Sendak have any input once you started?

We had disagreements along the way. He would ask why certain things from the book weren't in the movie. He would fight for it. But if it didn't make sense to me I would tell him it didn't make sense. He would always say, "It's your movie."

Wasn't one big discussion about why Max's room doesn't change into a jungle as it does in the book?

Yeah, and every few weeks he would come back and and say, "Hey, I know it's your decision but what if the room transformed this way or this way?" We would talk about it but I always wanted to take Max out into the world.

Speaking of Max, how critical was it to find just the right actor?

That was everything. There was a point where we had not found the right actor and we were two months away from shooting. Once you are two months away you have pulled the trigger. There's no pausing that machine once it's moving.

Now I can't imagine anyone else playing the role. He's just so special. We found a really special person to carry the movie.

What made you think of "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini as a voice talent?

He is raw emotions. Chris Cooper is the same kind of actor. Their emotions are so on the surface and available.

Are the Wild Things parts of Max's personality?

Yes. The idea was that the Wild Things were wild emotions, and when Max gets there he meets these really complicated people that have these wild emotions and how that can be scary and confusing as a kid.

I didn't want to do anything extraneous. But that seemed like an idea that came from the inside.

Why did you pick Dave Eggers, who had never written a screenplay, to co-write the script?

We started writing the script five years ago right here in San Francisco. I moved here to work with Dave Eggers, who is one of my favorite writers. I had become big friends with him. He seemed like the perfect combination in terms of an ability to write about kids and how much I liked him as a person. Sometimes writing is just sitting in room with somebody for eight hours a day. You've got to like them.

What did Eggers bring to the process?

He came into it with such a genuine intention of helping make the movie. There was no, like, trying to put his fingerprints on it. Trying to be the writer. He came at it as just trying to help me make this movie.

We discussed every word. We hashed out all the details of the back story that I needed to know before I wrote anything.

Did that make the writing a hard process?

No, because a lot of what we did was really very intuitive. We didn't over-question it. We just sort of went with it.

Are you ready to share your take on "Where the Wild Things Are"?

I am excited about it going out into the world now because this was not made by a corporation. It was made by a group of friends who figured out day by day how to make this book into a film.

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at rbentley@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6355. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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