In the five years since we’ve become friends with Spike Jonze, he has never not been working on his movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are.
PORTRAITS BY TERRY RICHARDSON
In the five years since we’ve become friends with Spike Jonze, he has never not been working on his movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. It’s been a life-consuming, soul-questioning, long-day’s-journey-into-night, half-decade quest for Spike to make this film according to his very specific vision for it, and it’s been hugely inspiring to watch it grow and evolve. And now, like a beautiful little baby crowning the rim of the birth canal or a ripe, juicy tomato plumply twisting on the vine, Where the Wild Things Are is about to burst forth into the world. It’s like no film we’ve seen before, and we can’t wait to witness how the general moviegoing public reacts to it.
Vice founder Shane Smith went to London this summer to visit Spike as he completed effects work on WTWTA there. Shane was en route to Africa to film for VBS.TV, and he was reeling from the gargantuan doses of malaria medication he’d been taking. Before he met up with Spike, he attended a private viewing of Where the Wild Things Are. Then he rushed straight into Spike’s arms and, overcome with emotion, sobbed awhile. And then the two of them sat in Shane’s hotel room and talked all about Spike’s new movie, life, and love.
Vice: I just saw your new film. It’s called Where the Wild Things Are—
Spike Jonze: Yeah… [laughs]
I obviously read the book when I was a kid, and I remembered all of the characters, especially Max. But I couldn’t remember a lot of the specifics. Like, does he use a boat in the book too?
He does. The basic elements are all taken from the book. But most important to me was to capture the spirit and tone of the book. At least what that was to me…
You read it when you were a kid too?
Oh yeah, definitely.
And it was one of your favorites?
Was it in your brain for a long time that you wanted to make it into a film?
No, because it was one of those things that I loved but I wouldn’t have wanted to touch. I didn’t know what I could add to it that wouldn’t ruin it. But I’ve gotten to know Maurice Sendak over the last 14 years and talked to him about it occasionally. He would ask me if I would want to do it and I would contemplate it and try to think of—
Hold on, hold on. So he asked you if you wanted to do it?
It was something he was developing into a movie for the last 20 years.
Do you know who else was ever going to do it?
I’m not sure who had gotten really close to it, but he talked to a lot of different people.
It must have felt amazing to be personally asked by him.
Oh yeah. I mean, I love him, and I love his books. And since I’ve loved them from when I was so young—In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are and Pierre and The Nutshell Library—those images are all so…
Ingrained in your head?
Right. When you love something from that age, you end up loving it really deeply because the images are there way down inside you. As you’ve grown, you’ve grown around them and they’ve just gotten deeper into you.
Sometimes I get mad when someone takes one of my favorite movies and then remakes it, or takes a great book and films it. There’s a huge risk of misinterpreting the original thing. Were you worried about that? Like, “Wow, it’s a huge responsibility to make the most beloved children’s book of all time into a movie”?
Definitely. Not only did I not want to ruin it for other people, I didn’t want to ruin it for myself. So, initially, I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t have an idea of how to do it.
And then one day it clicked?
Well, I think it was probably the third time Maurice talked to me about it. He sent me a script, a draft of a script—
So he had been writing it?
No, not Maurice himself. He had worked with different writers or directors over the years and tried different versions. I read this one draft and it wasn’t bad. But I realized what it could be and I got really excited. It was a really simple idea—to take the feeling of the book and expand who Max is and who the Wild Things are. And my idea was the Wild Things are wild emotions. It was that simple, but it was enough for me to know I could explore that idea and still be true to the book. I think that as a kid, for me at least, wild emotions were probably the things that were the scariest.
Like freaking out but you didn’t know why you were freaked out, getting hysterical.
Exactly. Maybe at the time I wouldn’t have analyzed it like this, but I think that wild emotions, both your own and those of the people around you, can be really confusing and disorienting as a kid.
And the most accepted interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are is that it’s about emotions and control—or lack of control—over them as a kid.
Reading that script, suddenly I felt like with that idea, if you were going to be writing about our wild emotions, then it’s sort of infinite in terms of where you can go with it. It just felt wide-open.
Did there end up being any of your own childhood in there? Is there a little bit of you in Max?
Yes, sure. I mean, even in things that I’ve made that I haven’t written there is some of me. Even the movies I’ve done with Charlie [Kaufman]—I feel like I’m in those as well. But yeah, I am probably in this one to a higher degree.
You wrote this script with Dave Eggers. How long did it take you guys?
I probably worked on it on my own for around six months. That was just doing notes, free-associating, coming up with characters and ideas and themes and dialogues—really having no idea how it was going to come together. Then I went and started working with Dave and brought him all these notes and sort of dumped them on a table and we went from page 1 and just worked from there. I would say the first draft probably took four more months from that point. I moved to San Francisco and we worked every day.
Did you have a studio before or after the script?
First there was a studio, but it was a different studio than we ended up doing it with.
Why? Did the first studio hate the script when they read it?
I don’t know if they loved it.
Well, I think you did a great job on the writing, but when I was watching the movie I was thinking to myself that this must have been a hard sell to a major studio for a tent-pole release. This is obviously a big film, but it’s also so intimate and artistic…
It’s definitely not what they were picturing.
What did they want? Shrek?
I don’t know, you should go interview them.
Did you feel any pressure when you were making it, or were you like, “Screw it, I’m going to do my own film and everybody can go to hell”?
Well, I wanted to be respectful of, you know, the people who were paying for it to be made. But at a certain point you’ve got to just make the movie you want to make. If you go off that track, you become lost and you’re neither here nor there.
What about input from studio people?
You’ve got to be open to listening to see if it’s a good idea, because a good idea can come from anywhere. But you’ve also got to not be swayed by other people’s anxiety. In the end, I just tried to keep to my original intention.
Which was what?
To make a movie that felt true to being nine years old and trying to sort of navigate the world and your own emotions and the emotions of people around you.
I was thinking that this was a very brave film for you to have made because you made art even though it’s financed by a conglomerate and there are so many millions of dollars involved and so many pressures against it. That’s incredibly brave, and I’m proud of you.
Thanks. I’m excited that we got to make our movie and make it what it is, whatever it is. I don’t even know what it is! It’s just what we set out to make, and now because, you know, it’s financed by Warner Bros., it’s going to be released in a kind of big way. So that’s exciting that there is this little thing that is going to be presented to the world in…
It’s going to be huge. Are you nervous about that? You’re not a public guy, and you made this thing for five years and it’s your little baby and everything, and now it’s going to be in, like, People magazine. You’re gonna be in People! Can you believe it?
Wait, Shane, I didn’t get to finish my last answer!
Sorry. Go ahead.
It’s my turn to talk!
And here’s another thing! I have another thing! Just kidding, go ahead.
[laughs] This is my interview!
Go! Talk about your film!
No, I was just going to say that I think it’s really hard to be a big company and still be about ideas, and I think it’s amazing when I see a company that’s about ideas over profit margins, or over deals. Or to trust that ideas can lead to profits.
It’s pretty rare.
Businessmen, they make deals. That’s such an abstract idea. I don’t even know what that means. But they’re out there making the deal, acquiring another company, deciding what percentage, what profits are they going to keep, which of their costs they can bill back to somebody in business with them…
All of that stuff is torturous.
Yeah. So I’m always impressed when companies are about ideas first, like Apple or Pixar. Those are two of my favorite companies because it’s about an idea, it’s about making something that means something. Branson too, everything Richard Branson does. To work on that scale, and—
So you like raves, then?
Does Branson rave?
No, but Virgin Atlantic Airlines, it’s like, black lights and trip-hop.
I don’t like the purple light.
You love the purple light!
No. That’s the one thing about those Virgin airplanes. It’s the most unflattering, ugly, color-draining light. I have a feeling they’re going to have to change that. Will you write them a letter?
If you insist. But can we talk a little about how you made the actual Wild Things for the film?
We started with the voice performances. We shot the whole movie with the voice actors on a soundstage, on video—
Before you had costumes?
As we were making the costumes. This was just to get the voice performances down. The whole movie is based on what those guys did on the soundstage. We shot it like a movie. They’d learn their scenes, block the scenes, and try takes exploring the dialogue. We videotaped the whole thing. We had seven cameras and seven actors. That became our reference footage for the making of the rest of the movie.
How do you do voice casting?
We listened to a lot of actors’ voices from their previous roles as we looked at still images of the Wild Things characters. Once you start isolating somebody’s voice, you know, you have to think very differently. It’s such a different thing from what I’d normally need from an actor.
So I guess that’s the first element of the Wild Things, the voices. What about the people inside the suits?
The suit performers. They are the second element. They would watch the tapes of the voice actors and take all those nuances of what those guys, like James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker, had done.
Were the suits hot?
They were insanely hot. I mean, these guys were like soldiers. The movie was hard for everybody just because it was a long process, but for those guys it was a whole other level. They truly bled for it.
They made the suits come alive, and that’s not just a matter of keeping them moving. I think that sometimes there’s a tendency in animation or puppetry where people are like, “Well, if it’s alive it’s always moving. So don’t ever let it sit still.” But a puppet is poorly designed if doesn’t look alive when it’s sitting still.
Yeah, I forget the name of the goat Wild Thing—
Right, Alexander. It was great how that character looks depressed even when he’s just standing still.
Yeah. Those suits were built already with the look of the face and the way they would stand. But the suit performers found ways to enhance them. If they were just standing there relaxed, the suit would look dead. But if they got into the right position, the suit looked like a body with muscles and everything. So the idea was not to have them moving all the time, but to have them moving when there was an intention behind it. They would listen and hear the intention of what the voice actors did, then sort of adapt that to what the suit could do.
That’s really pretty amazing.
And then the third element that makes the Wild Things is their faces.
Which came last out of all these things.
Right. A friend of mine was saying that it’s almost like an experimental film because we didn’t know how it was going to work until the very end. But maybe all visual-effects movies are like that.
The effects on the creatures’ faces were really the touches that made them totally come alive.
It completes the character. It’s not like a visual effect that is just going to make it look cool. These visual effects are going to complete the performances of the Wild Things.
It must have felt insane to finally see it all put together.
It’s really exciting and it’s also like, “Finally.” Only in the last three months did we start seeing enough animation where it was like, “Ah, that’s amazing.” It really looks like they’re thinking and they’re alive.
You worked on this movie for something like five years.
I know. That’s too long. Five years is too long to work on a movie. It’s crazy.
Well you wrote it for two years, you were down in Australia shooting for a year, and then you did post work…
It’s ridiculous. It seems like another lifetime when I started it. But we’re getting close now. I feel like I’ve finished the movie in my head. We locked the picture last October and for the last eight months we’ve just been doing visual effects and music and sound.
Do you think that a movie is won or lost in the edit room?
The movie becomes what it is in the edit. Some people, like the Coen brothers, I think their movies are very close to their scripts. And I think that’s amazing, but I’ve never done that before. My movies change a lot in the edit room.
Do you shoot knowing that? Is it like, “Oh, I’m going to do two wide shots so I can make a choice when I’m cutting the movie”?
Yeah. When we’re shooting, we shoot in a very loose way. We cover it in a manner where you know it could go together this way or that way. Or, you know, we cover dialogue in different ways, to try stuff, to find stuff, to see what we can discover. If an idea comes up on set, we’ll improvise. If something funny or interesting happens, or we discover something, or an actor has an idea, we incorporate that into it—as long as it gets you closer to the feeling you set out to capture. That is the catch… to be open to new ideas but to always keep your intention for that scene or the film in the forefront of your mind so you can know if an idea is getting you closer to that or further away.
What would you say you like doing better? TV, music videos, commercials, skate videos, or—loaded question—feature films?
I like them all in different ways. Even though it’s a cliché answer, there’s actually some truth to that. The thing about movies is that because of their length they can be so much. You can explore a lot more ideas and get deeper into characters. In that way they are the richest experiences because you can put so much of yourself into them.
Here’s another important question. Do you want to go to the pub and get wasted?
[laughs] I’ve got to work in the morning. I’m animating all week. Animating hungover doesn’t work that well. I’ve tried it.
Do you find that animating all week cuts into your partying? No, I’m just kidding. But do you feel like you are getting better at things just by making, making, making more things and working all the time?
I think my skills are getting better. I know how to talk to an actor in more of a helpful way or how to light a shot where, if I have a feeling of a shot in my head, I might know what lighting will give it that feeling more than I did before—what kind of light might give me the quality of light that I want. So, yes, technically I’ve gotten more knowledgeable. But I still feel like you only know what you’re doing after you’ve done it.
You just jump in there.
I was always so excited to learn how to do things by putting myself into situations where I had to do them. I think that was something that I always liked doing. And this movie is no different.
You run a risk of not getting perfect results.
I think perfection is overrated. Me and my friend Eric, who edits my films, have talked about this a lot. I’m all for a shot that is sort of out of focus or flawed if it has the right feeling. For example, in Adaptation Nicolas Cage plays two brothers and sometimes you can tell that Nicolas is one of the brothers and the other brother is a double that doesn’t really look like him. There would be shots like that where I would want to hold on longer because Nicolas would be so good in a certain take, and Eric would be like, “No, we can’t, this totally gives away the trick.” But I’m always for, well, whatever. If it feels good, go for it.
And you also can get more confident as you make more and more things.
Even those videos that I did were all so homemade. It’s not like we had a budget to do it any other way, but I kind of liked that it was, on a Beastie Boys video, just the three of them and me. I had probably like a 16-mm camera and the crew was whoever could fit in the van with all the props and wardrobe.
Is it strange to think of that progression from you, the Beastie Boys, and a Bolex 16 to these big Hollywood productions?
The amount of equipment and crew that was required for Where the Wild Things Are was much bigger than anything I’ve tried before just because, you know, the locations were far away and they needed a lot of art direction and design. We needed to get the Wild Things to do what we wanted and we needed big equipment to have, say, a Wild Thing walk up to a tree and rip it out of the ground. You can’t just do that with a Bolex and a couple of people in a van.
Of course not. But what would be an example of the downside to having the sort of production where you can pull off something huge like that?
It makes it a real battle to stay spontaneous. Like if you are going to have a crane that’s going to yank a tree from the ground, you’ve got to put that crane somewhere. So you’ve got to look at the location months before, and say, “OK, we are not going to look in that direction. All these other directions look good so we just won’t look in that direction, and we can put the crane there.” And then the day to shoot that scene comes and suddenly the light is different or the clouds are a certain way or the actors do something we hadn’t imagined and it’s like, “Fuck, we’ve got to look in that direction now.” But you just can’t move the crane, the crane is already rigged there with all its anchors and you’re not going to waste half a day pulling it up and trying to figure out how to drive it through some trees to a different place.
That sounds incredibly stressful.
But I feel like I’m not going toward only making big ideas. Only making things that require a huge crew and therefore a bigger budget would be really limiting. You would get stuck. The bigger it gets, the more isolated you get within that system.
OK, so let’s review a few things.
Where the Wild Things Are. Directed by—
David Eggers and me.
Maurice Sendak. And his partner John Carls. And Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman and my producing partner, Vince Landay.
You don’t have a producer credit? Come on.
Why? I directed it, that’s enough.
I guess. When does it come out?
October 16, 2009.
Are you excited?
[laughs] Yes. I’m excited that we’re finishing it. And I’m excited about the movie we made.
When you launch a film like this, there must be crazy marketing plans.
You have to totally… you have to set the date, then you have to eat the movie, then you have to lick it, and then you have to grab it, and wrestle it—
Eat it and then lick it?
Then you have to kiss it softly and delicately massage it to bed. And then you tuck it in, and then you cuddle up with it, and then it doesn’t want you to cuddle up with it anymore. And then you have to, like, give it its own space, and then you just check on it every now and then.
And then it’s done.
Yes, and then it’s done.
See more of Spike ‘n’ Shane on VBS.TV.