Spike Jonze’s Wild World

Where the Wild Things Are director Spike Jonze talks to The Daily Beast’s Caryn James about his new MoMA retrospective, childhood fears, and getting James Gandolfini to play a monster.

10.06.09 11:07 PM ET

The Museum of Modern Art’s splashy new film retrospective, Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years, was named by Jonze himself. “You know, I've only been working 80 years, and so I wanted a title that represented the fact that I still have more work in front of me,” he told The Daily Beast, offering a rare example of a pithy Spike Jonze sound bite. He is wry and low-key in a brief phone interview, but ask about his work and his side of the conversation becomes loaded with pauses, “ums” and detours. He’s better at directing films than explaining how he made them, but he is a whiz of a filmmaker.

There is thunderous buzz about Jonze’s latest movie, Where the Wild Things Are, (opening October 16) which captures all the dark, raucous energy, and psychological layers of Maurice Sendak’s minimalist children’s classic. The film should cement Jonze’s reputation as one of our most inventive directors. At 39, he is no longer young enough to be an enfant terrible, but people still peg him as a kid too cool to grow up.

He is forever ahead of the curve, though. In Jonze’s brand-new short "We Were Once a Fairy Tale" (part of the MoMA series, which begins October 8), Kanye West plays a fictional version of himself, a high-rolling celebrity who tosses money around a club, picks up a gorgeous woman, and ends up in the men’s room where a puppet rat pops out of his stomach and commits suicide under a shower of blood-red confetti. The credits call this character “Drunk Kanye” which accidentally plays into the recent headlines about West’s outburst at the MTV Video Music Awards. The name was “just a joke,” Jonze said, and the film “wasn't about being drunk, it was more about being sad.”

True enough. The short is a surreal and moody piece about fame and self-destruction, just the kind of layered little gem Jonze became famous for and that the MoMA series recognizes. There are skateboarding videos, and classic music videos, such as 2001’s “Weapon of Choice” for Fatboy Slim, with Christopher Walken dancing solo through a hotel lobby as gracefully as Fred Astaire then floating through the air. The droll commercials include a current one for a Japanese bank in which Brad Pitt dines with a Sumo wrestler.

“I wanted somebody who had a huge presence—charismatic, able to dominate a room,” Jonze said about casting Tony Soprano, yet “who was very sensitive, whose emotions were right under the surface.”

Jonze’s two features, Being John Malkovich (in which a man finds a doorway to Malkovich’s brain) and Adaptation, (Nicolas Cage as a screenwriter tortured by self-doubt), owe their mind-bending oddness to Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays, and the shorts may be the truer expression of Jonze’s quirky, sardonic style. His video for “Y Control” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was done in 2004, when he was thinking through the Wild Things concept, and visions of childhood don’t get funnier or more sinister. In the video, a pack of children become so out-of-control violent—in a funny, horror-movie way—that one little boy asks a girl to chop his hand off. The kids going haywire are a lot like the monsters’ playful attack in the movie.

The video, he said, came from “brainstorming and coming up with ideas” with Yeah Yeah Yeahs' lead singer Karen O. “I'm not one to intellectualize why I did something,” he adds, which counts as a gigantic understatement. Karen O. also did the soundtrack for Wild Things, which is haunting, brash and nothing like the usual icky-sweet kiddie music.

How much does Jonze not like to talk about his work? One of the sharpest satires in the MoMA show is “ A Brief Taped Interview with Spike Jonze,” from 1996. Jonze himself plays an interviewer, and a small boyish-looking puppet with a backpack plays Spike as pompous artiste. “You can’t do more pure vision art than music videos,” Puppet Spike says. “It encompasses everything.” Real Spike will never sound that self-important, no matter how artistic he gets.

But Wild Things is a stupendous achievement. Jonze and Dave Eggers’ adapted Sendak’s story—so spare it seemed untranslatable—about Max, an angry boy in a wolf suit who escapes in his imagination to a place where he becomes king of sharp-toothed monsters, gets lonely and returns home. In the film, when Max gets to the place where the Wild Things are, Sendak’s colorfully drawn, silent monsters have taken on distinct personalities. The giant monster suits and CGI facial expressions are impressive, but the vibrant characters—a brainy bird with Chris Cooper’s voice, an independent redhead voiced by Lauren Ambrose—make the film come alive.

The dominant monster, now named Carol, sounds tough yet feels as insecure and left-out as Max, and there is an extra resonance because his voice is James Gandolfini’s. “It was definitely early on that I got excited about him,” Jonze said about casting Tony Soprano. “I wanted somebody who had a huge presence—charismatic, able to dominate a room,” yet “who was very sensitive, whose emotions were right under the surface.” What Sendak calls the monsters' “wild rumpus” plays like an action movie, but the soul of the film is Carol’s touching relationship with Max.

In Tell Them Anything You Want, the eye-opening HBO documentary about Sendak that Jonze and Lance Bangs directed, you instantly see that Jonze shares Sendak’s unsentimental view of childhood. Sendak recalls that when he was a boy, his parents regularly told him how they tried to abort him: Mom took poison then jumped off a ladder. Well, there’s one answer to the question Sendak asks himself, (with an 81-year-old’s pre-iPod reference): “Why is my needle stuck in childhood?”

Jonze understands why he’s still labeled an overgrown child himself. “I think the way kids create is so inspiring,” he said. “They're drawing a picture? They love the picture they drew; they're not tortured about it. But I think that that's only one side of me. Right now, it's a good story because it makes a tie-in with the movie.”

So he has a tortured side? “Oh definitely, definitely,” he said (no pause or um there.) “In Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman character that Nicolas [Cage] plays is “another part of me.” (Among Jonze’s starry connections: He was married to Cage’s cousin, Sofia Coppola, but the couple divorced in 2003. His relationship with Michelle Williams recently ended.)

His adult wrangling includes a high-profile battle with Warner Brothers, which worried that Wild Things was too intense for kids and too expensive ($80 million is a low estimate). Jonze insists he’s made the movie he wanted to make. “There's no compromises,” he said, “I wasn't going to work on something for five years and then compromise it because of somebody's anxieties about it.”

The prospect of commercial success goes a long way toward calming everybody down. Wild Things comes with an extravagant array of tie-in merchandise that Jonze oversaw, from skateboards produced by his company to limited edition T-shirts at Urban Outfitters boutiques, and a clothing line that includes an adult-size wolf costume. Shrewd of Jonze to know that wolf PJs would satisfy some dangerous inner child in all of us.