Last week, Ramin Setoodeh and I had the honor of interviewing Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers at Mr. Sendak’s house in Connecticut. It was the only time the creative team behind Where the Wild Things Are would be getting together to speak to the press. This morning, Newsweek posted the magazine version of our exclusive conversation, which you can read here. We think it’s the definitive WtWTA interview.
Instead of reblogging portions of the official transcript, however, we thought we'd do something different here on Pop Vox: share some of the stuff that we couldn’t squeeze into print. To find out what death, danger and Discovery Channel documentaries have to do with kiddie lit, read on…
NEWSWEEK: Why write about death in a children’s story?
Sendak: Well, it’s a great subject. There’s a lot of charm to it. I remember when we did Hansel and Gretel, the opera. All of the kids are out in the open, unprotected from the weather, and so we had one of the little girls die. And the opera people and everybody was: “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s Hansel and Gretel.” But I said: “Hansel and Gretel is one of the scariest stories ever written! Psychotic mother; stupid, inane father. What the hell are you talking about? Of course there’s going to be somebody dead in it.” After the show, the kids came backstage and they wanted the autograph of the dead girl. [laughter] Like, I was just like chopped liver, they walked right past me. “Where’s the dead girl?”
There’s something in that, though—danger and rebellion are the things that are thrilling to you when you’re a kid.
Sendak: Kids are barbaric. They really have to be. They don’t know what it is to be polite or nice. There is a toughness to being a child. Childhood is a very tough time. I always had a deep respect for children and how they solve complex problems by themselves.
How did this translate when you sat down to write and illustrate Wild Things?
Sendak: Well, Max and his mother - it’s not that good a relationship. But it’s really what a lot of relationships are like between children and parents. A lot of yelling and losing of one’s temper and throwing of things, and then you’re sorry you did it. I’ve always been interested in how children maneuver and figure out how to live.
Jonze: And how do they?
Sendak: Cleverness, shrewdness, fantasy, and just plain strength. They want to survive. The kids in Hansel and Gretel¬ she is the heroine, she saves her brother’s life. Little girl saving a little boy’s life - when do children have to confront such terrible ordeals? But they do! They do.
What was it like to see the Wild Things embodied onscreen with the voices of James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker? Did it clash with the image of them you’d kept with you all these years?
Sendak: Yes, but at the same time, I fell in love with the new versions. They were gentler, they were kinder. Underneath, of course, they were capable of the same terrible things. One of them puts Max in her mouth. There always is the possibility that something might go wrong, and you’ll get eaten. And you don’t know what it is that might go wrong. What you’ll say or what you’ll do that will provoke a Wild Thing to eat you. I love watching animal movies on television. One of the only things I like. And they always say, don’t do this and don’t do that, don’t run away and don’t turn your back and don’t lie flat. I love that. It’s from my childhood. How do you prevent dying? How do you prevent being eaten or mauled by a monster? I still worry about it.
Jonze: When we went to shoot the movie, we actually watched nature documentaries, and wanted to feel like we were watching animals-
Jonze: -and that’s part of the reason we shot it out on location. We wanted it to be not on soundstages and not with greenscreen, but in real places. The camera doesn’t know where these creatures are going to go. What’s motivating them is unpredictable, unknowable, and the cameraman is just there, trying to document these wild animals, from the point of view of Max, who knows just as little as we do of what they’re going to do.
Sendak: Yes, he doesn’t know what’s to come next. I mean, that’s gotta be scary for a kid, but it’s also gotta be what a kid likes most. It’s that enticement of what might or might not happen.
That was one of the most powerful things about the movie: the sense of potential danger.
Jonze: Our goal was to make a movie that feels like what it’s like to be a 9-year-old kid. As a kid, everything’s new. You just got here. You’re trying to read the clues, see what other people are reacting to. Emotions that other people have are unpredictable and confusing; emotions you have that are unpredictable and confusing. That’s scary, and so I wanted to make a movie that felt like that—that felt like being in the head of somebody at that age of their life. Things feel out of control.
Eggers: The first time that we talked about writing a screenplay based on the book, Spike had it figured out. He wanted it to be live-action, and he wanted it to be filmed on a wild, actual landscape that seemed dangerous. He wanted Max to really get in a boat and sail on the ocean. Immediately, I got freaked out. The kid in me could remember seeing The Black Stallion, that scene where the ship goes down and the kid and the horse wash on shore, and I remember how freaky that was as a kid, seeing a kid all alone, and how that sort of hits you at a gut level. Because most of childhood you do feel alone, and you sort of have to figure out ninety percent of it yourself. So the landscape mirrors, I think, Max’s inner turmoil. The fact that there’s real danger. You see all these shots in the movie of the Wild Things’ claws just missing Max’s head. At the very beginning, they almost knock him off a cliff in the middle of a fun rumpus.
Were there disagreements when you were writing the screenplay?
Jonze: A big thing was not having the bedroom turn into the forest. And Dave and I went back and forth on it! It sort of didn’t fit with the way we were taking the movie, but it’s so powerful. As a kid I remember taking those three pages and just flipping from one to the next to the next and then back, and watching the way the bedposts turned into trees, and the way the wallpaper fell back into the forest. Those three drawings to me were so magical. But Maurice was always of the opinion: “I’ll fight you, I’ll give you my opinion, but whatever you believe in, I’ll back.”
I’m interested in the distinction between stories that are “for children” versus stories that are “about childhood.” Maurice’s work was about childhood but also entertained children. Will the film resonate with children the way it’s already resonating with adults?
Eggers: I think it depends on the kid. I think there are entertainments that are confections, like bright colors and simple storylines and tidy points that are always going to be there for pretty much any kid if they want to just relax and see something and have it pass through their heads quickly. And then there are things that tell harder truths, and their tones are a bit more nuanced, and the colors aren’t so bright and the lines aren’t so tidy, and those are the movies or the books that stay with us longer and get us at a more primal level, which is what Maurice’s books do. Spike and Maurice and I, the boys that we were, absolutely respond to this movie, and feel this vicarious thrill. If we had our druthers, that’s where we would be, on this island with these creatures you could order around and throw rocks and bum through the woods and howl. But I think that there’s always going to be the kids that don’t respond to that kind of thing. Maybe it’s the difference between indoor cats and outdoor cats.
Jonze: Maurice talks a lot about how hard childhood can be. But he was the one from the beginning who was saying, “Make sure you don’t just represent the fear and anxiety of childhood. Make sure you represent the joy and excitement and-”
Jonze: “And fun and mischievousness and power and play.” And as much as he will talk the talk of that side of childhood, he is an adamant protector of the inner life, the inner desire for joy that children have. And I think we wanted to represent both sides of that.
It seems like so many classic children’s stories are about becoming untethered: being orphaned, losing parents. And they capture both sides: the fun and the freedom of that, but also the anxiety of being on your own.
Sendak: In the early part of the century—19th century, 20th century—it was very common that children were orphans. Popular works like The Secret Garden immediately start with the death of the parents, and how she has to cope without a mother and a father and make life work for her in the secret garden. That always seemed to be the most critical test that a child was confronted with - loss of parents, loss of direction, loss of love. And I think they were good - The Secret Garden had a terrific effect on me when I read it as a young person. Can you live without a mother and a father? Well, she does - she makes out well. She makes out too well. She makes out sentimentally well. So I went a step further. Let’s tell the truth. Let’s talk about the kid who doesn’t make it sensationally well. Let’s talk about the struggles and the fights.