”To make a movie about what it feels like to be 9 years old — that was my simple intention,” says Spike Jonze, whose edgy riff on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are hits theaters on Oct. 16. But don’t let the PG rating fool you. Where most family films are comically zany and full of morals, Wild Things is naturalistic, dramatic, and raw. Jonze — who clashed with Warner Bros. over the final product — has directed what’s reportedly a $80 million family film about childhood that
really isn’t for children, leaving its box office prospects as cloudy as a sky full of meatballs.
”Even in the first month that Spike and I started working on it together, we realized this wasn’t going to be a traditional, easy-to-market children’s movie,” says Jonze’s writing partner on the project, novelist Dave Eggers. ”I expected resistance, trepidation, and fights. And by golly, they happened.”
Where the Wild Things Are bloomed out of Jonze’s friendship with the book’s author, Maurice Sendak. In 1995, Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) was developing an adaptation of Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, the rights to which Sendak controlled. The movie imploded, but Jonze and Sendak became tight. After Crayon crumbled, Sendak and his producing partner John Carls began talking with Jonze about adapting Wild Things. ”I loved the book as a child. Its images are seared into my brain,” says the director, 39. ”The book was filled with emotions I could connect with. Being hurt. Being angry. Being wild. I yearned to be Max. I wanted to play with the Wild Things and hug them. But they scared me, too.” When Jonze decided to make Wild Things in 2003, Sendak gave him the following commission: Make it your own. Make it personal. Make it dangerous. Says Sendak: ”I would rather not have had a film than turn it into a kiddie movie.”
Jonze felt the same way. ”The book is like a poem — it could mean different things to different people,” he says. Max’s parents would be divorced — but his father would be conspicuously absent from the story. The Wild Things would metaphorically mirror Max’s turbulent emotions about himself and his family — but the correlations wouldn’t be so obviously on the nose. If that sounds intriguing but still nebulous or shifty, welcome to Planet Spike. The director is notorious for his unwillingness — or inability — to explain himself. ”It’s hard to get inside the head of Spike Jonze,” says his longtime producer Vincent Landay. ”I’ve worked with him for 16 years, and most of the time I only understand 60 percent of what he wants. Nobody knows exactly what he wants until it’s over.”
In 2007, Jonze showed Warner Bros. an incomplete first cut of his movie — and the studio, which is splitting the price tag with Legendary Pictures, got nervous. Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, says he was concerned about the film’s pacing, clarity, and tone, and he further worried that Max might be too edgy for the typical family-film audience. ”He just isn’t your typical ‘movie kid,’ ” says Robinov, who compares Max in some ways to Edward Furlong’s rebellious, troubled youth in Terminator 2. ”He was just so real that at times, it was jarring.”
Warner Bros. execs say they didn’t want Jonze to sanitize his work — but they did want a movie that had a better chance at recouping its financial investment. The director, who had final cut, refused to compromise. ”I was never going to work on something for that long and not make what I set out to make. That was not an option,” he says. Throughout the stalemate, Jonze continued to work, and as he did, his vision evolved. In March 2008, Jonze submitted a new version of the script — one that he believed in, and one that Warner Bros. would support — and spent eight more days shooting.
Today, Jonze says that the Wild Things that people will see in theaters is very much the one he’s had in his head. Robinov says the studio is very proud to be releasing Jonze’s film — but he also thinks parents should take the film’s ”Parental Guidance” rating seriously. ”I would say it’s a movie for adults first and for a certain kind of child second,” he says. ”It doesn’t completely fit your expectation of a pure family film. It’s all good, but it is surprising.”
For more details about the new movie and more about Spike Jonze’s eccentric filmmaking style pick up this week’s EW on stands now