Exclusive: A Talk With the 'Wild Things' Creators

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For more than 40 years, kids have wondered about Where the Wild Things Are. Are they real or imaginary? Friends or foes? Now that we're grown-ups, we still can't help you, but we may have figured out where they really are: living with author Maurice Sendak in his Connecticut home. The front door is flanked by Wild Thing statuettes; vintage stuffed monsters and framed posters fill the living room. There's even a bronze sculpture of Max and his sailboat in the center of the kitchen table. The always acerbic Sendak, 81, inhabits the world of the Wild Things as fully as any child—he actually placed an order for a Wild Things parka during our interview—so we couldn't wait to ask him about Spike Jonze's big-budget, live-action movie based on the book. To discuss the dark, unorthodox adaptation, Sendak invited us over, along with Jonze and novelist-screenwriter Dave Eggers (who participated via speakerphone from San Francisco) for an exclusive group interview:

What makes a good kids' story?
Sendak: How would I know? I just write the books. But I do know that my parents were immigrants and they didn't know that they should clean the stories up for us. So we heard horrible, horrible stories, and we loved them, we absolutely loved them. But the three of us—my sister, my brother, and myself—grew up very depressed people.

Dave, do you remember Where the Wild Things Are from your childhood?
Eggers: I do. I remember when I was really little, I was scared of everything—Willy Wonkascared me to death, and the Oompa-Loompa people scared me to death. When I was 3 and 4, I would leave the room and hide under the couch when those movies came on. My first experience with Where the Wild Things Are—I couldn't read it. And my mother thought I would love it, because I was that barbaric kid that Maurice was talking about—really hyper and wild. But it scared me, mainly because of the nuances of the monsters. It just wasn't clear if they were good or bad, if they were going to eat Max or not.

The monsters were based on adults, right?
Sendak: The monsters were based on relatives. They came from Europe, and they came on weekends to eat, and my mom had to cook. Three aunts and three uncles who spoke no English, practically. They grabbed you and twisted your face, and they thought that was an affectionate thing to do. And I knew that my mother's cooking was pretty terrible, and it also took forever, and there was every possibility that they would eat me, or my sister or my brother. We really had a wicked fantasy that they were capable of that. We couldn't taste any worse than what she was preparing. So that's who the Wild Things are. They're foreigners, lost in America, without a language. And children who are petrified of them, and don't understand that these gestures, these twistings of flesh, are meant to be affectionate. So there you go.

Maurice, what did you think when you first saw the movie?
Sendak: I thought it was never going to end. [Laughter] I say that to be funny. The truth of the matter is, I saw immediately a combination of things that I wanted and I loved. The courage of the child, the danger of the situation—it could turn on a dime. They could have eaten him. All of that was apparent right from the start. The artistry was something they would have to take care of. I was happy right from the beginning. I didn't have to suffer like they did—schlepping from this place to that place, dealing with the studio.

One disagreement you had is that in the book, Max stays in his room. In the film, he runs away from home.
Sendak: It was one of my favorite scenes in the book. It was so much about the ability of children to imagine themselves in another place. He was a prisoner, locked in his room by his mother. And by his imagination he was able to get through those few hours where he was isolated and trapped. That's how I saw it. But there was something so totally valid in what Spike was doing. I remember I was having fights with my editor about this book.

What were the fights about?
Sendak: Well, I'll just give you a silly example. The entire staff at the publishing house were keen on my changing the word "hot" to "warm" on the last page. Because "hot" meant "burn."

Jonze: The soup was "still hot."

Sendak: It was going to burn the kid. I couldn't believe it. But it turned into a real world war, just that word, and I won.

How did you win?
Sendak: Just going at it. Just trying to convey how dopey "warm" sounded. Unemotional. Undramatic. Everything about that book is "hot."

Spike, did you have fights like that when you were making this film? With the studio, not with Maurice.
Jonze: Oh, yeah, definitely.

Eggers: No, there were no fights! [Laughter] No! Sorry, go ahead.

Jonze: Yeah. The big disagreement is that they thought I was making a children's film and I thought I was making a film about childhood, and so, along the way ...

Eggers: Keep dancing, Spike!

Jonze: I mean, I think it's a film—I want children to see it, and it's not like I made it not for children, and it'll be on the video shelf under CHILDREN'S, but I didn't come at it that way. I came at it from the inside out as opposed to the outside in. In the end, though, the studio let us make the movie we wanted to make.

Sendak: It's really an American problem.

What do you mean?
Sendak: Europeans have done films about children, like The 400 Blowsor My Life as a Dog, which is one of the most wonderful movies ever. It's tough to watch his suffering when his mother is dying and he scoots under the bed. That's the kind of way they have of dealing with children and they always have. We are squeamish. We are Disneyfied. We don't want children to suffer. But what do we do about the fact that they do? The trick is to turn that into art. Not scare children, that's never our intention.

Do you think Disney is bad for children?
Sendak: I think it's terrible.

But you have all the Disney characters on your mantel behind you.
Sendak: I adored Mickey Mouse when I was a child. He was the emblem of happiness and funniness. You went to the movies then, you saw two movies and a short. When Mickey Mouse came on the screen and there was his big head, my sister said she had to hold onto me. I went berserk. I stood on the chair screaming, "My hero! My hero!" He had a lot of guts when he was young. We're both about the same age; we're about a month apart. He was the little brother I always wanted.

Jonze: What was he like when he was young?

Sendak: He had teeth.

Jonze: Literally?

Sendak: He had literally teeth. I have toys in the other room.

Jonze: Was he more dangerous?

Sendak: Yes. He was more dangerous. He did things to Minnie that were not nice. I think what happened, was that he became so popular—this is my own theory—they gave his cruelty and his toughness to Donald Duck. And they made Mickey a fat nothing. He's too important for products. They want him to be placid and nice and adorable. He turned into a schmaltzer. I despised him after a point.

What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?
Sendak: I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate.

Because kids can handle it?
Sendak: If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered.

Jonze: Dave, you want to field that one?

Eggers: The part about kids wetting their pants? Should kids wear diapers when they go to the movies? I think adults should wear diapers going to it, too. I think everyone should be prepared for any eventuality.

Sendak: I think you're right. This concentration on kids being scared, as though we as adults can't be scared. Of course we're scared. I'm scared of watching a TV show about vampires. I can't fall asleep. It never stops. We're grown-ups; we know better, but we're afraid.

Why is that important in art?
Sendak: Because it's truth. You don't want to do something that's all terrifying. I saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child's eyes. So what? I managed to survive.

Jonze: It's interesting because at this point it's being talked about. I met some guy on the subway the other day—I was waiting on the subway platform for the F train the other day, and this guy comes up to me who's roughly my age, and he said, "Is the F train running today? God, I've been waiting here forever, and I've got to get down to this record store. It's the only used-CD store in town." And he was very friendly, nice guy, so I was talking to him about used-CD stores, then the guy was like, "You know what movie I can't wait to see is Where the Wild Things Are." And I was looking at him, trying to see—is he just messing with me now? Does he know that I made this? Or is this sincere? And so I just listened to him talk for a minute, and I said, "What made you say that?" And he said, "Oh, because I used to skate a lot, and it made me think, the director's a skateboarder, and I like his stuff," and I was like, "Uh-huh." And so I'm still waiting to see, is he messing with me? And he keeps talking about the movie, and how he's heard about it, and he's like, "The movie's amazing." And I asked if he'd seen it, and he was like, "No, but I saw the trailer. I know it's controversial—they said it's controversial. I think something really crazy happens at the end." [Laughter] And at this point, I'm still trying to figure out if he's messing with me, so I'm like, "Are you f--king with me?" "No, no, they said it's controversial," and then he's going on, and he's telling me how the director made all these music videos, he made skate videos, and I finally realize that he is just genuinely being sincere, and this conversation's gone on for 10 minutes, and I finally say, "I'm Spike, I'm the director," and he just looked at me for a minute and he got really sincere and he's like, "Oh, so why is it controversial?" [Laughter]

Eggers: I think there's plenty of kids who have grown up with a different type of children's movie, but my daughter, since she's been a year, her favorite movie's been The Wizard of Oz, and her favorite part's been the sepia-toned part at the beginning. Once it gets bright she loses interest a little bit.

Sendak: That is so fascinating that she likes the beginning more than the rest of it, because the beginning is so scary. One, the sepia tone itself tells you to expect something stormy. The fact that they all unwittingly abandon her. Her aunt doesn't have time for her. Bert Lahr [the Cowardly Lion] doesn't have time for her. No one has time for her. And her being alone, even for that brief time—how terrifying that must be for her. It surely was for me.

Eggers: And that lady takes her dog, goes off with it, but I think that my daughter's favorite part is when Toto jumps out of the basket, runs home, and jumps through the window, and I think that's what she's always waiting for is that there's something at stake there and the dog might be gone forever but ultimately good triumphs, even though the next thing that happens is the house being picked up in a vortex. But there is something at stake, and ultimately kids do want something at stake.

Sendak: I've always had a private theory that when she gets home and she's in bed, and Frank Morgan [the Wizard], at the window, says something like, "Is she all right?" And her uncle makes it clear that they might lose her. It goes by very quickly, but then she tries to tell them her adventure, she tries to tell them what it was like when she was in Oz, and her aunt says, "It's all right, Dorothy, just lie down." In truth, the grown-ups just don't want to hear her death fantasy. They don't want to think that Dorothy could be in so much trouble that she might not survive. And she lays back in bed and says, "There's no place like home." And there were people who were very critical of that—sentimental—but for me it was pure irony. There is no place like home. Where the hell else is she gonna go? It's the opposite of sentimental—it's the hard truth. Grown-ups are afraid for children. It's not children who are afraid. That movie is unbelievably great.

Do you think it could hurt a child's imagination to read a book and then see the movie, like there's only one way to see the world they imagined?
Eggers: Every kid I've ever talked to says the same thing, which is that the book was better—no offense, Spike.

Jonze: Oh, s--t. [Laughter] Kids are so fiercely opinionated, that if they love the Harry Potter books and they go see the movie, they'll be the first to say, "That was wrong! They didn't get that right!" They're storytellers themselves. They're critics. They're going to have the critical opinion.

Dave, what's the difference between writing a movie and a novel?
Eggers: Writing this script couldn't be more different than sitting alone and writing a novel. With Spike and I, we were really in the room together for eight hours a day, and writing for at least 20 minutes of that. We really examined and fought over every word as we went along. Before we put any dialogue down, we had talked for weeks about who each character was and what they were motivated by, and what did Douglas want, what was his relationship with Carol, what would they do in this situation together. Spike had to make sure these characters were as deep and real as possible. We had whole backstories for each one of them.

How did you name them?
Jonze: Dave and I named them. We took the book and went to Kinko's and blew up big poster-size images of each spread. Our dining-room walls were covered with every spread of the book. As we'd write, we'd look at the images, just sort of soaking it in. It was a process of going back to the book and sitting and listening to the character. You realized how certain characters came and went in the book. The characters appearing and disappearing, it makes it more wild.

Maurice, you never had names for the characters?
Sendak: I never wanted them to have names. When it was an opera and the director and I were working on it during rehearsal, we had to have names to tell them when they were screwing up. They had Jewish names: Moishe, Schmuel. You have to remember this is an English opera house. We were all speaking Yiddish. It was very funny. But the names were dropped after the opera. They never had names until they became movie stars.