Moriarty Sits Down With Spike Jonze For Huge Unfettered WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE Interview + Exclusive Debut Photos!!
Published at: Dec. 19, 2008, 7:06 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
So... have you heard that Spike Jonze is making a film out of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE?
If you forgot, you’re not to blame. The film was originally announced a few years ago, and then set for an October ’08 release, and then... well... that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen for a variety of reasons, which all basically boil down to “it wasn’t ready.”
I saw the film a while back. I saw it with the request that I not review it at that point, and that was fine. I was curious as could be about it, and what I saw was a fascinating rough draft, a bold and striking reflection of the book, more like an articulation of it. It was completely unlike any other adaptation of this sort of material, something akin to THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T in the way it seemed unafraid to freak you out. It was nowhere near done, though. And the Wild Things themselves were completely unrendered in the film I saw, meaning entire characters had yet to be truly defined.
Since then, I’ve read the same rumors you guys have online and elsewhere about the creative struggles on the film behind the scenes. Devin Faraci’s been the best and most constant voice of advocacy about it at CHUD, a squeaky wheel trying to make sure the film we finally see is something akin to the film that Spike set out to make. The one voice I haven’t heard, at any point in the process so far, has been that of Spike Jonze.
I’m not surprised. He’s never been the most accessible artist, and why should he be? He’s not making giant corporate movies like a superhero flick or a video game adaptation, so he’s not used to being beholden to the hype machine. He’s always made very personal films, and with WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, it’s safe to say, even at this early stage, that he’s done the same thing again. The difference, of course, is that this is a property with that built-in audience, and they’re curious. Verrrrrrry.
When I recently interviewed Charlie Kaufman, I told him how much I enjoyed the rough cut of the film that I saw. Kaufman demurred that he did what he described as “pretty much nothing” on the film, with Dave Eggers being the primary writer who worked with Spike on it. When I told him how much I liked it and mentioned a few things in particular, he told me that he thought Spike was pretty happy with the film right now and just getting started on the finishing technical work. I took that as a very good sign, and the first concrete thing anyone’s really heard since Gary Goetzman told AICN and CHUD on the CITY OF EMBER Comic-Con train that he felt like the film was moving forward, completely at the pace that Spike wanted it to.
But I didn’t really think about it until Spike’s publicist contacted me to say that he heard I’d seen the film, and he was interested in talking about it.
I met him at his offices right after lunch, and we sat down with his editor, Eric Zumbrunnen, to talk. We jumped right into it as soon as I walked in the room, and I asked him if he’d seen much of BENJAMIN BUTTON yet, knowing he and Fincher were both part of the heyday of Propaganda Films. He immediately lit up as he tried to describe the audacious effects work in the first part of the film. He was already mid-answer by the time I turned on my recorder and set it on the couch between us:
Spike Jonze: [The character in the first hour of BENJAMIN BUTTON]’s created in post, basically, with Brad inspiring it. Fincher totally invented his own technique, and it’s insane. Like whenever you hear there’s a CG character, I’m always a little skeptical, but I never even noticed it. It’s just this totally compelling, really charming character, you know, because he’s like a little boy inside an old man’s body, and the performance is amazing.
Moriarty: BENJAMIN BUTTON is very much like WHERE THE WILD THIGNS ARE in that they’re adaptations that were never approached in the typical Hollywood way, from the beginning of the process of adapting them. You’ve gone at it in a way that is really unlike any other production like this I’ve ever heard of.
Spike Jonze: Yup.
Moriarty: Is it the fact that you guys came out of the commercial background and the video background and things where you’d been able to experiment that freed you up to think about effects this way? Because so often, I think guys get really rigid about, you know, you do it the ILM way, you get into the pipeline, and you do certain things a certain sort of way.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, we were talking about that recently. We’re working with this company, Framestore, it’s an effects company, and in dealing with them it’s so different from dealing with an effects company ten years ago because effects companies are so much more humble. And I think it’s partially because they used to hold the keys to the secret chest of magic or whatever, and a lot of directors who come up now through videos, it’s not as separate, doing effects; it’s just part of telling the story. And I do think with a lot of directors – and not even just like Robert Rodriguez or whoever, Fincher, Chris Cunningham, Gondry – it’s like effects are just one of the tools, as opposed to “Here’s a script that needs to be filmed, how do we execute this thing?” It’s more just one of the tools you use to create a feeling that you want the movie or story to feel like.
Moriarty: I still talk to some guys who I think treat it almost like they’d treat their second unit or stunt work, where they just hand it off to somebody. They just do what they’re told in terms of getting it onscreen. But you guys really seem like you break the mold of how these things are done when you approach it, and from the ground up you kind of build new ways of getting to these ideas.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, I think this one I just wanted to... from the beginning, I wanted it to feel a certain way. I wanted it to feel “real,” or not-real because it’s not “real,” I wanted it to feel like... like when I was a kid, and I would play with my Star Wars action figures, or read Maurice’s books and imagine me being Mickey in IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, or whatever it was... it felt like it was everything, you know? It’s like your imagination is so convincing to yourself that... you’re there, you’re in it. And I wanted this movie to take it as seriously as kids take their imagination and not, like, fantasy it up. So I think it just started from that feeling, that it could feel like you were there with them, like Max was there with them, and not just in some fantasy movie.
Moriarty: I love that it’s not on a soundstage at all, that you just went to... is it New Zealand for the most part?
Spike Jonze: It’s actually Melbourne, right outside of Melbourne.
Moriarty: It’s phenomenal. It feels so rough, and organic, and there’s nothing about it that feels like a soundstage, or a backdrop, or a green screen. At no point do you believe that you’re on an artificial environment.
Spike Jonze: That’s great. Yeah, that was our aim, and it definitely was not easy. It made it a lot harder to take a little boy, these guys in suits, doing it all on camera. You know, so if they throw each other, it’s all on cables, and if we’re doing that, we’re doing it all on location. So it was definitely not the easiest way, but I tried not to think about that while I was conceiving it and just sort of conceive what would feel right. And I love the designs in the books. When I was a kid they were sort of seared into my subconscious – or unconscious.
Which one would it be?
Eric Zumbrunnen: Both.
Spike Jonze: Both? It would be seared in both.
So I wanted to maintain the charm and feeling, because in the book the characters are so cuddly, but also dangerous. So I wanted to maintain the charm of Maurice’s characters, but then make them feel like they lived in this environment, and give them faces and eyes that could emote in the complexity of what the script needed them to be. And so that’s sort of where the designs came from. Also, I wanted him to be able to hug them, to be able to touch them and hug them, so...
Moriarty: I love how you didn’t have to sit around waiting for the Henson guys to get things to work, which is a separate art form, and you were just able to focus on the kid’s performance and not have fifteen tech guys trying to hit a cue at the same time. I think that must be insanity, trying to do that.
Spike Jonze: We were trying to make it as organic as possible, but even then... but the guys in the suits, the actors in the suits were incredible, and they really worked hard. I didn’t want performances of the suits or the animation to be like traditional puppetry or animation where everything’s sort of over-indicated, everything’s like “Wow wow WOW! Hey Max, how you doing!” It’s like they think everything has to be sold.
So we shot the whole movie with the voice actors on a soundstage, and we just shot it like a workshop. It looked like some sort of ‘70s experimental theatre or something like that, because it was just this blank soundstage with shag carpeting, and they were all in their socks so the sound was muted. It was just a really dead soundstage, sound-wise, and they could just act it out. We’d take foam cubes and build little trees or huts or whatever, and then we’d just workshop the scene like I would do with a live-action movie, and just find what the scene is about through blocking and improvising dialogue. And out of that stuff, then... because puppeteering and animation isn’t spontaneous in any way, but I wanted the movie to feel alive and immediate. I knew I could get that with Max, but I wanted the wild things also to have that kind of performance, so by doing that with the actors where everything is spontaneous, the guys in the suits would feed off of that. They would watch the tapes; we’d do playback for them so they’d be acting along to James Gandolfini’s voice in these speakers. And then the guy in the suit would just “feel” what Gandolfini did in his body and his shoulders, so after playback, when he starts to go, “Well... I don’t know, Max,” or whatever the line was, every little head movement would be intentional, because Gandolfini did everything with intention. They’re actors, so they aren’t even really thinking about it. With puppeteering, you have to decide what the intention is and then you have to figure out how to communicate it, because every puppet works differently. So nothing’s immediate or spontaneous about that form.
But with actors, it’s just something that happens between two or more of them. Somebody will say something, and the other will react in a way that just feels true in that moment. So we used that as the sort of basis for their performances and for the animation. It was like working backwards, finding what I wanted it to feel like and then creating a process.
Moriarty: Well the spontaneity works. I love the scene where they have the dirt clod war, because it almost felt to me like JACKASS. Like it’s got that kind of energy to it, where they’re aggressive and they’re big, and a little scary, and you feel like you could get hurt when they start going crazy around each other. But it also feels really loose, like they just have a giant dirt war fight. There’s nothing kind of ‘set piece’ about it. It just turns into this random bit of chaos. I liked that... I thought the energy was really great between them.
Spike Jonze: Yeah. The process now is just so second nature to us, but we spent a long time after writing that script trying to figure out how to do it. Eric’s been on the movie for two and a half years, because he edited the voice shoot two years ago.
Moriarty: That’s an unusually long gig for an editor.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, we spent months just working on that voice shoot before we even shot a frame of the film. Then we took that to Australia.
Moriarty: Now was that with this Max?
Spike Jonze: No, he wasn’t in there because we didn’t want him to do the whole movie twice. We wanted everything to be spontaneous, so in that version we just used Catherine Keener. Me and her would basically switch off being Max with all the other actors. So I’d be Max and work a scene from inside, or Keener would be Max and I’d be able to stand outside the scene watching it. I can’t remember what we wore... we had this fur...
Eric Zumbrunnen: It was like a hat with ears on it.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, it was this hat with ears on it.
It was almost like a raccoon-skin hat with ears that Keener found and gave to me for Christmas one year. So it was like whoever had that hat on was Max. But so yeah, with Max we didn’t want him to rehearse much, we just wanted him to show up on set and deal with whatever was happening. A lot of the energy on set was creating stuff off-camera for him to react to and engage in. That was like a whole movie into itself, the off-camera stuff for Max.
Moriarty: I think directing kids is one of those things that you kind of judge a director on. It’s a different discipline than almost anything else. I think with kids’ performances, I really hate mannered performances where you feel like the kid’s being coached, especially now that my boy is getting a little older, and he’s a wild animal, literally.
Spike Jonze: How old is he?
Moriarty: He’s three now, three and a half. He’s a wild animal, and like watching the way he reasons and the way he does things, and asking him to explain why he did something, it’s awesome. It’s such a crazy head space, and this kid felt to me very organic, very real, and there are things that you see play on him over the course of the film that I don’t know how you’d fake. Like he just strikes me as a real kid reacting to something, not someone going through lines and going through scenes. And that’s a hard thing to get to, so that’s the thing I think I walked away from most impressed by the first time.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, he’s an amazing kid.
Moriarty: And he’s taken a lot of shit on… I don’t know if it was another parent or something, but the IMDb boards kind of got really crazy and ugly and weird for a little while. It felt like a parent of a kid from the audition process who didn’t get cast, and just went after this kid who did. And that’s a weird thing to even have to deal with as you’re in the middle of production.
Spike Jonze: The Internet already has this element to it that has a shit-talking aspect to it, but to put that on a 9-year-old kid is totally insane.
Moriarty: That’s what I really couldn’t believe. It seemed kind of outrageous that before this performance has even been cut, before you’re done with it and know what you’ve put together, here’s somebody attacking this 9-year-old, and all their frustrations, anxieties, whatever, they’ve heaped on this poor kid. It seemed like a really unfair thing to pick on, especially because you didn’t cut it yet, or hadn’t when this was going on, and so much of that is in the choices you’re gonna make.
Spike Jonze: Yeah. And I think also – I mean I don’t know what they said, but...
Moriarty: It just got really strange. And I felt really bad for the kid. But I think that what I saw in December already kind of indicated that it’s not a typical kid performance.
Spike Jonze: So was there stuff on the Internet before that screening in December?
Moriarty: I believe so, yeah. It started early.
Eric Zumbrunnen: Yeah, one of our guys here showed me that stuff, and it was crazy because they were saying “Well I saw cuts of this in Australia!” And that’s a total lie, because there was nothing cut in Australia. But you can’t go on there and go “Hey, blah blah blah, I’m editing this picture and you don’t know what you’re talking about,” because anybody could say that.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, but before December, nobody could have written anything about it.
Moriarty: That’s why it felt like it was somebody who didn’t get something and was determined to just trash talk the kid who did. And that’s such a bizarre thing to do to a kid.
Spike Jonze: Yeah.
Moriarty: I can’t tell you the mail we get about this or the interest level there is. I was just doing a set visit in London and it came up in conversation, so I said I’d seen a cut and people go rabid when they hear that.
Because I think so many people have such a deep attachment to the book and are so passionate about it. It’s the first book I bought my kid. It’s like you look at the things on the shelf and go “Well, he’s gotta have that.”
So it’s crazy, the emotion that people have invested in the material.
Spike Jonze: At that screening you went to, there was something that was really interesting. This lady was our age and she brought a kid, or a couple kids, I don’t know, but she said that the book was something her parents got for her. She was like “When our parents got it for us, they didn’t really know what it meant. But we knew what it meant.” And I think somehow that book, and also Maurice’s work just taps into feelings kids have.
And I know that I wouldn’t have been able to say this when I was a kid, but looking back, there was something honest about it, and as a kid you’re given so much stuff that’s not honest and is just sort of pandering or whatever that when you are given something that’s talking to you directly, you just sit up straight and connect to it and love it.
I remember with Maurice’s stuff or even WHERE DID I COME FROM? Is that what it was called?
I just remember always going back to that book because of how few things talk to you like that.
Moriarty: Well, it’s completely frank about it, and the cartooning style got the harder things past you, so you’re able to grapple with some of those bigger ideas. What I loved about Maurice’s book and still love about it is that it’s about emotional states, and what a crazy thing it is to write about for children... how sometimes you have these emotions that are just so big you can’t control them.
And a big part of getting older is learning how to handle these things, and the wild things really are part of being a kid. You know, sometimes you just get overwhelmed and everything seems crazy, and you feel like that. And I love that his book is scary when you’re a kid. And I love watching my kid be scared reading it. He gets into it, and he really gets scared of the wild things, and I think there’s something essential in it for kids. Like we need to get scared sometimes, and we need to feel that kind of abandon of the wild rumpus. I think your film is daunting for a kid. I think the wild things, because of their physicality and because they are so big, are kind of intimidating, and I can imagine some kids will be really freaked out by them.
But if they weren’t, it’s not WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, it doesn’t take it seriously. And I think from the beginning, I told the studio, “I don’t think this is gonna be a movie for four-year-olds.” And I think they said “Oh, okay,” but I think that when they saw it, that’s another... you know, that’s something else. How old do you think your son would be before you show him the movie?
Moriarty: It depends. We’re really having the debate now about what’s appropriate for him and it’s an ongoing thing, like you look at stuff and you judge stuff and there’ve been a few times where I think I may have misjudged. I would say five or six... I’d feel comfortable with him seeing it and getting it. But I think younger than that would be too much, because I think they are physically so intimidating.
Spike Jonze: And also the way it’s photographed, I guess.
Moriarty: Even the opening stuff that’s at home is kind of upsetting... that whole “permanent damage” idea, with Keener freaking out at him...
Spike Jonze: Yeah. It’s funny, that line actually isn’t in there anymore. That’s a scene we took out, and then we couldn’t figure out how to get that line back in there. But I think that even though the line’s gone, that idea’s still there. One of the things I’ve wanted to do since that version... I think the script is so wordy that I slowly just tried to trust that there were certain feelings in the movie that didn’t need dialogue, and that we didn’t have to have dialogue saying what the movie is about so much as the movie just being about it. So we slowly just tried to find places where we could strip the dialogue back and let the feeling of the photography and the mood and the performances do the work.
Moriarty: Who’s scoring it for you?
Spike Jonze: Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She did some of the score and is doing some of the score. Her and Carter Burwell are sort of doing it together.
Moriarty: Wow. That’s a cool collaboration.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, it’s... yeah. It’s working out well. Karen’s sort of writing more, not trying to go score to picture so much as she is just writing themes. There’s a couple of cues in there from before, but she’s done more since then.
Moriarty: You’re about a year out now?
Spike Jonze: Yeah. We just locked picture about three weeks ago, and we’ll probably finish all the effects by, like, May or so. Then we mix in May and we have our dates in October, so...
Moriarty: Wow. That’s a crazy long process, man.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, it’s so long and it’s so complicated. When I was writing it, I kind of knew it was complicated, but I kind of just had to be willfully naïve about that to not get bogged down in it. But it’s hard. I think by the time we got to Australia and were shooting it, the realities of what we were trying to do set in. And it was just sort of exhausting and insane to be out on these cliffs in southern Australia where there’s 60 mph winds, and you’ve got all these guys in suits, and you’ve got this little boy who’s freezing. We had to abandon locations because of storms, and when the winds would get too high we’d have to evacuate and try to figure out what to do with the rest of the day while waiting for the storms to pass. So it was just total insanity.
Moriarty: Still, that’s got to all inform...
Spike Jonze: I think you feel it probably, yeah.
Moriarty: I really felt like the location was scary. It’s a scary place to end up, and you feel that in the movie. It certainly has that sort of desolate, end-of-the-world vibe, like you don’t feel like there’s any place else but this.
Spike Jonze: Cool, that’s great. I think it started from what Maurice said in the beginning. One of the things I was worried about is that the book is just so beloved to so many people. And as I started to have ideas for it I was worried that I was just making what it means to me, and what the book triggers in me from when I was a kid. And I’d be worried that other people were gonna be disappointed, because it’s like adapting a poem. It can mean so much to so many different people.
And Maurice was very insistent that that’s all I had to do... just make what it was to me, just to make something personal and make something that takes kids seriously and doesn’t pander to them. He told me that when his book came out, it was considered dangerous. It was panned by critics and child psychologists and librarians, because it wasn’t how kids were talked to. And it took like only two years after the book was out that kids started finding it in the libraries, and basically kids discovered it and made it what it is. And now it’s 40 years later and it’s a classic. So he said you just have to make something according to your own instinct.
Moriarty: You met him originally when you almost did HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON?
Spike Jonze: Yeah, I was producing that.
Moriarty: I thought that adaptation, the [Michael] Tolkin script I read, I really wanted to see. I really loved what you guys were doing.
And that seemed like a wild choice when you guys were first talking about it, because you’re talking about a small, fairly slight piece of material, but you guys found a real emotional hook to that. I thought it was a very powerful script.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, I did too, I was excited about it. I mean, in a way, it’s probably good that I didn’t do it, because I didn’t exactly know what I was doing as well, in terms of...
Moriarty: Well it was ambitious.
Spike Jonze: It was so ambitious, yeah, in terms of effects and animation, and to make all those pieces tell one story. And I was only 24 then, so I just think I didn’t have that much experience, but I also didn’t have experience with studios. We worked on it for like a year and a half, and bit by bit, it just got away from what I had initially wanted to do.
When it finally got the plug pulled on it I found myself oddly relieved… depressed too, and sad, but there was a part of me that was relieved. And I realized later that I was relieved because it had gotten away from what I wanted to do. I think I’m much more aware of that now. It’s commercials too. Ad agencies are always the same way. They always just want to pick it away from what your initial idea was, and that one just luckily didn’t happen, I think. I mean, it’s a bummer it didn’t happen, but I’m also glad it didn’t happen in a compromised way, because it just moves away from what you want by like a millimeter a day, and then you look up a year later, and it’s miles away from what you wanted.
Moriarty: So that’s where you and Maurice sort of learned a rapport with each other. I mean, he obviously must have trusted you when he gave you this, because this really is the cornerstone of his reputation.
Spike Jonze: Yeah. They’d been trying to make it a movie for a while, and over the years since then, like over the last ten years probably, he would just talk to me about it, like “You know, we’re trying to do WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.”
And I remember a few times I would get an idea and talk to him about it, but I always just looked at the book and was like, “It seems so perfect. What plot are you gonna add to this thing that doesn’t feel totally tacked-on?”
Moriarty: Right. And the worst case scenario of that is something like CAT IN THE HAT, where there’s all these Hollywood instincts, and there has to be a villain, and you have to do all these things to expand it to feature length, and then suddenly whatever charm it originally had kind of evaporates. Like that is the Hollywood version of how you do that wrong. So, yeah, it is kind of intimidating to think you have to keep it that simple, and yet have it be a feature.
Spike Jonze: But I think like what you said that I realized is one of the things that has a lot of room to develop out of the book is who the wild things are. And once I realized that the wild things were sort of about wild emotions, then I suddenly felt like I had a way into it. I felt like I was following that idea, because wild emotions are scary because they’re unpredictable, either in yourself or people that you’re close to, and as a kid you don’t know how to process them. You just take them at face value. And it’s very hard to know, when you’re close to somebody, where you stop and that person starts. It becomes very blurred, even as an adult, but as a kid those relationships are just that much more overwhelming and confusing and upsetting. So I think once I realized that, I didn’t know what I was gonna write, but I at least knew that there was something to write there.
Moriarty: It makes sense. Like I’ve seen how my kid reacts if you lose control of your anger. They’re little batteries, they soak it up and then it comes back out in the craziest of ways. You don’t know how and you don’t know when, but it’s not gonna be the same coming out as it was going in. You learn real quick to be careful about what you do and express in front of them, and how.
That’s something that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone try to talk about in film. Like I think we try and make kids into saints in movies, and we kind of smooth off the rough edges, and it’s just so much more interesting to see a real kid, and to see how kids try and process the world.
Spike Jonze: And I think that’s what freaked the studio out about the movie too. It wasn’t a studio film for kids, or it wasn’t a traditional film about kids. We didn’t have like a Movie Kid in our movie, or a Movie Performance in a Movie Kid world. We had a real kid and a real world, and I think that’s sort of where our problem was. In the end they realized the movie is what it is, and there’s no real way to... it’s sort of like they were expecting a boy and I gave birth to a girl.
So they just needed their time to sort that out and figure out how they were going to learn to love their new daughter.
Moriarty: It’s been interesting, and because there’s been a lot of silence on Warner’s end of things, it’s caused a lot of speculation and conversation and I think anxiety from film fans. They’re like, “Oh my god, am I gonna get to see THAT movie?” So when Charlie told me that you guys seemed really happy with where you were, I just was relieved.
Spike Jonze: Yeah. It just took a lot longer. And that was hard, but you know, in the end I got to make my movie. And with the version you saw, I was trying to get the money to do the pick-ups I wanted to do, and it just took a lot longer to finish it.
Eric Zumbrunnen: Well we were right in the middle of the strike.
Moriarty: Yeah, ugly timing.
Spike Jonze: But yeah, somebody got a petition going, was it you guys?
Moriarty: It wasn’t us who organized it, but I saw it go by.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, so somebody got a petition going. It was actually Michel Gondry who I heard it from, and he got it from Bjork, who signed it, so there were some pretty interesting names on there.
Moriarty: But that just shows you how much expectation there is. I think the material has such a huge fanbase, and almost everybody who writes about film right now, or at least the peers I know, were raised on this. It’s an essential piece of childhood. So I think the expectations are definitely there, and the curiosity.
Spike Jonze: The weird thing is now there’s more awareness about it. I mean, I guess there always was because the book is indelibly imprinted into so many people’s brains at a young age, but I almost worry that because it’s taking so long there’s this expectation of it being some epic, but you’ve seen it.
Moriarty: It’s very intimate. But hopefully if you know the book, since the book is what, 82 words? It’s very small in scale, but still big in terms of the ideas it deals with.
Spike Jonze: Yeah.
Moriarty: I love that the only real image that’s out there so far is still that one that MTV broke online from that licensing show.
Spike Jonze: What is that?
Moriarty: Just Max running through the forest and the single leg coming in. What’s great about that is that it’s created this kind of aura of mystery about what the wild things are themselves.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, we really didn’t want to release any images, but they made us put one out there.
Moriarty: It’s the perfect image because it’s so suggestive and still shows you almost nothing. And in a way, you really couldn’t show these things unfinished because until now they weren’t really there yet.
Spike Jonze: We have great stills.
Do you have those stills?
Eric Zumbrunnen: They were downloading them.
Spike Jonze: Oh okay. I wish we had some great shots, but we don’t really have them effects-wise. But we do have these photoshopped versions where you see them with their expressions. I think they’re downloading them right now... I wanted to show them to you. But you just see the difference from the static faces. The static faces are really beautiful, but they’re not specific in any way. But every now and then in the movie, they’ll kind of line up with a feeling, and it’s weird how well it works without anything.
Moriarty: I think it’s because they’re so close to the Sendak designs to begin with. That’s the one thing in the version I saw that I almost didn’t mind. I knew that there was more work to be done, and it would be something very different emotionally, but even just looking at them, they’re so beautiful, and Maurice’s designs are so unique that you can just kind of stare at Carol’s face.
And Gandolfini’s voice is perfect for Carol. I’ve always thought that he had this kind of weird big baby thing in his voice anyway, like it’s a little bit of the mush mouth. But that’s part of what makes him so appealing, that the big guy thing isn’t daunting with him, because he’s got that weird kind of baby thing.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, there’s something so endearing about him. And he’s so emotionally immediate, and he’s like a kid in that way. Like kids don’t mask their emotions.
Moriarty: I don’t get the feeling with Gandolfini that there’s much confusion about what’s going on inside of him, do you? At least in the way he comes across. And it’s a really cool choice as a voice actor. Like I don’t know if I ever would have thought of him as a Wild Thing or as a lead in this kind of a film, but it’s right on.
Spike Jonze: Well, all his emotions are right there. That was why I wanted him, because there’s no separation between what’s happening on the outside and what he’s feeling.
[They showed me a series of stills on one of Eric’s screens, panoramic shots of the Melbourne locations, with wire rigs and giant suits and a huge crew. Dazzling.
The Wild Things, since I haven’t described them to you yet, each stand about eight feet high, it looks like, or at least the larger ones do. They’re very, very close to the original Sendak drawings.
That’s not exactly what Carol looks like in the film, but it’s a good starting point in imagining him.
None of the Wild Things have articulated faces on-set, though. They’re just one expression all the time. That’s one of the boldest choices Spike made in shooting the picture. Since most of the film was shot handheld by Lance Acord, every single shot with a Wild Thing in it is going to have to be animated, and that’s going to be incredibly complex as a rotoscoping gig.
But just looking at those stills, I could see how nightmarish the shoot could have been if you’d added even one more variable onto that location. It may be a Herculean task ahead in post production for Framestore, but if they hadn’t done this, there might not be a film for them to be doing post-production on.]
Spike Jonze: On set, they were even kind of frightening... like if they ran towards you it was definitely intimidating because you just felt this mass of 4,000 pounds coming at you.
Moriarty: Lance Acord shot this?
Spike Jonze: Yeah. To me it might be some of the best work he’s ever done, actually.
Moriarty: It’s really evocative and it’s really otherworldly, I think, because you did everything physical, and there’s that handheld feel to it. It doesn’t feel like any film like this that you’re used to. Everything is so locked down in these movies, and you know that you’ve got the ILM guys with the ball that came in and did lighting reference and you can’t move anything, and that work is dazzling and impressive, but you sort of know how the magic trick works as you watch it.
Spike Jonze: I think in the first week, those guys basically gave up. They put their ball back in the truck. There’d be these shots where we were doing something on sand dunes, and they would take these orange tennis balls and just throw them as far as they could just to get in the shot somewhere so they’d have something to track. Like no measurements, nothing, they were like, “Just let us get something out there so we’ll at least have something to latch onto.” The whole movie had this sort of ferocity to the way we shot it.
Moriarty: We’re at a point now where audiences are so sophisticated that if you don’t reinvent things and try some different ways of doing things, your audience is ahead of you almost.
Spike Jonze: Yeah.
Moriarty: Like DVDs somewhat ruin the illusion for us. People have this window now into what happens, so it becomes harder to kind of pull off magic.
[one particular Wild Thing comes up on Eric’s screen]
That design really freaks me out.
Spike Jonze: The goat?
Moriarty: Yeah. And I love that. I would find that really unsettling as a kid. I find it really unsettling even as an adult. That’s a really crazy creature.
Spike Jonze: [Laughs]
That’s crazy. I love her face too, down in the lower right-hand corner.
Moriarty: And the notion of Max having to hide inside one of the Wild Things? That’s upsetting in a lot of ways. But that’s great. I can see kids getting upset during that. It should upset you, it’s an upsetting idea.
Spike Jonze: I went over to Lance’s house the other night and Pearl, his daughter, who just turned 10... she was asking me... cause I showed the kids the movie, all the kids that came with us to Australia, Eric’s kids and our producer Vince’s... we showed the kids the movie a few weeks ago. And Pearl’s like, “I was thinking about the movie, Spike, and what’s the moral of that story? ‘Cause it made me sad.”
And I don’t know, I think the idea that Maurice talked about is not to be scared of those feelings. Kids are complicated, and they’re in touch with all those feelings. I didn’t want to make a movie that was just sad, or just heavy, or just anxious. I think I tried to make a movie that had a lot of the other sides of kids too; there are also soft feelings and sweet feelings and I think I tried to make the movie have Max’s imagination, Max’s sense of play, of love and hope and caring, but just let him be complicated, and the world that he goes to in order to figure out what’s going on be as complicated as he needs it to be. And so, I don’t know. For better or worse, we made it.
Moriarty: I love that you’re showing it to kids, and their reaction to it is that it takes a while to sink in. That’s really cool.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, it is cool. Focus groups with kids are really fun, and to just hear them talk about what it made them think, and what it meant. Their level of sophistication to be able to know what Max is feeling and why Max did something, and what Carol is going through, is amazing.
One of the things we wanted to do is... I don’t know if it’ll be for Nickelodeon or what, but do some TV special with kids where we sit with groups of like 4 or 5 kids at a time and just talk with them about the movie and what it made them feel, and their own feelings. I think do a special in the same way that the movie takes kids’ feelings seriously. Because the other thing with a movie this big is you have the opportunity to do all these ancillary things, and I think instead of doing the generic, cynical fast food tie-in or other merchandising that feels like more fodder or garbage just filling up the...
Moriarty: It’s obligatory. You expect all that.
Spike Jonze: Yeah. And so we want to do things with these opportunities that are interesting, or are quality, something into themselves rather than just promotion. Like they can promote, but they also have some value. And so I think taking the opportunity to do a special and giving kids the chance to talk about their feelings – cause I know when I was a kid, I would hear other kids’ feelings and what they were going through, and you’re just so hungry for that. You feel like you’re the only one feeling that, and you want to know that other kids are going through similar things.
Moriarty: Kids are like empathy machines, like their emotions are all the way turned up and they don’t know yet that you’re only supposed to use that at certain times and other times sort of protect yourself. They’re always open to things. And I’m amazed when showing my kid stuff with kids in it, how much more he responds. I just got the Little Rascals box set. I really love when Spanky was 3, 4, 5 years old, and they had him in those movies when he was really little. I put one of those on for my kid and he immediately identifies and empathizes. He gets really invested in watching that. So I think there’s something about seeing kids your age that you recognize. Those are damn near documentary anyway. You get the feeling that they just put a bunch of props in a room and turned a camera on and said, “Okay, whatever happens, happens.”
Spike Jonze: [Laughs]
Yeah, I don’t know how they did that.
Moriarty: So, you do get a sense that kids really identify with things onscreen and then internalize them. They don’t just watch movies as passive entertainment, they get very invested and they really connect to things. It’s part of their reality. And raising a kid around this stuff, I wonder what reality is at this point. You know, tell somebody it’s a cartoon, but then there’s WALL•E standing on the red carpet, all of a sudden it’s a documentary. And this is not pretend, it’ll be real; these are physical things. That’s why I love the decision you made to do it like that. I think it’s so much more a tangible thing to hold onto than if you just created it all in post later.
Spike Jonze: That was our hope. That was the feeling I wanted it to have, and every decision came out of that attempt to have it feel like it was immediate and right there.
Eric Zumbrunnen: It’s like the new STAR WARS compared to the old STAR WARS, not to make the fifteen millionth STAR WARS reference. In one of the recent ones, where young Obi-Wan Kenobi is going to the place where they make the clones in his ship, and he lands on the thing, even though there’s a big, thudding sound effect, you don’t get any sense of mass, or volume, or space.
But when they’re lifting that thing out of the swamp soundstage in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, you’re like, “Wow, that thing’s heavy! Look at the effort it takes to lift that thing!” And also puppet Yoda vs. CG Yoda. Sure, CG Yoda can do all kinds of crazy flips and lightsaber battles, but it’s just not as expressive, in a way.
Moriarty: I know that, for me, I love to travel to sets and soundstages around the world. There are certain stages that I can’t wait to visit. I just went to Elstree for the very first time, and I’ve wanted to go to Elstree forever.
Spike Jonze: What is that?
Moriarty: It’s one of the three major English stages. Like I’ve been to Pinewood, been to Shepperton, but Elstree is where they shot EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and that carbonite freezing, where they drop Han Solo in the frozen thing? That’s the tank stage of Elstree, Stage 4. So I went, and they were shooting on Stage 4 for KICK-ASS. I wandered over to the tank section and was looking at it, all thrilled by the world “TANK” written on the floor. If you’re doing everything on green screen, there’s no tangible place you can ever go to where they physically did something. But at one point they filmed something here; this was a place that existed, so I think we’re gonna miss some of that if we go fully into this sort of digital green screen realm where nothing exists in real life.
Spike Jonze: Yeah. It’s almost like we’re these old dudes sitting around going, “I remember when they did it this way...” and I’m sure when you’re 8 and you see the new STAR WARS movies, it has the same feeling as the old ones. But for me, I remember looking at this photo of George Lucas shooting Star Wars and Chewbacca has his arm around him. Do you remember the photo?
Moriarty: Oh yeah.
Spike Jonze: And I just, as a kid, was so into that photo. Like, “That’s amazing, Chewbacca is hugging him!”
Moriarty: Well, it wasn’t even just the movie, it was the behind-the-scenes experiences, the magazines that came out and things like that. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. It wasn’t the movie. The movie was exciting and thrilling and all that stuff, but it was afterwards, looking at the fact that they were in England, and they built this, and this was real. I was like, “I can’t believe that somebody got to do that. That’s somebody’s gig. You get to go and hang out with Wookies and it comes out of your head, and then it’s made real.” I think some filmmakers will go back and forth, like Snyder for WATCHMEN went the opposite of 300 and built everything this time.
Spike Jonze: Did you get to see any of the sets?
Moriarty: I went up to the New York sets in Vancouver, and it was amazing. He built like a five-block city thing in each direction, so no matter which way you were looking, it was New York, and the geography was right from the book. And for his actors, it has to be a different experience. It probably helps, because now it’s a geographical location; it’s a city and you can stand in it, you can feel it, and you’re not asking them to make it all up.
Eric Zumbrunnen: React to that tennis ball on a c-stand.
Moriarty: That’s so hard, especially something where the environment’s as important as it is in WATCHMEN. It’s an alternate world, so you want your cast to feel like they’ve really lived in it, stood in it.
Spike Jonze: I think the performance we would have gotten from Max if we did the whole thing on green screen... I don’t think we could have gotten the same feeling from him that we did out at night in the desert with a giant monster yelling at him. So that’s impactful.
Moriarty: Did you work with him for a while before the film? Was there a process of getting to know him?
Spike Jonze: A little bit, but not that much. He came in about a week and a half before we shot. We did some rehearsals and just got comfortable with each other... played, hung out, got to know each other. But the shoot was so long. I mean, we shot almost four months, so we spent a little time getting to know each other, but it was such an intense thing.
Moriarty: Which was first... the real world stuff?
Spike Jonze: We shot the home life stuff first. But he’s amazing. For nine years old, he had so much ability to focus. He was so disciplined, like the most amazingly disciplined kid, and just the biggest heart. He just wanted me to get what I needed, and there was one night where we were doing this stuff where he was just running down the street and had to be chased, and it was a Friday night, like 10 or 11 at night, and he was just burned out.
We had 15-20 minutes before he had to legally go, and we weren’t getting it. I felt really bad for him, because he already had like dirt in his eye from this giant fan machine like an hour earlier, and he had to get his eyes washed out. So I already told him that was the last one, which was like the classic thing they made fun of me for. I’d be like, “One more! No! Wait! One more!” But anyway, I was like, “Do you think you could do it again? Because we didn’t get it.”
And he was just so tired, but he was like, “Yeah, I’ll do as much as you need. Whatever you guys need to get what you want.” So it was like this nine-year-old kid who had never been in a movie before, his first week of shooting, and he was just so committed to it.
Moriarty: Well, I like that you didn’t smooth the rough edges off. Like it doesn’t feel like you rehearsed him to death or got him to a place where he could do it by rote.
Spike Jonze: A lot of what we did, and one of the reasons why it took so long to edit, is we’d never cut. We’d let the camera roll, sometimes through forty-minute takes, and whatever lens it was, we’d have that camera rolling, and another camera with the same lens standing by, so as this was rolling out that camera would step in.
And I’d have a mic, so I’d whisper stuff through a headpiece in his ear, and I’d play music, or be off-camera, and basically the take would go so long that it would just transcend into something else, because the camera was no longer there, it was just the dialogue and the scene.
But it makes editing so much longer, cause you’re going through the footage looking for the magic, or the moments with certain sparks of life instead of playing a scene out. And I also realized how spoiled I am working with such great actors on my first two movies. It’s like, how they could take direction was amazing. I mean, I knew they were great, and Max is a great actor, but not trained in that way where you could do a take and let it go through and just do another take. So if there was a two-page scene, we would work sections of the scene.
Moriarty: There are all these stories of how directors have approached working with kids. Like Spielberg on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS... there are these great stories about how he gets the reactions out of Cary Guffey, and it becomes real. Like whatever you’re seeing on the screen becomes real, because they don’t have the process or vocabulary for you to say, “Okay, turn this up, do this, finesse this.”
Spike Jonze: Or if you do, it just feels fake. Like if you go, “Okay, you’re really sad. Be sad.” And then they make a face, and it doesn’t really mean anything because they don’t believe it.
Moriarty: Yeah, that’s the language you can’t really use with them so you sort of have to find a different level to communicate on.
[At this point, Spike turned to Eric and they talked for a moment about what clips they could show me.]
Spike Jonze: What else should we... I mean, I was gonna show you the dirt clod fight, but you’ve seen the movie already. I’ll just show you. At least there are a few new animation shots in the middle of it.
Moriarty: I wouldn’t mind seeing anything again.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, it’s been awhile.
[The clip he showed is after the Wild Things have named Max their king, and he’s charged with figuring out What To Do. One of his suggestions is a dirt clod war on a rugged series of hills that gets seriously out of hand, so that one of the Wild Things (voiced by Chris Cooper, not Billy Bob Thornton as I mistakenly wrote when I first posted this piece -- "M") gets seriously hurt and storms off, upset and angry.]
Moriarty: That’s how playing with your kid ends up so often, where you do something that accidentally hurts them and you’re like, “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” And it’s so strange, because I remember playing with my dad as a kid and sometimes it would just get away from him, and I’d get held underwater or the wind knocked out of me, and it was scary, but of course, it was an accident. That’s what that scene feels like.
Spike Jonze: [Laughs]
That’s good. So those shots were of Alexander the Goat, where he gets hit. We’ve been doing R & D, and those three or four shots are actually the only shots we’re happy with. There’s sort of like a flat mouth movement.
Moriarty: There’s real attitude there where he gets up and turns around.
Spike Jonze: Exactly. It’s a great performance.
Moriarty: I actually didn’t realize at first that I was looking at a finished shot. You’re just like, “Oh there he is.”
Spike Jonze: Yeah. Out of like a year of R & D those are the only finished shots we have. But we just switched to Framestore, and the test shots they’ve already given us are amazing.
Moriarty: They’ve done really strong work in general.
Spike Jonze: When I saw... what’s it called, CHILDREN OF MEN?
Spike Jonze: I just thought that baby scene was amazing, it was so moving and incredible, and I had no idea that was an animated baby. Did you know when you saw it?
Moriarty: I didn’t when I saw it, but then afterwards when talking to Cuaron about it and looking at what they did, I was flabbergasted by what they pulled off in that movie.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, that’s that company. It was amazing. Same team is doing our stuff.
Moriarty: That’s the thing. I think the invisible work that we’re getting through effects now is the most impressive stuff, where at the end of it your audience doesn’t really know what they looked at. That’s what I mean by it’s getting harder to do that to an audience. But when you do, it really does something to them.
Spike Jonze: He did it so well in that movie, the effects work.
Moriarty: Yeah, he’s got a real gift for it. Like he knows exactly how to use it as punctuation and not to ladle it on too thick. I mean, even doing a Harry Potter film... to pull off a Harry Potter film with real taste and restraint is not an easy thing.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, he’s great. I really like Cuaron. But, yeah, so those shots are it. But we just started to see stuff from these guys. They’re still trying to get the rigs, you know, figuring out how the animation rigs need to work to be able to get the faces to align. But it’s so cool, because it completes the illusion, basically. The head seems like it’s got to weigh like a thousand pounds, and once the head is moving, it feels like a mass.
Moriarty: Well, there are so many moments, like where the Wild Thing Lauren Ambrose is playing, she gets up and stands next to Carol for a moment. That’s got to play between them like a character beat, like subtle performance. So that’s really, like you were saying, the last ingredient now, some of that interaction between them.
Eric Zumbrunnen: And when you work or watch something with human actors, you get so much information subconsciously by what’s going on in their face beyond what they’re saying, and you don’t even think about it. But then when you’re watching something where you’re not getting any of that, then all this stuff starts coming through that we’d been kind of immune to until we noticed the lack of it. So now where starting to see that stuff, and it’s really coming alive.
Moriarty: It’s like a different movie for you guys all of a sudden, I would guess. It’s like, there’s that movie that you’ve been carrying around for a while, and it’s actually coming into focus.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, as you see the shots... that’s the other thing with the meticulousness of editing. It’s editing Max’s performance but also editing the suit performances. You’ve got to watch it a few times to be able to imagine what’s not there. You’re imagining what the face is gonna do, and if that’s what you do, and is his body punching that word enough? Maybe we should go back into the dailies and find a different take, roll it forward or backward. There’s no science to it, so with the suit performances... all they’re doing is listening and memorizing the beats. And the guy who’s in the Carol suit is an actor, but he’s also a dancer, so I think he used it more like music to sort of choreograph his performance, like he sort of memorized the rhythm of Gandolfini’s delivery.
Moriarty: I’d buy that it’s Gandolfini. Looking at the physical performance there, that body language is his body language. It’s creepy that that’s not him.
Spike Jonze: The guy in that suit was amazing. And also, when we started casting the people in these suits, we’d take voiceovers, like Gandolfini’s voice, and put it on a boombox during the audition. And without a suit, we would have them act along to it, and just sort of sync along to it and find it and figure out how to make it their own. And we found that the people who normally do suits and stuff had been trained so much to overdo it, like they’d be indicating it.
So we brought along suit performers and regular actors who were willing to work in a suit. And out of everybody in the cast, they’d all never been in a suit before, they were just actors who were game enough to try and learn how to live in it. Which isn’t easy, because when it comes to acting in a suit, half of it is just learning how to survive in it, like the heat, the weight of the suit, the physical strain. And then to put all that aside and give a nuanced performance in it. Those guys all trained intensively for months, they would go to the gym and work out, build up all these muscles that they would never use. So they all got into incredible shape, and then we did about a month of rehearsals in the suits, so they made the suits their own. Everyday they’d be working with the people who made the suits, so we’d constantly be tweaking them and trying new things. By the time they were done, these guys were so comfortable in their suits... like the guy who plays Judith, whose name is Nick, would come to set before the head was on and just tumble down the hill. He’d do anything in it.
Moriarty: Just looking at the running around and the diving and the jumping in it, that looks outrageous. I really can’t imagine doing that in something that big, with restricted vision. There’s a lot of faith going on there.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, those guys were great. Well cool, I’ll give you a tour and show you around.
[At this point, we headed into Spike’s office, next door to the editing suite. There’s a scene in the film where Carol takes Max to a private place, where he has built models of the entire island and all the other Wild Things. Spike had several sections of Carol’s sculpture in his office, stacked on every available surface, and there were poster mock-ups hanging behind his desk.]
Spike Jonze: You know that Indiana Jones warehouse? Well, Warner Bros. has one of those, so I know if we let these go, they’ll just be in some crate for eternity deteriorating to dust.
Moriarty: That’s beautiful, the model that exists in the movie.
Spike Jonze: Thanks. Yeah, that’s our production designer. We’ve all worked together. Eric you met, and Lance, the DP, and K.K. Barrett. We’ve all worked together on videos, and we kind of did our first two movies together. What do you think of this as a possible poster.
[He indicated an image of a single tree, with Carol hiding behind it, spilling out on both sides and plainly visible.]
Spike Jonze: I mean, we’ve barely started this process. These are some other ones that I don’t think they’re gonna go for.
Moriarty: I really like this one. This one, I would want to put on my wall. There’s a lot of poster art that I want to put on my wall, ‘cause when I was first starting in theaters as an employee or growing up, there was a lot of poster art that I thought was beautiful, like really... you would want to put it on your wall. These days, everything’s a photoshopped floating head thing, and it just makes me crazy. I don’t get why we’ve lost that this is part of the experience. When you’re walking into a theater, and you see a poster for something for the first time, it should excite you. You should be drawn to it and want to look at it, and then be curious about the film.
Spike Jonze: Yeah.
Moriarty: That’s haunting. Carol’s such a great design anyway... those sad, sad eyes.
Spike Jonze: [Laughs]
Moriarty: I like this other one, and using the language of the story. ‘Cause “Let the wild rumpus start”... everybody knows that phrase. And you know what a wild rumpus is the moment you hear it. I like that one.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, I like that one too.
Moriarty: I like anything where you kind of get a suggestion of a wild thing or part of a wild thing.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, we’re thinking of doing a teaser in that way, maybe. We’re trying to figure it out.
[He took out some more of those panoramic behind-the-scenes images, all of them striking, many of them featuring the Wild Things performers in candid half-suited moments.]
Spike Jonze: This is... the boy who plays Max, his name’s Max Records. And his dad’s Shawn Records, and his dad just took photos the whole time, so there’s a couple of them like that. He just shot behind-the-scenes the whole time. We were thinking of doing a sort of book... you know how you were talking about pulling off the magic?
Moriarty: I wouldn’t.
Spike Jonze: No?
Moriarty: I would wait until the movie’s out, like people have had a chance to digest it. Are you doing a behind-the-scenes art book or something like that?
Spike Jonze: Yeah.
Moriarty: Yeah, for magazines and stuff like that, like Entertainment Weekly, I would never let them have that.
Spike Jonze: What about the behind-the-scenes art book, if that comes out at the same time as the movie?
Moriarty: Just make sure it’s not in front of kids, ‘cause I would want the younger viewers to not see these images.
Spike Jonze: Yeah.
Moriarty: Yeah, that automatically changes the way you look at them. I hadn’t seen anything like that. It’s interesting, but up until this point, the wild things had been wild things, and that’s kind of the way you’d want to let them live. Especially when you pull off the blend.
Spike Jonze: The other thing is the footage we have of the voice actors is so amazing, like it’s so fun to see the voice actors in this environment.
Moriarty: I might hold a lot of that for DVD. ‘Cause once it hits DVD, people will have already seen it and internalized it, but I don’t know if I’d want to see that much ahead of time. Like with Gandolfini, I would rather see him first, get to know Carol, and then see how they came together later.
Spike Jonze: Yeah, me too. It’s hard because you’re trying to figure out what to do to promote it, and it’s so tempting, but I think you’re right, it’s better not to show it. I like that a lot.
Moriarty: I do too. I actually like both of these quite a bit. I just love that first shot in the film of Max tearing ass down the stairs and going after that dog, ‘cause that dog looks terrified.
Spike Jonze: I think right from the beginning, with that first sequence, the studio was not u