Spike Jonze And Mr. Beaks Howl About WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE!!!
Published at: Oct. 13, 2009, 2:40 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
It's Friday evening. I'm slumped over a speakerphone in my living room, clad in a ratty t-shirt and pajama bottoms, drugged out of my mind, and sucking on a Halls. The phone rings. It's Spike Jonze. Sometime over the next few months, he may very well contract Swine Flu. This will suck, but at least he won't be able to blame it on me.
Spike is amused by my weakened state. He asks if we're going to go off on crazy fever tangents. Sadly, my temperature has dipped below 101 for the first time in three days, so I won't be drawing thematic parallels between WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and the third season of MAMA'S FAMILY. All I am is tired. Spike seems disappointed. I'm disappointed. This is not the way I wanted to start my interview with one of the most restlessly inventive and influential filmmakers of the last twenty years.
Thirty minutes later, all is well. Though we mostly stick to his masterful, melancholy riff on Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's tome, Jonze is very open about his creative process - which is primarily driven by the search for emotional truth. As should be apparent from his eclectic music videos and his first two features (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION), Jonze abhors convention; unlike most directors of his generation, he's more interested in honesty than homage. And WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is his masterpiece because it seamlessly combines the rambunctiousness of his early work with The Beastie Boys with the haunted quality of his Charlie Kaufman collaborations. If you've ever wanted a Malkovich-ian glimpse into Jonze's subconscious, this may be the closest you'll get.
While WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE feels like a deeply personal film for Jonze, its depiction of a bratty kid run amok - and away to an island of moody monsters - is also incredibly inclusive. The specifics of Max's childhood may not resemble yours, but the highs and lows he experiences should be painfully familiar. No film has more perfectly captured what it feels like to be nine years old.
In the below interview, Jonze explains how he pulled this miracle off.
Mr. Beaks: You've said that you cracked the screenplay when you realized the Wild Things represent different emotions. That's a great idea, but that still left you the task of legging out this short story into a coherent feature narrative. Did you have some kind of narrative or emotional destination you were driving toward?
Spike Jonze: In an abstract way, the destination was to make something that, moment-to-moment, felt true to what it can feel like to be nine years old. Trying to represent that was our... signpost or whatever. Our guiding light. (Laughs) I'm just coming up with all of these cliches.
Beaks: How about "lodestar"?
Beaks: That's a guiding light.
Jonze: Yeah, let's throw that one in there, too! But that was our intention. And Maurice was a real barometer for things that felt dishonest. He was always the first to say, "This feels schmaltzy." He would be quick to slap us on the wrist if we were going too much in a direction like that.
Beaks: His forthrightness and cantankerousness is legendary, so it must've been an honor to hear Max [Records] deliver Maurice's message at Comic Con about how if you don't like the movie, you can "go straight to hell".
Jonze: (Laughs) That's Maurice at his best. Speaking of which, we just finished this forty-minute documentary on Maurice. It's a very informal portrait. Over the course of us making this movie the last few years, we would film conversations with him. It comes out on HBO in October.
Beaks: How did he deal with the cameras being turned on him?
Jonze: He doesn't care. He is himself at all times - and that's what's so amazing about him. He's just so fearlessly honest. That's why I think he's such an amazing artist.
Beaks: Was Maurice on set at all?
Jonze: Unfortunately, he couldn't travel. We shot in Australia, and he lives in Connecticut. We haven't even been able to get him to come to California. But I would go to see him, or we'd get him to come into [New York City] for screenings. Dave and I would go to visit him in Connecticut quite often to bring him a new draft while we were working on the script. And when we started working on the character designs, we'd go out to get him involved as much as possible.
Beaks: Would he add to the character designs?
Jonze: Yeah. Maurice would lay tracing paper over Sonny [Gerasimowicz's] drawings, and re-draw and redesign them. Like the bull's snout would be longer. He'd enhance them. It was really fun. And it was really special. I felt really lucky, because I really count him as a close friend. Over the course of making this movie and fighting the fights... I feel like I've found a great friend in him.
Beaks: This movie seems to be hitting people on a lot of different levels. I know some people have been tearing up, while others have felt a kind of exhilaration. For me... it just made me really sad.
Jonze: How come?
Beaks: It's the last shot of the movie. [In the interest of not spoiling this moment, I'll elide my description of this scene.]
Jonze: That's... I'm very moved by your reaction to it. Thank you.
Beaks: Is that kind of melancholy something you were hoping to evoke? Was there a particular emotion you were hoping to evoke at the end of the film?
Jonze: I don't think I've ever worked that way. On my first two movies with Charlie Kaufman, we never worked in a way where we wanted the audience to feel this or that. We were just exploring and making the characters true to who we felt the characters should be; we weren't telling you you have to like this character or dislike this character. Something that Charlie and I have talked about is how our ambition is trying to make something that is alive... something that not everybody has the same reaction to. You're making something that is true to what you are feeling, but not forcing everyone to feel this way or that way. My favorite things are movies that I've seen and had one reaction to, and then I see it again years later and have a different reaction to it. It's alive in that way. It's not the same every time. I think a lot of times that a movie which tells people "Think this!" or "We want you to feel this and think this..." there's something dead about that. It's going to be the same every time.
Beaks: You're so rigorous about avoiding cliche in your movies. You stay away from anything that might be close to a stock scene. So there is that... newness to your work. As you write, do you ever have to stop yourself and say, "This is a little too much like that movie. Let's not do that."
Jonze: Yeah, I'm sure there are times when you're trying to be free and not censor yourself, but then you come up with an idea and you're like, "That's kinda cheesy."
Beaks: We've got to talk about the music. How much of that was a full-on collaboration between Carter Burwell and Karen O.?
Jonze: They worked mostly separate. They collaborated on some of the pieces, but they worked mostly separate. We all sat in a room - me, Carter and Karen - and divvied up the work as to who's responsible for what. When Carter came on, Karen had already been writing for a while: she wrote all through editing, and even wrote while we were still shooting. I just sent her huge chunks of unedited footage, like twenty minutes of dailies of a sequence, and she would just write to that feeling; she would put it on and hum a melody or play a simple melody on the piano, and then build the song around that. She was writing more song-based score, and then we brought Carter in to write the more... moment-to-moment score. But she'd already set the tone for what the music would sound like, so he worked within that context instrumentation-wise. The music has complex emotions, but is sort of naive in its musical simplicity. So Carter appropriated that philosophy - which was really cool, because Carter is such a maestro. It was cool to see him write... like sometimes I would come in and say, "It's too complicated. There are too many notes. There's too much stuff going on." And watching him strip it down to the essence... and whenever he got simpler, it always got better - or more appropriate to the movie. And then also watching him direct the musicians. He was working with these world-class musicians from the New York Philharmonic, and saying, "Play it simpler. Play it like a fifth grader." He didn't bring too much sophistication to the writing or the playing of the music.
Beaks: It must've been really difficult for trained musicians to let themselves go like that.
Jonze: (Laughs) I think it was. But I also think they enjoyed it because it was such a challenge. They loved being challenged.
Beaks: You've worked with Carter on all three of your films. Do you see this being a lasting collaboration?
Jonze: Yeah, I love working with him. He's such a filmmaker. He's a musician and a filmmaker. Showing him the cut of the movie is always exciting: he has such great things to say about the cut as you're editing, but also great things about what the music should or should not do - and also how the music can help tell the story. He's a giant asset to the process.
Beaks: You know, this is the second time this year that I've heard about a filmmaker recording extensive voice-overs with all of the actors present. There's your movie, and there's Wes Anderson's THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX. I guess it works fine to do it separately, but it just seems more organic your way.
Jonze: You get more dynamics, more chemistry. By having Chris Cooper and James Gandolfini doing their scenes together... these characters are supposed to have this relationship and this history and this shorthand with each other. Putting great actors in a room together, you get magic; you get something bigger than the sum of the parts. Great actors are great listeners, and they're reacting to the subtle nuances in the inflection or the expression of the other actor.
Beaks: And James Gandolfini is one of our great breathing actors.
Jonze: (Laughs) He really is. I remember being a kid and seeing movies with Gene Hackman, and he just felt like an adult human man - like in the way I would watch my dad or my uncle. You could just... smell their breath. That's a rare thing. Now that I'm making movies, you realize how plastic someone can feel on film. And when someone feels alive... Gandolfini reminds me of that kind of actor. I don't feel the acting; I just feel a person.
It's funny, because when we did ADAPTATION with Chris Cooper, I was so amazed by him. He's the kind of actor where there's never a take that's not real. There may be a take that's not right for what we're trying to do for the scene, but they're all real. It has to be real for him, and he has a very sharp radar for when it starts to feel phony. Gandolfini's the same way. He's in tune with it being real. So it was exciting to put them in scenes together, even though they're very different people. They're not satisfied unless it feels completely authentic, unless they feel that bell ring. There's a bell of truth that rings. Because Chris almost never felt he was good in ADAPTATION. But when the take was undeniably great, I could see him give himself just the tiniest bit of satisfaction. And then he'd be okay with moving on. A lot of times he'd be like, "Are you sure you don't want me to do it again." And I'd be like, "No, that was amazing." But I could always tell when he was ready to move on.
Beaks: But what about with Max, who's much younger and newer to this?
Jonze: I think most actors don't know. Gandolfini and Keener are the same way: they don't know. Occasionally they'll know, but most of the time they're relying on the director to say, "Okay, I got what I need. It's great." Max was the same way. He was like, "Whatever you need." He was only nine, but he was so committed to getting me whatever I needed to make my movie. No matter how tired his little exhausted nine-year-old body would be, he would want to do it until I got what I needed.
Beaks: Having gone through this whole rigamarole with the studio, has this experience put you off working within that system?
Jonze: I think I will probably separate my editing process further from the studio next time. But the studio... over the course of five years of making this movie, there were five or six months last year that were not fun. But that was only part of the movie. They made our movie. We got to make this personal, strange film on a big scale, and they're releasing it; they're getting behind it in the way only a studio can. It's exciting driving down Sunset Boulevard and seeing the billboards everywhere. And all the marketing stuff... the trailers and everything... it feels like they're not trying to sell something else. I think that's the thing I was most scared of: as hard as it was going to be, I wasn't going to let anyone compromise the movie. But with the marketing materials, I didn't have that kind of control. I'm so excited that the marketing stuff feels like the movie. They're not trying to sell it as something it's not.
Beaks: Given your commercial-directing background, I'd like to think they would've craved your marketing input.
Jonze: And they really did. They really allowed us to be involved. They didn't have to, but they did. The initial trailer... that Arcade Fire song ["Wake Up"] was something I'd used along the way in cutting stuff. Before we shot the movie, I cut together this mood piece; I used footage from E.T., RATCATCHER and THE BLACK STALLION, and cut together this mood piece to the song. I showed it to the crew to give them a sense of the tone and the feeling of the film before we shot. It was a way to get everyone to the same place. I wrote the whole script to Arcade Fire's FUNERAL, and I listened to that song a lot. That record is thematically very connected to the film. So it seems so perfect that we got to put that in the trailer.
Beaks: I'm so glad you threw RATCATCHER in there with those other two movies. That's a key ingredient. I can definitely feel it in your film.
Jonze: Oh, good!
Beaks: I'm so intrigued by the idea of Michel Gondry directing THE GREEN HORNET, which is intended to be this blockbuster studio movie.
Jonze: I can't wait.
Beaks: On one hand, I know he can do this; I know he can make a great movie. But I don't know if he can deliver a film that will satisfy the studio's need to sell a lot of tickets. Could you ever see yourself taking on a project like that?
Jonze: I don't know. Not right now. But who knows? Hopefully, you're always growing and wanting to try different things, but... I don't know. I guess as long as I knew how to make it, and I knew how to make it my own, and that I felt like it was something I had to make.
Please go see WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE this Friday, October 16th. It's as wonderful as you've heard.