Some kind of monster

Spike Jonze can't say what beast his latest film is-only that it's his.

For months now, Williamsburg parents have been welling up at the gauzy, Muppet-like images accompanying the indie-rock-scored trailer of Where the Wild Things Are, a big-budget rethink of Maurice Sendak’s beloved bedtime story, about to hit theaters courtesy of wunderkind stylist Spike Jonze. But the saga of making of the picture stretches back years, through wrong turns, reshoots and what’s steadily revealing itself to be an unusually troubled Hollywood production. Interestingly, the clash seems to stem from the growing pains of the acclaimed director himself, who’s decided that with this kids’ story, he wants to mature (a little). Even the most loyal Jonze fans are wondering whether it was all worth it.

“Who’s my film for? Whoever’s interested,” fires back the 39-year-old Jonze by phone from L.A., obviously tired of this question. “I didn’t write it with an audience in mind. I think that’s why we ran into problems with the studio during editing. Because I didn’t set out to make a children’s film—I set out to make a film about childhood.”

To hear Jonze’s dudelike drawl—he’s a lifelong skater and BMXer—is to be instantly reminded of his comic acting turn in Three Kings. And while he was also the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (two ingenious head-scratchers forever associated with the neuroticism of their screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman), the self-taught Jonze is chiefly and proudly a video goofball, who unleashed Christopher Walken in a dance sequence and put funny cop mustaches on the Beastie Boys.

But Jonze is being serious now, not exactly defensive but ready to move past the story that’s usually written about him. “I can do conceptual, but it can’t just be conceptual,” he says. “It’s got to have feeling, too.” This, apparently, was the Spike Jonze that connected with Sendak on a Wild Things pitch back in 2000, after many other filmmakers had failed. “Maurice basically told me not to be reverential to the book,” Jonze recalls. “He was almost adamantly, passionately challenging me, saying, 'Take this book and make something personal, make something inside you.’ I never would have done it without that fundamental philosophy coming from the man who I was working for.”

Five years, two studios and the headaches of producing Jackass later, the director finished a feature-length draft with writer Dave Eggers. It included rage and loneliness. There was a broken home, an aloof older sister. (Jonze had recently gone though a divorce with Sofia Coppola.) Suddenly Max was eight, not five, and among chatty, snipey wild things with names and personalities. This was not the book.

The script earned at least one important fan. “I liked him, I liked his honesty, so I gave him my blessing,” Sendak, 81, tells TONY via e-mail from his suburban Connecticut home. The prolific Brooklyn-born author claims to be mystified as to why his 1963 work has been so successful (“I’ve never known”), but it’s clear from Jonze’s short doc for HBO, Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, that the two men share a cynicism about the nostalgia often heaped on childhood. (They seem to avoid it personally as well; if you call their relationship “grandfatherly,” Jonze will correct you: “Maybe older brother.”)

Even with Sendak’s mark of approval, there was still the task of mounting an elaborate, Lucas-esque 2006 Australian shoot with a huge crew. Animatronic heads and suit performers ran into unexpected mobility problems. Michelle Williams left the cast, replaced by Lauren Ambrose. Worse, a lengthy reshoot (a year and a half later) based on Jonze’s developing cut gave speculating bloggers the scent of blood. “There were a lot of rumors, saying the way we shot it didn’t work,” says cinematographer Lance Acord, who’s collaborated with Jonze on all his features. “But it really was just because since Spike could easily change the dialogue of the creatures, we had to go back and refilm the remaining jigsaw puzzle pieces with Max.” Whatever the reason, significant changes were made to the dialogue and plot.

“It wasn’t fun,” Jonze dryly adds with a laugh, referring to the all-but-public postproduction clash with Warner Bros. “But in the end, I got to make the movie I wanted to make. The fact that they’ve come around and embraced it—and are now putting out this strange, intimate film in a way that only a big studio can—makes me feel fortunate.”

It’s hard to know if the feeling is mutual, with the studio in positive-spin mode and the movie itself unevenly toned. But Jonze, finally, doesn’t sound too young—or too old. “It’s important not to compromise yourself. I don’t look at it any other way.”

Where the Wild Things Are opens Fri 16.

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