"Just the power of that creation, when somebody invents something that seems so familiar to you - that's a strong feeling," he says. "And for me, even at 5, I probably had dreams that were similar to that story in some way."
Now, 35 years later, Jonze has turned those dreamlike images into a strange, soulful, fierce, and funny film, which opens Friday. It wasn't easy (five years from start to finish), it wasn't cheap (a reported $90 million production budget), and its fidelity to the author/illustrator's fearsome ink-and-watercolor pages makes it a risky proposition at the box office. This is no Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. It's Scary With a Chance of Failure.
But it's the movie that Jonze - who directed the trippy surrealist Charlie Kaufman sagas Being John Malkovich and Adaptation - wanted to do.
And he did it with Sendak's blessing.
"He had asked me if I would want to make a movie of Where the Wild Things Are," Jonze recalls by phone recently from Los Angeles. "And I never knew how to do it. . . . I was very nervous about doing it, ruining this thing that was so perfect."
Then, finally, Jonze had a lightbulb moment. He called Sendak and told him his idea, "that the Wild Things could represent our own wild emotions, and the wild emotions in Max and in the people around him."
The beasts as anger, rage, jealousy, loneliness, despair.
Jonze first came into contact with Sendak back before Being John Malkovich, when the director was planning to adapt another beloved children's work, Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon. Sendak was onboard as a producer. The project faltered, but the friendship between the maverick music-video auteur and the Connecticut-based kid-lit god stayed fast.
"I'd always loved his stuff and read his books as a kid, and reread them as a teenager," Jonze says of Sendak. "And I'd go back to them when I started directing music videos and thinking about making little stories. Going back to Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, and thinking about how perfect those were."
Gregory Maguire, author of the Wizard of Oz-inspired bestseller Wicked, holds Sendak in equally high esteem. In the new Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation, Maguire writes: "What Sendak has contributed, before, during, and since the wild things, is a child's grammar of narrative and image sturdy enough to convey the anxiety and adventure, the danger and potential reward of the mortal world - a grammar that can be deciphered by a child too young to read."
Jonze and Sendak, who has a producer credit on the film, put that grammar into a film context, and then got Warner Bros. to foot the bill. Jonze enlisted Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and founder of the San Francisco publishing house McSweeney's, to collaborate on a script. Screenplay in hand, seven actors - Lauren Ambrose, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker - recorded the dialogue for the Wild Things.
Then Max Records - a Portland, Ore., grade schooler who had been spotted in a Death Cab for Cutie music video by a friend of Jonze's - was cast as, yes, Max. ("I was like, 'OK, that's too crazy,' " Jonze says of the coincidence.)
Jim Henson's Creature Shop fabricated the Wild Things suits. Records, Catherine Keener, who plays his mother in the film, and the seven "suit actors" who walk around inside the giant, furry Wild Things costumes shipped off to South Australia, where the film was shot on rocky coasts and in forests and dunes.
And then, post-production, the Wild Things were enhanced, thanks to a team of visual-effects artists, to give their faces more emotional nuance. And Karen O, lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was brought in to create a series of kidlike pop songs for the soundtrack.
"In my other movies, I'd worked with actors like John Malkovich, Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage - and I expected the same level of performance from both Max and the Wild Things that I had from all my other actors," Jonze says.
Even from a kid actor, and from guys lumbering around in big, furry costumes. He wanted raw emotion, something organic.
"And part of the reason it all took so long - well, it took so long for a million reasons," Jonze says, laughing. "I don't know if we could have chosen a more difficult way to make the movie, but it was the right way to make the movie."
Executives at Warner Bros. didn't necessarily feel that way when they got their first look at Wild Things last year. There were urgent meetings, and requests to make changes that would lessen the intensity of scenes, make it more kid- and family-friendly.
"There were definitely a few months where it was really messed up, not fun," Jonze says of the clashes.
"They paid for the movie, so I wanted to be respectful of that and listen to conversations and listen to ideas. But at a certain point when it could no longer be productive, then we had to say, 'OK, we just need to finish our movie now.' "
To their credit, Jonze says, studio execs let him. They even recalibrated their marketing campaign to reach an older, hipper demographic, high schoolers and college students who were weaned on Wild Things. Hence, the pile of Sendakian merchandise to be found in Urban Outfitters stores nationwide: Where the Wild Things Are T-shirts, slippers, dolls, CDs, posters - and, yes, even the book.
Warners, Jonze explains, was scared of the project at first. "It didn't feel like what they knew as a children's movie. To their credit, they've come around and embraced it for what it is."
Jonze has his spiel down on the subject, but it nonetheless feels heartfelt:
"We didn't set out to make a children's movie, we set out to make a movie about childhood," he says. "In the same way that's what Maurice Sendak does: Maurice Sendak doesn't look at himself as a children's book author. He looks at himself as someone who's trying to write about childhood in an honest way. And with him as our producer, but really as our mentor, he guided us and inspired us to stay true to that."
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.
The Wild Things, in Philadelphia
Before or after seeing the movie, you can go to the Rosenbach Museum and Library and check out its remarkable collection of Where the Wild Things Are materials.
Maurice Sendak long ago chose the Rosenbach as the repository for his artwork and manuscripts, and there's a trove of Wild Things work on display: early sketches and drafts of the classic 1963 book; an odd, Sendak-created precursor, a booklet called Where the Wild Horses Are; typescripts and letters, studies and set designs for a Where the Wild Things Are opera staged in the 1970s, and much more.
Two galleries are devoted to Sendak, with all sorts of Wild Things and other Sendakiana, including an exhibition on Sendak and food, called "Too Many Thoughts to Chew: A Sendak Stew," which runs through Jan. 17.
Let the wild rumpus start . . . here!
Rosenbach Museum and Library
2008-10 Delancey Place
215-732-1600 or www.rosenbach.org.