Wild times: Writer Dave Eggers and director Spike Jonze collaborated on bringing Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are to life.

Dave Eggers, Spike Jonze and 'Wild Things'

Michael Read October 19, 2009

An unruly boy runs rampant through his house dressed in a wolf suit and is banished to his room without his supper. Alone and disgruntled, he sails to the land of the Wild Things, a ragtag band of hulking, unpredictable monsters. Max conquers them "by staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once," and he is made "the King of all Wild Things," dancing with the monsters in a "wild rumpus." However, he soon finds himself lonely and homesick, and he returns home to his bedroom, where he finds his supper waiting for him, still hot.

This archetypal boy-power tale, etched into the consciousness of generations of readers, now comes to the big screen. Where the Wild Things Are is directed by Spike Jonze from a screenplay by Jonze and Bay Area-based writer Dave Eggers, based on the indispensible 1963 picture book by Maurice Sendak. Jonze selected acclaimed novelist and fellow Sendak fan Dave Eggers to collaborate with him on the screenplay, though Eggers had never written for film at the time. (Since then, Eggers has cowritten with Vendela Vida Away We Go, which was released last summer.) Together, Jonze and Eggers met with Sendak in his Connecticut home to go over their plans for the movie—which they wanted to keep true to the author’s values and intention. When the two returned to San Francisco, they commenced with an old-fashioned brainstorming process locked in Jonze’s Castro apartment, hammering out ideas and dialogue together, acting out characters and melding their very different methods. Their challenge: to approach the original as a touchstone without betraying its author or its legions of fans, while expanding the plot and creating living, breathing characters.

Eggers and Jonze, along with actor Catherine Keener, met with a group of journalists recently in San Francisco just prior to the film’s nationwide rollout last Friday. Below are excerpts of Eggers and Jonze’s answers.

On being a first-time screenwriter and working collaboratively in the screenwriting process.

Dave Eggers: I had never even read a screenplay. Spike moved up here to San Francisco and the first couple of drafts were written here in the Castro. It was an incredible learning experience for me. For the first few drafts we spent most of our time talking about who the Wild Things were and what they wanted from the world and from their lives. For Max, we talked about the changes that occur when he becomes king and how do he and the Wild Things interrelate. So there was so much talking through it, which is a new thing for me because I usually just work alone. We batted things back and forth and acted things out and talked about childhood in general. That’s how you grow a picture book with only ten sentences into a movie. It wasn’t a mechanical process. It was very organic, if I can be allowed to use that word.

Spike Jonze: Here’s the thing with us. Dave is a faster typist. He’s way more disciplined than I am. I would get distracted and procrastinate and he would keep us focused. I would write for twenty minutes and then suggest walking down to the store or watching something on YouTube, but Dave kept the whip cracking. But beyond that, I absolutely love his writing. We just come from different worlds. When I decided that I wanted to write this, I knew that I wanted to write it with someone, and Dave just seemed like the obvious partner.

Dave Eggers: I was a fan of Spike’s and devoted to Maurice’s works. His was the first author’s name I think I ever knew and memorized. I knew that this was going to be a holy hassle to make and that it was going to take many years. There would be so many steps and my part would be the first step out of a hundred. But I was just incredibly happy and flattered to be even a little part of it. I held a support position from the beginning and was really happy to be there and just to be part of it. Even after we finished writing Spike had to tinker for a couple of years more.

On moving the book’s key event—Max’s bedroom transforms into a forest—into what appears to be a drainage ditch.

Spike Jonze: I vividly remember being captivated by those four pages as a kid. Watching the bedposts turn into trees and the wallpaper turn into leaves seemed like magic to me. But, we thought that if we included an amazing special effects sequence that shows the bedroom turning into a forest it would suggest that Max’s journey was only a fantasy. And it didn’t seem to do justice to what we were writing up to that point. In the end, it was Maurice Sendak who said that we need to make this project our own.

Dave Eggers: Maurice was so supportive of every choice we made, and was really understanding about what it would take to expand the book. But this particular decision was the one that he kept coming back to.

Spike Jonze: He said, "You guys have got to make this your movie, I totally understand. But what about . . ." And then, you know, we’d talk about our choice, and he’d say, "You know what? You guys seem like you’re confident in what you’re doing." And then, two weeks later, he’d call and say, "I was thinking . . ." To his credit, he wasn’t coming at this thing as a protective artist. He never said, "This is my thing, and don’t fuck it up." Once he decided that he wanted us to do it, he gave it over to us entirely and gave us permission to make it ours. Without Maurice’s support I don’t think I would have been able to go down the path. I would have been too scared of making something he didn’t like. But he was committed to letting us making something personal.

On creating an open-ended film that doesn’t prescribe specific emotions or interpretations.

Spike Jonze: I’m loathe to say what the movie is about. It’s more interesting for the movie to have its own life, in the same way that the book seems to mean something different to everyone I talk to. People have a very personal relationship to the book, and for every person there’s a different meaning or interpretation. Everyone has their own favorite scene, and often those favorite scenes don’t even exist in the book. They exist, I guess, in their memory of the book. I hope that the movie can have a similar sort of life.

Dave Eggers: I think that that’s the way that Maurice works and also the way Spike works. From inside out, and from the unconscious. When you work that way, and you don’t impose a superstructure on a story or provide only one meaning, then people can insert themselves into it.

Spike Jonze: I love films that can mean something different each time I see it. Or when, if I’ve progressed to a different point in my life, I take a different meaning from a film I’ve seen before. There’s something rich and satisfying in having that experience. When a filmmaker has made something that’s alive, it’s not the same every time. But when a film manipulates you to feel one thing and tries to make everyone think the same thing, it ends up being dead object.

On Max’s backstory and how he came to run away.

Dave Eggers: On many levels his world is out of his control. At home there’s a man in the house he doesn’t approve of and would rather not be there. He’d rather have his family intact, as it was when he was younger. He goes to school and the science teacher tells him that the sun will one day snuff out and the universe will come to an end, but don’t worry, you’ll all be dead by then so have a good weekend. And even his sister, who he’s always been close to, no longer is interested in him. He can’t control all of these external factors, and he can’t control the turmoil inside him. All of these different struggles finally pop and Max runs away.

On transferring the book’s dreamlike vision of the island into the film’s lifelike journey to a very real-looking place.

Spike Jonze: We wanted to create a place where everything is wild. Emotionally wild, geographically wild, where anything can happen at any time. To us, this represents what it can feel like to be a kid. We wanted to capture that feeling and make a movie from the point of view of a 9-year-old, so that the viewer is experiencing the world from that vantage point. When you’re 9, the only rule is that you don’t always know exactly what the rules are. The specifics don’t exactly make sense to you, but you understand things emotionally by the way you read the reaction of the people you are with. And I think that’s something that feels true to childhood.

On creating frightening film moments for Max, who appeared more indomitable in the book’s narrative.

Dave Eggers: Many of the things that happen to Max would seem very tantalizing to most nine-year-old boys. And what happens to him is wish fulfillment. Here’s a boy that might feel a little bit contained within the walls of his home or his school. But on an island without any borders or boundaries he can act out his wildest fantasies. That includes a full-scale war with the Wild Things at his beck and call. He says, "I know something that always cheers me up: A war." This is the way boys think.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.