Spike Jonze has always been a risk-taker. His first two directing efforts, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both written by Charlie Kaufman, were highly adventurous but
inexpensive (costing $13 million and $19 million, respectively) and they were modestly profitable.
His latest roll-of-the-dice, Where the Wild Things Are, an elaborate fantasy based on Maurice Sendak's children's book, is a huge gamble for Warner Bros., and for him.
The production budget was estimated at between $80 million (Variety) and $100 million (Box Office Mojo). Toss in another $50 million or so in worldwide marketing costs,
and the studio has a lot riding on the film's success.
After an impressive $32.7 million debut in the US, takings fell sharply as some critics declared its dark tone was unsuitable for kids, and it racked up $62.6 million in 17 days; the movie opens here on December 3.
The saga follows the adventures of Max (newcomer Max Records), an angry boy who dresses in a wolf suit with a long, bushy tail and hood with ears and whiskers. After his mother calls him “wild thing” and he threatens to eat her up, he's sent to his room, which magically transforms into a forest. Fortuitously finding a boat, he sails to a place populated by giant, hairy, scary beasts who make him their king. Catherine Keener plays his divorced mum and the wild things are voiced by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano and Chris Cooper.
The film had a long and troubled production history. Jonze first read Sendak's 48-page book, published in 1963, as a kid, and revisited it in 2001 while filming Adaptation. He turned to the novel again in 2003 when he was in the midst of a divorce from Sofia Coppola. He rang Sendak, told him he wanted to make a movie, and the following year started writing the screenplay with novelist and non-fiction writer Dave Eggers.
In 2005, Jonze pitched the script and his production ideas to Universal, which wasn't interested, but Jeff Robinov, head of production at Warner Brothers, sparked to the project, a deal was struck, and filming began in Melbourne in mid-2006. The problems started as the Henson-designed monster suits had such heavy heads, technicians had to remove the remote-controlled mechanical eyeballs, so all the facial expressions would have to generated via computer in post-production.
After the four-month shoot ended that December, Jonze told the studio he needed more money for additional photography. The executives insisted they'd first need to see a director's cut, which they finally saw in September 2007. The reaction wasn't positive. “We felt that the movie was too slow,” Robinov told The New York Times, adding he also had concerns about the intensity: “Is it too intense for kids? Is the audience for the movie that we're making broad enough?” After a test screening in Pasadena, one attendee blogged, “I don't think it's for young children,” while another reported some kids in the audience cried.
In March 2008, Jonze turned in a new script with a few minor changes, and Warners agreed to stump up the money to finish the film. The US critics were mostly positive. The Times' Manohla Dargis found it an “alternately perfect and imperfect if always beautiful adaptation.” The New Yorker pointed out Sendak's book was created for young children but the movie is designed for older children and adults, and the creatures turned out to be a “discontented and quarrelsome bunch.” IndieWire's Anne Thompson declared, “Am I glad I saw this movie? Yes. But did it need to cost $100 million? No. Does it matter if this movie makes its money back?” Warner Bros. would have an unequivocal view on that.
Describing how he and Eggers approached the script, Jonze said, “We wrote it from the point of view of trying to make a movie that feels like what it's like to be nine years old. We wrote our first couple drafts very intuitively, tried to write it from the stream of conscious place that kids make stuff from.
“We were trying to be true to Maurice's work. When it came out it was attacked by librarians and child psychologists and Better Homes and Gardens-type magazines because it wasn't like a traditional children's book. It showed this boy being wild, acting out, yelling at his mom and his mom, instead of calming him down and helping him through his emotions and teaching him a lesson, his mom reacted too and yelled at him and sent him to his room. That was something that they said, 'This book is dangerous for kids,' because it wasn't teaching the kids a lesson. But it was truthful and kids recognized that. Kids started taking it out of the library and it became popular because kids loved it. Now, 40 years later, it's a classic.”
A week after the film opened in the US, Jonze turned 40. Friends say they doubt he'll ever again want to spend six or seven years of his life working on one movie. Earlier this year he directed a couple of commercials for a Japanese cell phone company, in Japanese, featuring Brad Pitt and a sumo wrestler. He made a hallucinatory 10-minute movie with the rapper Kanye West and shot a short film about a romance between two robots.
It's perhaps surprising that he's only directed two features. He was offered the chance to make Human Nature, but declined, instead recommending fellow music video director Michel Gondry. At one stage he was in the frame to direct Synecdoche, New York, but took on the role of producer so he could focus on finishing Wild Things. According to IMDB.com, he
was attached to direct The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2001 but left that to do Adaptation, he turned down The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and was once mooted to direct Memoirs of a Geisha.
Jonze told The Times he isn't sure what he wants to do next, but he knows how he wants to do it: “Just come up with an idea and make it.”