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Days of being wild

Spike Jonze tells how he turned a kid's short story into a big fantasy

by George Hadley-Garcia

HOLLYWOOD — ‘I think ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is a fantastic book,” says writer-director Spike Jonze.

“Not just fantasy — fantastic. One plus is that it’s open-ended, (which is) possibly the reason it’s become a classic and is still riveting children. It lets your own imagination fill in the myriad spaces. Another plus is the wonderful illustrations by the author himself.

“I always thought a fantastic movie could be made from this slender prize-winning book. Lots of people have wanted to film it, but none persevered — not like I did.”

Jonze turned down several highly commercial studio projects before, during and after “Wild Things.” He won’t discuss the films he declined, noting, “What sense, really, to talk about what I didn’t do. Rather, let’s talk about what I did do.”

However, due to the lengthy and detailed process of bringing “Wild Things” to the screen, Jonze didn’t get to direct the offbeat “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), as he’d been slated to do. Instead he produced it. “I’m happy producing. I don’t have to put my imprimatur all over a project. But when I get my teeth into something I really want to do, I avoid, if I can, backing out completely; I like to stay involved.”

Appreciating how personally attached to their output creators are, Jonze kept in frequent touch with author-illustrator Maurice Sendak while filming “Where the Wild Things Are.”

“Sometimes I had a question. Sometimes I wanted to confirm something or to run an idea of mine past him. Or I wanted confirmation that a suggestion of mine that, let’s say, was way off the track wasn’t utterly wrong in his opinion,” explains Jonze.

The award-winning children’s book was published in 1963 and is surprisingly short.

It’s about a boy named Max (played by Max Records) dressed in a “wolf suit” who devises “mischief of one kind and another” and annoys his mother, who sends him to his room without supper. Alone, he imagines himself a wild thing in a forest, and soon he is crossing the seas to a place loaded with wild things based on Sendak’s highly imaginative, somewhat scary drawings of bizarre creatures. They frighten Max, who then frightens them. They end up playing together, but when Max smells “good things to eat,” he becomes homesick, sails home, and finds his supper — still hot — waiting for him.

“Some people have said the ‘moral’ of the story is the same as in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ” offers Jonze. “Which is . . . that the bluebird of happiness is right in your own backyard. Different people interpret stories differently. But a big part of ‘Wild Things’ is the comfort and safety of coming back home. It is, though, very much about a journey, about going beyond the familiar. (It is) also about becoming scared out in the world, and having to scare back — to take a stand and find your place.

“I don’t see it as having any one moral or message. It’s a fantasy; it’s wish fulfillment; it’s a journey. And it was always a movie waiting to be made. Apart from which, Sendak’s story does show, or illustrate, the very human foible of wanting something else. When you’re home, you want to be out and away, adventuring. When you are away and having that adventure, in time you crave to be back home.”

Jonze admits that as the book is so thinly plotted and provided little more than an outline he was able to “let my imagine run loose and go wild and run rampant — all of that. It’s been oh-so satisfying, a wondrous journey for me and everyone involved in it, I assume and I hope,” he says, briefly laughing. “For audiences, it’s meant to be unforgettable and unique. It gets harder to do a movie that’s very different from the rest.”

The highly creative writer/director/ producer/sometime-actor Jonze created his own name. He was born Adam Spiegel in Maryland in 1969. His father, Arthur Spiegel III, founded a management-consulting company, and his mother, Sandy Granzow, is a writer and artist who worked in developing countries as a communications consultant.

The future Spike was never interested in ending up at a 9-to-5 desk job. “I often had ambitions and tastes that ran counter to those encouraged by most of our neighbors and community,” states Jonze. “But I had understanding parents.”

Jonze was a magazine editor — one of three founders of Dirt magazine. But he wanted to do more than write or edit, and he began directing music videos.

“What tends to get my attention and sometimes my admiration is what goes too far. Do you know? If I see a guy skateboarding, cool. If he skateboards and he’s a champion at it, he’s got my attention. If he does unexpected moves that could break a leg, and he does them well — even if he doesn’t, if he merely dares to do that — I really admire that.”

Small wonder that Jonze was a key ingredient in the making of the cult TV series “Jackass,” which features a group of juvenile-acting men risking life and limb as they skateboard, jump, race, punch, stuff crabs into their underwear — you name it.

Derided by many as being tasteless and low-brow in the extreme, “Jackass” became a long-running hit and made a star (in films, too) of Johnny Knoxville.

“I was never concerned with the taste level of the show,” says Jonze, “Whose taste? That is the question. No, I merely didn’t want kids at home to imitate what they were watching on TV. So every show starts with a disclaimer about not trying it at home. It’s not just common sense, it’s ethically right to put that up front and center.”

The series has spawned two motion pictures, and Jonze, who cowrote the films, is ready to do “a third, when and if.” But he’s better known for nondocumentary features that sometimes have an anchor in reality, as with “Being John Malkovich.” The 1999 cult movie features the real-life title actor, and puzzled many critics.

“I love it when critics are stumped, when they have to admit they’re not sure how they feel about what they’ve witnessed on the screen,” Jonze says.

“Sometimes it does take time to decide or decode for yourself what you’ve just seen. The catch is that, as a director gets more famous, a camp of critics develops which automatically likes or automatically dislikes your work — previewing. Anyway, who are critics? Paid members of the public. Overrated opinions? It goes without saying.”

In 2002, Jonze was critically acclaimed for his adaptation of “Adaptation,” a film based on a book about orchids but to which he melded his own storyline about brothers played by Nicholas Cage.

Incidentally — or not — Cage is filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, and Jonze was briefly married to filmmaker Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”), Francis’ daughter. Jonze doesn’t comment on his private life, but asserts that Sofia is “mightily talented” as both a writer and director.

An anonymous friend told the Los Angeles Times in 2008 that Jonze “is engrossed in his work. He has some personal life away from work, but his work is his life. When he socializes, he’s usually nattering on about a project. He has so many creative ideas and goals. He’s enmeshed in media — in music, writing, directing, producing, scouting projects, mentoring younger talents, being mentored by older ones. Jonze is like a perpetual-notion machine!” An offbeat fact about Jonze is that he — a skateboard enthusiast — co-owns a company called Girl Skateboard Company.

As for “Where the Wild Things Are,” Jonze concludes: “It’s not just for kids, and I’m not fond of having to say that, because there is nothing wrong in a film designed with kids in mind. What I’m trying to clarify is that this is a film for everyone who’s enjoyed the book and is curious how a movie of it would turn out, and also it’s a film for everyone who, for want of a better phrase, is in touch with their inner child.

“I loved — let me emphasize that: I loved! — making ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ At times I felt, nearly literally, like a kid again. A kid who could give free rein to his imagination and joy. It’s that feeling of not being limited by whatever age you are that I want to share with audiences, and also that joy. See this movie and see if you don’t experience joy in it. . . . You may even want to see it again, especially when our adult world starts weighing you down again.”