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Making Where The Wild Things Are

We speak to the producer of the beautifully crafted film based on Maurice Sendak’s best-selling children’s book Where The Wild Things Are.

It was always going to be a difficult task reworking Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are for film. Partly due to the cultural significance it appears to have in the US, but also due to the book’s short length (the film actually works out at about a minute per word). However, Spike Jonze’s adaptation isn’t so much the book transposed to film, but a film inspired by the characters he finds in the book, and it's a truly a magical cinematic experience (read an exclusive interview between Maurice Sendak and Spike Jonze here).

The film retains everything inspiring about the book and perfectly captures its portrayal of childhood wonder, with the realism created by using actors in suits rather than CGI-ing everything to death making it all the more marvellous. We caught up with Where The Wild Things Are producer, and long-time Spike Jonze collaborator, Vincent Landay to talk about the putting the film together, the exuberance of youth and the weird brilliance of Daniel Johnston...

Dazed Digital: How did you decide how to expand on the book?
Vincent Landay: Maurice Sendak had been trying to make this into a movie for years and nobody had cracked it. Spike Jonze said this was his favourite book and he didn’t want to be the guy who wrecked it by turning it into a movie. Then time passed and we kept thinking about it. Maurice kept bringing it up and Spike finally felt that he had an approach that would work that wouldn't impose an artificial plot onto what is a beautiful poem. But rather take what’s there, the spirit and the themes, and apply it to cinema.

DD: Were you conscious of the other attempts to adapt the book?
Vincent Landay: We’d see the 1973 animation, but it was very short and the animation was pretty crude; it wasn’t really bringing it to life. We knew through Maurice that he had done an opera, and we’d seen some photos of that. We weren’t using any of that as a basis for what to do with this though.

DD: How did you create the Wild Things?
Vincent Landay: We hired voice actors in America to do all the voice work. We had a camera on every actor and a couple of wide cameras. It was a very loose and free form that was more like a theatre rehearsal than a film set. We covered the stage in big heavy curtains and carpeting and bought big foam pieces in all different sizes and shapes. Then we taped these microphones to the actors’ heads so if they interacted you weren’t hearing the rustling of clothes. It was a really great way to get very naturalistic and impromptu performances from the actors. They could improvise, they could do whatever they wanted. We edited that before we went to Australia to film the movie and gave a version to each character to the actors that we cast to wear the costumes.

DD: How much freedom do the costume actors have? Did they just mimic the voice actors?
Vincent Landay: The person playing Carol got to study James Gandolfini’s performance with an isolated camera showing what he did on set. So he could either mimic that or interpret it. It really gave us incredible performances by the Australian actors, because it was almost like they were there on set with the voice actors – they understood who the characters were supposed to be and could translate that physically. That gave Max real characters to perform with rather than – if you were going to create all the characters with computer – a tennis ball on a stick to represent the eye line.

DD: What prompted the design choices for the film?
Vincent Landay: The idea was to make it as naturalistic as possible in the hope that the emotion comes across much more directly to the audience. If there’s something that feels too artificial, it might put up this false wall; it might put up a membrane to the emotions coming across.

DD: How did you envisage it?
Vincent Landay: Spike’s interpretation, before even starting to write, was that he wanted it to be like a nature documentary – that we went to where the Wild Things are and we found these creatures. So I didn’t want cameras with beautiful dolly moves, I wanted a documentary where we were trying to find them in the frame. As a result, everything else had to follow into that pattern of naturalism; the performances, the production design, the creatures themselves.

DD: Did you have to stray too far from the design of the book to achieve this?
VL: We stayed true to the proportions of the creatures. It’s probably the biggest deviation from naturalism, but we looked at Maurice’s designs and worked closely with him in bringing them to life. For instance, Carol’s got triangular things on his legs, so for a long time there was a discussion about what those should be. So we had to go to the real world and ask what are the real textures? What exists on animals? We found an artist who was the main one who would pull references from the real world and real animals and make a composite to show this is what it would look like with feathers as opposed to scales.

DD: How much input did Maurice Sendak have?
VL: Quite a bit. He was our our guru. He wasn’t able to travel, so he couldn’t be there on set, but all during preproduction we would send him versions of the script to get his feedback. Our production designer went and met with him early on to show him some sketches of what we wanted to do, and our creature designer worked really closely with him. We’d also record regular video diaries from Australia and send them to him.

DD: Had you read the book when you were younger?
VL: I had read the book growing up. By the time I started working on the movie, I already had the book for my kids and was reading it to them.

DD: Were your childhood memories influencing the way you thought about the film?
Vincent Landay: I think Spike had a stronger connection in terms of very specific things that went back to the book. For me, it was not so much what I remember from the book, but what I remember from childhood and that’s what’s really great about the script and what the film brings across too – it's about what it feels like to be a boy at that age and not really being able to articulate it, but being able to feel it.

DD: What does the story tell us about childhood?
Vincent Landay: I think an amazing thing about childhood that we need to hold onto is being able to transport yourself into another world and let your emotions out. As you get older you start getting more reserved and repressing that. That’s my interpretation and I see that in the book as well. Just being able to go off and be the king.

DD: Is this a film parents can enjoy too?
Vincent Landay: I think it’s excellent for that. So many movies are made for families, the words 'family film' make the hairs on my neck stand up. As a parent you look these movies up and see that it’s going to be the most painful 90-minutes of your week, and you hope that your kids have a friend whose parent can take them. Some of the best feedback we’ve got is from families who have said that after the film their kid has brought up topics that they’d never been able to broach before.

DD: There seems something quite pertinent about having Daniel Johnston as the main theme for the film. Was he specifically chosen?
Vincent Landay: Karen O was involved in the movie from the script process. She came across the Daniel Johnston song ‘Worried Shoes’ and decided to experiment with it to see how it would fit with the film. We had assumed that everything she was going to do would be original, but that worked so well we had to keep it.

DD: Why had you wanted to stick to an original soundtrack?
Vincent Landay: Part of the thought is that we want you to be in this world of the wild things, we don’t want pop songs that are going to take you out of that world. The amazing thing about music is that everybody associates something with it, but we don’t want you to bring that to the world of the wild things.Where The Wild Things Are is in cinemas from today