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RIP Maurice Sendak: 2009 Interview by Spike Jonze

In memory of the 'Where The Wild Things Are' author, we look back at this Dazed cover feature from December 2009

We at Dazed & Confused were saddened to hear of the death of Maurice Sendak aged 83, author of the much-loved children’s classic 'Where The Wild Things Are'. In December 2009, we published this cover feature ahead of the film adaptation, in which director Spike Jonze travels to his friend Sendak’s house in Connecticut, where they talk movingly about his inspirations and the mysteries of childhood. It has not been published online until now.

When Spike Jonze calls from LA, the eternally youthful director is only weeks away from the premiere of his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s much-loved children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. It has been in development for years, and been the cause of gruelling disagreements with studio executives who realised they were spending upwards of $80m on an (at least notionally) children’s movie that was turning out to be just that bit darker, weirder and more offbeat than, say, Beverly Hills Chihuahua. As such, Jonze could reasonably be expected to be somewhat tense, so we thank him for taking time to discuss plans for this interview directly. “Oh, yeah,” he says, in a tone that couldn’t be more relaxed. “I’ve been out surfing this morning.”

Of course, such affability is not to say that Jonze does not put his all into his work. This is the young visionary who directed the mindbending, Charlie Kaufman-authored films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, not to mention some of the most memorable music videos of recent times, from the Beastie Boys’ gonzo recreation of a 70s cop chase to Christopher Walken’s inimitable airborne tap dance. He is also part-owner of Girl, one of the biggest skateboard companies in the world, and revolutionised the skate video genre with his Hollywood cinematic techniques. Now, he is finally on the verge of releasing Where The Wild Things Are – his feverishly anticipated, high-budget reimagining of Sendak’s 1963 book, which has sold over ten million copies worldwide. At an early screening, we were bowled over by its emotional weight – bold, beautiful and untamed, this is not so much a film for children as it is a world as powerful and believable as those of your childhood imagination.

Sendak, now 81, has little time for those who treat his book with fawning reverence – “It’s just a book” – and encouraged Jonze to make it personal and dangerous. The two began discussing this project over six years ago, and over the course of this afternoon at Sendak’s home in Connecticut, they reflect on the roots of the story, the nature of childhood, art and imagination, and how their working relationship grew into a great friendship. “So, first we get a street named after you, and then we do the premiere,” laughs Jonze. “And then we have a pretty fabulous week leading up to the movie release.”

Spike Jonze: Maurice, you started this entire mess 40 years ago.

Maurice Sendak: (Laughs) 40 years ago. Well, you know I should be innocent by now… 40 years in prison is a long time! 

Spike Jonze: Are you in Wild Things prison?

Maurice Sendak: I’m in Wild Things prison, but I’ll be released when the movie comes out, then I’ll fall into the stupor I want to be in. Mostly, I’m sleepy all day long. You’ll just have a sleepy companion today, you don’t mind?

Spike Jonze: I’m just happy to see you – I haven’t seen you in two months!

Maurice Sendak: Don’t I know it!

Spike Jonze: I missed you.

Maurice Sendak: People are saying nice things, aren’t they?

Spike Jonze: Yeah.

Maurice Sendak: And what if I don’t like it?

Spike Jonze: You’ve told everyone you liked it!

Maurice Sendak: I get called up and people are like, ‘Do you want to be on this TV show?’ And I always say no. This is your show. I really mean that.

Spike Jonze: You did a lot, though.

Maurice Sendak: Maybe I should have done more, but it is your thing.

Spike Jonze: You really don’t feel like you have contributed to this movie?

Maurice Sendak: Yes, I have.

Spike Jonze: Good, I’m glad.

Maurice Sendak: But I feel very lucky because I think about all the people I spoke to before you even came on the scene… and they all had this religious attitude towards the book, which was scary. It was only another book I did, and my editor and I fought over many things in it, she was very critical. She was great, Ursula Nordstrom – I think that was a generational thing where people like that existed. I may be being extremely unfair, which I usually am, but I suspect there are no such people any more, no such editors… taking this intensely personal attitude, travelling with you, coming up to your house, and making a personal friendship.

Spike Jonze: What was her impact on you as an artist?

Maurice Sendak: She was someone who took an interest and encouraged you, and wanted you to become a real artist and not just a kiddie-book illustrator… I mean, I don’t see myself as a children’s book illustrator. People call me that but it’s almost a putdown.

Spike Jonze: Why is it a putdown?

Maurice Sendak: I don’t do that! My books are about children, not for children particularly. Childhood is a hard story and that comes from my own experience – I did not have cruel and demented parents, I had very unhappy parents and there was a big war and there was a Holocaust. What does a kid make of that – ‘Gee, when I grow up, is that the way the world is gonna be?’ I can remember my father pulling me out of bed and dragging me down the street where people were jumping up and down shouting ‘The war is over! The war is over!’ and I remember seeing these scenes of dead people in the streets. How do we rationalise it? I think life is barbaric. So, my interest is really – how do children survive the barbarism?

Spike Jonze: Did Ursula also protect you?

Maurice Sendak: Yes, she protected me from the bad reviews my books got when it came out. They only liked the nice books I did. I got a terrible one on Wild Things – ‘Don’t leave this book on its own with a child’ – but there were many people who appreciated it. There were good reviews, too.

Spike Jonze: I guess it was the child psychologists, librarians and psychiatrists… the ‘experts’, who said that this was not a good book for children?

Maurice Sendak: That’s right – ‘Kids should not be confronted with monsters!’ And watch the TV now, it’s all monster films that are coming out now… hideous creatures!

Spike Jonze: (Laughs) Like ours.

Maurice Sendak: No, none are as beautifully hideous as ours… ours are hideous but they have style and sumptuous meaning!

Spike Jonze: Now the movie’s about to come out, I don’t really know what we made. I tried to make a film that felt like what it feels like to be a person of that age… trying to figure out the world at nine years old, and trying to decipher this world you suddenly find yourself in the middle of… with all these strange people, behaving in strange ways. But I know Max went to see the movie and brought a friend of his who was seven, and when the lights went up, the little boy was in one of the other rooms with his dad, crying… but then there were ten other kids sitting in the room, laughing.

Maurice Sendak: You’ve no idea what you’re touching. Or where you’re touching it – you know, it is something to be concerned about. But I think that if in your heart, you are seeking out a real puzzle, and you’re not looking to frighten anybody, you’re not looking to upset anybody, and you’re looking to discuss a subject that you yourself went through when you were nine... you just don’t remember the difficulties of one’s own childhood. It is hard to remember… so, it can happen. It’s unfortunate but it’s better then lying, I think. Anything is better than lying.

Spike Jonze: What kind of lies?

Maurice Sendak: Her name was Florence. It was in Brooklyn, her older sister’s name was Irma. I was friends with Florence, she was my age, and then one day she didn’t show up. They said Florence had ‘sleeping sickness’. I knew that was not true, she had gone to the roof of the house and something had happened. I remember, we waited and she was taken down and her eyes were open and her mouth was slightly ajar… she was stiff as a board and she was put into an ambulance. I never asked. It’s like I knew there was a line I should not cross, it was none of my business. But I also knew that I was in complete terror. What could have happened to her?

Spike Jonze: How old was she?

Maurice Sendak: Nine, ten.

Spike Jonze: Did she come back?

Maurice Sendak: No. She didn’t come back. And her sister Irma was a good friend of my sister’s, so I hoped that they would talk about it and I would finally hear… but you don’t hear. Little children don’t hear. That information is kept from them. Maybe that’s a good thing. Who knows what happened to her? But we’re left out, and it’s assumed we can manage. And you know, we can’t. Kids are so scared. The things that scared me as a child haunted me and they still haunt me. They don’t go away. They don’t get cleared up. Nobody sits you down and says, ‘Look, here’s what happened.’ I think kids live a life of puzzlement and bewilderment… or maybe it’s just something that affected me deeply as a child, and doesn’t affect every kid. I’m just a haunted kid… I remember I took my father to Florida, just before he died, and he wanted to go to a Jewish hotel, strictly Kosher. Miami Beach. Horrible. It turned out there were only two Kosher hotels left, because that whole generation had passed on. We ate there and there was a woman with her husband who was paralysed, practically dead. She was viciously feeding him, and she did it so roughly… and my father was burning, going, ‘I’m going to kill her, it’s tragic how she treats her husband!’ The waiter was this Israeli guy, a fiery guy, and he came out with a platter of food. And she looked at what he brought and screamed ‘Pigs eat that! Pigs!’ Then he said to her, ‘That’s you. That’s what you are!’ And he took the platter and threw it on the floor, and then he grabbed her at the back of the neck, pushed it towards her and said, ‘Eat it you fat pig, eat it!’ All in Yiddish. The whole room stood up.

Spike Jonze: That didn’t happen!

Maurice Sendak: It happened. And everyone is standing up and my father is screaming, ‘Kill her! Kill her!’ And the woman who owned the hotel came in and said to the waiter, ‘How dare you do that to a customer?’ And he turned round and said, ‘Fuck you, old lady, I’m done with this place. I hate you. And you know why you wanted me here? To fuck you. Well, I’ve done it enough times to know it’s no good.’

Spike Jonze: That’s true? He really said that?

Maurice Sendak: He really said that.

Spike Jonze: Because this sounds like the kind of story you’d make up...

Maurice Sendak: Life is like that. Life is like a story you’d make up.

Spike Jonze: So, Maurice, do you remember when we first started this six years ago? 

Maurice Sendak: At first, I was troubled by how young you were, and if you would care what I had to say. A perfectly reasonable anxiety. I had a sense that you were a very complicated young man, and that you had a big heart and a good brain and that you were independent… the way you stood me off about one of the scenes in the book, it’s the way I stood off with Ursula when I was doing the book. Could I prove I was right? No. Could you prove that you were right? No. But I was impressed by your conviction. That particular moment, you took it away from the book and it was real for you… it just had no place in your head, or movie.

Spike Jonze: You’re referring to when the bedroom turns into the forest. And it’s funny, because as a kid those were some of my favourite images from the book. And I would always flip between those drawings, and the way they line up… the way the bedposts slowly start growing vines, and the wallpaper slowly starts dissolving into a forest. I think that as a kid that really captured my imagination… it was one of those things where you see a piece of art and you’re like, ‘Wow, you can do that?’ I felt like there was something happening there that was teaching me a way of looking at the world. I wouldn’t have put it in those words because I was five years old, but I was captivated in that same way.

Maurice Sendak: Did that stand-off turn you off?

Spike Jonze: It didn’t turn me off when I started writing my story because what you said was, ‘I don’t want a faithful adaptation, I want somebody to take this and make it their own. And if you’re gonna do this, it needs to be personal and it needs to be dangerous.’ In the same way you say your book wasn’t how people made things for children. Now, after all these years, it has become this classic book. People forget how rough the edges are… you wanted this movie to be as dangerous when it comes out as the book was when that came out. You not only set me free, but you pushed me to make it my own. So, when I started writing the script, I felt Max had to run away from home, as opposed to having something magical happen that transforms his home into someplace else. I wanted him to run out the door and run away from all this intense emotion that had built up.

Maurice Sendak: It worked, it worked!

Spike Jonze: I felt like what I was trying to hold on to was the feeling and the soul of the book, and the way the book is dealing with how it feels to be wild and to be a nine-year-old, and I felt I could be true to the spirit of the book.

Maurice Sendak: It was brave and I think you were brave. You took that book that has its reputation, though it’s not the book of mine that I love most. It is what it is. It’s a good book, but it’s not… you know what drove Herman Melville crazy? He said his gravestone would have on it a book he wrote when he was very young – when he jumped ship and went to an island where girls were naked, where he ate pineapples and he fucked his head off.

Spike Jonze: So, what, Moby Dick wasn’t discovered until later?

Maurice Sendak: Moby Dick wasn’t discovered until the 1930s; it was considered a really odd book. I mean, you write a book about naked girls in the South Seas Islands, it makes perfect sense! That’s a good weekend read. And that’s what most people ask of a book. I started to re-read Moby Dick, and I couldn’t get to page four without getting emotional… and yet it’s funny! I had to stop reading it. I will start again. I love that book so much.

Spike Jonze: How come?

Maurice Sendak: It’s everything. It’s so rich with what life really is all about. Fearless! He must have been out of his fucking mind to write a book like that in 1850 or whenever he wrote it.

Spike Jonze: I don’t think I’ve ever read it.

Maurice Sendak: You have to, don’t skip that – it is the great American book, there’s no question in my mind. Because he does things that are just so weird and you wonder where he is going with it all. That’s what you have. It takes a lot of courage to be a real artist, it takes a lot of courage.

Spike Jonze: I feel like if I survive this, nothing is going to be this hard, but I’m sure that’s not true.

Maurice Sendak: How did we all survive this?

Spike Jonze: We also made this documentary, where you are talking about artists being honest and fearless. I feel like that’s one of the ways that you as a person and an artist have inspired me.

Maurice Sendak: Well, it’s so exciting when something is honest and great, like with Mozart, who goes in any direction he likes, then pulls you back to where he started – you don’t know where you’ve been or how you got there, and there are a small number of people who can do that. I think you can do that. Every movie you’ve done has been so good.

Spike Jonze: Well, thank you.

Maurice Sendak: You’ve got that strange thing – like a really complicated talent. It’s rare, it’s really rare. And that you came into my life…

Spike Jonze: I feel the same way, because the strange thing is that I feel you’ve influenced me many times in my life. And I feel like as a kid reading your books, your books had a deep influence on me and on my imagination… like in Wild Things, where the bedroom transforms into a forest, it’s the same feeling I get when I see something new now! There’s a music video I’d love to show you for this band called MGMT. The song is called ‘Kids’ and there’s this little baby in a crib being frightened by these monsters, and the baby is the only person that sees the monsters and the mom doesn’t see them. When I saw that a couple of months ago, I was excited. I saw something that felt new – and it gave me that feeling I get when I think about being five, looking at those books like In The Night Kitchen, where Mickey falls through all of the floors, and it’s such an amazing image! He falls out of bed and through the floor and the ceiling and all the way through the apartment building, and lands in a big thing of dough in the night kitchen, and then he makes this pilot outfit out of the dough… These are the images that have sparked my imagination. As a kid, I loved writing short stories, and then in my early 20s I started directing music videos, and I would think of them as like a little three-minute story. And I would always aspire to the stories I knew as a kid. I would always try to take a concept and stay that pure to it,  and that free…

Maurice Sendak: And yet faithful to it.

Spike Jonze: I feel like I was influenced by you in even a deeper way, like learning about what it means to be an artist. And I think this is an incredible relationship for me to now have.

Maurice Sendak: It works both ways, because there is this sobriety to my work – a kind of darkness, which I have always felt and endured my entire life. And with you, you’re not afraid of the darkness, but you’re also a healthy and mostly happy man, and it was like a special drink you offered me, that I could be happy, too! There was something so healthy in your attitude to your work. Something so vigorous and different from me… and I lacked that vigour, I lacked that courage. My work doesn’t, but I do. I do feel really lucky having you in my life. I look forward to it coming out, I’ve seen it, and I approve of it. But it’s our relationship I value. It’s the courage you give me, which you know nothing about.

Spike Jonze: Most importantly, I feel like we got to make our movie. And I feel like in a way, we got away with murder. We got to make this personal, strange film.

Maurice Sendak: And you know it’s not what they wanted.

Spike Jonze: It’s not what they wanted. We got to make this thing on this scale, and to build these creatures and to shoot on locations, and I got to shoot it exactly how I wanted. This major studio are putting up this thing as a really big movie, and yet it’s really an intimate movie shot on the scale of a big film. Have you got a lot of friends coming to the premiere?

Maurice Sendak: Yep, I do. Not an awful lot, they’ve dwindled… but everybody’s very excited, and they all want it to be a great success. Who doesn’t? Our enemies?

Spike Jonze: Who are our enemies?

Maurice Sendak: (Laughs) I don’t know, but I’m sure we have them.


This interview appeared in the December 2009 issue of Dazed & Confused

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak © The Bodley Head is published by Random House

Introduction Rod Stanley / Photography by Leigh Johnson