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Where The Wild Things Are - Max Records and Vincent Landay interview

Where The Wild Things Are

Interview by Lisa Keddie

YOUNG debut star Max Records, who plays ‘Max’, and producer Vincent Landay tell us about director Spike Jonze’s ‘realistic and naturalistic’ take of Maurice Sendak’s all-time classic children’s book, Where The wild Things Are.

Q. How did you go about expanding on the book because it is very short?
Vincent Landay: The main thing was we’d been working with Maurice on a different project. They [Maurice and Spike] had been trying to make this into a movie for years and nobody had cracked it. This was about 14 years ago, or so, that he first started bringing it up. Spike said: “No, it’s my favourite book and I don’t want to be the guy to wreck it by turning it into a movie. I had so many images of what that book means, and everyone who reads it tends to come away with that.” Time passed and he kept thinking about it, and Maurice kept bringing it up. He finally felt, ok, I’ve got an approach that I think will work that doesn’t impose an artificial plot to what is a beautiful poem, but rather take what’s there and the spirit and the themes of that and apply it to cinema.

Q. There has been a 1973 animated short and an opera adaptation – were you aware of those when you first started?
Vincent Landay: The 1973 version was kind of the book. We’d seen that. That was very short and animating the book and having someone narrate it – even the animation was pretty crude. It wasn’t really bringing it to life. We knew through Maurice that he’d done an opera. We’d seen some photos of that. We weren’t using any of that, necessarily, as a basis for what to do with this. We didn’t look at any of the previous materials, but I think somebody had storyboarded out a whole animated version of the movie at one point.

Q. Max, you get to do a lot of running and smashing around and jumping about. Did you have lots of fun on set?
Max Records: Yes! There was a lot of smashing and crashing around for all who were involved. The environment on set didn’t really feel like a workplace. It felt like a bunch of people had got together to experiment with really expensive equipment – or beating the expensive equipment with sticks.

Q. The Wild Things are quite scary-looking creatures. Which one would you say was the scariest? Which was your favourite?
Max Records: My favourite is probably Douglas. He is just more steady and sort of level-headed – more so than the others. The scariest, well, the sea serpent in the book is!

Q. Who was inside the puppet suits?
Vincent Landay: We hired voice actors in America who do all the voice work and we recorded all of them together, then we videotaped that. We had a camera on every actor and a couple of wide-angle cameras. That was a very loose and freeform experience. We shot for three weeks. It was more like a theatre rehearsal than a film set. Basically, we covered the stage in big heavy curtains and carpeting and bought big foam pieces in all different sizes and shapes – a big block, or a long tube, or whatever. We taped these microphones to the actors’ heads, so that they wouldn’t be on their clothes, so that if they interacted, you weren’t hearing the rustling of clothes.

They could show up in sweat pants or tracksuits, or whatever they wanted – it didn’t matter – and act out the movie. It was a really great way to get very naturalistic and impromptu performances, and they could improv and do whatever they wanted. They could overlap dialogue, which never really happens in an animated movie. With that as a basis, we edited that. Before we went to Australia to film the movie, we gave a version [of that] for each character to the actors that we cast to wear the costumes in Australia.

Where The Wild Things Are

There is a whole industry of people who wear these suits and walk around and do that. We kept being told that you have to hire those kind of people because regular actors won’t know that if you move your arm this much that comes off [as too much] in a big character like this. But, as usual, we didn’t heed that advice and cast just really good actors and put them through physical training for two months, so that they could have the body strength to handle this. As a result, they studied…

You know the person who played Carol got to study James Gandolfini’s performance with an isolated camera showing what he did on set, and so he could either mimic that, or interpret it and understand the intention of what he was trying to do here. It really gave us incredible performances by the Australian actors because it was almost like they were on set with the voice actors. They understood who the character is supposed to be and could translate that, physically, as well as interacting with Max and giving him real characters to perform with, rather than puppeted suits. If you were going to create the characters in the computer, there would be a tennis ball on a stick, saying: “This is the eye line and that’s the big furry creature about to eat you – be scared!”

Technically, everything we did on this movie, nothing is incredibly groundbreaking technology, but we just borrowed from the way other people had done things and put it together in a different way. If you look at a traditional animated movie, they record the voices first, and then the animators draw out the characters. So, we borrowed that from animation – we recorded the voices first. Usually because of actor availability, or because they don’t put a high importance on interaction, they record those actors, one at a time, in a sound booth over a day or two. Instead we asked our actors to make themselves available for three weeks to do the whole thing together.

Q. What prompted the design choices for the style because the book is quite ostentatious and the film is bit more subdued, a little bit more realistic?
Vincent Landay: In talking to Spike earlier on, when he was going to start writing, the idea was make this naturalistic and make this as realistic as possible, in the hope that the emotions and everything come across more directly to the audience. If there is something that feels too artificial about it, it might put up this false wall. It might, somewhat, be a membrane to the emotions coming across. His [Spike’s] interpretation before even starting to write was: “I want it to feel like a nature documentary, that we went to where the Wild Things are, and we found these creatures. So, I don’t want cameras with beautiful dolly moves. I want a documentary [style], where we are trying to find them in the frame.” As a result, everything else had to follow in that pattern of naturalism – the performances, the production design, the creatures themselves…

We stay true to the proportions of the creatures [in the book], which is probably the biggest deviation from naturalism. But we looked at Maurice’s designs and worked closely with him in bringing them to life. For example, Carol [in the book] has got kind of triangular things on the legs. For a long time there was a discussion as to what they should be, and we kept going to the real world of what are the real textures that exist on animals? Those could be scales, or they could be feathers. All those things needed to be interpreted. We found an artist who hadn’t really done this kind of work before with us. He was the main one who would pull references from the real world and real animals and say, this is what it would look like as feathers verses scales.

Q. How much input did Maurice have in the film?
Vincent Landay: Quite a bit. He’s kind of our guru, our mentor. He can’t travel, so he wasn’t able to be there on set. But all during pre-production we would share pieces of the script and get his feedback. Our production designer went and met with him earlier on to show him some sketches of what we wanted to do. Obviously, Sonny Gerasimowicz, our creature designer, worked really closely with him. We would also record little video diaries from Australia and send them [to Maurice], so he saw what was going on.

Q. Where did the names of the creatures come from because they are quite usual?
Vincent Landay: Dave [Eggers, scriptwriter] and Spike came up with those. You’d probably have to ask them. They weren’t anything Maurice had before.

Q. Max is quite creative – are you?
Max Records: Yes. Me and my friends will take PVC piping and mattress foam and wrap it around the PVC, duct tape it, and then turn it into foam swords… I like taking pictures – my dad is a photographer [showing us his stills camera].

Where The Wild Things Are

Q. Did you both read the book growing up?
Vincent Landay: I read the book growing up and by the time we first started working on the movie, I already had the book for my kids, and I was already reading it to them…

Q. So, were your childhood memories influencing the way you thought about it?
Vincent Landay: I think Spike had a stronger connection with it, with very specific things that went back to the book. [For me] it was more about not necessarily what I remember from the book, as much as what I remember from childhood and that feeling. That’s what was really great about the script and what the film brings across to you – what it is like to be a boy that age and not really being able to articulate it, to feel it.

Q. Max, did you read the book before you knew about the film?
Max Records: Yes. That book is like a staple [one] in my family for young kids. My parents started reading it to me when I was super, super young. As soon as I was learning to read I was reading it to myself.

Q. What effect did it have on you?
Max Records: I don’t know if it had an effect or anything, as much as, you know, when you are that teeny, you can’t really articulate things…

Q. One interesting addition to the film is the character of Max seems more constrained, like he has something inside that he wants to let out, as apposed to the book, where he seems just like a creative kid that skips about. He seems angrier than in the book…
Vincent Landay: What the amazing thing is about childhood that we all need to try and hold onto is being able to transport yourself to another world and let your emotions out and enjoy that. I think as you get older you start to be more reserved and repressing that. There is such a freedom to that naturalism. Maybe your interpretation is anger, but that’s what I feel from the film and see that in the book – just being able to go off and be the king. It’s fantastic!

Q. If you were a Wild Thing for the day, what would you do?
Max Records: I’d be pretty psyched up on Spider-Man powers, being able to climb and shoot webs…

A. Are you a big comic fan?
Max Records: Yeah, sort of. Not of Spider-Man or anything like that, but of Bone by Jeff Smith and lots of [Japanese] manga… More like graphic novels, instead of superhero stories.

Q. On the subject of the soundtrack, it seems there is something quite pertinent about having Daniel Johnston as the main theme – was he chosen specifically for kids?
Vincent Landay: That is probably a better question for Karen [Karen Orzolek or Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Spike’s ex]. Karen was involved in the movie from the script process on… Karen came across the Daniel Johnston song and decided to try and experiment with a cover version of it, to see how it would fit with the film. We assumed everything she was going to do was going to be original – we didn’t set out to do a cover. That worked so well. We want you to be in the world of the Wild Things, so we didn’t what any pop songs that would take you out of that world.

Q. You have a long working relationship with Spike, but what is that special thing about your working relationship that makes you want to work with him over and over again?
Vincent Landay: We have a good time, you know? We can run around on set with Max and throw sticks and stuff like that! More importantly, Spike is always looking to do something unique and original and amazing, and that’s exciting…

Q. What was unique this time around?
Vincent Landay: I think every aspect of this movie is unique, not only the process making it, but the end result – to have a movie that feels so personal, and yet appeals to so many people at the same time is really rare.

Q. So, it’s a good movie for parents and children to go and see together?
Vincent Landay: I think it’s excellent for that! We always hoped that would happen. Being a parent, there are so many movies that are made ‘for families’. The word ‘family film’ makes the hair on my back stand up, and so often kids find out about movies because of the onslaught of TV adverts. So, all of sudden, oh, I’ve got to go and see this movie!

As a parent you look it up and you just realise it’s going to be the most painful 90 minutes of your week, and you hope they [your kids] have a friend whose parents are willing to take them, so you don’t have to go. So, the idea to make a movie that appears to all ages, that you as a parent are willing and want to go [to watch], and then on top of that, to come out of it and to be able to talk to your children about it… Some of the best feedback we’ve gotten from families is: “It’s so great because we walked out of the film and our kids started bringing up topics to talk about that we’ve never been able to find a way to talk about before. This movie gave us a way in to do that.” We couldn’t have a higher compliment.

Read our review of Where The Wild Things Are