Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are

Here is my story on my interview with Spike Jonze and the cast of his movie "Where the Wild Things Are" as published in the Philippine Star today.

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To be alone, wild, & free
By Raymond de Asis Lo, L.A. Correspondent (The Philippine Star) Updated February 04, 2010 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Sometime before the holidays last year, The Philippine Star received an invitation to the junket of critically-acclaimed director Spike Jonze’s first film in seven years, the whimsical and richly imagined film adaptation of the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are — and this writer couldn’t believe his luck!

The event may have taken place more than two months ago, yet that incredible experience of meeting one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood today remains fresh in my memory. Spike has only made two films before this: Being John Malkovich, his bizarre intriguing first film about a puppeteer (played by a deglamorized John Cusack) who discovered a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich (who portrayed himself!), and Adaptation, his quirky second film about a writer’s struggle to adapt a best-selling non-fiction novel into a movie. The semi-autobiographical story based on writer Charlie Kaufman’s real-life dilemma featured Oscar-nominated performances from Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, who won for Best Supporting Actor.

In Where the Wild Things Are, the director continues with his distinct filmmaking style but this time trains his eyes on Maurice Sendak’s classic illustrated children’s book of the same title and the result is a clever film about that critical phase in our childhood where we find ourselves in the threshold of discovering the pains of anger and the strange joy of being alone, wild and free.

Ever since its publication in 1963, generations of kids have grown up reading and loving the book and all this was not lost on Spike.

“It hit me as I started working on it,” he recalled. “I realized how many people were connected to the book from when they were kids and people talk to me about how the book was to them and everyone remembered different moments — and they would also remember moments that weren’t even in the book because it has become so much their own — and I think at that point I started to get nervous.”

Before he could write the screenplay, he went to the author and asked for advice on how he could possibly meet everyone’s expectations. “I talked to Maurice about it and he said, ‘I don’t want you to be precious about that and I don’t want you to be precious about the book. This book was what I made at your age and now I want you to go and take it and make it your own.’”

“He wasn’t like this protective artist! He was more like an empowering mentor,” he continued. “Maurice said, ‘Make something personal, something dangerous’ and once that came from him, he sort of set me free and I just had to trust that I was gonna make what the book is to me.”

The famously shy and press-averse director surprised our group of writers when he addressed the rumors that initially swirled about the first cut of the movie being too scary and his alleged spat with the producers on how the movie was supposed to be made which was fueled by the nearly five years it took him to complete the production. Some of it was spent on location in Australia.

“There were a lot of rumors as we were editing this movie,” he said. “One of those rumors has had children running out of the theaters screaming and crying. No, that’s not true… that didn’t happen, but it’s a good story. I think the studio was freaked out by it, not kids. I think kids can handle it — it might not be for four-year-olds, but the studios were like, ‘What are the parents gonna think, what are the parents gonna think?’ They weren’t really thinking about what the kids are gonna think, they were just thinking what the parents are gonna think. And that became the basis for the gossip.”

“I don’t think the movie is too dark or too scary, I think there are moments that are intense emotionally…” to which child star Max Records, who portrays the lead character also named Max in the movie and acclaimed character actress Catherine Keener, who plays Connie, the mother of Max, concurred.

“I think it is a great opportunity for parents and kids to experience it together and talk about what are the emotions that are going on and I really hope parents would relax and enjoy it, sort of have an adventure with their kids, it’s fantastic,” Catherine said.

In the end Spike prevailed upon the studio and finished his movie the way he envisioned it. “There’s no way I was gonna work on something and care about something as much as I have for this and then compromise it,” he declared.

The brilliantly conceived and executed Where the Wild Things Are follows the exciting story of nine-year-old Max who, one night after getting yelled at by his mom for throwing a tantrum, puts on his wolf suit and decides to run away. He finds a small boat in a pond near their house and sails out into the open sea. After sailing across the ocean he reaches an island inhabited by strange and large creatures called the wild things.

When the creatures see Max, they made him their king, after he told them he had magical powers, and they spent their days playing wild games and building a huge fort for him.

The five years or so it took to complete the movie were largely spent in post-production work to perfect the visual effect requirement in making the creatures as realistic as possible. The production even fashioned life-sized creature suits and robotic eyes for the creatures, then had to painstakingly add computer graphics design to seamlessly integrate eye and lip movements to the shot scenes.

“Making the movie was very much unforgettable, it was like this big circle of fun,” Catherine said. The actress has worked with Spike in Being John Malkovich and was acting coach for Max Records, who is making his film debut in this movie.

Max, who bested hundreds of other hopefuls for the part, was the “heart of the movie”, according to Spike.

“His performance was everything and that was what we always knew from the beginning,” Spike said. “With all the crazy way we were shooting this movie, with all the costumes and all these effects on set, in the middle of all these, the most important thing was to get Max his performance — carving out space in the midst of all these insanity and the giant production — and the room to do what he needed to do.”

And who knew a pair of Star Wars light sabers could elicit genuine acting from a child? “We wanted Max to laugh at something, and I know how much he loves Star Wars and we had this little treasure chest with goodies and light sabers in there, and so we came up with an idea. When he came up running into the shot, suddenly these guys pulled out their light sabers and he thought it was hilarious.”

“It was just giving him stuff to react to. The movie had to feel real and we didn’t want this movie to have a kid actor, or a kid performance. It wasn’t a movie kid thing. It wasn’t a movie kid “kid”, it was real.”

“That’s what happens with actors. You usually have a partner off-camera and Max didn’t,” Catherine added. “So there was a bunch of us that acted as an off-camera partner for him and that’s what you do, you go the distance to try and give your partner the best shot.”

Spike may have taken all the necessary measures to ensure that Max deliver the right performance for the part but for Max himself, all he remembered was how difficult it was for him to get to the bathroom because of his costume and the best fun he had playing in-between takes with the other children (by some of the crew members) who would occasionally visit the set.

“On the average, there would be five or six kids on the set,” Spike said, “And on a good day there’ll be like 15!” Max added. He volunteered that he cannot remember much anymore about any of the scenes he did except for the last one (which I will not reveal so as not to spoil the movie.)

And because his character in the movie undergoes a transformation from being a rambunctious, moody, and angry kid to a kind, responsible and well-mannered one, had he become more behave at home after portraying his namesake character in the movie?

“I doubt it,” he replied quite naively. “I don’t know, I wouldn’t think so.”

Aside from Max and Catherine, the movie also features the stellar voices of Catherine O’Hara, Lauren Ambrose, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, and Oscar-winning actors Forest Whitaker and Chris Cooper.

Where the Wild Things Are is released by Warner Bros. and is now showing in theaters.

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