Spike Jonze rose to prominence around Hollywood first by directing music videos, and then by selectively making a series of memorable feature films: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and now Where the Wild Things Are, adapted from Maurice Sendak's classic children's storybook. Actor Catherine Keener appears in all three of those films, playing young Max's mother in the latest. Jonze's co-screenwriter Dave Eggers is best known as a bestselling author (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and publisher (of McSweeney's), but broke into screenwriting with Where the Wild Things Are and Away We Go (co-written with Vendela Vida). Jonze, Keener & Eggers met a roomful of journalists during their whirlwind San Francisco whistle-stop. Though I only got in one question, the three had a fair amount to say about the inspirations behind the film. We chatted in a boardroom of San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Dave Eggers: We feel bad about being late. These things always run late, though. So, sorry about that.
Groucho: Of course.
Catherine Keener: It’s Spike’s fault.
Groucho: So I don’t think it’s explicitly stated in the film, but it seemed implicit that Max’s father was absent not due to an untimely death, but due to divorce.
Spike Jonze: Yeah.
Groucho: And you know, it’s there in the dynamic between Carol and KW and so forth. Maybe Spike and Dave could address the specter of divorce and the absent father, as they affect Max’s story; and Catherine, maybe you could talk about the backstory of the family that was worked out for your work.
Dave Eggers: That was good.
Catherine Keener: Mm.
DE: That’s—we’ve never been asked that. That’s good.
DE: You go.
SJ: What do I say?
G: Be brilliant.
CK: Just be brilliant.
DE: When I first came on, Spike already had that part figured out, sort of—we don’t know that from the picture book, where the dad is. He doesn’t appear, or there isn’t anything implicit or explicit about where he is, but Spike had already figured out that the home would have been one of divorce and that the dad was no longer living at home, and can you talk about why?
SJ: Um, I don’t know. I guess the—I’m not sure.
CK: I know why.
SJ: Okay. Go Keener.
CK: This is my head. I mean, the thing is that we were left a lot to our own imagination, which is, you know, kind of how Spike works, even though he’s got his own notions of things. But I just imagined [the father] as being just an absent guy and probably was so there, not necessarily a bad guy. Probably doesn’t contribute much—as much as she needs, you know, financially. Maybe. Is this right? Is this according to—?
DE: Keep going. That’s good. You’re the one that has to interpret it.
D: You know, as the mom.
SJ: You had to play it.
CK: I thought I was wrong. (Laughs.) It was wrong. Just—no, you know, she’s there with two kids and working and struggling with her job, and it’s not going very well, and she’s probably way out of her water on it and wants to have sex and be loved and all that stuff, and it’s hard with a couple of kids around who need you. You know? And sometimes it’s beyond her control to kind of fulfill their needs as well. You know? So everybody’s a little out of control in the movie.
DE: That’s actually the key. That’s the key thing from Max’s perspective is that on many levels his world is out of his control. So at home, there’s a man in the house that he doesn’t approve of and would rather not be there. He’d rather have his family intact as it was when he was younger. He goes to school, and his science teacher tells him that the universe has a finite number of years left, but don’t worry, you’ll all be dead by then, so have a good weekend. And then even his sibling, who he was always close to no longer has interest in him, so all of these things, and he—so he can’t control all these external factors of the actions and the happenings at the home, and he can’t quite control the turmoil inside him. So I think that there’s all of these different struggles that finally pop, you know, when he runs away.
CK: I just realized that it's very—everyone’s very fearful in it. It seems that the mom is fearful that the boyfriend’s going to be scared away. She’s fearful about, you know, paying for this house, raising her kids. The daughter is fearful about her peers and, y’know, being accepted. Max is afraid that everything’s going, that everything’s falling apart, and what he does is that he ends up just going out and slaying that dragon. You know? That he goes off on his adventure and he becomes at peace with it, and less afraid. And becomes successful as a result of it. I mean, when kids are fearful growing up, they are less successful in life. And—I don’t know. Is that right?
DE: That’s good.
CK: Okay, good.
CK: Look at Spike. Anyway…
SJ: One thing I could say is [the island is] a place where everything is wild: it’s emotionally wild, geographically wild, weather-wise. You know, anything can happen at any time and it’s sort of just trying to represent what it could feel like at times when you’re nine—to be nine. That was sort of the goal of the movie, really, just to try and capture the feeling, to make a movie from the point of view of a nine-year-old. So the viewer is for that period of time experiencing the world from that vantage point.
CK: Mm. Yeah, I mean the landscape’s an interesting thing to think about, because it always—y’know, even as Americans, we had this wild, wild west and what that was. I don’t know what could happen out there. And still there are places here that feel dangerous to go to, you know, in our cities? But [the island] is a place, I guess, where anything can happen.
SJ: And that the rules are—there’s not like—you don’t know exactly what the rules are. The specifics don’t exactly make sense to you, but you understand the things emotionally by the way you read the people’s reactions that you’re with. And I think that that’s something that feels true to childhood. You know, it’s like as a kid I don’t know if I really always understood exactly what was going on, but I understood what it felt like, or what the people around me were feeling about the experience.