Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Movie News: Where the Wild Things Are In Theatres Friday, October 16

Inside all of us is...everything we've ever seen, everything we've ever done,
and everyone we've ever loved.

Innovative director Spike Jonze collaborates with celebrated author Maurice Sendak to bring one of the most beloved books of all time to the big screen in "Where the Wild Things Are," a classic story about childhood and the places we go to figure out the world we live in.

The film tells the story of Max, a rambunctious and sensitive boy who feels misunderstood at home and escapes to where the Wild Things are. Max lands on an island where he meets mysterious and strange creatures whose emotions are as wild and unpredictable as their actions.

The Wild Things desperately long for a leader to guide them, just as Max longs for a kingdom to rule. When Max is crowned king, he promises to create a place where everyone will be happy. Max soon finds, though, that ruling his kingdom is not so easy and his relationships there prove to be more complicated than he originally thought.

Warner Bros. Pictures presents, in association with Legendary Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures, a Playtone/Wild Things Production of a Spike Jonze film: "Where the Wild Things Are," starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker.

"Where the Wild Things Are" is directed by Spike Jonze from a screenplay by Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers, based on the book by Maurice Sendak. It is produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, John Carls, Maurice Sendak and Vincent Landay, with Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni and Bruce Berman serving as executive producers.

The creative team is made up of many long-time collaborators of Jonze, including director of photography Lance Acord, production designer K. K. Barrett, editor Eric Zumbrunnen and costume designer Casey Storm, as well as Karen O and Carter Burwell, who did the music. They are joined by editor James Haygood.

Inside All of Us Is a Wild Thing

"I didn't set out to make a children's movie; I set out to make a movie about childhood," says director Spike Jonze, whose big-screen adaptation of the captivating Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are was truly a labor of love. In it, he further explores the themes Sendak introduced and which Jonze believes remain relevant to every generation. "It's about what it's like to be eight or nine years old and trying to figure out the world, the people around you, and emotions that are sometimes unpredictable or confusing--which is really the challenge of negotiating relationships all your life," he says. "It's no different at that age."

"Where the Wild Things Are" offers a fresh look--and for many of us, a look back--into the many facets of childhood. It invites audiences of all ages to join in the discovery and challenge and pure feral joy of a young boy's brave journey to the island of the Wild Things, a special place that's sure to stir thoughts of the wild things that live in all of us.

"In a way, it's an action movie starring a nine-year-old. There's a lot of physical mayhem like dirt clod fights and rampaging in the forest," says Jonze. Indeed, the island offers up every youngster's fantasy: the freedom to run and jump and howl, to build and destroy and wrestle and throw things as far as he can... most of all, to do only the things he wants to do, with no one saying he can't. Resplendent in his wolf costume, young Max soon becomes King of the Wild Things by proving his superior ferocity over the giant creatures who live there. But it's an uneasy reign because the Wild Things are just that--wild--and there is always the possibility they might decide to eat him after all, with their great sharp teeth. Being king just might not be as easy as Max imagined.

At the same time, the story follows Max's first steps toward growing up as he becomes aware of the complex relationships the individual Wild Things have with each other and with him, and how doing everything he wants isn't always the best choice. Told with unabashed honesty from a child's point of view, "Where the Wild Things Are" reveals Max's increasing understanding of his own feelings and the feelings of others.

The film began with Jonze's abiding affection and respect for the book, written and illustrated by Sendak, another strong believer in not talking down to young people. Published in 1963, it earned a Caldecott Medal and went on to touch millions of readers worldwide, perpetually ranked by Publishers Weekly as one of the 10 all-time best-selling books for children since the 1970s.

Its enduring appeal, notes Jonze, is in how it "taps into genuine feelings that kids have and takes them seriously without pandering. Kids are given so much material that's not honest, so when they find a story like this it really gets their attention. I remember myself, at that age, being so eager to hear that other kids were going through the same things I was and having similar thoughts."

Max Records, now twelve, made his film debut as Max in "Where the Wild Things Are" and agrees. "The book reflects what it's actually like to be a kid. It's a book that could not only be respected by kids but it really gets to the heart of everything you feel growing up and even beyond that."

It was that idea of "beyond" that led Jonze to realize what he could contribute to the story. Adapting the slim volume into a feature film gave him the opportunity to take the adventure further, to delve deeper into Max's world, the unknown terrain of the island and the impetus that brings him there. He could examine more fully the Wild Things themselves, those volatile and endlessly expressive creatures which are "the wild emotions inside of Max and inside all of us."

From that point, the possibilities were limitless.

Jonze selected acclaimed novelist and fellow Wild Things fan Dave Eggers to collaborate with him on the screenplay, though Eggers had never written for film. This did not surprise Vincent Landay, Jonze's longtime collaborator and a producer on "Where the Wild Things Are," who offers, "Spike's instinct about Dave was based on knowing him as a person and knowing he had the right sensibility and the right take on what he wanted out of these characters. Spike likes to put people into situations where they might not have been in before because you often end up with a fresher result."

Before long, the two met with Sendak in his Connecticut home to go over their plans for the movie. Unquestionably, they wanted to keep it true to the author's values and intention; otherwise they would not attempt it. Of their initial discussions, Eggers remembers, "We wanted to make a movie that didn't look down at a kid but got inside him. Most kids in movies are 'de-fanged.' They have no wildness. What we figured out pretty quickly was that we all clearly remembered what it was like to be a boy, to be a little wild and get into trouble. We understood who Max was. We didn't need to focus-group it or ask a child psychologist about what a child thinks or believes; we knew it in our guts."

What ensued was an old-fashioned brainstorming process of two first-time screenplay writers locked in a room, hammering out ideas and dialogue together, acting out characters and melding their very different methods. "Dave is a very disciplined writer. If he gets stuck, he puts in a placeholder and keeps going whereas, for me, if it doesn't feel right I will stay in that place until I find what works. I don't want to let it go," Jonze admits, to which Eggers adds, "Spike's method is the definition of organic. I often saw myself as the facilitator, helping to put his ideas on paper and fill it out."

"First and foremost I was concerned with who Max was and what was going on in his life," says Jonze. "I wanted to make a movie that takes kids seriously but Maurice said, 'Make sure you don't just take the heavy side of the kid seriously; take his imagination seriously, his sense of joy.' We never set any rules about whether it would be for kids or adults. We just went where it took us."

Serving as a producer on the film, Sendak was fully involved from those early conversations and throughout production. He says, "Spike immediately had his own point of view. I trusted him. I knew he had a vivid sense of what the book was about in his head, which was the same with me when I wrote it.

"He's given me a renewal of respect for young people," the author continues, saying that so few people he encounters have Jonze's "bite," nor his interest "in history, or the world they came from. They just want to be what they want to be, without the luxury of learning about it. Spike is like a throwback, in that he reminds me of the young people I remember from the 1960s; kind of crazy but in the most wonderful, adventurous way. For me, the 60s was an exuberant and splendid time."

It was an inspired creative match, attests producer John Carls, who has worked with Sendak for 17 years, since the two formed Wild Things Productions in 1992. "He and Spike are very similar as artists. They're both bold and innovative thinkers, constantly challenging the status quo; they're both hard-working perfectionists who pour everything into their work; and they're both in touch with their childlike selves, which gives them a perspective that connects authentically with children."

Ultimately, the film was a combination of their stories and recollections. Says Jonze, "Maurice based the book on themes and feelings from his life, his childhood. I was picking up the baton."

"Spike is an incredibly gifted young man and courageous," says Sendak. "He didn't do an homage to the book; he did something that belongs to him, which makes him a real filmmaker and a real artist. I love the movie. It's original. It has an entire emotional, spiritual, visual life which is as valid as the book. He's turned it into his 'Wild Things' without giving up mine, in a brilliant, modern, fantastical way which takes nothing from my book but enhances and enriches it. They are two very different works of art and I like them both."

Capturing the Look, the Feel, the Breadth and Breath of It

As much as Jonze wanted to present Max as a real boy, he sought to give the story's imaginative elements a realistic execution, explaining, "I wanted to build and shoot the Wild Things so that Max could touch them, lean on them, shove them, hug them. I wanted them to be there so people could feel their breath, their size and their weight in a visceral and immediate way and I couldn't imagine doing that wholly in a computer or on a soundstage."

"Each story dictates a filmmaking process that best serves it," Carls observes. "In the case of 'Where the Wild Things Are,' Spike wanted to deliver an adventure that felt real, rather than a dream or a fantasy. Casting an actor to interact with physical creatures on a real location was the best way to accomplish that. He and this talented team of artists brought the Wild Things to life in the way we imagined them when reading the book."

Producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, also longtime fans of Sendak's work, concur. Says Goetzman, "We started developing 'Where the Wild Things Are' twelve years ago with Maurice and John Carls. It actually predated the inception of our production company, Playtone, and was one of the first projects we started working on as a company. We considered animated and CGI versions but it wasn't until we met Spike Jonze and heard his approach that we felt we'd found a truly visionary director able to flesh out this iconic book into a feature-length film."

The film is an extraordinary merger of live action, state-of-the-art puppetry and computer animation, putting Max directly into the company of nine-foot-tall monsters in all their fanged, tufted, striped and wide-eyed glory, simultaneously ferocious and endearing.

The beasts were given heart and soul by voice performances from a stellar ensemble cast led by Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker, then put through their paces on location by costumed actors who melded body language to the dialogue. Finally, their already expressive faces were digitally enhanced for the range of movement and subtlety their thoughts and actions required.

Says Jonze, "I knew it was going to be a complicated process. It seemed that every choice we made turned out to be the hardest possible way to do it. Building the creatures alone took eight months. But we decided what we wanted it to feel like and worked backwards from there on how to achieve that, and stuck to it."

Producer Landay, integral to the daily hands-on effort and the master plan, admits, "I'm pretty tenacious. I feel if something's not happening it's because we didn't try hard enough or we didn't look into enough ways to make it happen. The only way to get through something this massive is to break it down and solve each component, step by step. It's all a puzzle, and making movies is just a gigantic crossword. Luckily, we've built a great team over the years, with a strong vocabulary."

In addition to Landay, who worked with Jonze on both "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," Jonze's creative team on "Where the Wild Things Are" reunited many of his longtime colleagues, including cinematographer Lance Acord, production designer K.K. Barrett, editor Eric Zumbrunnen and costume designer Casey Storm. He also re-enlisted the musical talents of former collaborators Karen O and Carter Burwell.

Max is the Heart of the Movie

Casting for the lead role of Max was crucial. It involved a search of more than a year and spanned continents, as the filmmakers employed not only standard methods with casting agents but also reached out personally to friends and colleagues who might know of a youngster who fit the criteria.

"I wanted a real kid--not necessarily an actor who was going to give a 'movie kid' performance, but someone who was going to give a real, emotional performance," says Jonze, who goes on to concede, "As we progressed, it became clear that it was going to be hard to get the two sides of Max in one kid. He would have to be a really deep, internal kid, who had a lot going on in his head. A close-up of him should reveal his thinking and feeling. Simultaneously, we needed him at times to be totally out-of-his-head gleeful and wild. We could find one or the other, but finding both was hard."

Jonze found this duality in a boy coincidentally named Max--Max Records. Not entirely inexperienced in front of a camera, Records had appeared in a couple of music videos. He and the director immediately connected. Says Landay, "It was fascinating to see Spike work with him and basically channel Spike's inner Max to him. He never compromised and said, 'Well, he's just nine, it's all I can get out of him.' He expected as much out of him as he did from James Gandolfini."

Records' work on the film split into two phases: Max's home life, and then his journey across the sea to confront the untamed wilderness.

"It's somewhat chaotic at home for Max, where a lot of things are out of his control," says Eggers. "His parents are divorced, his sister has reached adolescence and is sort of abandoning him for other interests. He reaches a point where all these people are too busy to see that he needs attention so he puts on his wolf suit and goes charging around the house. The next thing you know, he's running out the door."

These early scenes offer a sense of the myriad questions, as well as the creative impulses, frustrations and powerful emotions that might collide in the active mind of a young boy trying to get a handle on the world and his place in it--and the reasons why, oftentimes, a child might yearn for a world where he's in charge.

As part of his preparation, Jonze sought to get to the bottom of children's genuine concerns from their own point of view, saying, "I interviewed a lot of kids to get inspiration and ideas. I talked to them about things that made them angry, fights they had with their parents, how it makes them feel. It's dramatic, when you're that age."

"When we shot the movie, I just let Max read the script once and said, 'I don't want you thinking about it. I want you to just show up on the day and see what you're going to find,'" Jonze offers his strategy. "I wanted it to be fresh. The complexity of the dialogue is very demanding. To get these things to not just be dialogue but to be really thought and felt and coming from a specific place, is hard. What I was asking Max to do would be hard for an adult actor."

"Where the Wild Things Are" stars Catherine Keener as Max's loving but stretched-to-the-limit single mother.

After wrapping her early scenes with Records, Keener, also an associate producer on the film, remained onboard through a portion of the subsequent location shoot in Australia to serve as Jonze's acting collaborator and extra set of eyes for working with Max and the Wild Things. "The whole experience of working with Max resonated very deeply with me," she says. "His naturalness and purity of spirit really come through in every scene. It was months of hard work and he brought joy to it all the time."

"Catherine helped me a lot," says Records. "For instance, there's a scene where I go into my sister's room and I have to be really mad. Beforehand, Catherine was getting me to scream. She got me to yell all the swears I could muster."

Records also had a mentor in Jonze, who soon learned that directing a youngster required a different approach than he was accustomed to and was much more physically taxing. "There was very little time to sit down. I was always running around because working with Max has to be interactive," he says. "It wasn't just like I could watch his takes and give him notes. I was always moving with him, whether it was jumping up and down, or yelling, or talking to him to get a reaction. Whatever it was, it was very interactive directing."

The lengths to which the director went to elicit reactions or guide Records through a specific emotion became a memorable series of performances in their own right that the young actor now recounts with delight. "He was doing all these crazy stunts. He had these big flamethrowers going off behind the camera to make me scared. They hired a bunch of guys from a sideshow to do tricks, and Spike learned fire-swallowing. The fire-swallowing thing really worked because he wasn't very good at it. Spike's tricks really did make me feel scared at times. The only drawback was that I wasn't scared I was going to get eaten by the Wild Things; I was scared Spike was going to burn up his tongue."

Among the shoot's high points, Records cites Max's epic dirt clod battle with the Wild Things as a personal favorite, especially as some of the action was enhanced pyrotechnically. "One scene that was really fun was when I was running through the forest. It's practically a minefield because all these dirt clods are being thrown and just exploding on the ground. The special effects team had hidden little explosives in the leaves and all around me was 'boom, boom, boom.'"

Records' least-favorite scene was one in which Max must slide through the giant mouth of one of the Wild Things and into its stomach to hide. The worst part wasn't the tight fit or the heat, or even the cables strapped to his back; it was being slathered in a gel he calls "the slime that smelled like rotten lemons."

"I would always be inspired by Max. He worked really hard but he knew how to have fun. No matter how hard the scene was, I'd come up to lunch and he'd have his wolf suit off and be running around with the other kids. It helped me remember that making movies is supposed to be fun," Jonze reveals. "I developed a lot of different relationships on this movie but the one I had with Max was in a class by itself. Max was my partner in making the heart of the movie come through. He is the heart of the movie."

The Wild Things Find Their Voices and Reveal Their Personalities

Drawing greatly from the book's illustrations, Jonze and Eggers developed Sendak's motley band of horned, clawed and hairy giants into a group of individual personalities, each with his or her own impulses and motives. The actors cast to voice the Wild Things were instrumental in forging their distinct identities. They also focused on the ways in which the Wild Things interacted with each other: at times bickering and conflicted, at other times playful and comforting.

James Gandolfini portrays the powerful--and powerfully sensitive--de facto leader of the pack, Carol. Lauren Ambrose is the free-spirited but somewhat melancholy KW, who enjoys the group dynamic but also craves time alone. Chris Cooper is the rooster-feathered Douglas, energetic and industrious. Catherine O'Hara is the sarcastic, gloriously negative and domineering Judith; and Forest Whitaker is Judith's modest and patient companion, Ira, who happens to be very good at punching holes into things. Paul Dano is the diminutive goat-horned Alexander, a mere eight feet tall, who often feels he's not taken seriously enough.

"They're all meant to represent different things and be tangential relationships with Max's world without being direct representations," Eggers explains. "We didn't think of them as creatures, really. We thought of them as people the entire time."

"Everything started with the voice actors," says Jonze, who eschewed the traditional method of recording voice performances from lone actors in sound booths, in favor of throwing them all together on stage to act out the entire movie in a kind of physical pre-visualization. This way, their actions as well as their voices were recorded. "We were going into a movie that incorporated puppets and animation. Both those mediums are inherently not spontaneous. So we decided to shoot the whole movie on a soundstage over two weeks. We needed the spontaneity of what these incredible actors did in the moment."

At the same time, notes Chris Cooper, it was traditional in that "it was actor-to-actor. I wore a microphone attached to a headband and was followed by a boom mike. Everyone was outfitted in the same way. For each scene, Spike set up the situation and we had the freedom of some improvisation. James and I, for example, using the same space, were able to work off one another."

Having worked with Jonze before, Cooper cites their "built-in trust" and says, "I came to the project ready to collaborate on bringing Douglas to life in a way that was both true to the book and to Spike's vision of how film could expand that character."

"There were more cameras than actors and we improvised all day around the wonderful dialogue. Spike is an amazing and inventive director," says Catherine O'Hara. "He doesn't take yes for an answer so he keeps working and playing and working with you until...well, I'm still thinking about Judith!"

The set resembled a minimalist playground through which the actors padded around shoeless to reduce extraneous sound as the action escalated. As Paul Dano points out, "With the Wild Things, there's a juxtaposition between their size and behavior. They seem like they'd be adults but they're very childlike. To capture that, we did a lot of childish things to provoke each other. You get crazier and funnier; you howl, you laugh. It's important not to break that energy once you have it."

Foam cubes substituted for the trees, caves and boulders that would comprise the landscape of the Wild Things' island home. The actors lobbed stale bread rolls at each other to simulate the explosive dirt clod battle Jonze would later stage on location with the fully-formed creatures. Forest Whitaker recalls, "It was an all-encompassing experience, actively playing Ira and interacting with the other actors--fighting with them, laughing and running with them, hitting them with giant Styrofoam logs. It was a fun project and Spike was always so present, so enthused."

Says James Gandolfini, "It was very physical. We were running around and beating each other up and making ridiculous noises. In the end, it definitely got everyone together as a group."

Revealing that it's Gandolfini's character, Carol, who forms the strongest and most complex bond with Max, Jonze says, "He's kind of a leader but also very sensitive. Understanding that the Wild Things symbolize the wildness of emotions, I thought James would play that very well. There's something electric about him. Sometimes I'd play the Max part with him and he'd pick me up. I put him through the ringer in terms of the amount of takes we'd do or the amount of times I'd come back in and try new dialogue."

"Spike really gets into it," Gandolfini responds. "He wants the performance to be the best it can be so he's as adamant as I am about trying to make it better and doing it as many times as it takes."

Reflecting on how the Wild Things represent feelings Max is just beginning to comprehend, "the things we fear," Gandolfini says, "Carol can't find a place to feel safe. He can't feel comfortable in a home because he always builds them and then tears them down; he destroys things from the inside. That was one of the aspects Spike and I discussed. It was all there in the writing, but it was just a matter of making sure we got that side of Carol out."

Max also makes a special connection with the elusive KW, a character Lauren Ambrose jokingly describes as looking "exactly like me, with the long red hair parted down the middle. KW has sort of found her way to the outside of the pack because she's protecting herself. She is often to the side, watching, and is quite shy." As the story progresses, Max learns why. "But she opens her heart because of Max's presence."

Another advantage to staging the vocal performance was how it later benefited the Australian actors as they donned the gigantic costumes to physically animate the Wild Things on location. Says Jonze, "The costumed actors would watch footage from the voice recording and mirror what the voice actors did. They took the essence of what they were doing and adapted it to what the costumes could do."

"Knowing Spike was going to show this footage to the puppeteers, I wanted to truly embody Ira as much as I could," says Forest Whitaker, who plays Ira. "One of Ira's attributes is a big belly, and I wanted that to help me build the character, to shape his attitude and performance." Toward that end, the actor utilized a fat pad on stage to alter his gait appropriately. "I would move like Ira and that would inform how I spoke as Ira. It not only put me into the right frame of mind, it also affected how the others dealt with me. As the process evolved, all the characters became more and more developed."

"It was interesting to see how the characters started from everything the voice actors did," Jonze observes. "But it's a combination of what they did in creating the roles, plus what the costumed actors did and what the animators did with the facial performances. It was three totally disparate elements that make one character."

"They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws."

When it came to design, what mattered most about the Wild Things' big-screen debut was that they had the depth of feeling, humor, ferocity and tenderness the story required. They had to be alive.

Sendak was offered "the last word on what they looked like and how they moved. Yet, at the same time, I didn't want to lock them into place so that they were stuck rather than creatively excited by the prospect of what the monsters looked like," the author said. "When I was doing the book, nobody bugged me. Nobody said the monsters should look like this or that, because nobody knew what they should look like."

Jonze and Landay first delved into the world of creature movies, the history of suit performances and animatronics, to see what they liked or didn't like, and why. It was hard to find a direct parallel. Research with designers and effects companies turned up options that Jonze deemed "too troll-like or monster-like," or sometimes the opposite, "too cute." Repeatedly, they were advised toward full CGI and cautioned that recreating the book's proportions in real space would be a nearly insurmountable challenge. But they never gave up.

A friend referred them to artist Sonny Gerasimowicz, whose early sketches conveyed the blend of humor, whimsy and pathos they were looking for. Together, they experimented with color, textures and fur and from there moved into the model stage.

The Jim Henson Company and its legendary Creature Shop in Los Angeles built and refined the enormous costumes over a six-month period before shipping them to Australia--at which point Sydney-based Dave Elsey and an Australian team of costumers continued with on-site adjustments and reconfigurations to meet the unique demands of location shooting, such as one Wild Thing hurling another into the air--an effort involving wire work, pulleys and special rigs.

Peter Brooke, Creative Supervisor for the Creature Shop, begins, "We scanned the maquette, then enlarged the head to actual size and modeled that in foam, covered with clay. We re-sculpted the body of the maquette without fur, and were left with the understructure. Then we enlarged the pattern off the maquette and cut it out of foam. Within a week, we managed to get the basic shape and size of the character."

Thinking from the inside out, he continues, "We tried to transfer most of the weight of the costume to the hips of the performer. Basically, we approached the project as if these were huge puppets that were going to be puppeteered from inside, as opposed to thinking of them as huge costumes."

Elsey then adds, "Over the skeleton is the muscle suit, which gives the creature shape. When the actors flex their arms the muscles actually flex; when they lift, the rib cage will expand. That's what we call 'soft mechanics.' Fabricating these things is a real art form. The actor inside has to be capable of moving around and doing everything in the costume seemingly effortlessly. 'Soft mechanics' has been done before but this is on a whole different scale. The costumes are an amazing combination of engineering and art."

The final touch was enabling the Wild Things' features to match their emotions. Rather than using animatronic models, which would have caused lip-sync problems due to the creatures' enormous mouths, Jonze opted to enhance their expressions in post-production with computer animation, led by animation and visual effects supervisor Daniel Jeannette.

Says Jeannette, "Even with the static images, you could already see a lot of the impact they would have. We looked at the film and it was so beautiful we tried to animate the faces without creating a completely CG version of them. Instead, we did only the movement of the face in CGI."

Jonze clarifies, "Basically, they are creating 3D models of each creature's face in the computer. They used wire frame models to animate; then, the animation of those wire frames dictated the faces that were shot on camera. It's as if they were able to slide that wire animation under the faces of the puppets. Then that animation moved the fur on the faces that we shot on set."

"It looks real," Jeannette sums up, "because it's based on a real image."

One special costume that fell outside the purview of the Henson designers and Dave Elsey was Max's second skin and alter ego: the wolf suit he wears while making mischief at home and that later helps assert his animal nature over the Wild Things. That suit--plus 56 individual versions of it--was provided by costume designer Casey Storm, based on a drawing by Gerasimowicz that aged up the footed pajamas of the book into something a boy of eight or nine might wear. Storm's design included flocked whiskers, bendable ears, broken buttons, snaps under the chin to keep Max's "head" on tight through the wildest of rumpuses, and fingerless gloves.

Since Max is always in the wolf outfit, Records needed an entire wardrobe of them in various stages of wear: some dirty and some pristine, some warmer and others cooler in hue to match the tone of certain scenes and the camera's different light filters.

"...and he came to the place where the Wild Things are."

"When you think of the setting for the characters in the book, they're in some type of woods, on an island, a beach," says production designer K.K. Barrett, marking his third collaboration with Jonze on "Where the Wild Things Are." "We wanted the environment we put them in to be gritty and realistic, with natural elements. We wanted it to feel like somewhere no one has visited before."

After considering places as diverse as Argentina, Hawaii, New Zealand, California and the Southern U.S., the filmmakers found a home for the Wild Things in the hills, quarries and shoreline areas of outer Melbourne, at the southern tip of Australia. Here, says Jonze, "It felt like the edge of the world, on this rocky cliff." The area's barren forest proved a perfect graphic background for the action and suited the film's overall palette.

In keeping with the idea that they were discovering, along with Max, the creatures' natural habitat, Jonze and director of photography Lance Acord gave the island scenes a lived-in quality. Says Acord, "We needed a certain amount of texture and lack of resolution, so we were under-exposing a fair amount and letting the shadows go quite dark. The colors are less saturated than if you have a sharp, high-contrast negative."

The downside of working in a place where your nearest neighbor is Antarctica is that the production had to contend with bracing and often unpredictable winds and a rough ocean, which Acord vividly recalls, describing a scene in which the voyager Max pilots his boat alone toward the unknown shore. "I was shooting with a hand-held in the back of the boat. Suddenly we heard people in the other Zodiac yelling. A set of rogue waves was coming through, breaking at around 10 to 12 feet. They crashed over our boat and knocked the camera into the water. It started dragging along the ocean floor and, unfortunately, it was tied around the weight belt I had on, so was dragging me down with it. I struggled to get the belt off before being drowned by my own camera."

Acord made maximum use of hand-held cameras throughout the shoot because, notes Jonze, "We wanted it to feel as if this movie is being told through Max's eyes."

That point of view was a constant theme and extended to elements of production design. Upon his arrival at the island, Max finds the Wild Things happily demolishing their own homes, their immediate joy at wanton destruction prevailing over their less-immediate need for a place to sleep. Later, as their King, Max launches construction on the Ultimate Fort, in which they will all live together. This meant Barrett had to design huts and a fort that that could withstand some action but also look like something sprung from a child's drawings and built by a crew of unskilled and impatient monsters.

After abandoning early attempts as too sophisticated, they finally hit upon the perfect formula: a circle. "It took a long path to get to an idea that was actually very simple," Jonze admits. "The round hut, the round door with the round floor; there's no shape simpler than a circle." Adds Barrett, "The circle-based bird's nest kept showing up in our sketches. We figured if a bird could build it, they could build it. When you look at all the twigs and lines in nests, and then look at Maurice's drawings, it just made sense."

At more than 40-feet high, the fort was a formidable undertaking. Twice. Says Jonze, "We built two forts in Australia. The first one we built on the desert location in order to shoot exterior shots and the second one was built on a stage to shoot the interiors." Much of the physical fort was made of gravity-defying molded foam, to offset the structure's outsized scale, and painted to look like a weave of sticks, with actual sticks substituted in close-up.

The production included upwards of 400 people working on three separate stages and one location, with a shooting schedule divided between first unit, second unit, reduced unit and puppet unit--all of which evolved on a daily basis.

New challenges arose regularly as might be expected while working in rough terrain with actors navigating nine-foot costumes with giant heads. It took 45 minutes of prep time prior to each shot to clear a path the actor would then tread on faith. "But," Jonze specifies, "you'd have to make a path that wouldn't look like a path on camera, that looked just like the forest floor. We had to fill in potholes, and all the roots and rocks would be taken out so there wouldn't be anything to trip on."

On-set art director Tim Disney remembers some of the shoot's other inherent challenges: "250 people's footprints in the sand dunes that had to be gone by morning. Could we bring in choppers to 'buzz' them out? A hundred tons of kelp was getting in the way of Max's island departure. Do we get boats to drag it back into the ocean or pull it out? If Spike needed a forest down the side of a mountain, he got it."

Music to Soothe the Savage Beast

Accompanying Max's discoveries on both a grand and an intimate scale is the film's music, composed by Karen O and Carter Burwell. Jonze worked previously with award-winning composer Burwell on "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" and with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O on many music and film collaborations in the past. He counts them both among the most intuitive and creative people he has ever met.

Overall, suggests Jonze, "The music provides not so much a score as themes."

"I tried to follow Max on his emotional odyssey--never lead him," explains Burwell. "This might mean, for instance, when he meets the Wild Things, moving from curiosity to bluster to fear to wonder to triumph, all in a minute or two. I certainly have seen that journey in the faces of my children."

"My job was to come up with simple, childlike melodies reminiscent of hooks of great old pop songs that you can't shake, to shoot straight to the heart and be the voice of Max on the inside," says Karen O, who assembled a group of musicians she admires from various bands for the project. "We wrote the music over a span of two years in five sessions. Writing to raw footage is freeing. Without the constraints of an edited scene, we could really focus on the heart of the feeling for the piece."

And heart, ultimately, is what "Where the Wild Things Are" is all about.

Says Jonze, "I love this book and have always loved this book, since I was a kid. I didn't want to let Maurice down. His work is so important. He said, 'Make a movie that's personal to you, make it your own.' Even so, he had lived with the book as his creation for 40 years and that's a long time to live with something. I wanted to really respect that and make a movie that felt true to his values.

And that's what we did."

"Where the Wild Things Are" will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, and in select territories by Village Roadshow Pictures.

Concurrently with the film's nationwide release in conventional theatres, "Where the Wild Things Are: The IMAX Experience" will be released in IMAX® theatres beginning October 16, 2009, digitally re-mastered into the unparalleled image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience® through proprietary IMAX DMR® technology. With crystal clear images, laser-aligned digital sound and maximized field of view, IMAX provides the world's most immersive movie experience.

This film is rated PG by the MPAA for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language. Soundtrack Album is available on DGC/Interscope Records.


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