Behind the Scenes of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: Releasing One’s Wild Child

By Tom Snyder, Editor

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a distinctive movie about a 9-year-old boy named Max who gets into trouble with his mother, runs away from home, and finds a strange island inhabited by large untamed creatures who act as wild as he feels. It’s an allegorical tale for older children, teenagers, and adults about love, family, and friendship overcoming anger, bitterness, and rebellion.

The voice actors playing the Wild Things had no idea, however, how Director Spike Jonze wanted them to develop their characters.

“We started off at his [Spike’s] house, and we went up into the mountains,” said actor Forest Whitaker, who gave voice to the Wild Thing called Ira.

“That’s where we started a dodgeball fight up in the hills. Then, we went to the [sound] stage. On the stage, all of our characters slept together, and we beat each other with Styrofoam logs. We tried to find out more and more about the characters.

“It was like a big game, but it helped us figure out our characters,” he added, “It was like a play environment that Spike created. I just had to let go and have fun and find the character with everybody there. The childlike part of you was awakened, and you try to allow it.”

Catherine O’Hara, who gave voice to Ira’s grumpy, somewhat bitter mate Judith, agreed.

“It’s just being open,” she described. “It’s not like you would ever say, ‘Oh, I don’t think Judith would do that,’ because you’re like a child saying, ‘What do we do now?!’ So, you just go with it.”

She added, “We were all together on stage with sweat bands and remote mikes, so we had freedom of movement, and we were surrounded by twenty-something digital cameramen.”

None of the actors interviewed had any idea what working with Jonze on this movie was going to be like.

“I had no idea,” Whitaker said. “I don’t think you can anticipate taking Styrofoam logs and hitting people with them. Sometimes, it got a little intense.”

O’Hara said, “Doing other voice jobs, you think you’re just going to show up, go to a studio, work with the director, and be done with it. For that first rehearsal, we went to his house, and he took us up into the bushes, and we ran around and played. It was just let go, let go, let go! Whatever you thought this was going to be, let go and be open.

“But it was such a great opportunity to be able to let go and be a little kid,” she concluded.

Some have criticized the book and the movie for being “dark,” but Jonze disagrees.

“I don’t think this is a dark movie,” he said. “It has moments that are intense, for sure.”

He added, “We were just trying to make a movie that feels true to what it feels like at times to be 8 or 9-years-old. We wanted to take this 9-year-old boy seriously. As you’re growing up, your emotions are just as deep as they are as an adult. We don’t feel things more as we get older, we just have a better understanding how to navigate those feelings.”

Actress Catherine Keener, who plays the mom in the movie, agreed, saying, “When you’re older, there’s more of a way to articulate it, to put it in some sort of form. But, when you’re a kid, it’s just all over the place. . . . It’s wilder.”

Jonze described the process of writing the script with Dave Eggars.

“We tried to write intuitively,” he said. “We tried to keep that spirit of not over-thinking too much. My other movies [JOHN MALOVICH’S BRAIN and ADAPTATION] were much more analytical films, more cerebral. Because the main character here was nine, I tried to turn that part of my mind off and not approach it so cerebrally.”

Jonze also said he wanted to make the movie seem very intimate but also epic at the same time.

“We did this whole movie like an adventure,” he said. “It was a group experience, where we went off into these woods and deserts to film. We kind of lived the movie in a lot of ways.”

“Spike had very specific ideas about the movie,” Keener noted. “But, within those ideas (or outside those ideas, I’m not sure), we just had free range. It was kind of experimental theater. The whole shoot was like that. We didn’t anticipate what was going to happen. We were kind of in the moment the whole time, even though there were confines to it. It was an extraordinary experience.”

Max Records, who plays the rambunctious, adventurous boy in the movie, showed some media wisdom when he said that the movie is not for all children.

“It depends on the kid and it depends on the age,” he said. “I know that, when I was 7 or 8, I could not have seen this movie, but my brother, who’s 7 or 8, totally could have.

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