A Walk on the ‘Wild’ Side

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Novelist, publisher, and McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers has recently added another credit to his CV: screenwriter. The author of the books A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Zeitoun, debuted this year with the Sam Mendes film Away We Go and follows it up with the live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

How did you hook up with Jonze?
I wrote him a fan letter for Being John Malkovich. And I was a longtime worshipper of Maurice. I grew up wanting to be a writer and illustrator of children’s books—I still have a lot of books I did as a kid. So it was a ridiculous combination: I was a fanboy of both.

Why are boys so monster-crazy?
When you’re a kid—especially a hyperactive kid like I was—you are called a monster a lot, and asked to not be such a freak. You identify with any sort of feral creature because you’re only a piece of chocolate away from being a maniacal beast. Separately, any kid has moments of loneliness where you think: Wouldn’t it be great to befriend ten-foot-tall creatures that will do your bidding?

How did Sendak’s illustrations inform the style of the film?
In the book, the colors are natural and muted. Maurice didn’t color things brightly just to please children. He did it in a way that he thought was true. With Malkovich, Spike pioneered something I call “dirty surrealism.” It’s murky and pedestrian-seeming and naturalistic. He continued that for this film. He didn’t want a candy-colored, fantastical place. He wanted a real world and home.

How did you make the monsters feel true?
I would periodically have an idea about the creatures being able to jump a hundred feet in the air and fly. Spike would always bring it back down to Earth. In the end there’s nothing they can do that a person of that size couldn’t do. They don’t have magical powers.

Photo: Maria Laura Antonelli/Rex USA

Where did the backstory for Max come from—that his mother is divorced and stressed out, that his sister is too old to be interested in him?
It’s not a big secret that Spike grew up in a divorced household with an older sister, and he brought that as an element from day one. So there’s a lot of Spike in Max, as there was a lot of Maurice in the character originally. And Spike and I both were wild kids, very Max-like.

What other changes should we brace for?
The big decision to make Max’s room not change into the jungle. We both agreed that he needed to sail on a boat in an actual ocean, even though a lot of other folks—Maurice among them—were attached to the room changing. We thought that would make the whole thing seem like a dream, and there’s nothing more frustrating than 90 minutes of a movie that you know is a dream—like, why bother? We had to make it seem like he was a real kid in danger with something real at stake.

Why was it important to make it feel dangerous?
Well, here’s a book that parents were warned about and some librarians didn’t favor. The monsters aren’t dopey cartoons, and they clearly have ulterior motives. It didn’t teach kids a lesson or have a clear moral. It was much more primal, meandering, and murky than that, which is why people were drawn to it but also why you couldn’t explain it easily. Max is a brat. He’s out of control and his mom doesn’t give him a hug at the end. He doesn’t say, “I’m sorry I was a brat.”

In fact, Warner Bros. studio took a year to release it because it wasn’t kid-friendly enough.
I think we forget how strange and scary The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka are. There’s so many examples. But when there’s a lot of money at stake, it’s always going to feel safer to make it as innocuous as possible. Mainly, I just feel protective of Spike. I was pained to see him suffer during that process, but there’s not going to be a frame in the movie he didn’t want.

Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze.
Warner Bros. Oct. 16.

A Walk on the ‘Wild’ Side