Back in 2006, if you wanted to go where the wild things were, the answer was Australia. That’s where Spike Jonze was filming his third full-length feature, an interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book about a misbehaving young boy who dreams up an imaginary world when he’s sent to bed without dinner. Jonze invited his friend, artist Ari Marcopoulos, out for a two-week stretch to document the shoot in the woods and at a quarry outside Melbourne. “What impressed me most was the amount of people working to get things done,” says Marcopoulos. “I’ve never seen Spike work on such a big project, but he seemed to handle it calmly.”
To adapt Where the Wild Things Are—or, rather, to film the script created by Jonze and author Dave Eggers from Sendak’s 10-sentence-long book—the director and a crew of more than 150 decamped Down Under. The result is a remarkable exercise in imagination that’s perhaps not quite what one would expect in a kids’ flick: The muted, dirty palette of the monsters and sets of branches and mud, as well as the precocious talents of Max Records, the then-nine-year-old actor who plays the film’s protagonist, ground the fantasy with a creditable grit. Even the wild things themselves—voiced by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose and Forest Whitaker, among others—seem real. Or almost real, anyway. “I don’t know what world you live in, because in mine I never really encounter monsters of that size,” offers Marcopoulos.
That warped but tenable sense of reality allows Where the Wild Things Are to play less like a movie for kids and more like a film about what it’s like to be a kid. Even so, Jonze didn’t want the film to talk down to the under-12 set; he made it clear that despite the monsters’ resemblance to plush toys, it needed to have a real sense of danger. Cue numerous episodes of destruction, rock fights, and plenty of teeth and claws. “Some of the scenes were very scary,” says Marcopoulos. “The explosions were louder and closer to the actors than I expected them to be. Then there was a scene where Max is confronted by one of the wild things—it was pretty scary how loud the actor was screaming at Max. It felt real—a lot of pressure on such a young boy.”