'Sad, drunk bear' inspired Where the Wild Things Are film

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Where the Wild Things Are should have no problem going from book to movie: The children's book by Maurice Sendak is already illustrated, so it's kind of been storyboarded for 46 years already. Whatever screenwriters Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers added to the story, it still had to look as if it came from the book.

"We wrote it from the point of view of trying to make a movie that feels like what it's like to be 9 years old," Jonze told reporters earlier this month in Beverly Hills, Calif. "We didn't really overthink it. We sort of wrote our first couple drafts very intuitively, tried to sort of write it from the sort of stream-of-consciousness place that kids make stuff from. That's how we did it."

Like the book, the film tells the story of Max (Max Records), who discovers a land of creatures after fighting with his mother. With an hour and a half to spend in that world, the movie shows a lot more of the land of the Wild Things than Sendak originally drew.

Part of Jonze's mandate for the film was to take Max's journey seriously. This wasn't some imaginary world of creatures: He really visits the land of the Wild Things. Using a handheld camera, Jonze turns Sendak's world into a gritty reality.

"One thing that was really important to [Jonze] was that the film be told from Max's point of view, that it feel like the camera stay with Max and view the world subjectively the way he saw the world," cinematographer Lance Acord said. "So the decision was made there that we would, whenever possible, be seeing the world as Max was. So the camera angles were usually low. We were usually with him. That had a lot to do with it."

The Wild Things are melancholy creatures. Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) gets so frustrated he has to destroy things. KW runs away when relationships get anything less than friendly. Judith is so insecure she's afraid that Max is giving other Wild Things preferential treatment. Jonze became frustrated with Hollywood creature shops and their showy designs, so he hired artist Sonny Gerasimowicz to give the Wild Things weight and reality.

"Sonny e-mailed me his drawings, and they were just these sketches of like these big, sad bears," Jonze said. "One of them was a big, sad, drunk bear leaned against a tree. He had, like, a bottle of booze, but they had such feeling. They were so simple. They were these pencil sketches, and instantly I was like, 'OK, his aesthetic is perfect.' There's something funny and something deep and touching and not precious."

That unusual aesthetic might not have been what Warner Brothers wanted when they commissioned a film based on a classic children's book. Rolling Stone reported on a so-called controversy between Jonze and the studio. Jonze said the controversy was exaggerated.

To put things in perspective, Jonze said that in the five-year process of making the movie, his battle with the studio was only five months. Ultimately, they are releasing his version of the film.

"They let us finish and make [it], and now they are embracing it," Jonze said. "They're selling it. I just got back to L.A., and it's on every billboard in the city, and it's really exciting, and the billboards aren't mis-selling it. They're not trying to sell it as something else. They're not trying to squeak it all up. The materials feel true to the movie. That was something I was really scared of, that the marketing materials and everything they did would be some homogenized version of what we did."

Some reports of controversy were simply incorrect, the filmmakers said. Slashfilm reported that test screening attendees heard children crying and asking to leave the theater. Acord says he was at those screenings, and no one left in tears. They just got mixed focus group polls.

"Some of the responses that the kids have, some of them said, 'Oh, we didn't really understand these parts of the story. We thought it was sad,'" cinematographer Acord recalled. "But there wasn't any drama like that. That's such a good story, I can see why that would be reprinted and written, because it's so much more interesting than actually what happened. I would read that stuff and go, 'Wow, this is going to make the film sound more interesting than it is. I hope it doesn't raise people's expectations.'"

Where the Wild Things Are opens Friday.