Given that Where the Wild Things Are is just nine sentences long, it doesn't exactly jump out as a book ripe for a film adaptation. Nonetheless, Maurice Sendak, who is now 81, had for many years been looking for someone to adapt his 1963 classic and it was in the most unlikely way that he found just the man for the job. When his production partner saw the Beastie Boys Sabotage video, he was so impressed that he immediately sought out the director, Spike Jonze.
The video, which often pops up on lists of the greatest music promos of all time, features the Brooklyn musicians dressed as characters from a mock 1970s cop show. The ironic images of the band, who donned big-hair wigs and even bigger moustaches for the occasion, did much to change the image of the group from white-trash rappers to hip-hop super group. If the man from Maryland could do this for a rock group, what might he do for a children's book?
One of Sendak's production projects at the time was a film of Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Jonze was hired to direct it. To the disappointment of the legion of Jonze's music video fans, though, that movie was never made. Nevertheless, Jonze and Sendak, despite their 42-year age gap, established a close bond that would eventually lead to an artistic collaboration. First, however, Jonze made two iconoclastic movies, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, broadening his image from music-promo darling to admired auteur. Along with Michel Gondry, Sofia Coppola (to whom he was married for just over four years until December 2003) and Mike Mills, he was at the forefront of a group of directors who seemed to define the advent of the internet age.
They were more than just Generation X geeks and their fascination with the invention and its possibilities for alternative lifestyles led to the creation of some of the best music videos, commercials and, eventually, feature films over the past two decades. Born Adam Spiegel on October 22, 1969, Jonze is the great-grandson of Art Spiegel, the mail catalogue billionaire. He took the alias Spike Jonze, which he has said was the nickname given to him by his colleagues at the Rockville BMX store, where he worked as a teenager. His name change hints at a love of deception that has seen him adopt various guises, including turning up at an MTV awards show to pick up a best video award for Fat Boy Slim's Praise You wearing a fat suit and pretending to be Richard Koufey, the choreographer of the Torrance Community Dance Group.
The germs of the Being John Malkovich concept can be seen in his early pop-promos in which he updated genres by mixing scenes and characters from favourite shows of his youth with today's icons, translating a Busby Berkeley musical dance routine to Björk's It's Oh So Quiet and recreating the US sitcom Happy Days for Weezer in 1994. That he had worked in a BMX shop and was enamoured of skating culture would also have a lasting impact. He went to work on various skateboarding and BMX magazines, first on editorial but later as a photographer, where he concentrated on showing the hipness of what had generally been seen as the ugliness of the American "white trash" lifestyle. The raw street style of his work came about more out of necessity than desire, he says: "When you have no budget you have got to come up with good ideas or a good character."
This would be reflected in advertisements that he made for Gap and Levi's, and most famously in the campaign for Nike featuring the tennis stars André Agassi and Pete Sampras playing a match on a New York street. Jonze told me that the bigger corporate advertising budgets meant "you could come up with bigger, more imaginative ideas because they could afford to spend more than music videos". The inventiveness and playfulness of that period are also apparent in his movies. Charlie Kaufman wrote his first two films, work that helped to put the scriptwriter-turned-director on the map. Being John Malkovich uses the absurd but inspired premise of selling holidays into the mind of the maverick actor, while Adaptation was based upon Susan Orlean's supposedly unfilmable work The Orchid Thief. The resulting film is as much about the process of scriptwriting as it is about orchids or anything else. And now comes Where the Wild Things Are, which Jonze co-wrote with Dave Eggers. He says of the experience: "I moved to San Francisco where he lives and we worked together every day until we got through something. We'd work for a month and then I'd sit in my apartment for like a week and make notes and go through it and then we'd go back and work together for like a month-
"A lot of time I overwrote, Dave would be really good at, like, pulling me back. I'd overwrite because I'd be not editing myself and then Dave would end up editing it down." Jonze has taken the budget, estimated to be between $80 million and $100 million (Dh294m - Dh367m) and instead of stop-motion or relying on computers to transfer the drawings from the book to the screen, he has put actors in costumes.
Perhaps Jonze, who played a soldier in Three Kings alongside Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney, remembered his first film role wearing a paramedic's outfit in David Fincher's The Game. Or there was the unsubstantiated rumour that that he had been a stormtrooper in a Star Wars prequel. In any case, puppet suits were not exactly what Warner Bros, the studio behind the project, was expecting, which is why the film is coming out a full year after it was due, delayed by backroom battles. Jonze had the final cut and although he was willing to make some changes, the end result is still very much his vision.
"I don't want to make films unless they're films I really want to make," says Jonze. "I don't want to make films just to make films. I want to make it if I have an idea I have to make. I get sent good scripts and I kind of get titillated by them. I think ha, this is a good story, the sort of script you want to finish, you want to get to the end. But then what am I going to bring to it? Why would I make this movie?"
Jonze has a childlike quality about him. He looks as though he could be blown over by the wind and might not himself survive a boat journey like the one the child Max undertakes in the story, when he sails from his bedroom to the imaginary forest where the wild things live. Everything about Jonze's work is unpredictable and it was this aspect of life that finally convinced the director that he could turn nine sentences into 90-odd minutes.
"I loved Sendak and his books and this book in particular, and every now and then I'd talk to him and he'd say they're trying to make a movie out of it and he was never satisfied with what they were doing and I would think about it, but I couldn't work out what I could bring to it," he remembers. "But I think the idea I had, and this was after going back to it every couple of years and the last time, a couple of years ago- I realised maybe what the wild things could be and they could just be wild emotions, you know, unpredictable emotions. As soon as I had that - because that through the eyes of a kid is very confusing, unpredictable emotions in yourself or in the people around you - and as soon as I hit on that, I thought well, that's infinite, what you can do with that. And with that I thought I could add to the film but not from the outside, just go deeper into what the book already is."
He explains further: "I think it's a film about childhood for anybody - it's PG, there's no violence or blood, there is an emotional truth to it, or at least I hope there is, that was our intention, and that's what Maurice's work is all about. "Maurice's work doesn't pander to children, it takes kids really seriously. It doesn't tell them how to behave or who they have to be, there's not like a moral to the story where if you do this, then you'll end up like that. It takes them more seriously than telling them who they have to be. And that is what he told me to do. He really gave me freedom to make my own movie."
A lesson learnt by Jonze in his formative years making pop-promos was that he had to believe in the work to give of his best. He recalls: "I think I have done one where I didn't like the song so much and the video suffered because of it." He doesn't say which one, but adds: "I don't know, but I think you have to like the song and the artist if you're going to film them." Doing only work that pleases him seems to be his mantra. Jonze has just turned 40, an age where the adage says "life begins", but in reality it's time to take stock. Music is often one of the great signifiers of a generation gap, and perhaps the time has come for Jonze to hit pause on his pop-promo career?
He first points out that he doesn't make many now in any case, but he seems to agree: "I think it's more that your interests, it's not that someone older couldn't make a good video but they could only do it if they were really, really interested in it, lived in the music, lived inside it somehow, but really- yeah, maybe, I can say as you get older, I can see it not being as exciting to me and if it's not exciting, you're not going to do something good."