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Spike Jonze on His Maurice Sendak Documentary: ‘It’s Hard to See Your Friend Depressed’

Spike Jonze’s long-gestating adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are finally hit theaters last year, a product of his close relationship with original author Maurice Sendak, whom Jonze met fifteen years ago. The filmmaker’s chemistry with the 81-year-old is also on display in Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, a 40-minute documentary directed by Jonze and Lance Bangs that came out on DVD this week and provides an intimate look at Sendak's thoughts on life, aging, and creative output. Jonze spoke with Vulture about Sendak’s unique perspective, his impact on the Wild Things adaptation, and the best way to release a film.

Have you always been a Sendak fan?
Yes, I think the reason I liked his books as a kid is that I related to them. There's something honest about them. I love the part of the documentary where he says he wasn't technically a better artist than anybody, he was just more honest about people. I understand why I gravitated toward his stuff in getting to know him and learning how he works.

Was he an easy interview?
He has fun being playful, joking around, but when he's in a somber mood, we would just go with that. Sometimes, though, it's hard to see your friend depressed. You want to get him out of that. The way you see him in the documentary is a reflection of our relationship.

At one point, it seems like you're trying to save him from the conviction that there's no joy in his life.
Yeah, and then you can talk him into the belief that he does feel joy. Part of the point of the documentary is that there are two sides to him.

Was it hard to get him to be that honest?
Well, I've known him for fifteen years, so I was coming at it from that place. I think because we've known each other for so long, he trusted us, and he can't really be any other way. He can't pretend to be somebody else.

How did you meet him?
In 1995, he was producing a film that I was going to direct, but it didn't end up happening. Through that, we became friends. I actually tried to get him a small role in Being John Malkovich as a biographer talking about the work of John Malkovich, the great puppeteer, but I couldn't get him to come out to California.

What sort of guidance did he provide during production on Where the Wild Things Are?
He told me he wanted me to make it as a personal movie the way the book was personal to him. He didn't want me to make a movie that panders to children. He would rather there not be a movie made if it was going to be some sort of commercial project that would have made him uncomfortable.

At one point, Sendak says, “There's so much I want to do.” He's 81. Do you identify with this fear?
Definitely. I'm 40. I feel like you only have so much time to make stuff. I'm definitely aware of that. I'm also excited about it. We were finishing Where the Wild Things Are last summer, then went right into doing a short film with Kanye West and this other short film, about robots, called I'm Here. But [Wild Things] took so long, so many years, that it felt good to go complete something again.

You also made a short documentary about Al Gore several years ago. What does working in the nonfiction genre allow you to do differently from when you make narrative features?
Doing a documentary is about discovering, being open, learning, and following curiosity. I think it's more about separating the subject from the story. I like the idea of the documentary as a portrait. There's not a chronological beginning, middle, and end structure. You build something in the editing room that's shaped by getting to know the person and digging deeper, unpeeling the layers of them as you get to know them.

The Kanye West short film leaked online early, while your Sundance short film was picked up by IFC. Wild Things got a huge studio release. What sort of distribution mechanisms do you prefer?
I don't think there's a best method. With the Kanye thing, our experiment was going to be putting it out on iTunes. With the short film, the experiment was to get it funded by Absolut Vodka. There are many ways to get the story out there. Smarter people than me are trying to figure it out.

Photo: Patrick McMullan