On Thursday, Sept. 22, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry released an online puppetry forum entitled “Spike Jonze, Maurice Sendak and the World of Puppetry.” The forum, available on the institute’s YouTube and Facebook pages, was in conjunction with the Ballard’s current exhibit, “Swing into Action: Maurice Sendak and the World of Puppetry.”
While Sendak was not a puppeteer himself, the renowned children’s book author often collaborated with them. Most notably, Sendak was involved in the design process of a “Where the Wild Things Are” balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The online forum featured Museum Director John Bell and Spike Jonze, director of the 2009 film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are.” In addition to working with Sendak in respect to the adaptation, Jonze directed “Tell Them Anything You Want,” a documentary portrait of Sendak.
In the forum, Jonze explained that his childhood was filled with things that inspired him — Shel Silverstein, the Muppets and the Pillsbury doughboy, to name a few. All this, and of course, Sendak’s work, encouraged him to pursue imaginative endeavors like filmmaking.
Referring to an illustration in one of Sendak’s picture books, Jonze said, “I didn’t even know what I thought of it. I just couldn’t not look at it. The thing is when you’re five you’re not analyzing it, you’re connecting to it. I’ve never seen it before, but it makes sense to me.”
The film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” was put on hold for a while before Sendak tasked Jonze with adapting the widely beloved story. The picture book only stood at 338 words and Jonze grappled with the thought of having to invent content for the story. The director spent many nights rereading the tale, before finding a successful way to create backstory and intent for some of the characters.
The wild things were so precious to him, but then he was being so unprecious with us. ‘these are your wild things.'”Spike Jonze
“That was my way in, to go deeper into what was already there as opposed to writing something wholly new,” Jonze elaborated.
From there on, the script was completed and filming commenced. Voice actors were filmed first, and puppeteers, or suit actors, were next. Filming in elaborate costumes required some navigation. For example, it wasn’t always possible for actors to shrug; thus, they sought alternative methods of symbolizing different actions and emotions.
When asked about whether choreography was different when working with puppeteers rather than regular actors, Jonze expressed that the process ultimately did not change.
“They all are the same. They’re not different languages, because they all come from the same place,” he explained.
One point of discussion was Sendak’s openness to collaboration. The author had a strong interest in respecting the works of others and creating dynamic working relationships.
“The wild things were so precious to him, but then he was being so unprecious with us. ‘These are your wild things,’” Jonze said, citing Sendak and his receptiveness to artistic interpretations of his characters.
Before meeting Sendak, Jonze revealed that he never viewed or referred to himself as an artist. But, Sendak taught him to embrace the term and truly appreciate their craft.
The Ballard’s “Swing into Action” exhibit was created in partnership with the Maurice Sendak Foundation and will run until Friday, Dec. 16; the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.