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When I heard this morning that Maurice Sendak had died, I sat down and wrote a little essay about what made his stories so unforgettable:
One of the first things I noticed, sitting down across from Maurice Sendak at his rambling home in Ridgefield, Conn., back in 2009, was the mantelpiece. Or rather what was on the mantelpiece: a raucous plastic menagerie of Disney figurines. Donald Duck was there. So was Goofy. But most of all, there was Mickey Mouse.
I had traveled up to Ridgefield, along with my Newsweek colleague Ramin Setoodeh, to interview Sendak, who died Tuesday at 83, about the soon-to-be released screen adaption of Where the Wild Things Are. Spike Jonze, the director, had come, too; his co-screenwriter, Dave Eggers, was on the line from San Francisco. Sendak’s lumbering German Shepherd, Herman—named after Melville—was snoring at our feet.
At some point, we started to discuss whether Wild Things was a movie “for children” or a movie “about childhood.” Sendak—squinty-eyed, sly, and ever snappish—took exception. He didn’t see a distinction. Citing Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog—European films that confronted the disorienting strangeness of childhood head-on—he accused Americans of being “squeamish” and “Disneyfied.”
But what about those Disney characters on your mantelpiece? we asked.
Sendak arched his long, devilish eyebrows. “Oh, I adored Mickey Mouse when I was a child,” he said. “He was the emblem of happiness and funniness. You went to the movies then, you saw two movies and a short. When Mickey Mouse came on the screen and there was his big head, my sister said she had to hold onto me. I went berserk. I stood on the chair screaming, “My hero! My hero!” He had a lot of guts when he was young. We’re both about the same age; we’re about a month apart. He was the little brother I always wanted.” Maurice Sendak, 2002.
Jonze was fascinated. He leaned forward and put his hand on Sendak’s shoulder. “What was he like when he was young?” he asked.
“He had teeth,” Sendak said. “Literally?”
“He had literally teeth,” Sendak continued. “I have toys in the other room.”
“Was he more dangerous?”
“Yes,” Sendak said. “He was more dangerous. He did things to Minnie that were not nice. I think what happened, was that he became so popular—this is my own theory—they gave his cruelty and his toughness to Donald Duck. And they made Mickey a fat nothing. He’s too important for products. They want him to be placid and nice and adorable. He turned into a schmaltzer. I despised him after a point.”
Maurice Sendak liked things with teeth. If I had to explain, in short, why I love his work—why pretty much anyone who had the weird, wonderful privilege of being a child in the second half of the 20th century loves his work—that is what I would say. The things Sendak made, Wild or not, always had teeth. Max almost got eaten; Pierre actually did, by a lion. In Outside Over There, a gang of goblins abducts a baby. Elsewhere, a naked boy almost gets baked to death. When Sendak made an alphabet book, he called it Alligators All Around. With him, M was for menace.
Read the rest here.
What we learned today: the actual Wild Things were based on Maurice Sendak’s terrifying-but-loving relatives. We all have Wild Things!
Maurice Sendak 1928-2012
Newsweek October 19, 2009
This morning, Newsweek.com posted the magazine version of our exclusive conversation with ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ creators Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, which you can read here. We think it’s the definitive WtWTA interview.
But there’s A LOT more stuff that we couldn’t squeeze into print. Here’s a little taste:
What was it like to see the Wild Things embodied onscreen with the voices of James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker? Did it clash with the image of them you’d kept with you all these years?
Sendak: Yes, but at the same time, I fell in love with the new versions. They were gentler, they were kinder. Underneath, of course, they were capable of the same terrible things. One of them puts Max in her mouth. There always is the possibility that something might go wrong, and you’ll get eaten. And you don’t know what it is that might go wrong. What you’ll say or what you’ll do that will provoke a Wild Thing to eat you. I love watching animal movies on television. One of the only things I like. And they always say, don’t do this and don’t do that, don’t run away and don’t turn your back and don’t lie flat. I love that. It’s from my childhood. How do you prevent dying? How do you prevent being eaten or mauled by a monster? I still worry about it.
Jonze: When we went to shoot the movie, we actually watched nature documentaries, and wanted to feel like we were watching animals-
Jonze: -and that’s part of the reason we shot it out on location. We wanted it to be not on soundstages and not with greenscreen, but in real places. The camera doesn’t know where these creatures are going to go. What’s motivating them is unpredictable, unknowable, and the cameraman is just there, trying to document these wild animals, from the point of view of Max, who knows just as little as we do of what they’re going to do.
Sendak: Yes, he doesn’t know what’s to come next. I mean, that’s gotta be scary for a kid, but it’s also gotta be what a kid likes most. It’s that enticement of what might or might not happen.
NEWSWEEK: What do you say to parents who think the ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ film may be too scary?
Maurice Sendak: I would tell them to go to hell.
(This and more here)
Dave, do you remember Where the Wild Things Are from your childhood?(From our exclusive roundtable interview with the creators of the upcoming film, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’)
Eggers: I do. I remember when I was really little, I was scared of everything—Willy Wonka scared me to death, and the Oompa-Loompa people scared me to death. When I was 3 and 4, I would leave the room and hide under the couch when those movies came on. My first experience with Where the Wild Things Are—I couldn’t read it. And my mother thought I would love it, because I was that barbaric kid that Maurice was talking about—really hyper and wild. But it scared me, mainly because of the nuances of the monsters. It just wasn’t clear if they were good or bad, if they were going to eat Max or not.
I had the honor of interviewing Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers yesterday at Mr. Sendak’s house in Connecticut. Watch this space and Newsweek.com for more on Where the Wild Things Are, coming soon…
Mark your calendars. This should be good.