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'Where the Wild Things Are' hits the big screen

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WARNING: If you’re going to make a movie with Spike Jonze, you might get shot in the butt with a BB gun. Novelist Dave Eggers learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when he showed up for a day of writing on the director’s newest movie, Where the Wild Things Are. Eggers suspects there’s method to his friend’s juvenile madness. Maybe it’s a clever gambit to set a proper tone for work — just like when Jonze made the film’s all-star voice cast play dodgeball as a bonding exercise, or when he auditioned the movie’s young star, Max Records, by firing Nerf darts at him. But ask Jonze about it and he laughs. ”I don’t know why I shot Dave,” he says. ”I’m sure there must be a good reason.”

Unconventional and inscrutable, Spike Jonze is certainly one of pop culture’s most unique talents, capable of art-house highs such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and irreverent lows such as MTV’s Jackass. Where the Wild Things Are (due Oct. 16.), his edgy riff on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, floats all places in between, and is all the more risky for it. The movie tells the story of Max (newcomer Records), an unruly and lonely 9-year-old who one night goes rudely ballistic on his struggling single mother (Catherine Keener), then storms off into a desolate wilderness inhabited by rambunctious and emotionally complex creatures. Among them: petulant and smothering Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini); aloof and free-spirited KW (Lauren Ambrose); and insecure, adolescent Alexander (Paul Dano). Max should be spooked — especially since the monsters don’t know whether to hug him or eat him or both. Instead, Max declares himself their king, and with the decree ”Let the wild rumpus start!” announces a reign of forest-wrecking play. ”To make a movie about what it feels like to be 9 years old — that was my simple intention,” says Jonze, 39. But don’t let the PG rating fool you. Where most family films are comically zany and full of morals, Wild Things is naturalistic, dramatic, and raw. Jonze — who clashed with Warner Bros. over the final product — has made a reportedly $80 million family film about childhood that really isn’t for children, leaving its box office prospects as cloudy as a sky full of meatballs. ”Even in the first month that Spike and I started working on it together, we realized this wasn’t going to be a traditional, easy-to-market children’s movie,” says Eggers. ”I expected resistance, trepidation, and fights. And by golly, they happened.”

Antarctic winds. Searing heat. Bloodsucking leeches that would drop from trees and crawl under clothes and costumes and send crew members into mad spasms of disrobing. Plus, 12-foot-tall, walking puppets. Virtually every aspect of making Where the Wild Things Are was tricky, challenging, even painful. But now that it’s over, Jonze can laugh. And on a warm September evening in Venice Beach, Calif., the laughter comes deep and hard as he and Catherine Keener sit around a roaring fire pit sipping ginger ale and sharing stories. Here’s one: Throughout production, Jonze leaned on Keener to play a variety of roles — acting coach, technical assistant, stand-in, gaffer, whatever. One day, after Jonze had given Keener the joke title of ”Vice President,” Warner Bros. (a division of Time Warner, as is EW) informed him that ”Vice President” was a title reserved for studio execs. Jonze responded by bestowing upon Keener even more grandiose titles, including ”Vice President of All Things Filmmaking-Related” and ”Worldwide Vice President of Global Production.” Giggles Jonze: ”We are just brats on a certain level. Tell us we can’t do something, and we do it 10 times more.”

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