61. Maurice Sendak

The Wild Thing Who Was….

Just as I was preparing this Credit, I heard the terrible news: On May 8, 2012 we lost our great colleague. 43 years earlier, in the spring of 1969, Maurice Sendak came to Prague with Morton Schindel to confront me with my loftiest filmmaking challenge thus far; to animate “the Mount Everest of children’s picture books,” WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.

Meeting in the heart of the picture-book old town of Prague, was the perfect setting for the long walks Maurie & I took together, hoping to find inspiration in the history and muted colorings all around us, and to agree on a do-able approach to a faithful animation adaptation of Maurice’s signature work.

We both agreed that we wanted a “magical” film, but Maurice’s instructions to me were cryptic.  He urged me to go “beyond” the book.  That sounded great, but dangerous, to attempt to go “beyond” what was regarded as the crown jewel of  picture books!

The Weston Woods mantra required fidelity.  I had to swing both ways, to exactly reflect the meaning, the mood, and look of that stunning book, and at the same time to complement it with whatever movie magic we could conjure with the limited technology at our disposal. Maurice’s only other hint was that in the book, “everything is Max!”  That was clear enough; all that happens is in fact Max’s Wild-Thing imagination.

These were a couple of my storyboard pages, which guided the production layouts.

We had already produced a one-minute animation test of Max & Wild Things to prove to Maurice that even in those 1969 pre-digital days, that we could manage at least mini-magic.  Mort was so pleased with our test clip, that he risked bringing Maurice to Prague to show it.

When the lights went up in the Krátký Film projection theater, Mort turned to Maurice and asked him which of the images on the screen were his original drawings, and which were ours. Maurice asked to see the scenes again. I bit my nails while Maurice pondered his response.  He said it all looked authentic, but he could tell that this or that drawing was his. We clapped our hands in joy, and triumphantly announced that everything in our test reel was our work, and that none of the drawings were his!  Right then we were in!

However, as pleased as he was with our first efforts, Maurice still wanted to approve our work in progress. Gaining this mighty title for the Weston Woods catalog was Mort’s urgent goal, so he readily agreed to Maurice’s every whim.  But fate stalled the project.  Shortly after Maurice returned home his parents died. He was so distraught that he regretfully announced that he could not concentrate on anything “for a while.”

We had to shelve our materials, while Mort carefully nursed Maurice’s psyche. It was five years later that he announced in 1974 that we could continue with the production of WILD THINGS!   After long arduous work and rework, Maurice expressed his love for the film, which immediately become the premiere prize-winning and best-selling Weston Woods offering.  It still is.  At this writing in 2012, 37 years later and counting, it’s still considered the only true adaptation of his book. But 35 years after we did it,  after his insistence on our absolute fidelity to his book, he collaborated on a feature length stretch-model live action version, made by Spike Jonze. When it was released I feared that Maurice would yank my version. But he didn’t. Our 7-minute true-to-the-book version is still Weston Woods’ all-time best-seller, in spite of the fact that it is technically less perfect than we could do today.

Also, what is now distributed I feel to be a wounded version. One of my innovative elements of WILD THINGS film design was the “concrete” music&sound track that I had personally created on my own tape recording equipment. It was demonstrated in the 1977 Weston Woods documentary film, “Gene Deitch: The Picture Book Animated.”

The controversy over this substitution continues, and certainly there are those who think Shickele’s music is an improvement, or at least more accessible for children.  Just look at a couple of the conflicted reviews reproduced below!

Maurice wrote me that my original WILD THINGS soundtrack was “a work of genius!”    (His words, not mine!)  Only the prestigious Horn Book disliked it.

But Animation Magazine loved it!….

Most importantly, Maurice Sendak loved it!

But the film sold like hotcakes. No buyers had any words but praise for it. Yet 16 years later, even after the original version had won every prize on offer for a children’s short film, Maurice met composer Peter Shickele, and his mind was changed. At Weston Woods, whatever Maurice wanted, Maurice got. He got a new orchestral track, a brilliant, though no longer unique, orchestral recording by Peter Schickele.  I realize that it’s nakedly defensive for me to make any excuses at this point , but I must tell you that the Shickele version is posted directly from a digital DVD, and that my original soundtrack version is double copy from an old VHS NTSC cassette. The conversion to digital has fouled up both lost the color and muddied the soundtrack.  Use your most tolerant imagination!

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Nothing of the animation was changed, but I feel that the present version does not represent my total conception, right or wrong. The change was not mentioned in the Weston Woods catalog, and subsequent buyers knew nothing of an earlier soundtrack. Today, you would have a difficult time hearing it, unless you could find one of the original VHS copies.

The production was long and arduous, five years of on-&-off start&stop, with Maurice demanding change after change, often contradictory. I still have boxes of letters, memos, notes, sketches, scribbled ideas, rejections, arguments, changes, changes, changes.  Was it worth it?  Well, yes, it’s my all-time best-selling film, and the royalties soothe my memories of pain. I’m posting here a few random samples, which can only give you a rough idea of the ups and downs and general angst we endured.

I’ve made a joke about it when speaking to groups of film students; I start with a few basic film facts; that there are 16 frames in one foot of 35mm film,  64 frames for each  second of time, and 1440 frames each minute of running time…. And that after the WILD THINGS production, I  found that six minutes of running time can equal five years!!!

On the plus side, the great success of our WILD THINGS production led Maurice to ask me to work up an animation treatment of his new book, IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, the book he said was his most truly personal statement.  He told me emphatically that NIGHT KITCHEN most closely reflected his own inner life, the relationship with his parents, the birth of his fantasy life, and yes, his homosexuality. I undertook an adaptation, gingerly balancing these secret themes, but with no cover-ups, pushing the restraints of the 1980s, factors that perceptive audiences could see, which never before had been shown in schools.  The production of NIGHT KITCHEN was far easier to digest than the over-spiced concoction of WILDTHINGS. So we now have two films from books by the same author, and by the same director, that could hardly be more different. You’re seeing clips from them both film on this entry of my blog.  I will appreciate your comments and evaluations!.

Visually, the NIGHT KITCHEN book was inspired by Winsor McCay’s masterfully drawn 1905-1911 comics pages, LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND, combined with Maurice’s obsession with Walt Disney’s early Mickey Mouse cartoons, (Maurice had assembled perhaps the greatest private collection of Mickey Mouse objects in existence,) and Laurel & Hardy comedies. IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN is one of the most complex and controversial children’s books ever.

In September 1984, I flew from Prague to Ridgefield Connecticut to present to Maurice my first rough animation storyboard concept. The impromptu discussion between Maurice and me at his home, was filmed by a caught-off-guard crew set up by Morton Schindel., who knew that it would be a historic moment in the life of Weston Woods. The raw footage. never ever shown before this!, can be seen here, complete and unedited.

Viewers of this blog are the first ever to see this warts-and–all document; Maurice and I duking it out at the birth of our IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN film, followed by a short peek at its actual opening seconds.   Perhaps one reason why this raw footage was never used was because of the bad camera work. It’s impossible to see what we are talking about. If you are really interested, I would suggest you have a copy of the book, “In The Night Kitchen” when viewing this!

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Ahead were months of further development. The musical concept was changed from operatic to Mickey Mouse, which delighted Sendak!  The completed film, distributed by Weston Woods, became Maurice’s favorite adaptation of his work!

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The result of all this were great reviews, as above, and a trove of prizes.  Happy End!

Now finally, here is the full story of my third film relating to Sendak! It was actually the only live action story movie I ever directed, ZLATEH THE GOAT, from a book written my Isaac Bashevis Singer, and illustrated by Maurice.

*If you will permit an aside, please note that I wish to avoid referring to homosexuals as “gay.” I realize that long words upset many people, and to constantly refer to Homosexuals and Heterosexuals can be tiring.  However, I have never understood that gaiety had anything to do with sexual orientation.  And it’s dismaying that mention of such classic titles as “The Gay Divorcee,” or reference to “The Gay Nineties,” evokes giggles today.

And how about the evocative lyrics of the World War 2 hit song, ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris,” referring to the pre-war times, when ‘our hearts were young and gay?”  Even my father was called “a gay blade,” though there was nothing homosexual about him!  And I can no longer say that “last night I attended a gay party,” without arousing smirks. As a lover of the English language I resent the destruction of a useful word.

Weston Woods gave our production of IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN a maximum send off, with the cover and inside articles of their 1987 catalog!

Among our most prized Sendak souvenirs is this drawing of Zdenka he made into a model for his adaptation of the Janáček opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen.” and autographed to her..

Maurice’s final masterpiece, BRUNDIBAR *  brought to flower his long attraction to Czech culture, which I believe was first inseminated in his 1969 visit to us here.  We walked together through the dark corners of Prague’s Malá Strana, Staré Město, Hradčany  and Josefov.  All of the architectural elements of those ancient Prague places are spotted throughout this book, and mashed together in the composite below, joined together from two of the book’s illustrations; unmistakably  magical Prague!   What a film we could have made from this!

Tony Kushner’s text, and Maurice’s illustrations are together a grand composite, with layers of meanings beyond what a non-Czech child – or probably most non-Czech adults – are likely to perceive.  It’s all coded from the Jewish suffering from Hitler’s Holocaust.

 To nit-pick this masterpiece, I am only sorry Maurie didn’t check out the Czech with his old friends, Gene & Zdenka.  The worst error is in the name of the little girl heroine.  It could not possibly be “Aninku,” as unfortunately engraved forever within the book’s pagesIt must be “Aninka,” the nominative form in the convoluted Czech language, a diminutive of Anna.  “Aninku” would be one of the tangle of grammatical forms, such as “I saw Aninku.” (Viděl jsem Aninku.) I won’t bore you further with all of the possible grammatical variations of the name!  OK, hair-splitting to mos,, but head-splitting to Czech readers.  It would have been nice if he’d got it right.

 *Czech: “brundibár.” (bumble bee)  That mark over the á is not an accent, as in English, but indicates a long sound.  All Czech words are accented on the first syllable.


14 thoughts on “61. Maurice Sendak

  1. Thanks for posting that clip of the original 1973 version of “Where the Wild Things Are”. If you could, could you post the entire feature? I’d really like to see the rest of it.

    • I’d love to post the entire film, Trevor, but I only have permission so far from Weston Woods to post a few scenes. but I’ m arguing that this version is not being sold, so it would not cut into their sales.
      So I hope to be able to soon put up the complete film. Hope! Gene

  2. Great interview! Two genuises at work/play! It was interesting to hear your original thoughts together and then see the clip of the finished product.
    The cunning Vixen AKA Zdenka is classic.
    I have never heard the 2nd soundtrack for Wild Things until now, and my allegience will remain with the 1973 !
    I remember your not liking the pirating of the “rainbow” as a symbol for homosexuality. Kinda’ like the word “gay”. xoLynn

  3. This comment received from Marcy Page, referring to my required kid-glove Sendak handling:

    On May 23, 2012, at 12:02 AM, Page Marcy wrote:

    Hi Gene, Quite a treat to look at all that nicely organized material on your collaborations with Maurice Sendak. An important visual legacy. The storyboard session for The Night Kitchen was quite amusing. You were very, very patient! Thank you for posting it all and letting us know to look. All best wishes, Marcy

  4. Great write-up, Gene. I like that you made sure that the author is happy with the adaptation, even if it means spending years and years working on it. It’s nice to have a good relation with the original author; I know there are others who either downplay or outright ignore input from the author when working on an adaptation of their work (Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones being a good example).

    Just wondering if you’ve seen the interview Stephen Colbert did with Maurice Sendak, which was broadcast early this year. It’s really, really funny.

    • In recent interviews, Maurice indulged in purposely outrageous remarks, often in contradiction to things he said or wrote to me. He relished shocking interviewers.

  5. Great article, Gene, and thanks so much for sharing the videos and images.

    Interesting to see you mention the timing of this feature — how you were working on it just as news broke about Sendak’s passing. I had a somewhat similar experience:

    Mere hours before I heard the news of Sendak’s passing, I was purchasing a VHS copy of “The Maurce Sendak Library” at a thrift store. I had seen some of the productions included when I was young, and later became a fan of Peter Schikele’s musical comedy works. I also loved Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” book as a child, and your animated adaptation really stuck in my mind how it brought Sendak’s marvelous illustrations to life.

    I hadn’t remembered the production in years, and nostalgia urged me to make an impulse buy to add the title to my collection of animated media. It was bittersweet and a little heartbreaking to hear the news just a few hours later that Sendak had passed away.

  6. Loved the article, Gene, and the accompanying images/video as well. I also find it interesting to read about how timely it was that you were preparing this feature when the news broke of Sendak’s passing, and how I had a somewhat similar experience:

    Mere hours before I heard the news that Maurice Sendak had passed away I was purchasing a video copy of “The Maurice Sendak Library” on VHS from a thrift store. I had seen some of the productions included on it when I was young and later became a fan of Peter Schickele’s musical comedy works. And I loved Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” book as a child, and your adaptation of it was such a delight to see Sendak’s striking visuals come to life.

    Until seeing the VHS copy in the store, I hadn’t remembered the production in years and thought it would make a nice addition to my animated library. So it was bittersweet and a little heartbreaking to hear news of his passing just a few hours later.

  7. Pingback: The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

  8. One thing about geniuses, they are prone to sudden enthusiasms. I think the change in music was a moment when Maurice’s imagination latched on to something and ran with it. Your music was just right at that moment, and Peter Schikele’s was just right another moment. He probably had music of all sorts running through his head as he drew the books, and different music when he looked at them years later!
    The film of you reviewing the storyboard was fascinating.

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