In 2003, filmmakers Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze arrive at the Connecticut home of legendary children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. For 50 years, 80-year-old Sendak has written and/or illustrated over 50 books including The Sign on Rosie's Door, In the Night Kitchen, A Hole Is to Dig and perhaps his most famous work, Where the Wild Things Are, winner of the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1964. His work has been heralded as "magical," "enchanting," "sublime," "timeless" and "masterful." As the camera first captures Sendak, he is a frenetic ball of energy, excited to meet Jonze, but when Jonze asks him if he has any advice for young people, Sendak says, "Quit this life as soon as possible. Get out, get out," revealing his macabre side.
Inside Sendak's barn, where he does most of his work, the radio and Herman, his German shepherd, are his only companions. Maurice also shares his home with his good friend, Lynn Caponera, whom he calls "the only woman in my life." Lynn is quick to point out that Maurice is often proposed to by women. Jonze adds that one of the stars of his film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, Catherine Keener, proposed to him as well. Sendak is dubious about whether that will come together. Keener then comes to visit, and it is clear that she looks on Maurice in a very loving, fatherly way. As they sit and talk, we learn that Sendak was the baby of his family, with one older brother, Jack, and a sister, Natalie, and that a lot of his family experience became a part of his work. Sendak says that his parents used to tell him he was an unplanned accident, and that because they could not afford another baby they tried several times to end the pregnancy to no avail. Sendak says it was a story his parents told him often, not out of malice, but purely because it was a good story.
Sendak was very close with his brother and sister, who took it upon themselves to help him along the way. His brother taught him to read and they worked on early drawings together as well as building wood toys. Sendak shows off some of the toys they built together 60 years prior, all still in working order. Sendak says he didn't have a lot of friends, preferring to sit at his window observing and drawing children, telling their stories. He says that his drawings of children were perceived as "European" because they were more real, not idealized as many depictions of children of the day were. Author Ruth Krauss loved Sendak's illustrations and asked him to work with her on her book, A Hole Is to Dig. From the age of 20 on, Sendak had a book out almost every year, and at 32 he got to write his own book, Where the Wild Things Are. When first released, Sendak says a lot of people didn't get it; it was banned and there were terrible reviews because it "broke rules about how a child should be dealt with." Yet, Sendak's longtime Editor, Ursula Nordstrom, had encouraged him to push the boundaries. Within two years of its release, the book was universally embraced by children. With another book, In the Night Kitchen, Sendak says his experiences made their way into his books. Kitchen, a happy romp, was Sendak's escape as he dealt with his parents' deaths.
Jonze asks Sendak if he ever wanted kids and Sendak says no. He believes "having children takes talent like any creative thing you do," but he wanted to devote his life to being an artist. He also says that being gay solved that problem. He feels that the realization that he was gay when he was 19 had a negative effect on his life because of intolerance at that time. He saw it as more "bad news," like facing an operation. As he became more successful, he felt that the knowledge of his homosexuality could ruin his career, but he cared less as time went on.
Jonze's interviews reveal Sendak's strange obsession with death, a subject he talks about almost constantly. Sendak feels that death has always been a part of his life, and talks about the profound effect seeing a picture of the corpse of the Lindbergh baby had on him as a young child. He included a likeness of the baby in his book, Outside Over There. Sendak also recounts the traumatic story of witnessing a childhood friend die from being struck by a car while chasing a ball Sendak threw. Realizing that children could die, not just older people, was a terrible insight for Sendak, and it may also be the thing that invested him in writing about childhood.
With all he has accomplished, Sendak still wishes he could have done more. Second to his obsession with death is his fixation on fame, his wanting to be a major figure in the arts, which he believes he is and he isn't. Sendak admits that he does not know how to be happy. He laments that artists of other ages did not know of their fame before their deaths, so in their minds, their work came to nothing. Jonze asks Sendak what he would miss if he had never been born. He says Lynn, his most trusted friend, his siblings, his dog Jenny (who he illustrated in many of his books) and his partner, Eugene. And of course, the work: Sendak says, "I did some very good books. They were the only true happiness I've ever enjoyed in my entire life." As he continues to reflect, Sendak realizes he is a lucky man, because he got to do everything he wanted to do. He does not see a demarcation between childhood and adulthood, and his ability to talk to children and tell them what is true that makes his work so honest. Sendak muses that he doesn't know why his focus has been on childhood, but concludes, "I guess that's where my heart is."
Credits: Directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze; Executive Producers: Donna Bascom, Warren Dern and Mary Wharton; Produced by Perry Moore, Hunter Hill, Allison Sarofim and Vincent Landay; Co-Producer Chiemi Karasawa; Music by Karen O and Carter Burwell; Edited by Jeff Buchanan.