'Tell Them Anything You Want' has an interesting start, growing out of Spike Jonze's work on 'Where the Wild Things Are.' What was your approach when you started?
Well, Spike and Maurice had been friends for years, and when work started on 'Where the Wild Things Are,' we started cutting some footage together with the idea that we'd make a kind of portrait film about Maurice. It was meant to be a separate film with a different tone that wouldn't necessarily play for the same audience as 'Wild Things,' but more for someone later in their life, looking at the course of what it was like to live through the twentieth century and the hardships that went on during that time. It also explores what it's like to live a full life and to come to terms with dealing with the desire for fame and recognition, the satisfaction that you may or may not find in being a working artist, the relationships you have over the course of a life, and finally, preparing yourself for what the end of your life is going to be like.
We decided to shape the film to be entirely in the world of Maurice's house, where everything is just him speaking directly to camera, or just walking with him and seeing his eyes dart around and his grimace and his gestures. So the film ended up being a lot more intimate and personal than we might've conceived originally. As we continued to shoot more, Maurice got excited about documenting the seminal events of his life - events that had been deeply etched into his consciousness as a child that he thought were maybe the genesis of a lot of his artwork over the years.
One of the things we see in his artwork is a kind of obsession with death.
Maurice was definitely focused on the imminence of death and what that means for a person as they head to that point of their life. It was something that was deeply wrought through a lot of his work from very early on. A lot of it came from some very formative experiences or things that happened while he was a child that he either witnessed or imagined or lived through directly. For instance, he and his parents moved to the United States and were living in Brooklyn, but a lot of his extended family was killed during the Holocaust. Prior to that, the Depression affected him and his family. They were very poor and he was in Brooklyn during that time period, going through that hardship. So from early on he was very conscious and aware of death and the sort of fragility of childhood and how things could go wrong or end for you at any time.
His books don't fall neatly into the children's book category, do they?
He didn't think of himself in terms of being a kiddie book author. His influences include William Blake, Mozart, Winsor McCay, and Melville, especially; those are the artists that really resonated and that he plunged his mind into and sort of swam around in, creatively. But the work he did that was recognized commercially was the sort of illustrations that he'd been hired to do for a series of children's books in the first half of the twentieth century. In a lot of that work he was humanizing children, and actually drawing them. At that time, there weren't really books that had children as characters that were being published in America for children. The deeper, darker themes he was drawing from Melville and Blake were in his mind, creatively, and I think that's what people ended up recognizing and responding to, those deeper emotions and acceptance of a larger world than the mass market kids books might have been prior to him.
And yet Maurice doesn't have kids and isn't particularly drawn to them, but he writes books that are cherished by them.
That's true. It was a sort of peculiarity that at that point he stumbled onto an artwork that children responded to. But I think some of that was due to a change in the times. 'Where the Wild Things Are' came out in 1963 and found its audience around '64, which is the same time that the Beatles were taking over in the States and the Kennedy assassination was playing out. There was a massive cultural shift going on at that time. The darker, more troubling thoughts that happen sometimes in teenagers and children are seen in his work in a way that wasn't really reflected before him. He himself is not really fond of spending time around kids or running around with them, and he doesn't think that everything that they say is cute and adorable. But something about that coming out in his work, kids do recognize and respond to and appreciate. And not only 'Wild Things' but his books 'Really Rosie' and 'In the Night Kitchen' and a whole world of work you may have seen during your own childhood, but not realized, was all done by this one man.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I hope they come to understand the amazing spirit and dazzling creativity and mind of Maurice Sendak. I hope people see that even if you have no children yourself but you appreciate a unique perspective of an amazing artist ... If you see this work and get more of a sense of who this person was behind it, you can get to know and love his mind and his endless imagination.