Director Spike Jonze’s new live action movie, Where the Wild Things Are takes on the ambitious task of bringing a boy’s boundless adventure fantasy to life in the real world. But where? To capture a stunning mix of extreme landscapes, Jonze’s team spent five months on location along the southernmost edge of Australia in Victoria. Here they found the rain, hail, whipping winds, and even rogue waves to be welcome, if daunting, challenges (particularly for the actors in the Wild Things costumes, which weighed up to a hundred pounds each). We caught up with production designer K.K. Barrett and producer Vincent Landay, both longtime Jonze collaborators, to learn more about where the action happened, close calls, and how nature called the shots.—Mary Anne Potts
You considered many destinations—Argentina, Hawaii, New Zealand. Why Australia?
K. K. Barrett: We wanted to create a world that would be relevant to the story and a child’s imagination. And a world that Max could invent on his own and that the audience could absorb as new. Australia seemed to have the greatest diversity in a tight distance: Most of the locations were about 45 minutes to an hour and a half from Melbourne, and they were all so extreme. Max’s imagination drives the story as he's changing and inventing new worlds. He’s constantly taken aback by them and then accepts them and makes them his own. So each location needed to represent that.
Certainly shooting in forests, on sand dunes, and in choppy open water is harder than in a studio. Why bother?
Barrett: Being in these remote locations was like camping out—but with giant creatures and a film crew. Most movies like this are shot in a sound stage to avoid the challenges of a real location. To us, having the feel of a real environment—both for the actors as well as through the camera—was an important element.
Vincent Landay: Spike always wanted it to be like a nature film, as if we were filming the creatures in the wild and stalking them, rather than setting them up directly in front of us. So most of the film is shot from Max’s point of view, at a nine-year-old’s height, so he’s looking up at their imposing size. It was important to be really enveloped in nature.
At the very beginning of the movie, Max is marooned on an island after an epic voyage. Where was that shot?
Barrett: It’s in a bay near Melbourne. But most of the dramatic scenes took place in Bushrangers Bay. The next stop around the corner is Antarctica, which means there’s very material weather that comes through. It would be cold; it would be hot; it would rain; it would hail. The changing weather helped reinforce the characters’ changing temperaments and their volatility.
The sea is so choppy in that scene.
Landay: It’s all real. Max is a very good sailor. We gave him sailing lessons before we started filming, but he also had a sailing double and a production crew just out of sight.
One thing we know for sure is that anything can happen out on the water. Were there any close calls?
Landay: Lance Acord, our cinematographer, was out filming from the point of view of Max, and it seemed safe enough. He’s a surfer; he volunteered. So he’s basically being Max on the boat, but then a rogue wave came and tipped him over. He got tangled in the sail and was tied to his camera, which was basically pulling him down. He was under quite awhile. But because he was used to being what we call “Maytagged,” which is being held in the spin cycle underwater, he kept his head. He freed himself from the line, left the camera on the bottom, and came back up.
Did you lose the camera?
Landay: We retrieved the camera and rushed that to the lab. They kept it in water and pulled the film out. We got the shot, and it’s in the movie. And we got Lance, too, so that was pretty good.
We heard a lot about Victoria during the devastating bush fires last year. Some of trees do look charred in the film. Is that just a coincidence?
Barrett: We finished our filming long before the recent fires happened. But Australia does a lot of controlled burns to limit large forest fires. When we were scouting, we saw an area of forest that had burned that we got really excited about. It enticed us to play around and throw dirt clots at each other. The fire had gone through very quickly—the trees were blackened, and the leaves that fell from up above had dried out and made a silver ground cover. But, the black trunks also had new sprouts coming out; it was definitely a land in upheaval and emotional imbalance. It was old and new at the same time. We wanted to bring this to the film.
Where are the forests in the movie?
Barrett: There were two forests. One was Gembrook Forest, also on the the southeastern side of Melbourne bay. That was an eucalyptus forest that had burned. The first forest from our scouting trip the year before had come back to life too quickly. It was in a national park and the rangers were very excited about the germination of these seeds that had been dormant for so long. We didn't want to upset the nature that way, so we found a Boy Scout camp that had been burned more recently. It was already semi-accessible to the public, so we didn't feel like we were treading on new growth so much.
Were there any scenes that changed dramatically because of the weather?
Landay: Bushrangers Bay is where we shot the scene of the creatures howling on the cliff overlooking the ocean. That day we got 25-mile-an-hour winds, just blowing. So imagine the actors in these 12-foot-tall creature costumes (which are, in general, difficult to walk in), just getting blown over by the wind. We basically had to take cover for several hours while we figured out what else to do that day. In the end, we went down to the beach—it was still really windy, but not like on the top of the cliff—and shot a scene that only required Carol [the main Wild Thing] to sit down with Max and talk to him. Meanwhile, then, we had this incredibly rough and wild surf out there. We wanted to embrace nature as a character in the film—which would have been a lot easier without the giant creatures.
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The sand dunes look more like a desert. Where was that scene shot?
Barrett: That was in Discovery Bay Coastal Park. It was maybe six hours from Melbourne, right on the border with South Australia and Victoria. It’s another spot with volatile weather, where the continent turns north; a spit of land where the sea comes right up to it and pushes the dunes inland for 10 to 15 miles. It was pretty powerful to be down in the dunes. I can imagine how people would get lost in the Sahara. We embraced what nature served us. The stronger the weather and the geographic location were in combination, the happier we were. We were happy if it rained. We just took it and kept going.
What did it take to go rolling down those sand dunes?
Barrett: We were scouting sand dunes before I was really excited about it. So we took Spike and our stunt coordinator out there to walk to the top of the dunes. They kind of looked at each other, and the next thing I know they were kind of head over heels, tumbling down the dunes.
Landay: Spike’s game for anything, but the stunt coordinator is about 50 years old—and he just didn’t hesitate a beat. He was like, I know what Spike’s going to ask. Then I have to see if I can do it. Then I’ll know if guys in monster suits can do it.
Is it harder in a costume like that?
Landay: Actually, I don’t know if it’s worse to be in a costume or not. You just end up at the bottom and then put yourself back together.
Photographs courtesy of Warner Brothers