Maciek Szczerbowski tells us what it was like adapting another beloved Maurice Sendak illustrated book.
There's more Maurice Sendak to enjoy. As part of the Blu-ray for Where the Wild Things Are, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (Madame Tutli-Putli) have adapted Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life as a live action/animated short, produced by the National Film Board of Canada in association with Warner Home Video. Produced by Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay and Marcy Page, Higglety Pigglety features the voices of Meryl Streep and Forest Whitaker. A tribute to Sendak's dearly departed pooch, the story follows Jennie (Streep), a Sealyham terrier, who hits the road to gain "experience" on her transcendental journey to becoming the leading lady in the World Mother Goose Theatre. Szczerbowski discusses how they whipped up this Sendak dessert.
Bill Desowitz: How did this come about?
Prior to the release of Madame Tutli-Putli, it was noticed by a fellow named Russell, who works with Spike Jonze, and it was suggested to him when they were looking for someone to contribute to a larger package in tribute to Maurice Sendak to go along with the Wild Things feature. He called us in France while promoting the Synecdoche, New York project. So, of course, we met up and hit it off over beers and he pitched us the idea of doing some other short story by Maurice Sendak and gave us pretty much creative freedom to pick a story. And so not being familiar with all of them, found them in the library and really, really got turned on by one in particular, which was Higglety Pigglety Pop!, maybe the most narrative of all his works but also one of the most profound.
BD: And it had to complement Wild Things.
MS: Yeah, we realized that the bar was raised very, very high here and if we're in any way providing a dessert after a meal like that then it had better be as good. Having said that, we really didn't know how we were going to do that. Higglety Pigglety Pop! was a good story and one with a lot of meat in it, a rich story you can see over and over again, and we're very attracted by things like that. But nevertheless, how to do that? How to make a smarmy, hairy dog? We knew we couldn't do it in stop-motion or any of the old techniques that we normally use. First of all, we had 10 months to do the entire thing, which is pretty mental when you consider that the entire cast is talking animals, 17 locations and 25 scenes. We knew we had to try something a little bit different and our first very erroneous instinct was to use live-action puppetry, which we figured would be time saving, compared to working one frame per second with puppets. But, boy, were we wrong. We realized the whole thing is a lethal morass of much depth and murkiness all to its own. The main problem we discovered right away is that good puppeteers are extremely rare. And if you're lucky enough to reach one, they'll tell you they're booked in advance for a year-in-a-half. But we lucked out: we solved those problems, found the best people and then engaged in the really crazy process of building these things and figuring out how they were going to deliver a performance, which ultimately worked, but it was not at all as easy as we would have expected.
BD: So, what was this fabulous learning experience like?
We did the whole classical gamut of it: the false floors, hand puppets, sometimes up to eight puppeteers working a single puppet. At the same time, we threw into it live actors, crazy amounts of locations, which we all did in miniature. It was a lot of special effects work, given the schedule, was quite mental to pull off.
BD: And there was animation on top of it, too?
MS: Yeah, there was a little bit of everything… there's stop-motion in bits where they were required, but we knew this couldn't be a purist experiment. We actually thought of it in terms of problem-solving: What would have a better dramatic effect? It was our first foray into the complete melding of all the techniques that we could even think of, minus any 3D. That's only because we don't know how to do it.
BD: Tell us about Jennie.
Yeah, the Sealyham terrier: We knew that if Jennie isn't done right, it doesn't matter what else is done right. She was the beating heart of the whole thing and needed to be treated with respect and precision. It had to be its own sovereign character, very much an extension of Maurice, if not written as himself as a dog. So how realistic how to go with that was our first question. Do we in any way trick you into thinking that it isn't a puppet and a talking dog? That was the first thing we threw out onto the table when we met our puppeteers, and I don't think there's a single puppeteer in the world who likes that idea, and they quickly talked us out of it. And I think they were completely right: you don't want to deny yourself the emotional truth and cartoonism available through puppets. So we went for that and found amazing people to build these puppets for us and with us. And it was the first time that we were screaming directions at an actor who could neither see nor hear us. And we had to intentionally cast extremely short actors so that Jennie wouldn't look too small so that we could actually play with a little of the storybook abstraction of Maurice's drawings.
BD: And how did you get Meryl Streep.
MS: We had not yet cast the voice of the character before we had started shooting. This was a bit of a problem, so many of the shots were done before we even met Meryl and the voice was delivered by our puppeteer. Weirdly enough, we were given by Maurice, an old copy of a recording that he had done with Meryl reading the entire book from beginning to end, with him directing it, doing all the voices and projecting as though she were reading to an audience of 200. And it was great. So we asked whether she would do it and we were super lucky for her to have agreed. Also, this is not a typical role either for a voice actor or for the character. That is to say it's actually a synthesis of three people: the people who built the puppet, the people working it and the voice. I think Jennie worked really, really well as a character. This was our big nerve and I think we got her well. I think Meryl gave us a perfect performance. What more can I say about her that people haven't already? She even re-recorded some of the lines which we didn't even think were a problem later by herself when she saw her edit because she thought she could do things better, which is amazing. She was also right.
BD: And what does Maurice Sendak think?
We're about to find out. We're driving sometime soon with the film. We know he liked it -- he really liked it. But that's all we know. We haven't heard his actual opinion. So, he had the right to just stop it, but he didn't. He wasn't so alien to it -- he was really involved. From the very beginning, we got the chance to meet a few times and talk over the phone and discuss the finer points of what things are about. I think we probably got a better education of what the story is about than any academic who's tried to figure it out -- really secrets that we got out of him. Not only that, he got quite intimately into the script with us when we were writing the screenplay.
BD: What kind of secrets?
Well, they're secrets.
BD: Personal, autobiographical?
Yeah, [primary source information], that for our own good, we just needed to know what they were before we put them on the screen, presuming that they're something else. And there wouldn't have been any way of knowing these things if he hadn't simply told us.
BD: What new meaning did you glean?
MS: What new meaning? Interesting question. I don't know if I can answer that. I don't know if there is a new meaning. Hopefully, it didn't become anything accidental that it wasn't intended to be. And if it has, I don't know what that is. It's an incredibly dark story; it's a thinly disguised death trip. We looked at it from the Tibetan Book of the Dead angle and we looked at it from our own spooky mirror from the last film angle, which is a lady who packs her bags and sets out on a transcendental journey to someplace cleaner.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.