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Undiagnosed Asperger's Leads To 'Life As An Outsider'

For most of his life, music critic Tim Page felt like an outsider. Restless and isolated, he was uneasy around others. Finally, when he was 45, Page was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

21:23

Other segments from the episode on October 13, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 13, 2009: Interview with Tim Page; Interview with Spike Jonze; Review of the graphic comic book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days."

Transcript

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Undiagnosed Asperger's Leads To 'Life As An Outsider'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Tim Page, is a Pulitzer
Prize-winning music critic who found out in middle age that he had the
autistic disorder Asperger’s Syndrome. That helped explain the lifelong
unease he experienced and why his pervasive childhood memory was an
excruciating awareness of his own strangeness.

Page has written a new memoir called “Parallel Play: Life as an
Outsider.” It’s about how his condition affected his life and his
relationship with music. Page won the Pulitzer in 1997 for his work as
chief classical music critic at the Washington Post. That was three
years before his diagnosis.

Before joining the Post, he was a music critic at the New York Times and
Newsday. He’s now a professor of journalism and music at the University
of Southern California.

Tim Page, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did they tell you when they gave
you the diagnosis of Asperger’s? What did they tell you that meant?

Professor TIM PAGE (University of Southern California): Well, I’m now
allowed by my middle son to tell the circumstances where I was
diagnosed.

We had taken my son Robbie in because he was having some social
difficulties, and that’s when he was diagnosed, and he has just given me
permission to talk about this because he’s 19. That’s when I was
diagnosed. I’d never heard of it. It turns out it’s terribly hereditary.
It turns out that a good amount of adults are actually diagnosed when
their children are diagnosed, and my own guess is that my father had it
too.

So you know, the doctor just gave a long and thoughtful explanation of
the condition and then diagnosed my son and then said you have it too.
And so I went out and I went to see my own doctor, and I read up on it,
and I was pretty sure that I had it as well.

GROSS: What year and how old were you when you were diagnosed with
Asperger’s?

Prof. PAGE: I was 45 years old, and it was in the fall of 2000. So it
was either – I believe I was then still 45, but I turned 46 that fall.
I’ll give you a good description from David Mamet, who wrote in his book
“Bambi vs. Godzilla” about Asperger’s Syndrome, and he wrote that it’s
not impossible that it helped make the movies. The symptoms of this
developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to
maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in
age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high
intelligence, and difficulty with transition, married to a preternatural
ability to concentrate on the minutiae of the task at hand.

I had all of that. I continue to have all of that. I can remember all
sorts of trivia, but I don’t notice what somebody has on. I neglect my,
you know, my shirt tails, and you know – I guess it’s sort of like your
absentminded professor times five, if that makes any sense. And it’s
somewhere, at least most experts agree, it’s somewhere along the
autistic spectrum, which means somewhere in the zero to 100 of, you
know, zero having no autistic traits and 100 being completely isolated,
I’m somewhere in the middle.

GROSS: Usually when you get a diagnosis, the goal is to get some kind of
medication or therapy to help fix it. With what you have, which is, you
know, Asperger’s, is there something you’re trying to fix, or is the
diagnosis just helping you define certain behavior patterns and help you
figure out who you are and how to make the most of who you are?

Prof. PAGE: I would say that the diagnosis helped me realize that there
were certain things that were part of my nature and that were pretty
much fixed, that were not very changeable, much as I would like them to
be changeable, and it helped me avoid things, I would say, for the most
part. But I was already on all sorts of palliative things for people
with Asperger’s.

I mean, I’ve had my own little prescription for Valium since I was 15,
and I’ve been on antidepressants, and I’ve been on – you know, I
meditate. I do everything I can to sort of get through a day, and most
days I get through pretty well, and I know when I need to just escape
and get rid of whatever over-stimulation I’m feeling and sort of calm
myself, and that’s the big struggle for me during the day, and you know,
before the one at night, which is getting to sleep one way or another.

I’d like to think that there’s a utopia someplace where kids who are two
and three, it’s explained to them gently what they have, and they’re
given some therapy that helps them to deal with parents, teachers,
peers, and maybe the depression and the anxiety will go away. But
certainly depression and anxiety were concomitant states that I’ve had
since I came to consciousness.

GROSS: You write: From early childhood, my memory was so acute and my
wit so bleak that I was described as a genius. I wrapped myself in this
mantle as poetic justification for behavior that might otherwise have
been judged unhinged. Like what? What kind of license did your
eccentricities give you?

Prof. PAGE: Well, I don’t think they really gave me a whole lot of
license, but the school kind of had to put up with me, and it was a
small town, so they promoted me to the next grade. I was either asleep,
looking out windows when the teacher was talking about something that I
wasn’t interested in, or I was acting out and making faces and, you
know, answering with ridiculous questions or just basically showing my
contempt for the class all through my childhood.

And I couldn’t get this out of my system. I would – you know, I was
aggressive, and I’d push people out on the playground. I mean, I wasn’t
really a bully because I was inept as an athlete, but I got D’s and F’s
and an occasional C. I was thrilled when I got a B. It was really one of
those things where I simply couldn’t concentrate except on the stuff
that I could concentrate on very well, and back then the idea that
somebody could be articulate and could actually still have an autistic
disorder, they didn’t compute - the idea of somebody who was autistic,
was somebody who rarely spoke and maybe banged his head.

And I was sort of doing my own version of head-banging, although it was
not quite in the same way. And so I just – the thing that was really
nice was some teachers, recognizing that I was over-stimulated, would
let me go to the nurse’s office, where I’d calm myself down, and the
nicest teachers would actually let me stay in at recess, where I’d
always get in trouble and get myself punched out or something, nd I’d
just stay in and I’d read through the World Book Encyclopedia, and I
basically memorized it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PAGE: It was a strange brain, you know?

GROSS: Looking back, how do you think Asperger’s Syndrome affected your
interest in music and how you listened to music when you were coming of
age?

Prof. PAGE: I have this theory that Asperger’s Syndrome has been hugely
important for me with music because it was the first world that made any
sense to me.

I didn’t really understand what was going on around me. I didn’t
understand what people really wanted me to do, what kind of expressions.
You know, I was a very lost little kid, but my mom had this record
player and she was kind enough to let me ruin her record collection by
just playing records over and over and over again, and I’d memorize what
all the music was and it allowed me passage into a world where
everything made sense and where I felt this profound sense of being at
home in the world. And I – it was always very easy for me to talk about
music.

I mean, I couldn’t identify chords of anything technical, but I could
make at least enough sense out of it for me that it showed me that there
was kind of another dimension out there and I wanted to be in that
dimension as much as I could, because the real world didn’t make any
sense to me.

GROSS: You write in your book, that when you first heard Philip Glass
and his patterned, minimalist music, that you felt – I forget the words
you exactly use - but you felt like you were listening to the inside of
your very essence, you know

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PAGE: Yeah, yeah, pretty much.

GROSS: Describe what you felt when you first heard minimalist music.

Prof. PAGE: Well, I’d heard a little bit of it, beforehand, because
there were a couple of records that came out in the late ‘60s. Terry
Riley and Steve Reich did some fairly early recordings. So I knew a
little bit about it, but the – 1976 was a huge year for me because there
was the world premiere of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” and
then later in the year, the U.S. premiere of “Einstein on the Beach” by
Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. And especially with “Music for 18
Musicians,” it had me so incredibly excited by all that was going on in
the music that I went up to my room, and I started writing what I
consider my first, more or less, mature criticism.

GROSS: We cued up - because you mentioned it in your book, we cued up
Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” I want to play the first minute
of it, and then I want you to talk about it and tell us if you remember
what you wrote about it, because you say the first real, serious piece
of music criticism that you wrote was about this piece after you heard
it.

Prof. PAGE: Sure.

GROSS: So let’s give it a shot for a minute, and then we’ll talk.

(Soundbite of song, “Music for 18 Musicians”)

GROSS: That’s the opening of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,”
and…

Prof. PAGE: So wonderful.

GROSS: Isn’t it wonderful? I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So Tim Page, what does that music do for you when you hear it?

Prof. PAGE: Well, I thought I’d read you a little bit of what I wrote
that night.

GROSS: Oh, terrific, terrific.

Prof. PAGE: In April of 1976, as a 21-year-old having absolutely no idea
that anybody would ever publish me. But I spent the whole night trying
to describe that music in words, and I said: Imagine concentrating on a
challenging modern painting that becomes just a little bit different
every time you shift your attention from one detail to another, or try
to impose a frame on a running river, making it a finite, enclosed work
of art yet leaving its kinetic quality unsullied, leaving it flowing
freely on all sides. And then I said: It has been done. Steve Reich has
framed the river.

And I still have that same sort of feeling for this music. I guess I
would add, now, that it’s music that’s not so much about going places
and arriving somewhere and big crises and climaxes, as it is about the
actual journey rather than arrival or leaving from someplace. You’re
just fascinated by what’s going on at the moment, just surrendering
yourself to speed and jostling and, you know, gorgeous sensations that
overwhelm you. And I love the sort of patterning of it all.

GROSS: And, you know, the patterning is very repetitious, but at the
same time, it’s constantly shifting in perceptible and almost
imperceptible ways. Does that speak to you?

Prof. PAGE: Very, very much, and that really is what I think my insides
feel like, but it calls to mind this kind of ecstatic quality, which I
have occasionally felt. One of my very few visual, you know, ecstasies
is watching clouds change slowly over the course of an afternoon. I love
process. I love patterns. I love seeing things just change slightly, but
also still catching you up in the whole process. And that’s something
that I remember from being very, very young, and I love the fact that
there are some wonderful musicians who are exploring that now.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Tim Page. He’s a Pulitzer
Prize-winning music critic who has written for the Washington Post and
the New York Times. He’s now a professor of journalism and music at the
University of Southern California. His new memoir is called “Parallel
Play: Life as an Outsider,” and it’s about his life and about how
Asperger’s Syndrome has figured into that. Let’s take a short break
here, and then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page. He’s
now a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern
California. His new memoir, “Parallel Play,” is about learning that he
had Asperger’s Syndrome and how that knowledge has affected his life and
how living with Asperger’s Syndrome has affected his childhood and his
adulthood.

As a teenager, you tried LSD several times, and you say the trips were
nightmarish. And I’m wondering if you think your symptoms were magnified
by the LSD and if that contributed to the bad trips?

Prof. PAGE: Anything in the world that makes me more self-conscious is
the enemy, and LSD and marijuana, both of which I tried and tried and
tried to like in my mid-teens - you know, college campus and a lot of my
friends doing them - were really sort of nightmarish for me. I had a
great time on marijuana for a while, but it started to induce panic
attacks, which continued. And I think they may have had something to do
with the LSD that I took.

All of this stuff I did before I ever, you know, drank wine civilly. It
was so much easier, in those days, especially on a college campus, to
find drugs than it was to, you know, split a six-pack of beer. And so I
think, probably, my anxiety level was not going to be helped by these,
you know, very much internalizing drugs. And with LSD, in one case, I
just took such a huge dose that I just lost myself entirely, and it’s –
you know, I thought that taking LSD would be like swallowing a movie,
and I’d just be watching it on a screen, and I’d see some nice things
and some frightening things. But what happens, of course, is that your
whole brain is so screwed up, and you’re so lost by it, that all that it
did for me was just made me want to scream and run and escape from all
this terror that was in my system - which I think is there, pretty much,
to begin with, but certainly those kind of drugs make it much, much
worse. And it’s, you know, they’ve been something that I’ve avoided, you
know, very strongly for, you know, 35 years.

GROSS: I want to bring up something that I don’t think you write about
in the book, and this had a big impact on you professionally. And I
think it’s possible it relates to what we were talking about, in terms
of inappropriate behavior that you’ve…

Prof. PAGE: I think I know where you’re going.

GROSS: Yeah, you know where I’m driving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: A couple of years ago, when you were a music critic at the
Washington Post, you were – you wrote a very inappropriate email to one
of Marion Barry’s aide’s, and you were on their, like, email list for
their press releases and stuff, and you wanted to get off of it. And do
you mind if I just quote the line that you wrote?

Prof. PAGE: I don’t love it, but I don’t mind.

GROSS: Okay. You demanded to be taken off their email list and wrote:
Must we hear about it every time this crack addict attempts to
rehabilitate himself with some new and typically half-witted political
grandstanding? I would be grateful if you would take me off your mailing
list. I cannot think of anything the useless Marion Barry could do that
would interest me in the slightest, up to and including overdose.

So you apologized for that, after the fact, and…

Prof. PAGE: Yeah, I mean, well, I felt terribly that I’d done it, but
there was a story behind that. I had asked to be taken off the email
list before, and the – his flak had actually called me all sorts of
four-letter words and said things about my mother and, you know, just
was really impossible about it. And so this happened to come in on a
very, very bad day, and I thought well, they don’t seem to take my word
for it, so I’m going to zing it to them.

I never expected they’d turn it into anything, but – and you know, if I
were Marion Barry, I don’t think I’d want everybody in the world to
remember that I had been a crack addict or a crack user. But they seemed
to want to turn it into something, and they seemed to want to blame the
Washington Post for it, and they seemed to want to make me out as a
racist. And I was very crude there, but I felt that it was, you know,
something which I should apologize for, and I did. And the Post agreed
with me, and the Post stood by me.

And so, you know, he wanted to publicize it. He got his moment in the
sun, and you know, it was very embarrassing for me. I was miserable. I
had just been a split-up with somebody I loved dearly, and I
overreacted. I feel badly about it, but I still sometimes overreact to
things.

GROSS: You know, I’ve worn glasses since kindergarten, and you write in
your book that you rarely wear your glasses now because they make you
aware of too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PAGE: Yeah, yeah, I know.

GROSS: It’s an interesting choice.

Prof. PAGE: Well, it’s a quirk, and I should be wearing them, but I
don’t drive, and I see well enough to read. And I found that when I
started trying to adapt to glasses, two things happen. Number one, my
ability to read without glasses seems somewhat impacted; but number two,
I all of a sudden felt that I was being intimate with everybody on the
street.

You know, I’d just look at somebody. I’d look at them looking back at
me, and it began to feel very invasive and somewhat anxiety-provoking.
And so, since I don’t drive, I haven’t really had to wear glasses
because I can see close up front. But I guess, in general, I like the
fact that I kind of put the world together by sensation and sound and,
you know, patterns, and I find it strangely invasive to be out there.

It’s one of the reasons I don’t drive, too. I don’t want to compete with
people, and I think if I could, I’d like to be invisible.

GROSS: Tim Page, it’s been great to talk with you. Thank you very much.

Prof. PAGE: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Tim Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, who is now a
professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern
California. His new memoir is called “Parallel Play: Life as an
Outsider.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Spike Jonze Directs Mischief, 'Wild Things'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

The beloved children's book "Where the Wild Things Are" has been adapted
into a movie directed by my guest, Spike Jonze, who also directed
"Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich." Jonze co-wrote the screenplay
with Dave Eggers.

"Where the Wild Things Are" is an unlikely book for a film adaptation.
It's a short book with fantastic illustrations. Some pages have no
writing at all, others have one to three lines. As Jonze says, the book
is almost like a poem.

The story in the book is about a boy named Max who has been mischievous,
so his mother sends him to his room without dinner. Alone in his room,
he imagines his ceiling hung with vines and the walls becoming the world
all around with an ocean on which he sails to where the wild things are.
The wild things are fantastic creatures.

The film is not animated. The 10-feet-high wild things were created by
Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The boy is played by Max Records. The wild
things are voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker
and Paul Dano.

Here's a scene with Max and Gandolfini.

(Soundbite of movie, "Where the Wild Things Are")

Mr. JAMES GANDOLFINI (Actor): (as Carol) Well, this part of your kingdom
is not so good.

Mr. MAX RECORDS (Actor): (as Max) Why?

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (as Carol) Look, this, this used to all rock. And now
it's sand. And then one day it's going to be dust. And then the whole
island will be dust. And, and then I don’t even know what comes after
dust.

Mr. RECORDS: (as Max) Carol.

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (as Carol) Mm-hmm.

Mr. RECORDS: (as Max) Did you know the sun was going to die?

Mr. GANDOLFINI: (as Carol) What? I never heard that. Oh, come on. That
can't happen. For you’re the King and look at me. I'm big. How could
guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun? Huh?

GROSS: The idea that Spike Jonze adapt "Where the Wild Things Are" was
proposed by the author himself, Maurice Sendak. They’ve been friends for
about 14 years since working together on another project. Jonze declined
several times before saying yes, and even when he agreed to do it, he
was unsure how.

Mr. SPIKE JONZE (Director): As I started to think about, you know, just
what's in the book and thinking about expanding what's there and Max,
you know, at this moment of Max acting wild and out of control and
yelling at his mom and his mom yelling back at him and what that would
really mean, just sort of going deeper into it and what would the
moments in Max's life at home be about and what would be happening in
his life that led him to that, and then if Max gets to the island, what
would the wild things be like?

And I started to try and just go inside the book as opposed to thinking
of stuff I'd put on top of the book, and in thinking about who the wild
things were and when Max shows up and meets them or interacts with them,
what would they be like? And started to imagine them talking like us and
sounding like us, and that seemed really funny. Like a funny idea to see
these giant wild things, giant heads and giant eyes then speak, you
know, like us and not in like monster voices but, you know - and, but
then that didn’t seem like enough of an idea for a movie. That was like
a funny idea but not like an idea for a movie.

You know, whereas I kept thinking more about who they'd be, I started to
think of them as wild emotions and that idea seemed like a big one, like
in terms of something that can seem, you know, can seem scary, like out
of control emotions. I mean it seems scary as a kid and it can even
still seem scary and, you know, and out of control emotions in yourself
or the people you’re close to and like how to navigate those. And as a
kid, that seems like a big idea.

And so, you know, that was the way in, and it was sort of like that was
the key. And I soon as I had that idea, it seemed like it was like a
little riddle that had always been there for me in some way, that the
wild things were wild emotions. And that was - and I called Maurice and
said I think I'd like to do this and talked to him about it, and he was
really encouraging of me.

He never said if that was the right or wrong thing. And even when I was
nervous of, like, well, and this book means so much to so many people, I
was nervous, you know, that my idea was just sort of what the book meant
to me. Maurice was very encouraging. He was like almost belligerent in
his like, you know, his encouragement and like basically said you can't
care what anybody else thinks, you just got to make something that's
personal to you and make - and that was like his assignment to me.

GROSS: One of the most famous things obviously about the book "Where the
Wild Things Are" are the wild things themselves, the monsters that
Maurice Sendak created, which are, you know, a little scary but also
kind of adorable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And they have all these like human elements. Like one of them
seems to be almost wearing like a striped T-shirt and a couple of them
have actual feet instead of, you know, clawed hooves. And what was it
like for you to have to figure out how to adapt these two-dimensional
creatures? Well, I guess the movie's two dimensional too. But I mean
they're just drawn on the page. How did you decide whether you wanted to
go animation or, you know, live action, or some combination of the two?

Mr. JONZE: I mean I guess the initial idea of doing it live action with,
you know, building the creatures and shooting them for real with a, you
know, with a real little kid and a real location was just a, you know, I
don’t think I analyzed it that much. It's just - that's what felt right.
And then as I started - as Dave Eggers and I started writing together,
we started to talk about why that was important. And I think we
realized, or I realized, that that decision was sort of, you know,
important to taking the character seriously and taking his, you know,
this is his world.

And, you know, I think - when I read the book and I imagined being Max,
I didn’t imagine being Max in like some animated version. I would
imagined, you know, in the same way like when you play or with your
friends as a kid, you’re playing war and you’re - it’s totally real you.
And I think just taking - it’s another extension of taking Max
seriously, is just like put him in the situation and for real and you’re
not making like a movie version of it.

We wanted a real kid, not a movie kid and real f6amily situation, and by
extension, you know, taking his imagination seriously and making him -
allowing him to go to a real place with these creatures that are there
in front of him that can push him, hug him, and pat him on the head, and
with their claws sort of swiping close to his face. And there's just the
physicality of it and the naturalism and would add a visceral realism
and also add a danger to it. It would have more presence that would be
dangerous.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Spike Jonze and he co-
wrote and directed the new movie adaptation of the Maurice Sendak
children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are." He also directed the
movies "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" and a whole lot of rap
videos.

The actor who plays Max, his name is - the actor's name is Max Records.
How did you find him? Did you do a big like standard audition for
children?

Mr. JONZE: Yeah, we did. We did - probably for about a year we did
casting in all the big cities around the country and we found, you know,
amazing kids - like some kids that got, that we were really close
casting, actually. But we realized what we'd written and basically the
role we'd written for Max in the movie was a really complicated,
challenging role, and the level of performance that we were looking for
and the range of performance that we were looking for, we started to
realize like we were looking for like an eight-year-old Sean Penn or
Daniel Day-Lewis.

Like, you know, just that you could hold on his face and that a lot is
unspoken and you can see what he's thinking and feeling and that at
times he can be reckless and free and guileless and gleeful. And at
times he can be internal and introspective. And we were looking for a
lot. Eventually what happened was we started getting down to the wire
and hadn't found our, you know, found Max yet. So we sort of came up
with another plan.

Instead of going through the traditional casting agents in all these big
cities, we started to think maybe we should be looking for, like, if
we're looking for a really interesting kid, maybe we need to look in
areas that are more - have more creative artistic communities. And so we
got friends of ours, like we got a good friend of ours who's a graphic
designer in Athens, Georgia, another friend in Amherst, Massachusetts,
or a friend of ours, Lance Bangs, a documentarian in Portland, Oregon
who ultimately found Max in Portland, and we got those people to go out
and just start putting kids on tape.

And Lance Bangs found Max and he had never acted before. But, you know,
on the tape it was just clear that there's something really special
about him and beautiful and soulful. And...

GROSS: Let me stop you a second. What did he film him doing if he'd
never acted before? What was the tape like?

Mr. JONZE: The tape - I think the initial tape was reading the scenes a
couple times. It wasn’t like a real in-depth audition. It was reading a
couple scenes and then just having him run around. And I think he had
him like take a plastic sword and sneak out into the backyard and attack
his parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONZE: And then he sent it to me and there's just something
sparkling about him. But it wasn’t clear if he could act or not. And so
then Catherine Keener, who plays the mom in the movie, but also she's a
good friend of mine, and because I've worked with her so closely on my
previous movies, I sort of sucked her into the movie in terms of in all
different ways. And first she was helping me like read with kids.

The two of us would go in and sort of tag team and audition with kids.
And so anyway, Keener was up in Oregon at the time shooting "Into the
Wild," Sean Penn's movie, and Lance Bangs brought Max over to Astoria,
where they're shooting and on a day off Keener put - auditioned with him
and sort of dug deeper into some of the scenes and sent the tape to me.
And that was when it was clear that he could act and not in like a movie
kid way, but like touching, you know, going there. And it was just clear
that he was the person that I could make this movie with.

And, you know, he carries the movie. He's the heart of the movie and,
you know, he's in every scene in the movie. The whole movie's told from
his point of view. You know, these silent reaction shots on him that
sort of guide us through the movie and tell us what he's thinking and
feeling.

GROSS: I think the color palette of your movie is kind of different than
the book "Where the Wild Things Are." The book has a lot of kind of
pastel colors. I mean they're like light shades of like slightly washed
out blues and greens and yellows and pinks. And your movie tends more
toward like sepia tone type of colors. And I'm wondering why you made
that choice?

Mr. JONZE: Um, I don’t know. I guess I never analyzed the difference in
color palette. I think what, you know, there's a couple things with the
book that we were trying to maintain. One, which is the graphic quality
of the book, in the scale. Those are things that we tried to translate
into our approach, which was this, you know, photo-real naturalistic
approach, and it turned out to be a lot harder to do than we thought
because, you know, I guess initially we were like went and looked at
jungles, and both K.K., our production designer, and I, we both sort of
realized that jungles are really, you know, lack depth. They sort of
just turn to mush, and it seems like a really limited way to shoot the
movie. There's just so much undergrowth and they're kind of visually
boring.

We needed to find nature that was more graphic. And one of the first
discoveries K.K. found was a burnt out forest, a forest that had had a
fire in it about six months earlier, and so all the undergrowth was
gone. All the trees were charred black, the ground was charred black,
and it became this sort of this canvas basically for K.K. to art direct
nature in, and that became sort of the touchstone for what we were -
what K.K. ended up doing - K.K. Barrett, our production designer - which
was art directing nature. So we had this photo-real naturalistic setting
that then he can go and create this sort of graphic quality that's in
the book.

And so he, you know, in this forest, for example, he went in and sort of
art directed the ground cover, like a lighter leaves that would give
contrast to the trees and then went in and placed these little saplings,
you know, throughout the forest. You know, it was just throughout all
the locations trying to sort of, you know, that became K.K.'s job, is to
art direct nature and create the look of the film.

GROSS: My guest is Spike Jonze. He directed and co-wrote the new movie
adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Spike Jonze. He directed and co-wrote the new film
adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak illustrated children’s book,
“Where The Wild Things Are.” Jonze also directed “Adaptation” and “Being
John Malkovich.”

So can you describe a little bit more what it was like to create the
wild things for the movie with actual actors in costumes, but how did
you get the faces of these monsters to move like they were alive?

Mr. JONZE: You know, we edited the movie for almost a year-and-a-half
and it’s like we really were adamant that this - we never were going to
let this be a visual effects movie where, like, the visual effects were
driving the process. And so we always just considered it a character
movie and we shot it in that way and we edited it in that way.

And I think a traditional visual effects movies, as you’re editing,
you’re locking sequences and giving those to the visual effects
department to start to work on. And on this movie we didn’t do that. So
it made the process almost twice as long because post-production
normally is overlapping and we – ours wasn’t.

Once we finished editing and we locked the picture last year, then we
started the visual effect process, which was fading the facial
performances of the wild things. You know, we had all the video tapes of
the actors from the voice shoot when we shot them initially, and so it
was a combination of referring back to those and seeing, you know, when
that applied or didn’t apply and it was going in and meticulously frame
by frame animating these performances.

And what we were looking for was really internal subtle performances and
my dream was that when you put the camera on a wild thing it would be
the same as putting the camera on Meryl Streep or Nicolas Cage or James
Gandolfini; you’d be able to just sit there, have the camera rest on
their face as they’re listening, or not even talking, just listening.
You’d see what was going through their head and what they’re feeling.

GROSS: But when you were actually directing the actors who were in the
costumes, what were you looking at, their real faces? Because the
animation kind of happened afterwards.

Mr. JONZE: Well, it was basically, we made the movie three times. We
made it a lot more than that but in terms of the wild things, we made
the movie three times. We made it once with the voice actors, once on
location with the suit actors, where there - we’re focusing on the
movement of the body and what’s being communicated by, you know, just
the most subtlest head tilt.

And then we made it a third time when we did the faces in post-
production. And you know, so the creation of wild things are basically
three disparate elements and trying to make them all work together to
create one fluid performance.

GROSS: Now, did you hold auditions for the suit actors, for the actors
who were going to be in costumes as these, you know, animals or
monsters? And we’re never going to see their faces because their faces
are going to be animated, but they still have to – they have to move in
the spirit of the character and their moves have to be big because
they’re big creatures.

Mr. JONZE: Their moves had to be big but they had to be subtle. I think
one of the things that happens sometimes in puppeteering and animation,
which works for, you know, certain type of story but wasn’t appropriate
for this is the performances become very broad and indicated and, you
know, the way, you know, just the way somebody animates a character,
sometimes their entire body is saying a word and it’s not often how we
speak.

And I thought it was exciting to try and take these giant creatures and
have them perform and behave and think and feel and emote more like us.
And that seemed interesting and exciting and strange. And the suit
actors we cast, we did a whole broad casting call for people that had
been in suits and hadn’t been in suits.

And we were basically looking for people, it was like casting an actor
who can - who is right for the part, who has the essence of that
character, that can perform that and, you know, that combined with who
can actually survive inside that suit for, you know, four months on
location and - because it physically was really challenging for those
guys. And so we were looking for, in the demeanor of somebody who wasn’t
going to, like, have a panic attack in there or stress out.

And we’re looking for, you know, for very even level people but also
looking for people with a judgment that I trust. And in the end we cast
people that had never been in suits before because those were the actors
that I found whose judgment I trusted the most for that part.

GROSS: Are there other actors who are professional suit actors, who
almost always perform in suits?

Mr. JONZE: Yeah, they are – they are like, you know…

GROSS: What kind of roles do they get?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How many roles like…

Mr. JONZE: I mean, I guess there’s a lot, you know, whether it’s, like,
on children’s shows or they’re playing gorillas or, you know, whatever
it might be - bears, telephones, talking telephones for TV commercials.

GROSS: Were you with Maurice Sendak the first time he saw your movie
version of his book?

Mr. JONZE: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you watching his face instead of the movie?

Mr. JONZE: I can’t remember. I mean, I think I was probably trying to -
I think Maurice was as nervous as we were. And – but I don’t know,

there’s something early on that gave me - that I can’t remember what it
was but - maybe it was a laugh early on or something that I could just
tell he was in the movie and feeling it. And you know, and when the
lights came up, you know, he gave me a big hug and was really proud of
me and proud of the movie and, you know, above and beyond anything that
was - that’s the approval that I value the most.

GROSS: Spike Jonze, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. JONZE: Okay, cool, thanks.

GROSS: Spike Jonze directed and co-wrote the new movie adaptation of
Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
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'Wimpy Kid': A Hilarious Take On Middle School

TERRY GROSS, host:

The big news in the world of books last week was that German writer
Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize. The big news in the world of books
this week is that the fourth novel in Jeff Kinney's wildly bestselling
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series for preteens has just hit bookstores. And
it’s the number one bestseller on amazon.com.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan says it was hard to decide which milestone
to focus on but comedy ultimately triumphed.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Our local independent bookstore opened extra early on
the morning of October 12th to sell copies of the insanely anticipated
latest book in Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, this one
entitled “Dog Days.” The last time I remember that bookstore being
overrun with hoards of kids yelping for a book was when the final “Harry
Potter” novel came out. It was midnight when the Potter boxes were
broken open and the kids were dressed as macabre creatures from
Hogwarts.

The atmosphere surrounding the arrival of Kinney’s latest book was
appropriately sprightlier. The bookstore opened at dawn, after all, and
distributed doughnuts. Like the Potter series, Kinney’s books are aimed
at a middle-school audience but translate well to older readers. Unlike
the Potter series, Kinney’s books are funny, the kind of funny where you
have to stop reading every so often because you’re laughing so hard,
tears and snot are running down your face and you feel like maybe you’ll
even throw up. How’s that for an erudite critical endorsement?

I started reading Kinney at the command of my 11-year-old daughter. One
of the things she hates most in the world is when adults loom over her
and ask, so, are you a big reader like your mother? She’s not. She’s
much more socially well-adjusted than I am and doesn’t seek out quiet
corners where she can seal herself off with a book, far from the madding
crowd. She soured on the Potter saga about halfway through when the
storylines got grislier. Kinney, however, is just her ticket.

Not only is this series’ hero, Greg Heffley, a middle school everyman,
forever waiting for his growth spurt as he’s surrounded by gorilla
classmates who need to shave twice a day, but the books themselves are
stories in cartoon form, otherwise known as graphic novels.

Because the conceit of the series is that the books themselves are
journals that Greg is keeping, the cartoons here are strictly stick
figure. But what a range of middle school misery Kinney wrings out of a
few lines - the bend of Greg’s back under a Jumbotron-sized book bag,
the quaking of his scrawny body as he’s perched on the edge of the
freezing school pool, waiting for the swim meet whistle to blow and seal
his doom. The cartoons don’t merely illustrate the story, they advance
it, and split it off into a hundred digressive tributaries, working like
the footnotes in Eliot’s “Wasteland.”

Admittedly, maybe I’m reaching for a high art analogy because I’m still
a little uncomfortable about my kid preferring to read what amounts to a
hardcover comic book series over, say, “Little Women.” But Kinney has
anticipated this kind of helicopter-parent squeamishness. In “Dog Days,”
Greg Heffley’s relentlessly chirpy mom starts a summer reading club. At
the first meeting, the other boys report on the books they’ve brought,
among them “Sudoku Insanity” and “X-Treme Pop-Up Sharks.”

Greg’s mom says these books aren’t real literature and insists that the
club is going to have to start with the classics. Greg says that he’s
not really sure what makes a book a classic but he thinks it has to be
at least 50 years old and some person or animal has to die at the end.
He says these are the type of books teachers are always pushing us to
read at school and that if you read a classic in your free time, the
teachers reward you with a sticker of a hamburger or something like
that. Clearly Kinney has an ear and eye for the middle school milieu.

For adult readers, he vividly brings back the oceanic feeling of
helplessness that swamps most of us at that age, when you’re not in
control of your weirdly changing body or, much of the time, even what
you’re allowed to eat or read.

Last spring, in the delirious company of my daughter and two of her
middle school guy friends, I heard Jeff Kinney speak at the University
of Maryland. It was one of the best author talks I’ve ever attended.
Kinney had the whole cavernous auditorium, adults, kids, roaring with
laughter. Kinney gets the powerlessness of late childhood. In his
appearance that day and throughout his ongoing series, he’s made all the
wimpy kids out there know that they’re in good company.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” by Jeff Kinney.

I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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