Friday, May 11, 2012

Lunch at Maurice's

Maurice Sendak invited me to lunch.  I had been in the running to take over as director of the animated Where the Wild Things Are feature at Universal, which, after many many months of development, Maurice hated. He liked my take on Wild Things, and I had meetings at Universal and phone conversations with Maurice about how to put the project back on-track.  Spike Jonze swooped in and made the film in live action,  but on this day in August of 2002, I found myself driving down a small, windy road to have lunch at his house in Connecticut.

When I arrived, Maurice was a couple of hundred yards from his house, taking his daily walk.   I complimented him on his place - a beautiful bucolic cottage with lush gardens.  Maurice gestured with his cane to some very large nearby homes.  "This was a great place to live until they came around."  he said, slowly shaking his head,  "McMansions!"

He gave me a little tour around the property. The walkway to the back door of the house led us through a rich, floral garden, for which he took no credit.  "People come in and tend to it." he shrugged.  He had an amazing collection of early Disney memorabilia with Mickey and Donald toys from 1930 made of celluloid - very rare.  But what was truly mind-blowing was seeing his drawing table, where he had done so many books, and was working on his latest, Brundibar.  He had a partially complete illustration on the table, and asked me to look through the other pages while he told me the story.  I felt very self-concious, ol' Stevie Moore from a little hick town was now in the presence of artistic royalty.  I flashed back to being in first grade, reading Wild Things in the library, and now here I was with the guy.  Then he asked me what I thought of Brundibar.


"It's your masterpiece."  I said, terrified he might think I was laying it on too thick. He didn't.  Even a 73 year-old legend likes to hear his work is good. Brundibar really is a masterpiece, by the way.

A lady magically appeared from the kitchen with salads for lunch.  Maurice and I had a meandering conversation about the business of animation and the business of book publishing - they have a lot of the same problems with management driven creative decisions.  He hated the trend in children's literature where famous people, like Madonna, were publishing books as vanity projects to impress their children.  To Maurice Sendak, they made a mockery of his medium, the implication being that it took no real skill to write for children.  He talked fondly of Ted Geisel, his friend.  Dr. Seuss was probably the only one in his field who Maurice Sendak held above himself.  He called him a genius, then chuckled at how he would taunt Geisel about his drawing ability.

He talked about authors he knew socially, like Kurt Vonnegut, but always felt treated like the kiddie-book guy.  He never really belonged to the club.  Maurice's intellect and wit was as sharp as they come, so he found this social snubbing quite demeaning.

His view of children was quite different from the consensus.  He believed that children were not innocent, that innocence is a quality adults project onto them.  Children had the same flawed character traits as adults, and that childhood was not full of wide-eyed, idyllic magic.

The conversation eventually found its way to Wild Things.  He recalled the animation test done at Disney in the early '80's by John Lasseter and Glen Keane.  He was talking about the same test that me and my CalArts classmates had drooled over twenty years earlier.  Maurice not only disliked it, he hated it.   Beautiful animation and breakthroughs in CG technology aside - the character was not Max.

He recounted how Michael Eisner pressured him to sell the rights to Disney.  Over dinner, Eisner laid on the charm.  At one point, he pulled out a checkbook and tossed it toward Maurice.

"What's this?" Maurice asked.

""You fill it out."  Eisner said.  "Any number you want.  I want  Wild Things."

Maurice had a general distain for pomposity.  But instead of telling Eisner where to endorse the check, he made a proposition.  "I collect Disney memorabilia.  Rare stuff."

Eisner nodded, unsure where this was going.

"Back in the '30's, Walt and Roy Disney owned Duesenbergs with gold plated Mickey Mouse gas caps.  There were only two made.  They are the Holy Grail of Disney collectibles.  Roy Disney has one, the other is in the morgue."

He paused for effect.

"Get me that gas cap and you can have the rights."

Eisner was completely gobsmacked.  "I can't do that!"  he said.

Maurice laughed, turning the knife, "You're Michael Eisner, the most powerful man in Hollywood!  You can't get me a gas cap?"

Eisner's face flushed.  "Okay,"  he said, putting away his checkbook, "I'll see what I can do."

A few days later, Maurice got a message from one of Eisner's secretaries.  He couldn't do it.

Maurice reveled in stories like this, where bully-headed big shots get knocked down a peg.  There was a wounded quality to Maurice that made him appealing even in his most bitter moods.

As happens in our business,when we stopped working together, we gradually lost touch.  I tried to call once in a while, but felt like I was bothering him, even though he was always kind to me and  my wife.   He was one of the good guys, and I'm sorry to see him go.    

Jeff Koterba editorial cartoon