Remembering Spike Jonze’s abandoned ‘Harold & The Purple Crayon’ film
Spike Jonze, the acclaimed American filmmaker, photographer and actor whose work is as eclectic and wide-ranging of anybody working in Hollywood today, has endured more than his fair share of ups and downs throughout his career.
Jonze’s path to the big screen wasn’t exactly straight forward. Beginning life as a photographer of skateboarding, the filmmaker found his path in creating music videos and would lay the foundations of what was to come in his artistic output. A quick rise to fame saw him eventually collaborate with the likes of Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Weezer, Björk and Arcade Fire.
It was after creating a series of impressive and somewhat pioneering skate videos early in his career that Jonze attracted the attention of Beastie Boys’ very own Michael “Mike D” Diamond who, in turn, managed to recruit Jonze to direct the band’s video for their song ‘Sabotage’ which went on to gain mainstream success. After the video did the rounds on MTV, a producer named John B. Carls set about tracking down Jonze.
Having just set up his own production company with Maurice Sendak, Carls had agreed on a deal with TriStar Pictures and secured the rights to create the film Where the Wild Things Are, an adaptation of the 1963 children’s book of the same name. Eventually, of course, Jonze would sign on to the project in writing and directing capacity and create the film with a $100 million budget.
Despite not performing as well as expected at the box office, the film would go on to receive positive reviews by many and is still regarded as some of Jonze’s most impressive work to date. It later emerged, however, that Carls and Sendak had bigger plans for Jonze but struggled to get them over the line.
While securing the rights to Where the Wild Things Are, the production company also moved to obtain the same film rights to another historic children’s book; Harold & The Purple Crayon.
The original book, released in 1955 by author Crockett Johnson, tells the story of a curious four-year-old child who, armed with his purple crayon, has the ability to create a world of his own simply by drawing it.
“Spike is Harold,” Jonze’s longtime producer, Vince Landay, explained in an interview with the New York Times. “He’s an imaginative kid who for one reason or another has been allowed to fully explore his imagination.”
Jonze was signed on and invested in the project. He would go on to spend the better part of 12 months drawing up plans with a series of different storyboards as he attempted to combine animation and live-action. “In the third act,” Carls added in the same interview with the Times, “you had a live-action boy riding an animated rocket out into real space where he battled live-action characters to rescue a real space mission.”
With Jonze flying full steam ahead, TriStar Pictures pulled the project 60 days before principal photography was scheduled to begin. According to Carls, Jonze’s vision for Harold & The Purple Crayon was “too bold” for the new executives of TriStar who had recently been recruited to change the direction of the company.
When asked about it, Jonze said: “They didn’t like my ideas, and they thought it would cost too much.” Jonze would then explain that the pressure the company had piled on him during that project resulted in him changing his mind repeatedly and, when it was eventually pulled, he felt a moment of “relief”.
“I realised only then that it happens millimetre by millimetre,” he said. “If you compromise what you’re trying to do just a little bit, you’ll end up compromising a little more the next day or the next week, and when you lift your head you’re suddenly really far away from where you’re trying to go.”