Shawn Records: Owner of This World

Published October 29, 2009 by Graham

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Rad photographers were in no short supply behind the scenes of Where the Wild Things Are, but only one of them had the unique privilege of approaching the experience as both a wide-eyed documentarian and the father of the film’s nine-year-old star. Shawn Records is an artist who brilliance lies in capturing near-weightless moments of ephemeral beauty, casually illuminating banal absurdities, and unveiling the clandestine grace of seemingly ordinary juxtapositions. His gentle approach is especially refreshing when pitted against the coarse cacophony of an epic film production.

Spike summed up Shawn’s attitude perfectly– “Patient and observed”– when we posted a small set of Shawn’s photos in July. The amazing images from that post are included alongside dozens more from the set of Where the Wild Things Are in his brand new book, Owner of This World. Go order yourself a copy from inspiringly autonomous DIY publishing house Publication Studio, and then read on for an enlightening interview with Shawn Records!

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Using a list of adjectives, how would you describe the experience of working on Where The Wild Things Are?
Confusing, chaotic, humbling, fun, educational, inspirational, exhausting…

Were you a fan of the book growing up?
Not only was I a fan of the book, but when Max was born, we still had a copy of the book from my childhood, my own name scribbled in orange crayon inside. After Max started working on the film and we had that copy of the book out a lot, Sam, my younger son, ripped it apart and added some additional scribbles to it. It was perfect. We ended up using some of those pages to create a birthday scrapbook for Maurice Sendak with some photos of what he was missing on set.

How did Max end up playing Max?
You can trace it back to an editorial portrait of Cat Solen I did for Res magazine back in 2005. She’s a great filmmaker who was living in Portland at the time and over the course of the portrait session, she mentioned that she needed kids for a music video she was working on and knew from my work that I had a son about the right age. Within a few weeks, Max had done that video and within six months, he’d done another one with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, who’d been referred to Max through Cat. It seems funny in hindsight, but Aaron came over to me at one point during the shoot and kind of whispered, “You know, he’s really good. He could go on and do this.”

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Well, a couple people familiar with that production, Lance Bangs, for one, were friends of Spike and when word got out that Spike was almost ready to start shooting and still needed to cast his Max, Lance sent me an email asking if we might be interested. That was July 1st of 2006. Jenny and I were having coffee out in the yard that morning and laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. A week later Lance Bangs auditioned Max in the living room of our house. The next week Max auditioned with Catherine Keener in a hotel conference room in Astoria (where she was working on Into the Wild). The next week, Max and I flew to L.A. and he auditioned with Spike. When they went into the room, I was given the impression that it might take about 45 minutes or so. If I remember correctly they were in there for about three hours. At times I could hear the shouting (gleeful shouting, mind you) from out in the parking lot.

Three weeks later, Jenny and the boys were in Australia and two weeks later I made it down.

What were your initial concerns about becoming involved in a project this large?
Somewhere in my gut there’s got to be a whole constellation of ulcers forming that can be traced back to July 1, 2006, but ultimately we decided as a family that this opportunity kind of fell from the sky and that we could either take it and jump into the unknown or leave it and always wonder what it would have been like. We opted for the adventure. I have to say that at this point though, it’s been completely worthwhile, for our entire family. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve made lots of friends and had a chance to work on something beautiful, fun, and much larger than ourselves.

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Did your whole family relocate to Australia for the shoot? How did it affect your professional and personal lives?
Yeah, the whole family went down. That was the only way any of this made sense. We became known as Team Records. How did it affect our professional lives? Well, in all honesty, we left our day jobs and it’s taken a while to find steady ground since. We’re not complaining though. How did it affect our personal lives? Well, it seems telling that we refer to the whole experience as “the rupture.” We’re still who we are, but in many ways it hit pretty profoundly. I can’t tell you what it all means, but I can say that we’re a pretty tight group and have been careful to try to talk it all over and balance everyone’s needs. Ultimately, we’re family, but we’re also good friends. Sure, we all love each other, but at this point we also really like each other too.

What kind of photos did you take during the shoot? Is there a difference between Shawn Records, professional photographer, and Shawn Records, documenter of childhood moments?
The only difference is that it was a true sort of culture shock experience and I had to figure out what it was that I was really interested in photographing. I shot more during those four months of the shoot than at any other period in my life. That being the case, I made more bad photographs during that period than ever before. The tricky thing about photographing there, then, was simply that I was constantly questioning and re-questioning my own role and our concerns for Max… the workload, the pressure, the balance of work, play, etc. Photographically, it was also pretty easy to get caught up in the absurdity inherent in the process (8 foot creatures living out of a makeshift trailer park in the forest) so I’d occasionally get swept away in that absurdity but kept trying to bring it back to those questions of who I was, who we were, etc. and making photographs that played with these themes, sometimes within individual pictures, sometimes in the context created through sequencing.

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There’s a picture I made of Max wearing a safety harness, for example. He’s in the midst of a couple creatures, and it’s backlit with Max small among them, Carol’s claw menacing in the foreground. The photo speaks to my perceived reality of the situation- Max in those other worlds (both the land of the Wild Things, but also Hollywood itself and that jump into a public life). Both worlds are terrifying and dangerous, but there’s that tether leading back to me, keeping him safe, I hope, I hope… I don’t know, I made a lot of photographs there and some are still interesting to me now. Mostly for reasons like that. Oh, and by the way, I love to just let photos exist without too much talk, but it seems interesting to some to note that those are flies in the sky and that’s a leech on Spike’s thumb… you’ll know which pictures when you come to them.*

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* Note: See the slideshow in our earlier post for those aforementioned photos

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