Director, screenwriter and author, Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of a Being Wallflower), talks with Script about the making of his new family film, Wonder.
Career journalist Andrew Bloomenthal has covered everything from high finance to the film trade. He is the award-winning filmmaker of the noir thriller Sordid Things. He lives in Los Angeles. More information can be found on Andrew’s site: www.andrewjbloomenthal.com. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @ABloomenthal
Adolescence sucks. But it’s especially rough for 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), who lives with craniofacial abnormalities resulting from Treacher-Collins Syndrome—a rare genetic disorder that alters the bones and tissues of the face. The space helmet he constantly wears disguises his condition, and his homeschooling minimizes outside interactions, so when Auggie decides to brave the treacherous 5th grade public school waters—with all of the awkwardness, bullying and insecurities that come with it, it’s a very big deal, indeed. His struggles and triumphs negotiating a whole new social paradigm, sit at the heart of Wonder, directed by Stephen Chbosky, who adapted the best-selling R.J. Palacio novel, with co-writers Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad.
A novelist in his own right, who adapted and directed his book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky was attracted to Wonder’s rotating perspectives, highlighting the individual experiences of Auggie’s stressed-out parents, Isabel and Nate (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), and his ever-overshadowed older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic).
“The different points of view help you realize there are things everyone goes through, because that’s where empathy begins,” explained Chbosky, who spoke to Script magazine about making this hit film.
You came onto the project after screenwriters Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad did their initial drafts of the adaptation. Did you worry that your changes might offend their pride of authorship?
No, not ever. As co-writer and director, I was excited to check my ego at the door, because we were all there to serve the book. Even though we never wrote together, we all contributed to the screenplay in significant ways, so there was plenty of credit and good will to go around. And I loved what Jack and Steve did. I think it’s important to acknowledge when something is great and to build upon it, rather than rewrite something just to rewrite it. Even though Wonder is a family film about children, it’s told like Rashomon, with multiple points of view. So having multiple screenwriters, served the book in different ways.
There were several complex overhead crane shots of the kids playing dodge ball. Were you in full-on panic mode, setting up the rig and getting those shots?
I wasn’t more panicked than most of the other days, because when you’re working with so many kids, you’re always racing against the clock, trying to catch lightning in a bottle. But for sure, those shots were ambitious, with all of the technical things we had to get right and with that many kids. It was a bit of a nail-biter. Luckily, [cinematographer] Don Burgess is a brilliant DP, and he was so helpful and instructive. We were a good pair, in that I would wrangle the kids and he would handle the technical things. Don’s lens selection was perfect. I wanted a guy who shot epic awards-type movies like Forest Gump, who had also done The Muppets, because Wonder was ultimately trying to be both things—an elevated film, that’s for children.
When you’re directing entire classrooms full of children, how you moderate their individual performances?
My instinct in working with kids was to impose one rule: arrive on set knowing your lines. That was really my only rule, because I wanted to create an atmosphere where they felt like they couldn’t screw up, where there were no mistakes, and the more they were behaving like actual kids, the better the movie was going to be.
When the teacher announced a pop quiz, and the class collectively groaned, did you instruct them as a group to groan with different volume levels and intensities, to give yourself editing choices?
The only time I made those kinds of adjustments was when I felt like they were falling into a natural unison, and I needed them to stagger their performances, to be different. But I tried to go with their initial reactions as much as I could, because that led to more authenticity. But if I felt that their behavior was inauthentic or emotionally illogical, I would make adjustments, and they would correct. A good example is when the boys are making fun of Auggie behind his back. When they first did it, they were whispering—all hush-hush. But after a couple of takes, I said, “Guys, you’re supposed to be laughing. You’re ‘making fun of the weird kid.'” So I had to encourage them to start trashing the kid and have fun with it, because that’s what’s real.
The prosthetics applied to Jacob Tremblay’s face were tweaked by CGI effects in post-production. Did you peek your head into the room to see what the special effects team was doing?
Of course! Because I didn’t want Auggie to look like he had a “computer face.” My rule of thumb was: we’re going to use real makeup—which [special makeup designer] Arjen Tuiten did a great job with, and we’ll only use computers to do things that makeup couldn’t physically do. For example, the face of someone with Treacher Collins Syndrome is smaller than the face of a kid without the syndrome. Well, you can’t physically shrink an actor’s face, but what you can do, is use computers to lift the chin, to create the illusion of a smaller face. We also used computers to subtract certain elements of the makeup, because Arjen created these ears with holes, where we threaded a contraption that pulled Jacob’s eyes down in a certain way, but the wires were partially visible and we had to leave glue exposed everywhere, so Lola Visual Effects was brilliantly able to hide all that.
Did the 90-minute makeup-application process erode your daily hours with Jacob Tremblay, a little bit?
A little bit? That’s hilarious! But I can’t be frustrated with the child labor laws, because I knew those parameters going in. And if you know Jacob’s in almost every scene, but you’re only going to have the young man for six-to-seven shooting hours a day, it gets everybody focused on filling out the remaining three-to-five hours you have without Jacob. So we just couldn’t ever slack—ever. Consequently, we had very few overtime days—even with the adults, because we got into an efficient rhythm. Don Burgess shooting with two or three cameras certainly helped.
Jacob Tremblay acting skills are unusually advanced. Is acting teachable or is it an intuitive talent?
Philosophically, of course acting can be taught. But nobody can be taught to be Marlon Brando. He’s just Marlon Brando. But the rest of us need each other to get a little bit better each day. Actors needs directors and acting coaches, just like Michael Phelps needs a swimming coach to improve. Look, the ability to do something is a talent, but the ability to monitor and support talent—that’s taste. And when you bring those two things together, something magical can happen… You know, I have to say, movies about children are often overlooked and dismissed as kiddie stuff, so I’m really moved that you’re asking me questions like this is a serious movie, because it’s meant to be one. So, thank you.