I recently sat down with writer/director Stephen Chbosky and author R.J. Palacio about the film Wonder. Palacio wrote the best-selling book the movie is based on with Chbosky directing it and being 1 of 3 screenwriters of the film. Chbosky is an author himself writing the best-selling The Perks of Being a Wallflower which he adapted into the film of the same name. I asked Palacio if Chbosky being an author made it easier to trust the process of someone adapting her book. R.J. Palacio, “It really did. We met for a wonderful three-hour dinner before we started with the movie and it was really evident to me that as an author, his intention was to be as faithful to the book as possible and where he wasn’t able to be completely faithful to the book, he would be faithful to the spirit of the book. I had complete faith.”

She talked about where the idea for the book came from, “There’s a scene where Jack Will (Noah Jupe) talks about the first time he sees Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) in his neighborhood. That scene was based on a real encounter that I had when I was with my two sons and we found ourselves in very close proximity to a little girl who had a very severe cranial facial difference and my son reacted. Basically, that inspired me to think about what it must be like to face a world everyday that doesn’t really know how to face you back. To face a world that stares at you and points at you when you feel that you’re absolutely ordinary on the inside but no one else sees it that way.”

Stephen Chbosky talked about what inspired him to make the movie. Stephen Chbosky, “What inspired me was I loved the book. It was given to me right around the time my son Theodore was born. There was something about the timing of reading this beautiful story about a boy and his parents and older sister. Here I had an older daughter and a new son and the symmetry really spoke to me. And seeing all the struggles that the Pullman family went through, I felt like I related to what my own memory of being a child, but then being a parent. Not only that, but I also recognized the quality of the book. I think this is one of the most important books written in the last several decades. I think it’s so artful. Especially for this age range. I was honored to be part of it.”

R. J. Palacio was asked if she was writing for a certain age range when writing the book. Palacio, “A good story is a good story. I think one of the worst things a writer can do is write down to a certain age group. And certainly I tried not ever to do that with Wonder. Maybe the only thing I did when keeping my target audience in mind was writing shorter sentences than I might usually express myself as a writer. I kind of get how kids read: keep the sentences a little short. Keep the chapters short. Otherwise, it’s about keeping children or adults turning the page. That’s all I try to do.”

Chbosky talked about ignoring the age range while making the film, “It was easier for me, because I love the book so much, to just focus on the characters. My approach was regardless of how you get into to the story whether you were a parent or a kid, there would be some way in but I was hoping that everybody would find the same exit so you could share in this story about kindness and about empathy or you could just enjoy a good laugh or a good cry. I think we all go into the movie expecting to see Auggie’s first day of school. And I was really proud that had enough bandwidth to tell mom’s first day of school story. Just in that one little shot. That’s all you need. She’s alone in a house. And I’m really excited as a parent to know that there are going to be millions of children who will see that and think ‘Huh, what does my mom do when I’m at school?’ That’s really exciting.”

Chbosky talked about the amount of collaboration between the author and making the movie. Chbosky, “R.J. was more than an author to me. She was my secret weapon in everything. Being a fellow author, I know what I brought to Perks of Being a Wallflower as a filmmaker, but as an author, I knew how valuable knowing all that was. When I was making Perks, no actor ever said to me ‘My character would never say that.’ It doesn’t exist because I created the whole world and now I’m adapting it. So, with R.J. it was an invaluable resource. And I also think she’s a brilliant writer. So, if I was stuck on a scene or stuck on the screenplay, I would always ask her if she had a version of the scene. And I might only take one line from it, but that one line was all the difference. It was a perfect marriage. And there was so much more. We talked about casting, we talked about cuts, we talked about everything.”

Palacio, “And there were moments where Stephen or the producers would ask my opinion and ultimately decide to go a different way. And that was fine because I always felt like I didn’t have to be the final voice in the room. I just wanted to be one of the voices just so they could hear my opinion on some things. It shouldn’t have any more importance or weight than anyone else’s voice. They were really good about respecting that and it was really a lot of fun for me just because I would get calls from Stephen out in California asking me what color sofa the Pullmans might have or what kind of laptop sleeve Isabel might have and what her dissertation would be about. And it was great for me because these are my characters and I would start to think about that. So, it was actually a fun way of extending the Wonder writing process.”

Since Stephen wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower and adapted it into a film and now took someone else’s work and adapted it into a film, I asked him which he found easier. “It’s pros and cons with each. I found the process of collaborating with another author a lot more fun. Although it’s slightly nerve-wracking not having all the answers. Someone asks what would Isabel’s dissertation be about and I said ‘God I don’t know. It’s terrible I don’t know this.’ Luckily we had a great relationship and there’s only one opinion that she had that I dismissed. She said don’t use (Bruce) Springsteen. It was Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It’s New York Christmas, what  else says East Coast Christmas? Name another song, you can’t.”

Chbosky discussed Auggie’s look for the film even though his look in the book doesn’t give much detail. “We got very fortunate, our make up designer Arjen Tuiten is a very brilliant guy. He’s trained by Rick Baker – a brilliant guy. I think maybe a part of being a director is being a pragmatist. Whatever I can imagine as a reader in this case, there’s only so much a 9-year-old actor can go through. There’s only so much you can do to his face, and my guiding principle was, I want the makeup to be real. I want the performance to be his (Jacob Tremblay). You can animate the face if you wanted to, but I knew it wouldn’t be as powerful. So, we took the makeup to as extreme of a place as we could practically. Then we used CGI to clean up certain little things. That was it. I knew if the audience was going to respond to Auggie, it would have to be Jacob’s real eyes, real voice, real mouth. Everything passed that would look fake.”

Palacio, “It might be different from what you imagined. And that happens anytime you turn a book into a movie. In Wonder, it’s especially important because it’s all about the face in the book. But on the other hand, one of the reasons why I didn’t go into too much detail was because it didn’t ultimately matter what he looks like. It’s just that he looks different and the movie gets that. And any difference, especially at that age, is enough to make him an easy target of the meaner kids in the class.”

Palacio was asked what the movie adds to the story that wasn’t in the book. Palacio, “The movie tells a couple of stories that aren’t told in Wonder. We see more of the parents in the movie. In the book, we only see the parents from the kids’ point of view, so we only know what their lives are through the filter of their kids. They’re central to the story, but they’re somewhat in the background. And here, we see them without the kids and get to know them a little bit better. And Stephen wrote scenes that filled in those narratives on their own, so they’re a little bit more complex. And the second thing, I often described the book as being a meditation on kindness, so I would say they really echoed that from the book and maybe enhanced it in their own way. You leave the movie feeling really good.”

The film also shows the struggles of families dealing with a child that has ailments, how it impacts everyone, not just the child. Palacio, “A lot of the sweetest emails I’ve gotten have come from the parents of children who have any kind of difference. They say that after reading the book, they were reminded about their other children and the impact of having a kid with any kind of special needs impacts all of the kids. They have to remember that and sometimes they just don’t have time.”

Chbosky, “Yeah, how do you tell a story about kindness and empathy without stopping to tell what the mom is going through or what someone like Via (Auggie’s sister) is going through? It lead to some really great things artistically and I love doing that. And it reminds me of when you (Palacio) were talking about the emails that you would get. We had a lot of kids who have this condition visit us on set. It’s very interesting. Something I learned about kids is that if you have a kid with a cranial facial difference, everybody around them wants to talk about that condition. Everybody wants to talk about that condition more than the kid. The kid wants to talk about baseball and Star Wars and everything else. That was a fascinating thing to watch and I tried to do it to reminds us all the time that we are not our conditions. We are ourselves.”

Palacio talked about Wonder being used in classrooms. “You can’t foresee any of this. Certainly when you’re writing a book, you just hope it gets published. And if it does get published, you’re just hoping that one or two people will read it and that’s as far as I would go. So, everything that’s happened afterward whether it’s the movie or that it’s been adopted in so many classes across the country and in Germany and in the U.K., and Ireland I just found out has a whole curriculum in year six. The whole country is using Wonder as a mandatory read. That really thrilled me because I’m a huge fan of Irish writers. And if they like my book, I’m like ‘Wow!’ No one writes like the Irish. Just the idea that it’s kind of a “right of passage” maybe kind of like To Kill a Mockingbird is that to seventh graders is kind of cool knowing that long after I’m gone from this Earth that this might still be the case.”

Chbosky, “She gave you the very polite, self-deprecating author answer. I’ll give you the fan answer: Yes, the book is that good. Yes, it’s being taught in schools deservedly so, and once I came on board to do the movie I told everybody that I believe for the middle grades, there are three books in American literature: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders and now there’s Wonder. I think Wonder is on that list and I would put it above The Outsiders, but that’s just me.”

With things like Wonder, Stranger Things and the remake of IT, kids stories are hot. I asked Stephen if he saw himself doing anymore films about kids. Chbosky, “I do. Absolutely. I just finished my second novel. It’s not 100%, but there’s definitely a kid element to that one. I love it. I love their enthusiasm. They are so excited to go to work.” Palacio, “But it’s also because you speak kid.” Chbosky, “I’m very immature.” Palacio, “You should have seen him on set. They just loved him. He speaks kid.” Chbosky, “It was all quite an experience. The thing is, my philosophy with casting, is that I don’t cast actors, I cast human beings, and these kids were so nice and so grateful and enthusiastic about being there that it just made us all better. I remember saying to casting that ‘I want the best kid cast since Stand By Me.’ That was my bar. I thought whether we get there or don’t get there, let’s aim for it. My only rule for the kids was know your lines.”

Asked what his favorite scene to film was, Chbosky, “My favorite scene to see in the film is the flashback to Via’s fourth birthday, because that is my daughter. Because I was in Vancouver filming, I actually missed her actual fourth birthday. It just so happens she looks a lot like Izabela Vidovic who plays Via. And it just so happens that there is a flashback where she talks about her wishing for a brother. So, that was my favorite scene, but as far as the book, I couldn’t even pick. It’s amazing.”

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