Stephen Chbosky Finds Inspiration and Optimism in ‘Wonder’
Writer and director Stephen Chbosky was in town recently on a media tour for his upcoming film, Wonder. Entertainment Central was invited to attend an advance screening and interview Chbosky, who is best known for his coming-of-age novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Chbosky also wrote and directed the cinematic adaptation of Perks. The film was released in 2012 and did very well at the box office. Other works include 1995’s The Four Corners of Nowhere, for which he wrote, directed, and acted. The movie was accepted at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and was one of the first films to run on the Sundance Channel. Chbosky also wrote the screenplay for the 2005 film Rent and, with Evan Spiliotopoulos, Disney’s 2017 live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. He was co-creator, executive producer, and writer of the television series “Jericho,” which aired on CBS from 2006 to 2008.
A Young Champion
Wonder is a touching and inspirational film about a young boy, Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), who was born with a facial deformity and has endured numerous operations on his face over his young life. He has been home-schooled by his doting mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts). Owen Wilson plays his loving (and humorous) father, Nate, while Auggie’s older and oft-neglected sister, Via, short for Olivia, is played by Izabela Vidovic.
Oftentimes while out in public, Auggie wears a NASA space helmet, so he can enjoy things without people staring at his face. The movie starts with the discussion between Isabel and Nate about whether Auggie should start middle school. Isabel is for it, saying that the start of middle school is a good point for Auggie to be mainstreamed. Nate is worried that the expected ridicule and bullying of Auggie will be too much for Auggie to handle. It’s a tough go for a good while, but Auggie is a plucky young lad, who uses his own positive self-messaging to somehow overcome all the negativity directed toward him. He even envisions the Star Wars character Chewbacca as a friend at times.
Chbosky said he came to the Wonder film when David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, producers he had worked with on Beauty and the Beast, sent him the novel by R. J. Palacio and the screenplay version they currently had. The producers asked him to join the writing team, which consisted of Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne. Chbosky liked the project and joined the team as a co-writer and director.
Chbosky said he is very proud of this movie and that when a movie comes out, you have very lofty goals for it. He said, “Wonder is more than meets the eye. It’s more than a kid going to school. People are in for a great time and will leave in an optimistic mood.”
I commented that it was great how the film didn’t just focus on Auggie, but had chapters on several of the other characters, including his sister Via. “The Via section is the breakthrough of the movie,” Chbosky replied. “Everybody has their story to tell.”
A Dream Cast
When asked what it was like working with Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Izabela Vidovic, he called it a “dream.” Chbosky continued, “I love casting in general. Especially casting children. I looked at Vidovic and believed that she could be the daughter of Julia and Owen. I wanted the Pullmans to be a very believable family, a family with humor and bonding.”
He is especially proud of the young actors in the film and stated that his goal was “to have the best kid cast since Stand By Me.” He went on to say “the character of Jack Will, Auggie’s best friend at school, was very important. I was looking for someone that would have an impact like River Phoenix in Stand By Me. I believe we found that person with British actor Noah Jupe.” Chbosky also proudly stated that five of the eight main younger kids of the cast were from Vancouver, Canada (the movie was shot mainly in Vancouver, with a week of shooting in Brooklyn, New York).
He said he let the kids have as much fun as possible as long as they remembered their lines. Chbosky wanted the making of the movie to be done with humor and good manners, instructing the crew (and himself) that there would not be any yelling at anyone on the set. It’s hard to imagine the extremely gracious Chbosky would yell at anyone, but moviemaking can be very stressful at times.
Chbosky feels that we all should treat each other with more kindness and that is also a major theme of the movie. He is very much against bullying of any type; especially now with social media, bullying can become a permanent record against someone and can be very hard to deal with. “The vast majority of people are respectful and kind and there are just ‘a few bad apples’ on all sides,” Chbosky said.
“At every turn, Wonder went right,” Chbosky commented at the screening. “Julia Roberts had read the book and wanted to do the movie. My previous work with Disney on Beauty and the Beast gave me an in to ask to use Star Wars references and characters.” (Chbosky said he really enjoyed directing Chewbacca.) “The day after Daveed Diggs ended his run in the Broadway play Hamilton, he was in Vancouver for his first major film role. I took him out to dinner, so he would feel more at ease about it. And Mandy Patinkin agreed to play the school’s headmaster.”
Chbosky also remarked that he tried to stay as true as he could to the novel as possible but did change a few things. “In the book, the Summer [Millie Davis] character is a new kid, who sits with Auggie at lunch on her first day. I felt that that was a little too like a pixie appearing out of nowhere, so I introduced her early in the movie, having her read a quote in Auggie’s class, and then having her sit with Auggie at lunch later in the movie,” he said. The family dog scene was also modified as were one or two others. He did have Palacio on the set for most of the filming. Chbosky said that directing his own novel during filming gave him some good insights about how an author feels about the process. They worked well together: most of the times agreeing, sometimes not.
Chbosky is a Pittsburgh native, growing up in Upper St. Clair and attending Upper St. Clair High School. At the screening, he acknowledged his aunt and uncle, relatives, and a few friends who were in attendance. He also said a nice hello to his first film teacher, Mary Lou Einloth from Upper St. Clair High School, whom he said he always invites to screenings of his movies. She replied back that Stephen was the same very nice Stephen she taught back then. Chbosky went on to study Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, graduating with a degree in screenwriting.
“I loved growing up in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Everybody from Pittsburgh is proud to be from there. They wear it like a badge of honor. There’s only a few other cities that I’ve noticed people having a strong hometown connection to. I try to get back to Pittsburgh when I can.”
A Hollywood Romance
Chbosky resides in Los Angeles, where he has been successful in not only the film business but also romance. At the screening, he said his wife’s book was the reason they first met. I asked him about it during the interview, and he said that his wife, Liz Maccie, was taking a writing class and working on her book. The teacher told everyone in the class to bring in the book that inspired them to want to be a writer. She put The Perks of Being a Wallflower into her bag. A friend, actress Darby Stanchfield, spied the book in Maccie’s purse and asked her about it. After hearing the reason she was carrying it, Stanchfield mentioned that she knew the author from her role on “Jericho” and that the two of them should meet. They did meet, started dating a few months later, and three years after that got married. Chbosky said that their daughter, Maccie, plays Via in a flashback scene in Wonder. He also mentioned an “Easter egg” that he put in the movie was Vidovic with his wife’s first book, Lessons I Never Learned at Meadowbrook Academy.
When asked what he was currently working on, he mentioned that he finished his second novel two weeks ago and that he has a film project in the works. He said he can’t really talk about either of those items right now though.
Chbosky said, “I love this movie and think it can do some good in the world.” His joy for the film is infectious and after viewing it, I can see why. Wonder opens in theaters Friday, November 17.
Wonder photos courtesy of Dale Robinette and Lionsgate Films.
Story by Rick Handler, executive producer of Entertainment Central.
See Entertainment Central’s review of Wonder.