Beauty Isn't Skin Deep
Cast: Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Mandy Patinkin, Izabela Vidovic
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Running Time: 113 minutes
Synopsis: Based on the New York Times bestseller, Wonder tells the inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman. Born with facial differences that, up until now, have prevented him from going to a mainstream school, Auggie becomes the most unlikely of heroes when he enters the local fifth grade. As his family, his new classmates, and the larger community all struggle to find their compassion and acceptance, Auggie's extraordinary journey will unite them all and prove you can't blend in when you were born to stand out.
The story of a 10 year-old boy with facial differences becomes a multifaceted look at what it means to be human in the film adaptation of R.J. Palacio's bestseller Wonder. Golden Globe nominee Jacob Tremblay (Room) tackles the one-of-a-kind role of Auggie Pullman, whose birth defects and multiple surgeries have kept him out of school -- until now. Jettisoned into what is for him the brave new world of the 5th grade, Auggie steps into an unexpected journey.
All Auggie ever wanted was to be an ordinary kid, but as his sister keeps telling him, you can't be ordinary when you were born to stand out. Though he once found solace inside a space helmet, suddenly he must face a whole universe of gawking kids who don't yet know how to face him back. Now, in a year by turns funny, tough and beautiful -- Auggie and all around him are transformed by the things that count most: friendship, courage and the everyday choice to be kind to everyone in your path.
'We carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness." ― R.J. Palacio, Wonder
Release Date: November 30th, 2017
The Wonder Of Wonder
"They say I must be one of the wonders of God's own creation And as far as they can see they can offer no explanation" - Natalie Merchant, Wonder
Few books have the power to make people act, but that was the unusual case with R.J. Palacio's novel Wonder. Published in 2013, the book took considerable risks. Were readers really prepared to follow a boy who, due to a genetic condition, was born with a pronounced 'craniofacial difference" that could stop strangers? It turns out that readers were more than intrigued by Auggie Pullman. R.J. Palacio's humorous yet pull-no-punches take on Auggie's life – and her inclusion of the many viewpoints of those in his orbit – honed in on something on the minds of many people: that in today's world we can get so caught up in surfaces, we no longer see what people are going through beneath.
While many novels explore dark worlds of dystopia, Wonder took a 180, demonstrating that a riveting story can revolve around something as seemingly basic as figuring out how to be good to other people. 'I've always thought of Wonder as a meditation on kindness," summarises R.J. Palacio. Spread from hand to hand, family to family, the book sold more than 5 million copies, but its impact went deeper as it also sparked a grassroots 'Choose Kind" movement and inspired readers to share their own stories. The book soon lured Hollywood attention as well. Film producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman of Mandeville Films both read the manuscript on the same night and did not wait to jump.
'We called each other and we were each in tears, I'm not ashamed to admit," recalls Todd Lieberman. 'We'd both fallen in love with this beautiful tale of compassion and friendship."
Adds David Hoberman: 'The story spoke to so many things we believe in. We loved how the story is told through multiple points of view; and how it encompasses an entire American neighborhood so everyone can identify with someone in the story. Most of all, we loved that it touches on the idea that we've all felt like outsiders at some point -- and shows what can happen when you reach out to others."
Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman were especially excited to explore a type of character still rarely seen on screen: one who completely defies the notion that physical differences can even begin to define us.
When they got on the phone with R.J. Palacio, the simpatico was evident. R.J. Palacio told the producers that she had always felt if a movie of her book were to be made she would impose just one condition: that it absolutely must preserve the book's upfront style and not try to soften Auggie's reality.
'When I wrote the book, I wasn't striving for something that would become a worldwide phenomenon. I wrote the book without any expectations - I didn't even know if it would be published," R.J. Palacio admits. 'I just wanted to write a little book with a simple message of kindness, so that's how I thought the movie should also be approached. I was convinced Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman had that same vision." She goes on: 'Other filmmakers had talked about not even showing Auggie, which I felt was disrespectful to kids with craniofacial differences. I didn't want a movie that would minimise the severity of Auggie's facial differences, because that's such an important aspect of who he is. It was very important for me - as it was for Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman and Stephen Chbosky - to make sure that the audience sees Auggie front and center from the very beginning."
'Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." - Auggie
What Auggie candidly calls 'that looking-away thing" in Wonder – that humiliating moment when people avert their eyes from him - actually inspired the creation of his character.
R.J. Palacio openly admits that she was the one who, in 2008, found herself running from, rather than engaging with, a child who looked different in an ice cream parlor incident. A graphic designer by day and hopeful writer by night, she was out with her kids when she did something she deeply regretted. She takes up the story: 'We found ourselves sitting next to a child who had a severe craniofacial difference, who looked very much the way I describe Auggie in the book."
But it didn't end there. Feeling shame, R.J. Palacio wanted to face up to her response, to turn the tables on it, by looking at it from the most important POV: the child who unwittingly sparked it. 'I started thinking about what it must be like to live everyday facing a world that doesn't know how to face you back. I began writing the book that night."
That's when Auggie Pullman sprang into being, along with an entire cast of characters who took R.J. Palacio by surprise. 'All the characters that started coming to life on the page felt so real to me that they motivated me to keep at it," she remembers. 'I feared that if I didn't finish the story no one else in the world would ever have the chance to meet them, and I really wanted the world to meet these characters."
R.J. Palacio very specifically decided to make Auggie a middle-schooler, but one about to attend school for the first time ever, an event he gears up for like a spaceman entering an alien world. 'That 10-to-12 age frame is so wrenching under any circumstance because it's so raw," R.J. Palacio observes. 'It's when kids are figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Everything's evolving – bodies, friendships, interests, relationships with parents. It was a great time to have Auggie first encounter the world."
At first, R.J. Palacio did not know a lot about craniofacial differences, so she dove into as much medical and first-hand family knowledge she could find. She determined that Auggie was likely born with TreacherCollins Syndrome, which, though caused by a mutation in just a single gene, can result in a radically altered formation of the bones of the face. Some people have such a mild form they don't even know they have it.
Others have bones that grow into a skull shape that can interfere with breathing, hearing and seeing, often requiring multiple reconstructive surgeries before age 5.
Despite all the medical issues associated with Treacher-Collins, the kids who live with it are like all kids – curious, sensitive and resilient. Both realities combine to create a unique experience for every family. But most families find one aspect hardest to navigate: the often unthinking reactions of others. The led R.J. Palacio to tap into something else she'd wanted to examine for a long time: the roots of ordinary compassion. 'Every parent wants a better world for our children, but sometimes we forget that it is very simple things that create that. That's why I wanted to fill this book with many different examples of how important just being nice to one another is," she explains.
That focus could have gone terribly wrong, could have been gooey and sentimentalised. But R.J. Palacio's writing avoided the melodramatic. It was raw, candid and sharp. When the book hit the shelves, it was embraced by the craniofacial anomaly community, who had long awaited the chance to see their stories, but equally by many who have known the loneliness of being different in any of millions of ways. Says R.J. Palacio of her philosophy that kindness is something people not only need to heed but to practice: 'I really do believe that inherently people want to be good and, given a chance, want to do the right thing. But the thing we have to confront is that we all have to work at it. That's all anyone can ask: try your hardest to be your best."
That core theme is what drew Julia Roberts to R.J. Palacio's book. Says Julia Roberts: 'I think that if we could really hold on to the concepts of this book of simply being fair and understanding, we would be in better times. For me, it has been a really wonderful reminder to find more ways in a day, or even in a conversation, to choose the nicer way rather than the faster, sarcastic or negative way."
Stephen Chbosky's Sense Of Wonder
"Your deeds are your monuments." - Egyptian Precept
Once Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman had R.J. Palacio's blessing, the search was on for a director to bring the book to the screen with honesty and humor intact. Their first thought went straight away to Stephen Chbosky, with whom they had just worked on the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast – and who also happens to be a novelist. Stephen Chbosky previously adapted (then directed) his own book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, into a film that garnered the 2013 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.
Says Todd Lieberman: 'The most important quality we needed for Wonder was the ability to evoke emotion without being manipulative or heavy-handed. Stephen Chbosky is astute emotionally, but at the same time he's lighthearted and can blend humor into profound themes."
As it turned out, Stephen Chbosky initially declined the offer, in part because his wife had just given birth and felt he was in no position to dive in, and also because he thought he didn't want to do another schoolbased movie on the heels of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But as pursuit by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Lionsgate continued he finally sat down to read the book, just to see what he might be missing.
That was all it took. Stephen Chbosky couldn't walk away from what he considers a 'coming of age story for this generation." He explains: 'Having my son, Theodore, made the story personal to me, and I was ready. What struck me most in the book is that the sum of every choice you make creates your character. You alone can make the choice to be a hero in your life – to stand out, to be yourself, to act on your best nature."
Rather than place the focus entirely on Auggie, he embraced the book's tangle of viewpoints in his approach. 'Auggie's bravery has a ripple effect on all these characters," Stephen Chbosky points out, 'and the different points of view help you realize there are things everyone is going through, not just Auggie. That's where empathy begins."
As things took off, Stephen Chbosky and R.J. Palacio forged a tight bond, especially as Stephen Chbosky joined with cowriters Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad to adapt the novel.
R.J. Palacio wasn't sure what to expect, but found herself handing her trust to Stephen Chbosky. 'Stephen Chobosky brought so much artistry but also respect for the words," she says. 'Every script choice he made felt spot on. I hope fans will see that Stephen Chobosky went out of his way to honor the book's characters – big and little – and they are all in there as I imagined them. The film might not follow every tiny detail, because you can't in this art form. But Stephen Chobosky brought something vital: that key feeling in the book I call laughing/crying."
For R.J. Palacio nailing that duality of tones was the bottom line. 'I think one reason the book has invited so many people is that the Pullman family is not sad, they're joyful people making the most of what they've been dealt," she reflects. 'That's how real families are. I was gratified that Stephen Chobosky understood that less could be more in letting these characters be themselves."
The script evolved with the entire team in synch. Says Todd Lieberman: 'The novel really was the best blueprint so we didn't deviate much.'' R.J. Palacio was always there to lend support. 'She was invaluable, offering insight on everything from script to casting," says David Hoberman. 'She's at the core of the film's family."
'Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life." - Auggie
As development of Wonder took off, the filmmakers faced a crucible: finding the film's Auggie. It was daunting enough that readers had already imagined Auggie but the filmmakers also had to find a very authentic grade school-age boy with the acting chops to get under the skin of a child dealing with a world that avoids and sometimes fears him. 'The role of Auggie is so complicated, we needed an incredibly skilled actor capable of giving a nuanced performance that is as much about the things left unsaid as about the dialogue," comments Todd Lieberman.
The search presented a puzzle until the day the filmmakers saw Jacob Tremblay in Room, in which he plays a kidnapping victim who has never encountered the world outside a tiny shed. His performance was like nothing they'd seen in a child so young. 'When we saw Room, we knew we'd found the boy who could take on Auggie," says David Hoberman. 'Jacob is gifted for his age and for any age. When we met him, we thought we couldn't have sat with someone who felt more like Auggie, with that same spirit."
Jacob Tremblay also struck Stephen Chbosky as a match. 'Wonder had to never feel dour and Jacob is full of humor, curiosity and energy in all the best ways," says the director.
Unusually, Jacob Tremblay took undergoing extensive facial prosthetics in stride; he even seemed to welcome what can be an exhausting process. Says Todd Lieberman: 'The minute the makeup went on, Jacob Tremblay transformed inside, beyond the makeup on his face. He took on the full psychological mindset of Auggie."
It all came with ease, Jacob Tremblay says, because he felt Auggie's story was so important to tell. 'The most exciting part for me was getting to be a kid who helps the world be a better place," the 9 year-old comments. 'I thought the book was super, super good and it made my mom cry. It's about Auggie's struggle to fit in, and it's also about making people feel comfortable instead of scared."
Like any adult actor would, Jacob Tremblay immersed himself in research, meeting with and befriending kids who are real-life Auggies to get their perspectives on how life is and isn't different for them. At his own insistence, he began keeping a giant notebook of letters, pictures and ideas. 'I would read this binder every day, especially before a really serious scene to help me prepare," he explains.
For R.J. Palacio, Jacob Tremblay's devotion to getting it right was indispensable. 'The hard work of Jacob Tremblay's research pays off in the subtlety of his performance," she says. 'He understood something key to the character: that Auggie accepts that he looks different – he just wishes it wouldn't be such a big deal for everyone else. He also understood that Auggie is a sweet kid, but he's not that sweet. He's a jokester and he's a tough, scrappy guy who has been through 27 surgeries. He really got that." Jacob Tremblay shares his character's unalloyed love of all things Star Wars, which helped him further get beneath Auggie's cosmic fantasies. 'Auggie knows it takes people some time to get used to him. So I think that's why he loves space and he'd rather be in a space suit," he observes.
In the book, Auggie's openness about all his everyday fears, frustrations and dreams is what makes him so compelling - and Tremblay seemed to hone right in on that. 'What Jacob Tremblay gets at is that Auggie is a real kid with real kid problems," says Stephen Chbosky. 'Auggie has to come out of himself – and he learns that even though he has to handle bullies and stares, other people have problems he should be paying attention to as well. He figures out that caring about other people is a form of strength."
Jacob Tremblay credits Stephen Chbosky for creating an environment where he could fearlessly take chances. 'When we first got to know each other, we talked about our favorite movies, and I asked Stephen Chbosky a few questions about prosthetics, and I thought the way he saw the book was pretty cool," recalls Jacob Tremblay.
'Later, I discovered that Stephen Chbosky is one of the nicest guys on the planet. It can be a frustrating job to be a director but Stephen Chbosky never gets upset – ever. He's always so positive and that makes it fun."
While Jacob Tremblay was having fun, he was also becoming more and more twined with Auggie. Sums up R.J. Palacio: 'When I first saw the film, I thought: I know Jacob's under there, but I don't see it. To me, he disappeared into Auggie."
Isabel And Nate
'I missed seeing your face, Auggie. I know you don't always love it, but you have to understand … I love it." - Nate
Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson stepped in to play two of Wonder's most essential roles: Isabel and Nate, who as Auggie's parents try to square their protective instincts with knowing their son must find his own place in the world, no matter how harsh. They explore something rarely seen in popular culture – what it's like to be a parent of a child with differences, navigating anxieties and isolation as they try to bridge the gap between the child they know at home and the mystery the rest of the world sees at first glance.
The casting could not have been more exciting for the filmmakers. ''This clearly wasn't just an acting role for her. She believed in what the story had to say and wanted to help make it happen," comments David Hoberman, who first worked with Roberts on her breakout role in Pretty Woman.
Adds Todd Lieberman: 'Julia Roberts has a rare ability to show incredible emotion without ever going to a maudlin place. She does it with such grace and humor that you believe in her as a mother."
Says Julia Roberts of her initial reaction to the book: 'I thought it had an incredible scope of characters and I loved the character's different points of view, their compassion and their complexities. I read it with my kids, they all loved it and it was at that point that I thought, this has to be made into a movie."
She immediately latched onto Isabel's maternal strength, but equally her internal conflicts as an independent woman whose life and ambitions have been overtaken by an unusually intense motherhood. 'Isabel is at an interesting crossroads," Julia Roberts observes. 'I mean we all go through this incredible shift in our lives when you become a parent, when you become a steward to another human life who becomes your complete and total priority. For Isabel, being Auggie's mom would have been immediately consuming because just trying to keep this little boy alive was very challenging. At the same time, everything that she was trying to accomplish as a creative individual in the world fell to the wayside.
So now, with Auggie finally going to school, it is very bittersweet for her. It's the first time that they haven't been together almost every minute of every day. But it does allow for her to slowly go back to the things she was doing before he was born. Now she has to learn to let go."
One of the most special things for all involved was watching the closeness between Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay develop. 'Their bond came into being in the most amazingly organic way," comments Todd Lieberman.
Says Jacob Tremblay: 'Isabel is a really good mother, like a top five mother. She makes Auggie feel better when he's sad by using her mom powers, and explaining all the hard stuff to him. And Julia Julia Roberts was such a good co-star. I learned so much from her."
Julia Roberts notes that she in turn had plenty to learn from Jacob Tremblay. She muses that she has only ever briefly met Jacob Tremblay – because most of the time when they were working he was purely Auggie to her. 'I remember when production finished and I was saying goodbye to Jacob Tremblay's mom she said, I' feel like you're Auggie's mom and I'm Jacob Tremblay's mom," which is kind of how it felt to me."
Julia Roberts credits Stephen Chbosky for leaving space for all the layers of the Pullman family to bloom. 'Stephen Chbosky is so interested in people and the ways they relate to each other and he brings so much tenderness to looking at the human condition," she observes. 'Sometimes, he would even cry while explaining something because it was all so meaningful to him. On top of all that, he also has a great wit."
Wonder marks the first time Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson have worked together, but their chemistry was instant. 'Nate is a bit of a childlike goof and the family's comic relief whereas Isabel is the dominant force. Owen not only really delivers on the humor, he's very moving as a father coming to terms in his own way with how to do the best he can for his son," says Todd Lieberman.
'You never know what the chemistry is going to be between two people playing a couple, but the first day Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson were on set, it felt so natural," muses David Hoberman.
As a father of two, Owen Wilson could not resist being part of Wonder. 'I saw playing Nate as a chance to bring to life a story that's been meaningful to a lot of people," he says. 'I personally felt inspired to focus more on similarities than differences after reading the story. But another thing that really attracted me to the movie was Stephen Chbosky. Before the movie began, we talked a lot and I could feel his passion so strongly and his humanity, which I knew he would bring to the film."
Wilson also enjoyed that Nate admittedly plays second fiddle to Isabel in the family. 'I wouldn't describe Nate as a real disciplinarian. Auggie and he have a playful relationship that involves karate and light saber fighting. I feel like my whole life has been in preparation for this role because I actually am very good at all of those things," Owen Wilson quips. 'Growing up in Dallas, there was a similar sense of fun in my family that I feel in the Pullmans. Yes, they have their challenges, but they never say woe is me." For Owen Wilson, working with Julia Roberts was something special. 'You don't meet too many people who have that kind of vitality. She has that in real life - and she brings it to the role," he says.
Julia Roberts says that the rapport between them was instinctive, as they improvised their husband-and wife bond. 'Owen really kind of reinvented Nate for me and oh my, I thought he was so fantastic," she says. 'We have very similar senses of humor so we kind of led each other in this little comic dance." Getting close with Owen Wilson was especially fun for Jacob Tremblay, who concludes: 'Owen Wilson is one of the funniest guys on the planet, seriously. If you meet him, you'll laugh your head off."
Adding to the adult Pullmans is screen legend Sonia Braga (Kiss of the Spider Woman) playing the family's grandmother in a Coney Island memory with Via. Says Sonia Braga: 'What made me want to be part of the Wonder family is everything the story is about – love of family and defeating bullies are both very important to me. I also felt a very deep connection with the part because my grandmother was the person who took care of me. I've wished my whole life that my grandmother could be with me again, much like Via does. My moment in the movie is a very delicate scene, and it was guided so gently by Stephen Chbosky."
'My worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through." - Via
Auggie's teen sister Via has a story all her own in Wonder. As the older, healthy kid in the Pullman family, Via has dedicated herself to her brother's wellbeing with selfless patience. But that doesn't mean it's gone down easy. Unlike Auggie, she's spent her life as anything but the center of attention and no matter how much she understands why, it still stings, especially when life is changing so fast for her. Says Julia Roberts of Via: 'Auggie and Via have a really beautiful and complex relationship. I think Via is such an incredible character because here's a person who deeply loves her brother to the point that she accepts that she not only won't get much attention right now but also that this will be infinitely true."
Via's first year of high school, a year of loss and love, becomes a counterpoint to Auggie and casting her was nearly as challenging. The filmmakers found a combination of the fierce and the tender in 15 year-old Izabela Vidovic, who has been seen in the thriller Homefront and the television series 'About a Boy." 'Izabela Vidovic fits beautifully between Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. We interviewed a lot of actresses and Izabela Vidovic won the day mostly by being who she is," says David Hoberman.
Izabela Vidovic had such admiration for Via it spurred her deeper into the role. 'Via is strong and selfless and eventually, she finds her own ways to shine," she says. 'Her relationship with Auggie is really special because she wants to keep him safe, but she doesn't baby him like their parents. She wants him to be able to survive and stand up for himself."
Stephen Chbosky emphasised to Izabela Vidovic that it was important to bring out into the open the often-invisible challenges that siblings of kids with all-consuming medical conditions must confront. 'Most sibling relationships include rivalry, but in this case it's a far more pronounced struggle for Via," he notes. 'As someone who loves his little sister, I adore Via's relationship with Auggie."
R.J. Palacio also admires Via. 'Via's one of my favorite characters. She tells it like it is and when people are mean to Auggie, she gets hyper-annoyed, more than he does," she observes. 'But her little brother also irritates her. So they have a very normal dynamic, intensified by the fact that she's seen him through 27 surgeries. Via never lost her heart. I love her, I really do."
The final member of the family, the family's beloved dog Daisy, provides all the Pullmans with unconditional love. The role was coveted. Unfortunately, Stephen Chbosky is allergic to dogs, but he wasn't willing to excise the character who serves as a silent confidante for each member of the family when times get tough. Comments David Hoberman: 'Each member of the Pullman family loves Daisy in a different way and she helps to unite them."
Schoolmates 'What I wanted was to go to school, but only if I could be like every other kid going to school." - Auggie
After being home-schooled all his life, Auggie gets a push from his parents to start attending the 5th grade at Beecher Prep. It's a brand new realm of gossip, bullies and threats, but also of science labs, achievement and friends. Auggie's schoolmates provide an entirely different POV on Auggie's life. They don't have the benefit of knowing him as his family does, so they have to figure him out in their own ways, and they do so through the prisms of their own unique experiences.
'Figuring out chemistry in any movie is difficult, and it's even harder when it's 10 year-olds," muses Todd Lieberman. 'Our task was to fit the story's core groups of kids like the pieces of a puzzle. We met with hundreds of kids in different cities, testing different combinations. When they all came together, it was magic." The kids who impact Auggie and vice versa include:
Jack is Auggie's first real school friend - or so Auggie thinks, until a demoralising incident leads him to believe Jack is only pretending. It becomes up to Jack to choose where his loyalties really lie. Taking the role is Noah Jupe, who has been seen in The Titan and 'The Night Manager." A bit of an outsider himself – the lower-income kid on a scholarship – Jack has a natural affinity with Auggie, but he also wants to be accepted by the cool kids. Jupe embraced the character's mix of insecurities and boyish charm. Says Todd Lieberman: 'Noah is a fantastic young actor out of the U.K. with an intangible likeability that comes straight from the heart."
Jupe was beyond thrilled to get the part. 'I loved the book so much," he says. He especially loved meeting R.J. Palacio, one of his favorite authors. 'She told me I was the spitting image of how she imagined Jack Will to be, and we got to really talk about what Jack thinks and feels so it was really exciting." Says R.J. Palacio of Jack: 'Mr. Tushman has a flash of genius when he chooses Jack to guide Auggie. Tushman understands that Jack doesn't see how great he is yet, and puts him in a position where he can actually show the world that greatness ... and Jack ultimately rises to the occasion."
'If there is a baddie in Wonder, it would be Julian," says David Hoberman. Julian is the leader of the 5th grade pack – who starts off teasing Auggie for the attention it brings, then veers towards bullying. The layered role was won by Texas native Bryce Gheisar, seen in A Dog's Purpose and Walk The Prank. Says Todd Lieberman: 'Julian was very complicated to cast, because the obvious choice for the bully is to pick someone who is just scary. But we wanted someone more nuanced. When Bryce came in, he had this quiet, calculated menace with a hint of fear. Bryce Gheisar plays him as someone charming with a seething anger underneath, anger that hasn't yet hit the boiling point but the audience can see it."
Like his cast mates, Bryce Gheisar already knew the book and that only made him more interested in exploring the source of Julian's mean streak. 'I loved that it was an opportunity to help teach people around the world that bullying is not okay," says Bryce Gheisar. 'I really, really wanted to be part of this."
For R.J. Palacio, Julian is fundamental to Wonder. 'All kids have baggage," she says. 'Auggie's might be the easiest to perceive since he can't hide his face but everyone has something they wish they could change in their lives. Someone like Julian is freaked out by Auggie and because he doesn't know what to do with those feelings, he makes fun of him. He's trying to protect himself, but he does it in a really bad way. The truth is Julian is a boy who is petrified and not getting the help from his parents that he needs." Gheisar believes Julian undergoes an internal evolution in the course of the movie. 'When Mr. Tushman tells Julian that -Auggie can't change the way he looks, but maybe we can change the way we see him,' I think that opens up his mind and he starts to believe he can change."
Just when Auggie thinks he is entirely alone at Beecher Prep, in comes Summer, a breath of fresh air in the form of a smart, shy girl who seems to genuinely like him. Canadian-born Millie Davis, known for her roles on 'Orphan Black" and 'The Odd Squad," takes on the girl who gives Auggie hope.
'Summer is an old soul," says R.J. Palacio. 'She knows what Auggie needs is somebody to not treat him differently. She's tired of all the meanness around her and she finds a kindred spirit in Auggie." Millie Davis is another young fan of the book. 'I thought the book was really moving – it's about accepting people, which is really cool," she says.
Rounding out the main group of Auggie's friends is would-be child actress Charlotte Cody played by competitive dancer and acting newcomer Elle McKinnon. 'Charlotte Cody loves singing, acting, and dancing… like I do." says Elle McKinnon. 'She a chatterbox, which makes her a little crazy but a lot of fun." Says Stephen Chbosky, 'Elle McKinnon was so natural, she blew me away. This was her first movie. Third audition. I couldn't be more pleased that Wonder got to introduce her to the world."
A trio of young Canadian actors makes up Julian's gang: Ty Consiglio as Amos, Kyle Breitkopf as Miles and newcomer James A. Hughes as Henry. 'I looked so forward to the scene when Amos, Miles and Henry come to the rescue," comments R.J. Palacio. 'It's bonding moment that has become a favorite for many."
'Greatness lies, not in being strong, But in the right using of strength" - Henry Ward Beecher
Another major influence on Auggie's first year of school comes from two special teachers: his homeroom teacher Mr. Browne and school principal Mr. Tushman – roles taken in the film by two of America's most in-demand stage actors: Tony Award® winner Daveed Diggs, known for playing Thomas Jefferson in 'Hamilton," making his feature film debut; and Tony Award® and Emmy® Award winner Mandy Patinkin.
Daveed Diggs was a casting coup for the filmmakers. 'Daveed Diggs blew everybody away in -Hamilton.' And here, he has brought out a warm, funny teacher vibe that really evokes this character," says David Hoberman. From the minute he read the script, Daveed Diggs knew he wanted in. 'I thought it would be nice to be part of a piece of art that pushes back against hatred," he says. 'And I think something about framing this story from the really personal narrative of a child gives us easy access to important ideas. It's impossible to apply your own cynicism to Wonder."
He continues: 'I'd never done a movie before this so that has made it doubly special. When I showed up that first day of shooting and was hanging out with all of these magic kids, I thought if this is what movies are like, then I'm going to do movies! I could not have asked for a better experience."
Daveed Diggs probed memories of his own favorite teachers to inhabit the role. 'I modeled Mr. Browne after the 2 or 3 teachers who really changed everything for me," he says. 'I also wanted to touch on the idea that when you teach, you are changed as much by your students as you hope that they are by you."
He was enamored of Mr. Browne's daily precepts scrawled across the chalkboard. 'I think Mr. Browne believes that if you really take these wise sayings to heart in your daily life, they can give you a framework for self-discovery. That's what matters to him," Daveed Diggs explains.
It is Mr. Browne who first gives the kids the quotation about choosing kindness, taken from a book by Wayne Dyer, often dubbed 'the father of motivation." Says R.J Palacio: 'When I was writing Mr. Browne, Dyer's precept about choosing kindness came instantly into my head, and I thought that him setting that expectation would be a great way to start the school year, reminding kids what they are capable of."
or Daveed Diggs one of the most impactful scenes was the fight between Julian and Jack Will. In that moment, the line between real and make-believe blurred. 'The tense, primal emotions in the hallway just ripped my heart out as Mr. Browne breaks up the fight. Then Jack Will collapses and starts crying in my arms. I'll never shake that memory," he admits.
The versatile Patinkin was always Palacio's first choice for the school's principled principal. She is a long-time fan, and he lived up to her impression. 'Mandy brings a soulful humanity and wisdom to everything he does. He's gentle but with real gravitas and that is Mr. Tushman to me," she says. Patinkin went all in. 'I wanted to do this because I was so moved by the story," he says. 'In the world we're living in today, we have to confront racism, prejudice and xenophobia towards anyone different – and it's essential to have conversations about this."
Mr. Tushman's name sets the tone for Patinkin's light-yet-deep take on the character. (Palacio has confessed she had a college professor named Mr. Butt, an inspiration for the moniker.) 'With that name Mr. Tushman had to have a self-deprecating humor, but at the same time he needed real authority.
Mandy can do all of that. He can sell a joke in one scene and in another barely hold back tears," comments Todd Lieberman.
In working with Tremblay, Patinkin says he saw something uncommon in an actor of any age group. 'He knows how to listen," he observes. 'He knows what many grownups in this world have forgotten or never learned in the first place: listening is all you need to be an actor, and he does it naturally."
Patinkin's own realism had Bryce Gheisar in tears while filming the scene when Julian is suspended. 'I felt like I wasn't really even acting because listening to Mandy automatically brought tears to my eyes," shares Gheisar. 'Then, between takes he helped me to laugh again by saying his lines from The Princess Bride – -I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.' His generosity actually helped inspire me even more, because I wanted to be as good as I could be for Mandy."
One of Patinkin's biggest scenes is the film's climax, as the 5th grade class graduates after a tumultuous year. Palacio and her family became extras in the audience, giving her a chance to witness his speech. 'Seeing Mr. Tushman's speech was a profound moment for me, because I remember so strongly writing that scene. It was like watching someone watching you watching someone else," she muses.
'Sometimes you don't have to be mean to hurt someone." - R.J. Palacio, Wonder
Just as Jacob starts his very first year at school, Via is also starting her first year at her new highschool – a tumultuous year during which she will struggle with friendships and be drawn into the wonders of first love. Two of her schoolmates become central characters:
Miranda was once Via's best friend, closer than close, but after a summer away, she's returned with new hair, a new attitude and a new disinterest in Via - a crushing blow just when Via most needs someone in whom she can confide. Seventeen year-old Danielle Rose Russell took on the role with determination. 'I fell so in love with the story, I remember emailing my agent stating -I need to be on this,'" she recalls.
Danielle Rose Russell especially loved how Miranda's story adds another layer of someone who feels misunderstood to the story, that of a child of divorce who is hiding deep insecurities that have led to a quest for popularity and a damaging lie. 'Miranda's a really good person deep down, but she's kind of lost herself, so she rebels," explains Danielle Rose Russell. 'She starts high school with pink hair, edgy clothing and a nose ring - that's the mask that she puts on. But behind that façade, she's hurting deep down."
It is Auggie who brings Via and Miranda to a reconciliation that makes their friendship more honest. 'Miranda and Auggie have a really sweet dynamic," says Russell. 'She calls him Major Tom after the Bowie song and she was the one who gave Auggie the astronaut helmet he wears into the world. Missing Auggie helps her to see how much she lost when she walked away from being friends with Via."
FUN FACT: She won the role by auditioning from her house in New Jersey over Skype.
When Miranda calls it quits as Via's best friend, Via finds herself desperately alone at her new school. Then she meets Justin, a 'theatre nerd" and musician who convinces her to join the Drama Club. In the book, R.J. Palacio wrote Justin's chapter without any capitalisation or punctuation to capture his streamof-consciousness approach to life – and the filmmakers wanted an actor who could embody that physically.
Jeter, an actor, dancer and musician from Atlanta, had thought a lot about where Justin and Via connect. 'Justin's an only child and he recognises how much Via feels alone," he says. '"Justin wants to show Via that it's okay to feel hurt or sad at times, so long as you have somebody to really back you up."
One of Jeter's biggest scenes is when he meets Auggie, whose very existence was initially kept secret from him. 'When Justin finally meets Auggie, his first impression is similar to everyone's but Justin is not the typical guy who lets it show on his face. He holds back. Now he sees the challenges affecting Via. I love that Justin forms a bond with Auggie instantly. To me part of the power of the script is that you have some people who are on the inside looking out, and others who are on the outside looking in."
R.J. Palacio was taken with all the human touches Jeter brings to Justin. 'In the book, Justin is a geeky theatre kid with glasses, but Nadji brings so much more," she says. 'When I was writing Via, I really wanted her to have someone to be just hers, someone who really got her. Justin is that person."
'I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks." - Auggie
Of paramount importance to the entire look of the film was creating Auggie's unique face with equal parts authenticity and respect, a task that involved creative makeup, prosthetics and CGI.
'We went through a long R&D phase to figure out the most appropriate look and the best way to achieve it with the time constraints of working with a child actor. We wanted the makeup to be strong and real, but also, we wanted you to completely forget Auggie's look as the story takes off," says David Hoberman. The naturalism of the final results gratified the cast. 'The makeup is phenomenal because it doesn't look like makeup at all," comments Daveed Diggs. 'And by keeping Jacob's own expressive eyes visible, that keeps you tied into his heart."
Overseeing the process was Special Makeup Effects Designer and Creator Arjen Tuiten, who recently transformed Angelina Jolie into Maleficent. For Wonder, Arjen Tuiten started with reality, keying into the physiological facts of Treacher-Collins syndrome, which typically leads to foreshortened cheekbones, diminutive ears and downturned eyes. Arjen Tuiten took Auggie's face through a series of makeup, lighting and visual effects tests to find just the right combination of features while allowing his personality to come through. Then he whittled the process down to a remarkably speedy metamorphosis for Tremblay. 'Arjen is a makeup prodigy and he got the process down to 90 minutes each day. His work was then augmented by the visual effects house LOLA, who tweaked what couldn't be practically achieved," explains Lieberman.
Tremblay was as upbeat, outgoing and inquisitive as he always is during his prosthetic applications – because he understood why it was so essential to get it right. 'Once I had it all on, I felt like Auggie. Without the prosthetics, I probably couldn't do as good of a job," he says. 'Sometimes it did get itchy, but if you didn't think about it too much, it was like there was nice cozy warm cocoon around your head."
During the pre-production tests, Oscar®-nominated director of photography Don Burgess, ASC, who has lent inventive visuals to such films as Forrest Gump and Cast Away, further developed a strategy for how to light Auggie. 'We looked very closely at the shape of Auggie's face and how light touches that shape and how the skin grabs the light. Part of the idea was that we could adjust when we wanted him to feel he looks his worse and when he's feeling his best," Burgess explains.
Stephen Chbosky purposely didn't let the cast members see Tremblay in Auggie's makeup right up until the moment the cameras were rolling to preserve their natural reactions on camera.
'Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun." - Via
The visual design of Wonder revolves around Auggie's enlarging world – spreading out from home to school and beyond. To craft it, Stephen Chbosky collaborated with an accomplished team including director of photography Don Burgess, production designer Kalina Ivanov and costume designer Monique Prudhomme.
As a cinematographer who thrives on invention, Don Burgess soon found there was a lot to play with visually in the film. Early on, he made the choice to use the RED Weapon 6K camera which he says gave him maximum flexibility and the most unfiltered lens he could find to access the story's raw emotions.
To highlight the film's divergent perspectives, Don Burgess decided to take a different stylistic approach to each of the main characters' tales. 'We gave each story its own special look with distinct color, lighting, and lenses," explains Don Burgess. 'There is a consistent look to Auggie's POV but when we see the same event from a different perspective such as Via's, I change camera speeds to alter the mood. For Auggie, I used longer lenses to isolate his character more and to focus on him more on him as an individual." The color palette also shifts. 'The colors at home are cozier. But in school, it's very cool, because it's new and awkward. The longer Auggie is at school, the more it warms up," points out Don Burgess.
Don Burgess worked with up to four cameras at a time to achieve maximum efficiency. 'Kids can only work a limited number of hours per day and there are scenes in the movie with up to nine characters in the frame, so we decided to go with multiple cameras," he explains.
Collaborating closely with Don Burgess was Ivanov, whose centerpiece set was the Pullman home, infused with many whimsical details drawn from Palacio's book. Ivanov oversaw construction of a full-scale two-story, New York-style brownstone at the Braid Street warehouse stage in New Westminster, BC. Says Palacio: 'Wonder is not just a New York story. It could take place at any time and any place in the history of the world. The setting Kalina created was more universal and perfect."
The movie opens in the sanctuary of Auggie's bedroom. 'In his bedroom Auggie can dream and be himself without judgment," says Ivanov. 'I presented to Stephen the concept that Auggie's bedroom should represent night. He liked the idea because night also ties into the darkness of outer space, which is Auggies' obsession. We didn't want the room to be too dark; there's whimsy to his character, so we painted each shelf in his bookcases a different color. We wanted to capture a boy who draws, dream, has many interests and possesses an infinitely rich soul."
One unusual touch in the bedroom is Auggie's growth chart, fashioned from 27 hospital bracelets, in a sense telling Auggie's story from birth. 'We spent a lot of time designing Auggie's hospital bracelets and deciding on how to showcase them. At one point Stephen came up with a great twist of displaying them on a growth chart. After we tried that approach we realized that the camera format worked better if we arranged them on a rectangular corkboard," says Ivanov. 'We were always working towards making it look like real people lived in this house."
The room was so detailed Jacob Tremblay didn't want to leave. 'There were billions of cool things in there that I loved. Auggie has Star Wars Legos, a ceiling painted with stars and a light saber. Auggie even has his X-Box in his room; my X-Box is in the basement! I wish my X-Box was in my room," laughs Jacob Tremblay.
Auggie's bedroom is opposite to Via's room. 'While Auggie has a night sky, Via has a mural of the day sky with clouds," describes Ivanov. 'The idea is that their illustrator mother painted both murals as an emotional response to her children's personalities. Every item and color in the house has a meaning, and because Stephen is also a fiction writer he pays close attention to these themes."
Ivanov welcomed Palacio's input. 'R.J. gave me some really interesting back stories for the characters, which are not in the book – for example, she said Isabel went to Rhode Island School of Design and Nate was a musician who went to Brown. Later, Nate decided to go into finances to give his son the best life he could possibly have. It was a gift to have all this knowledge. We wanted their home to be a real family home, not too tidy or perfect, but to feel truly like it belonged to people who have both joy and struggle in their lives."
For Beecher Prep, Ivanov used the 19th century school in Brooklyn where Palacio's children attended as a model. 'Stephen had asked me to make the movie look timeless," says Ivanov, 'so we avoided a lot of modern school technology. For Mr. Browne's room, we built classic green chalkboards with beautiful wood frames to add warmth. He loves his students so we filled his room with a lot of humorous personal notes he wrote to them. The room had very specific décor, and we changed it to accommodate the season's passing."
To recreate the catalytic science fair scene, the art department filled the gym with real kids' projects collected from local schools. The art department itself built Auggie and Jack Will's camera obscura.
The Heritage Woods school in British Columbia hosted almost 400 extras to stage Via's school play and Camp Howdy in Belcarra, BC, founded in the 40s, stood in for the Broarwood Nature Reserve where Auggie has his first sleep-away. 'The location was a great find; we even saw a bear while scouting it," laughs Ivanov. 'Camp Howdy is lovely, but not big, and it fit our story perfectly. Auggie is indoors for most of the film, and this sequence is the first time that he is outside in nature, so it was really important for the camp to be beautiful, but not overwhelming."
Amid such a wide array of characters, costume designer Monique Prudhomme had her work cut out for her, with some characters having 45 wardrobe changes. She started with Auggie. 'We created a contrast between the intensity of Auggie's life experiences and the ordinariness of his look," she notes. 'Auggie wears lots of hoodies at the beginning, but less and less as he grows more comfortable in his skin."
Simple as Auggie's clothing is, there were challenges. 'We had to be really conscious of getting clothes over Jacob's head and adjusting them to hide the prosthetics," the designer explains. Via's clothing also undergoes subtle changes. 'Via is like a flower that blooms," describes Prudhomme. 'At the beginning, she's very reserved so I kept her clothes simple and quite youthful. But as she goes to high school and meets Justin, her femininity comes out."
For Julia Roberts' Isabel and Owen Wilson's Nate, Prudhomme drew on their backstories. 'Isabel was an artist before Auggie came along, so I saw her expressing her imagination through clothes and jewelry. Our challenge was to create a real mom, but with an edge and a bit of funkiness," she says. 'Nate had to feel a bit uptight in his suit, like his suit was scratchy to use Stephen's word. He works in finance, but to show that itchiness about it, I always put him in sneakers when he goes off to work."
Auggie's style contrasts with the kids he meets at school, especially Charlotte. 'Stephen wanted to bring out Elle's exuberance and grace, so we gave her butterflies and sparkly things. Her joyous looks really stands out against Auggie in the beginning, but he comes to fit in," concludes Prudhomme.
The Space Helmet And Chewbacca
'I didn't destroy a Death Star or anything like that, but I did just get through the 5th grade." - Auggie
If there is a safe space on earth for Auggie it is inside his space helmet, an accessory which not only keeps his face hidden but allows him to enter a cosmic fantasy world where he feels free and in mind of the unalloyed courage of his heroes: the Apollo 11 NASA astronauts who walked on the moon. Finding the right helmet was essential. 'The space helmet is Auggie's favorite thing and the one we used actually looks real," says Tremblay. 'You can even press a button and the visor goes up. The space helmet makes Auggie feel pretty happy and normal, without worrying about people seeing his face."
The props department built the Auggie-sized astronaut helmet themselves, but for Auggie's space daydreams, a real child-sized NASA spacesuit was rented by the production. 'We were quite lucky to find a company that made a kid's spacesuit," Prudhomme says. 'It became a beautiful symbol of discovery."
To creature Auggie's intergalactic fantasies, Chbosky and Burgess used camera tricks to transport him out of this world. 'We wanted to put Auggie into the extreme freedom of zero gravity. To do this, we used very high-speed cameras to simulate zero-G movement so he appears to truly be floating. You get the feeling of little Auggie in his little spacesuit actually being able to conquer gravity," describes Don Burgess.
Space creatures also show up on earth when Auggie envisions Star Wars' Chewbacca roaming the halls of Beecher Prep. 'We were so happy that Lucasfilm and Disney understood what the Star Wars characters mean to Auggie, so we could have Chewbacca be a part of our movie," says Hoberman.
'One of the top ten coolest things I've ever done is doing a scene with Chewbacca," says Daveed Diggs. 'Seriously, my five-year-old self was freaking out. Chewie and I had a moment together and I have that forever. Best of all, he's exactly as cool of a dude as we think he is."
'On the outside they may look different, on the inside they have the same feelings as you. It's not how you look, it's who you are." - 'Imagine This: A World Without Bullies" from Children's Craniofacial Association
From the start, the filmmakers wanted to bring the facial difference community into the inner fabric of the production – and to make sure their voices were heard. They began collaborating closely with several organizations including MyFace and the Children's Craniofacial Association (CCA). Both organizations had taken the popularity of the book as a chance to raise much greater awareness of craniofacial differences and bust through some of the social stigmas.
For Palacio, the love so many 'real-life Auggies" have for her book has been as gratifying as its success. 'The friendships I've formed with kids who have craniofacial differences have been incredibly special to me," she says. 'It's been moving to see how Wonder has positively impacted their lives." To learn more, the entire Tremblay family attended CCA's annual family retreat, a tradition started by CCA's national spokesperson, Cher. Jacob had a blast. 'I made friends with many kids there, which I thought was wonderful." laughs Tremblay. 'And while I was having fun, I learned a lot about kids with craniofacial syndromes and it really helped me to do this role the right way."
One family in particular would come to influence the film project: that of 12 year-old Nathaniel Newman, who has become close with Palacio. 'A couple months after the book came out, Nathaniel's parents reached out to me and we had lunch. Although I didn't know him while I was writing, I discovered that Nathaniel was Auggie come-to-life," says Palacio. 'Nathaniel has Treacher-Collins syndrome and looks a lot the way I imagined Auggie, and speaks the way I hear Auggie. He has great parents and a brother who doesn't have a craniofacial difference. Nathaniel has had to endure many surgeries and deal with a lot of the issues Auggie has. And like Auggie, he's loving, funny and brave beyond words."
Palacio brought Nathaniel – then recovering from his 56th surgery - on as a consultant. 'Nathaniel has given us truly personal access to what it might be like for someone like Auggie," says Lieberman. 'While Auggie isn't real, I've now have had the pleasure of meeting real people just as amazing."
Several other CCA families spent time on the Vancouver set, with every kid getting a chance to play with Auggie's helmet.
Palacio hopes there's just one thing audiences will take away about people with facial differences: 'There is no issue with them. The issue is with all of us who are not seeing with the right eyes."
'If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary - the world really would be a better place." - Mr. Tushman
Part of the Wonder phenomenon has been empowering young people to more confidently confront the poison of bullying, bigotry and ostracism. 'The book has sparked international anti-bullying campaigns," notes Lieberman. 'One of the most important things is that the story explores the many different ways people get bullied. Emotional bullying is a big deal to me, and it's one of the reasons I really responded to the book. Bad behavior has been going on forever, but with social media you now have people treating others unfairly on an even wider spectrum, so the need for these kinds of stories is more timely than ever."
Palacio now speaks with kids around the country about bullying as part of the Choose Kind movement started in response to the book, and has had thousands sign her Choose Kind pledge. She says it helps to remind kids that the attitude they have now towards others will affect them their whole lives.
'When I talk with kids, we talk about how you would want to be remembered 80 years from now. Do you want to be remembered for moments of unkindness? Or do you want to be remembered for being the person who was brave enough to go over to the new kid in class and make friends? That's when kids start to get it, when they start to see what they do even in a small way really, really matters for a long time."
But Palacio says that much as her book is anti-bullying that alone is not enough. She hopes the book and now the movie will inspire everyone to be proactive, to take the one extra step to give someone a boost or a helping hand. 'Sometimes it doesn't take much at all to make a huge impact," she points out.
'The best part about small acts is that you never know when you might actually be saving someone's life." Palacio notes that the operative word in the Choose Kind movement is choose, something she thinks Stephen Chbosky and the cast and crew of Wonder brought to the fore in the movie. She concludes: ''You can't really mandate kindness. What you can do is inspire people to see and feel what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes."
Release Date: November 30th, 2017