Stephen Chbosky Steers ‘Wonder’ to the Big Screen and Keeps Its Heart Intact

Stephen Chbosky Julie Robers Wonder Movie
David Vintiner for Variety

Stephen Chbosky isn’t afraid to tackle beloved properties. After penning the 1999 coming-of-age novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the Pittsburgh native was rumored to have directors from John Hughes to Ron Howard circling a film adaptation before he finally took it upon himself to helm the movie version in 2012.

He then accepted the daunting task of co-writing the live-action adaptation of the Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast,” which, with $1.26 billion in worldwide ticket sales, now stands as the top-grossing film of 2017. And this week sees the release of Chbosky’s latest endeavor, “Wonder,” a film adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 young-adult novel about a 10-year-old boy with extreme facial deformities who attends public school for the first time. “Room” breakout star Jacob Tremblay plays the main character, Auggie Pullman, while Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson portray the pivotal roles of his parents.

One of the film’s taglines comes from a precept Auggie’s favorite teacher espouses: “Choose kind.” But more than just a catchphrase, it became a philosophy that extended to the making of the movie. As Chbosky says, “From the beginning I told people, ‘We’re making a movie about kindness, and I don’t believe it’s possible to make it without kindness.”

Palacio (née Raquel Jaramillo) had written the first novel after an incident at an ice cream shop in which her 3-year-old son began to cry upon seeing a disfigured girl. The story went on to become a phenomenon, landing on the New York Times best-seller list and inspiring two companion books. Even before the novel was published, the film rights had been optioned by Lionsgate, with Mandeville Films chiefs David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman producing.

Mandeville had worked with Chbosky on “Beauty and the Beast” and brought him “Wonder” to direct in early 2015. He loved the book but had to pass on the project as he had “some priority-of-life things to work out.” His wife, writer Liz Maccie, had just given birth to their first son, and Chbosky felt guilty about the time he spent on the road promoting “Perks” when his daughter had just been born. “I knew I had a choice to make,” he recalls. “I was either going to serve the Pullman family or my own.”

In January 2016, the producers came back to Chboksy, who was surprised to find the job was still available. Having written “Beauty and the Beast” as a love letter to his daughter, he saw “Wonder” as a similar missive for his new son. There was just one hitch: He wanted Palacio’s approval. “So often, I think the author can be neglected or, in some cases, dismissed. And I think it’s to everyone’s detriment when that happens,” he says.

Palacio, for one, never expected to have any say in the film, having “signed everything away” early on. Having worked in publishing as an art director and a book jacket designer for years, she had heard plenty of horror stories from writers who were shut out of the process.

“Upon meeting Stephen, I realized our visions for the movie completely aligned,” Palacio enthuses, adding that she visited the set twice and was regularly consulted for her notes on drafts. (Screenwriting credit is shared by Chbosky, Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad.) “I know there are a lot of unhappy authors out there, so I kept waiting for the bad part to happen. But as Stephen once said, it’s like the movie gods smiled on this movie.”

From the Heart Chbosky directs Tremblayon the set of “Wonder.”

That extended to the casting; Palacio says she was thrilled that they had landed Roberts, “who I consider to be the greatest movie actress of our generation.” Roberts was a fan of the book, having read it to her children. And Chboksy was excited to show the actress not as an international icon but as “the nice woman from Georgia with three kids and a husband she loves.” Similarly, he knew Wilson could bring not only humor to the role of the father but also a sweetness and compassion.

“I just think he’s so interested in people and how they work and the way they relate to each other,” Roberts says of Chboksy, “and he brings so much tenderness to the human condition and how it all works.” She adds that the director “might cry about something trying to explain it because it’s so meaningful and it’s just so touching.”

For Tremblay, being able to collaborate with stars he admires was a major coup.

“I was going to work with Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, the best parents you can ever have,” he says, citing Wilson in “Zoolander” and Roberts in “Mirror, Mirror” as two of his personal favorites among their portrayals. He also appreciated that there were other young actors on set. “It was awesome, because normally I haven’t been doing movies where there are other kids, but this time I hit the kid jackpot.”

Of course, working with children presented its own challenges for the filmmakers. “They say never work with kids, dogs or makeup and I got all three,” Chbosky says with a laugh. Some days, Tremblay was available for only five hours of shooting. And with so many young actors and a 40-day shooting schedule, Chobsky admits he worried about keeping them all focused. “Rather than making it like school, I decided to make it like recess,” he reveals. “My only rule was: Come to set knowing your lines. As long as they did that, the rest could be play.”

According to Tremblay, there was also a no-swearing rule (Chbosky admits that the decree might have been relaxed when kids weren’t around) and delicious treats like the day an ice cream truck came to set. “Things were kept really fun,” Tremblay says. “Steve was supportive and a really patient man, because working with all those kids was probably really difficult.”

There were other issues: Besides the fact that it took Tremblay two hours to complete makeup each day, the prosthetics could be unpleasant. But the actor returns to the spirit of the film’s philosophy when talking about the discomfort: “Being Auggie and teaching kids this message is so amazing, I would do it even if I had to be 10 times as uncomfortable.”

“They say never work with kids, dogs or makeup and I got all three.”
Stephen Chbosky

Perhaps the trickiest part of making “Wonder” was finding the tone Palacio captured in her book, telling a heartwarming story without becoming maudlin. Says Roberts, “I think we really had a great gift in Stephen being a novelist as well as a screenwriter and director because it allowed him to make an incredibly faithful adaptation of the emotion in this book.”

Notes Chbosky, “It couldn’t be treacly. As emotional as it is, if it veers into sentiment, it would feel cheap. Pittsburgh is my secret weapon of tone. It’s a hardworking place that doesn’t suffer fools, but it’s an emotional town. So there’s that dichotomy, and you learn that balance.”

He credits his cast for keeping the mood at the forefront, and reveals something John Malkovich, who was a producer on “Perks,” once told him. “He said, ‘I love your script because it has real heart. And because it has real heart, you don’t need sentiment. So direct this movie like a guy from Pittsburgh; always get the tough take.’”

Palacio notes that from the beginning, she “wanted to make a small, humble movie because that’s how I think of my book.” She continues: “I didn’t want it to be a kids’ movie first — I wanted it to be a movie that could appeal to everybody. I found out later that’s called a four-quadrant movie.”

With so many fans of the book looking forward to the film, Lionsgate has already been screening “Wonder” for schools around the country — but with a four-quadrant agenda. “One thing we’ve learned from the book and from screening the movie is that audiences of all ages are moved and charmed by ‘Wonder,’” says Tim Palen, chief brand officer and president of worldwide marketing at Lionsgate. And with the film hitting theaters just before Thanksgiving, it’s the perfect time for families to see it together, he adds. “We fully anticipate that it will play through the holiday season, and we’re counting on a great multiple.”

Palacio, for one, can’t believe her good fortune. She kept her day job for three years after the book came out, convinced her success would end soon. “I’ve thought long and hard about why this story has become so enduring,” she says. “Maybe it’s naive, but I believe there’s an inherent goodness in people, and people want to be reminded of that. That kindness is an important thing. There are kind people in the world, and we do look out for each other.”