About The Production
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
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.
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," summarizes
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 Lieberman. "We'd
both fallen in love with this beautiful tale of compassion and friendship."
Adds 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
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."
Lieberman and 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 Palacio, the simpatico was evident. 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
phenomenon. I wrote the book without any expectations -- I didn't even know if
it would be published,"
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 and David had
that same vision."
She goes on: "Other filmmakers had talked about not even showing Auggie, which I
disrespectful to kids with craniofacial differences. I didn't want a movie that
would minimize 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, David 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."
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
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
difference, who looked very much the way I describe Auggie in the book."
But it didn't end there. Feeling shame, 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
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."
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," Palacio
observes. "It's when kids
are figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Everything's evolving -
interests, relationships with parents. It was a great time to have Auggie first
encounter the world."
At first, 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 Treacher-Collins
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 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
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 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 Palacio's book. Says 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
STEPHEN CHBOSKY'S SENSE OF WONDER
"Your deeds are your monuments."
-- Egyptian Precept
Once Lieberman and Hoberman had 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. 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 Lieberman: "The most important quality we needed for Wonder was the ability
emotion without being manipulative or heavy-handed. Stephen is astute
emotionally, but at the same time
he's lighthearted and can blend humor into profound themes."
As it turned out, 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 school-based
movie on the heels of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But as pursuit by
Hoberman, 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. 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
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,"
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, Chbosky and Palacio forged a tight bond, especially as
Chbosky joined with co-writers
Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad to adapt the novel.
Palacio wasn't sure what to expect, but found herself handing her trust to
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 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 brought something vital: that key feeling in the
book I call laughing/crying."
For 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 understood
that less could be more in letting these characters be themselves."
The script evolved with the entire team in synch. Says Lieberman: "The novel
really was the best
blueprint so we didn't deviate much." Palacio was always there to lend support.
"She was invaluable,
offering insight on everything from script to casting," says Hoberman. "She's at
the core of the film's
"Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their
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 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 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
Tremblay also struck 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, Tremblay took undergoing extensive facial prosthetics in stride; he
even seemed to
welcome what can be an exhausting process. Says Lieberman: "The minute the
makeup went on, Jacob
transformed inside, beyond the makeup on his face. He took on the full
psychological mindset of Auggie."
It all came with ease, 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
struggle to fit in, and it's also about making people feel comfortable instead
Like any adult actor would, Tremblay immersed himself in research, meeting with
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
For Palacio, Tremblay's devotion to getting it right was indispensable. "The
hard work of Jacob'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
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
gets at is that Auggie is a
real kid with real kid problems," says 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
Tremblay credits Chbosky for creating an environment where he could fearlessly
"When we first got to know each other, we talked about our favorite movies, and
I asked Stephen a few
questions about prosthetics, and I thought the way he saw the book was pretty
cool," recalls Tremblay.
"Later, I discovered that Stephen is one of the nicest guys on the planet. It
can be a frustrating job to be a
director but Stephen never gets upset - ever. He's always so positive and that
makes it fun."
While Tremblay was having fun, he was also becoming more and more twined with
up 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."
Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson stepped in to play two of Wonder's most essential
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
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 Hoberman, who first worked with Roberts on her breakout role in Pretty
Adds Lieberman: "Julia 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
Says 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
"Isabel is at an interesting crossroads," Roberts observes. "I mean we all go
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 Roberts and
Tremblay develop. "Their bond came into being in the most amazingly organic
Says 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 Roberts
was such a good co-star. I learned so much from her."
Roberts notes that she in turn had plenty to learn from Tremblay. She muses that
she has only
ever briefly met 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's
mom she said, I' feel like
you're Auggie's mom and I'm Jacob's mom," which is kind of how it felt to me."
Roberts credits Chbosky for leaving space for all the layers of the Pullman
family to bloom.
"Stephen 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 Roberts and Owen Wilson have worked together, but
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 Lieberman.
"You never know what the chemistry is going to be between two people playing a
couple, but the
first day Julia and Owen were on set, it felt so natural," muses Hoberman.
As a father of two, 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," 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 Wilson, working with Roberts was something special. "You don't meet too many
have that kind of vitality. She has that in real life -- and she brings it to
the role," he says.
Roberts says that the rapport between them was instinctive, as they improvised
bond. "Owen really kind of reinvented Nate for me and oh my, I thought he was so
says. "We have very similar senses of humor so we kind of led each other in this
little comic dance."
Getting close with Wilson was especially fun for Tremblay, who concludes: "Owen
is one of the
funniest guys on the planet, seriously. If you meet him, you'll laugh your head
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 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."
"My worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean
anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone
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 fits beautifully between Julia and Owen. We interviewed a lot of
actresses and Izabela won
the day mostly by being who she is," says Hoberman.
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."
Chbosky emphasized to Vidovic that it was important to bring out into the open
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."
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
unconditional love. The role was coveted. Unfortunately, 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 Hoberman: "Each member of the Pullman family loves Daisy in a
different way and she
helps to unite them."
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