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WONDER

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 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. 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 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 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 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."

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 worldwide 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 felt was 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."

FACING IT

"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, 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 - bodies, friendships, 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 sentimentalized. But 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 negative way."

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 to evoke 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 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," 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 Chbosky. "Stephen 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 family."

AUGGIE

"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 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 same spirit."

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 about Auggie's struggle to fit in, and it's also about making people feel comfortable instead of scared."

Like any adult actor would, 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 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 that."

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 strength."

Tremblay credits 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 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 Auggie. Sums 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." -- 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 Hoberman, who first worked with Roberts on her breakout role in Pretty Woman.

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 a mother."

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 intense motherhood. "Isabel is at an interesting crossroads," 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 Roberts and Tremblay develop. "Their bond came into being in the most amazingly organic way," comments Lieberman.

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 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 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 people who 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 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 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 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 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."

VIA

"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 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 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."

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, 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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