Brian Selznick discusses the excitement that ensued during the writing of Wonderstruck, his past experiences with working with the creative minds behind Wonderstruck and his previous success, Hugo.
Roe Moore has worked as a script supervisor alongside many highly acclaimed directors. As founder and producer of PiePie Productions, she has produced multiple award-winning projects and was recently awarded a women’s Filmmaker-in-Residence. Twitter: @Roe_Moore
Wonderstruck is an adaptation from Selznick’s book of the same namesake. The story gracefully mingles the lives of two children, Ben (played by Oakes Fegley) and Rose (played by Millicent Simmonds), from two different eras who secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known, while Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. Both children set out on quests to find what they are missing that unfold with mesmerizing symmetry.
It isn’t until Ben becomes deaf after a set of tragic events unfold that the two plots of the story blossom. “Todd [Haynes, director] trusted the audience, no matter what age they are, to sit in ambiguity for so long,” screenwriter Brian Selznick mentions, “There’s a big chunk of the movie where you don’t really know what the connection is in the two stories. Eventually, the two plots begin to parallel: they both go to New York; they both end up at the Museum of Natural History; they both end up at the meteorite.”
When he initially wrote the book version of Wonderstruck, Selznick had no intention of it becoming a film. “Wonderstruck was literally designed to be a book. Rose’s story in the book is only told in drawings. Ben’s story is told in words. There isn’t a cinematic equivalent for that. When I was writing the book, I assumed it couldn’t be adapted,” Selznick explains, “but then, I thought if I could find the right way to do the movie and make it feel like it was meant to be a movie, then I can do it as a movie.”
Just as contemplative as the intricate drawings found in Selznick’s book, cinematographer Edward Lachman, alongside the production design team helmed by Mark Friedberg, captured the two eras of New York City beautifully. “Rose is entering a big bright beautiful New York City. All of her shots are about looking up at New York,” Selznick continues, “Ben’s entering the horrors of New York in the ‘70s. He is very much about looking down and looking at the garbage.”
Selznick discusses the excitement that ensued during the writing of Wonderstruck, his past experiences with working with the creative minds behind Wonderstruck and his previous success, Hugo.
Script: What was it like learning to adapt your book into a screenplay?
Brian Selznick: Very early on in thinking about the film, I got the idea to tell the story of Rose playing in a black and white silent movie and the story of Ben like a movie made in the ‘70s. In the film medium, there’s the option to play with the music, the sound design and silence. Even the ideas for the editing and the way those two stories interact. I wrote all those things into the screenplay itself. I kept the original songs that were in the book. And the editing places where the sound would travel from one story to the other was written. But it was all a springboard for whoever ended up composing the music and designing the sound and ultimately the editing. Todd, who has a brilliant team, took the seeds I put into the screenplay and brought it to a level I couldn’t have dreamed of.
Script: What was the collaboration with Todd and the creative team on this film?
Selznick: I knew and had worked with most of the creative team before. And when you have Martin Scorsese making Hugo and you got Todd Haynes making Wonderstruck, trust isn’t a problem. So, I knew whatever I dreamed of and whatever I drew originally, they would be able to deliver. I was very aware that Todd was going to make the best movie I could imagine. He loved the screenplay and loved the original book. He used the book as part of his inspiration. There’s shots in the movie that are direct quotes of the book drawings I did – the exact composition, the exact layout. It’s almost like I had done an incidental storyboard. When Todd said yes, he came to Brooklyn and spent a day going through every single page of the screenplay talking about what he saw, what he imagined, changes he was thinking about, a few images he was thinking of adding into the story. It was a revelation listening to Todd talk to me about my own story. It was like I was learning about my own story.
Script: What was one of the unforgettable moments for you in the film version of Wonderstruck?
Selznick: I love that moment where the two hands are touching the meteorite in the Museum of Natural History. Her hand is in black and white and his hand is in color. It’s almost like they’re reaching for each other even though it’s 50 years apart. I love how Todd let that play out. There’s also a wonderful scene when Rose steps off the ferry into New York. The skies are overcast. There’s all these people crowding. She comes towards the camera and just as she looked up, the clouds part and hits her face. That was totally unplanned! That was God doing the cinematography at that moment. They literally opened on her face. And there is that sense of wonder.
Script: What research did you do in the deaf community before diving into Wonderstruck?
Selznick: I’ve talked to a lot of deaf people and done a lot of research. A lot of people and even the character of Jamie [played by Jaden Michael] ask, “Is it scary being deaf?” And in the movie, Ben says, “No. Not really.” Deaf people have told me it’s hearing people who are afraid of being deaf. When you’re deaf, you’re not scared. It’s just what the world is. You are aware things are different. That was my idea for when Ben walks into Time Square in New York, 1977 probably never having seen a person of color in his life or more than 30 people in a room. It’s full, it’s dirty, it’s colorful, and it’s crazy. Because there’s no sound, Ben doesn’t hear the screaming and the honking and the other things that, for a hearing person, make it seem more intimidating. But for him, he’s entering this amazing landscape that I think for Ben is not really that scary.
Script: What were the similarities and differences in the process of Wonderstruck compared to Hugo?
Selznick: With Hugo, I was not involved at all. Once I sold the rights to the book, I had no connection. Scorsese very closely collaborated with my book using the sequences of drawings as a storyboard. When I visited the set in London, I became friends with Scorsese’s assistant, Tomaso. Tomaso said one of his main jobs was handing people copies of my original book because Scorsese kept referring to it and pointing to the drawings telling actors that this is what they should do, and he would tell designers this is what it should look like. The Special Effects team said if they made a scene that had a different composition than my story, they would have to redo it. Hugo was a movie where they built a full-size train station. The scale of it was really unimaginable. They built the clock towers in real life. The physicality of those spaces was overwhelming. For Wonderstruck, everything took place on a single floor in a building in the Wall Street area. The costume department, the design department, the accounting department – it was all there on one floor. But the quality of the work and the imagination was all exactly the same. The brilliance of the vision was the same. Most of Wonderstruck was filmed on location with some minor set dressing. We really filmed in the Museum of Natural History and in the Queens Panorama; whereas in Hugo almost everything was built from scratch. We did have a few things built for Wonderstruck, but not to the degree of Hugo.
Script: How was writing the lead character Ben different from writing Hugo?
Selznick: Hugo’s the only character I’ve written who is a child with a special talent. He’s able to fix machines. All my other characters are very ordinary children who are put into extraordinary situations. Hugo’s an extraordinary child who ends up in an extraordinary situation. His extraordinary talent helps him to solve the problems he has in his extraordinary situation – being alone in the train station and having to find his place in the world. When it came to Ben, he not only becomes deaf, but he also loses his mother and finds a clue to a father who he’s never met before. He throws himself into this situation because he doesn’t feel like he has any choice. It’s an extraordinary thing for a child to get on a bus by themselves. It’s even more extraordinary for a child who’s just become deaf to do that.
Script: Why did you choose to put children in adult situations?
Selznick: I’m aware that I’m writing for kids, I’ve always written for kids. These are the stories I think of. It’s not like one day I may write about adults. The characters I write about happen to be 10-12 years old. And of course, sending a child out into the world on their own allows them, in a way, to have to act like an adult. Having to take care of themselves, find their own place in the world. But of course, they’re not adults. They make choices based on what they know. Under that, it’s about survival in so many ways.
Script: What is the importance of including or not including childlike wonder in your stories?
Selznick: That’s one of the things that’s really intriguing of Oakes’ performance and about the way Todd handled it. He does what kids do: accept things. He’s accepting it for what it is. Everything is big and Oakes’ is taking it in. But if he walked out and made all these big faces in awe, all that would be doing is signaling something to the audience. It wouldn’t be reflecting what he’s really feeling. I love his walk to the bookstore and following Jamie. He’s not afraid of anything. There’s a moment where he steps out of the water and there’s some kids playing, they catch eyes, and Ben looks down. But that’s the sort of thing any kid would do walking around. The fact that he just accepts everything around him is really amazing.
Script: What is your process when you start working on a project?
Selznick: I have this weird way of working. I work backwards from plot, to character, to emotion. I tend to start with things that interest me, stories I’ve heard, places that I want to explore more, anecdotes that intrigue me. And then, I piece those together and find a story that would link all those things. I figure out a character who will make that story happen. And finally, figure out the emotion that drives the character that makes the story happen. There’s probably much easier ways to work and I don’t recommend it, but it’s how my brain works. When you’re reading the book or seeing the movie, of course your experience should be the opposite; it should be the emotional heart that drives you through the story and makes you follow the character that creates the story.
Script: What is your biggest piece of advice to writers?
Selznick: I’m experiencing something extremely unusual. I’ve worked 15 years writing books. Then I got lucky because I got a phone call from one the great directors of all time. That has led to these other wonderful opportunities. But in terms of doing the work, nothing has changed. To me, what has always been the most important is writing about things I love, figuring out how to weave stories around things that mean something to me deeply, and ultimately telling stories about things that important like people who are struggling to find their place in the world and figuring out what family is or how to make their own. It’s important to figure out why a story needs to be told in the medium you’re telling it. When I’m making a book, I’m very conscious of the book itself. And when it was time to make the movie, it was being conscious of the movies themselves and what it is about movies that are special. Keeping that in mind and focusing on what tools we have as filmmakers and using them.