1862, 13 years after the Great Famine. An English Nightingale Nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is called to the Irish Midlands by a devout community to conduct a 15-day examination over one of their own. Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) is an 11-year-old girl who claims not to have eaten for four months, surviving miraculously on “manna from heaven”. As Anna's health rapidly deteriorates, Lib is determined to unearth the truth, challenging the faith of a community that would prefer to stay believing.
The Wonder glides in with the opening scene to fade out with delicate and nuanced artistry. The lens captures a specific period of time and bleak awareness. Most often than not, you feel like you are in a painting by Gustave Courbet or James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Pair that with a striking sound design and soundscape - it's difficult to turn your attention away from the screen.
With all of that said, the specificity to detail and intention behind every frame was dutifully overseen by director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio, who put together a team both in front and behind the camera that are in every sense, masters of their craft. I had the utmost pleasure of speaking with Sebastián about what drew him to the material, the writing collaboration with Alice Birch, discovering the aesthetic of the film with cinematographer Ari Wegner, and more.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: When this book originally crossed your desk did you have an immediate creative spark on how you could shape this book tonally into a film?
Sebastián Lelio: Producer Ed Guiney suggested that I should read the book. He was working with Emma [Donoghue], they had made Room together. And for some reason, Ed and Tessa Ross thought that I could be the right person to tell the story about Ireland in the 1860s. I read the book and I was trapped by it. And even though I thought it was sort of like a minefield for a filmmaker, because the themes are so delicate and tough, the historical moment is also has so much pain in the story. And at the center of everything, there is this girl - what she's going through is quite devastating. So, I thought it was very difficult to turn it into a film, because how to find the balance between honoring these things, which you cannot be frivolous about, or with, but at the same time providing what I think it's a duty for a director, which is cinematic pleasure. So, that balance between the pain of the center of the story and the seriousness of the themes, and the required pleasure that a film should provide, that made me really think a lot of times, ‘Should I do it? Am I capable of doing it? How could I find a way to make these two dimensions coexist?’
I was just too in love with the journey of the nurse, the scientifically minded, modern woman that is summoned by this group of men in this town where they set the rules and they impose their beliefs - and I don't know if that rings a bell [laughs] - and then she had to confront them. So, the collision between reason and medical thinking and science and faith, but then the girl - the girl being so fascinating and so charismatic and adorable in a certain way and Lib falling for the girl and be as professional as possible, they connect because they think they need each other. And so, that journey, of the rationalist using reason in the land of almost fanatics in order to understand what is going on with the girl, how is she being kept alive and in the process of connecting more and more deeply with the girl. And then by the time the truth is revealed of how the girl is being kept alive and also the reason why the girl is doing the sacrifice is revealed both to the character and to the film and the fact that then the nurse, Florence's character, is trapped, she's too involved and so the intellectual dilemma becomes a moral dilemma. And she has to decide up to which point she has the right to intervene. So, the rationalist ends up doing things that wouldn't be unfair to describe as irrational and morally complex. And she ends up doing the wildest things to save that girl. That journey, I thought it was amazing, for a film and for a great actress. And so yeah, despite all the dangers, I couldn't say no. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] That reminds of a great line from Lib, “It's not science, it's nonsense.” What was it like collaborating with Alice Birch, who is basically the adaptation whisperer.
Sebastián: It was great. It was a privilege to work with Emma, and Alice. We inherited this fully created world and story. [Emma] usually does a great amount of research, and she was always very generous with Alice [and] myself, in allowing us to take things in the direction of the film I thought I was capable of making. So I think it was a very virtuous combination of what Emma brought, of Alice's modern brilliant touch, because she's just, ‘two little things’ and 'pop' everything changes, especially in the way in which she works with dialogue, we did work a lot in trying to find the right balance for the words to sound modern.
Sadie: Yeah, it's very organic.
Sebastián: Organic, yeah. And I think the film overtly declare the impossibility of really portraying how 1862 was like. So, once we declared that limit, we found certain levels of freedom of space to move without having to carry the burden of honoring whatever 1862 was like, which I've always found a sort of like self-imposed impossible task for period films.
Sadie: Right, how can you be faithful to something that we're not 100% sure about anymore?
Sebastián: I think you end up being faithful to convention. It's kind of pointless to even hope that you are portraying things as they were. So, it's the combination again, of the important levels of historical accuracy, but at the same time, the duty of the mission of the film, being capable of offering a strong cinematic experience and hopefully cinematic pleasure.
Sadie: I feel like you can literally pause any frame of this movie, and you can get this perfectly framed, stark and nuanced Realism painting. What was that visual collaborative process like with your cinematographer Ari Wegner?
Sebastián: It was the first time we worked together - we wanted to collaborate before [but] we couldn't. And so now it was like our revenge. As we were scouting, we just started to create our own nomenclature, grammar, and visual calligraphy for the film - it was a co-creation really, and we understood that we wanted to film this sort of like green desert. We deliberately decided not to shoot any trees, or any leaves, which is a major task or challenge in Ireland. We were naturally talking about David Lean, and the way in which big framing of the landscapes and the characters in the desert. And then in this case it’s green. And then we were talking about Ryan's Daughter another David Lean [film] shot in Ireland. And then we did talked about Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt film and the way in which those dresses contrast with the landscape. It's not that we were like, ‘Hey, here are my references.’ We were finding them together. And we created our own little pantheon of references. She's a great artist, Ari. I was hoping to make a film with some levels of visual sophistication. I'm so grateful that Ari took it even further.
Sadie: I’m curious, were any of the shots using natural light?
Sebastián: With everything in the house, the light comes from outside. There was never light inside the sets. It's all through the windows, this small square, low windows, and that creates a very particular ambience, because usually the light is coming from above. But here it's coming from the floor up. And it creates quite a unique atmosphere. And we found that scouting. We found a house that was a reference for the house that we built that had low windows, and attic, with literally the windows at the level of the floor. And we saw that, and we said, ‘Let's use that!’ That's how it happened. It was really a process of discovering the film we were making as we were doing it and scouting and talking and getting to know each other. We did see also many of the meta references from the 60s especially in the new wave and the opening of Contempt was a big reference for our opening.
Sadie: Your sound design and the soundscape in this film, it’s a very integral part of the storytelling in this film.
Sebastián: Yeah, we put a lot of love and thought in the sound and in the sound landscape of the film. This is the fourth collaboration we had with Matthew Herbert, the composer. In the process, we have become very close friends. And that's why we had the luxury of really working in finding the right identity of the score, and music and sound landscape. For a year, we were exchanging melodies, and even sounds and atmospheres. And then Matthew was quite active in the sound design and mixing process with Ben Baird. It was collective work. And it's not that we separated the score from the sound design, it was integral. Matthew was visiting us, because we had designed this concept of there's something sparse about the film, maximum expressiveness with minimum amount of elements, and that comes to the production design, the camera work, the colors, and the sound too. We were just trying to unify all the aesthetical decisions, so the result was hopefully strong and solid.
The score really is also of one of the things that restrains the intention with the idea of a period. It is somehow contemporary, somehow saying, ‘Yes, this is quote unquote 1862. But this is also today -now,’ because I think the collision between reason and superstition, science and faith, logic and magical thinking, are very 2022. And, and that's why the film opens and ends in this way and, the soundtrack is at times even electronic.
The Wonder is now streaming on Netflix.