Wonderstruck is movie about Ben (Oakes Fegley) goes on a journey to New York to try and find his long-lost father, and we also see a young deaf girl named, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), 50 years ago, making her way through the streets of New York to see her mother (Julianne Moore).
I interviewed Brian Selznick at this year’s Comic Con San Diego while attending a party hosted by Scholastic Publishing. Brian wrote the screenplay for the film based on his best-selling novel of the same name.
Hi Brian, tells us what Wonderstruck is about.
Brian: It’s two stories in one; one story is about a deaf girl in 1927 who runs away to look for a movie actress that she is obsessed with. The other story is set in the 70s about a boy who becomes deaf, runs away from Minnesota to go to New York City to look for a father that he has never known. The two stories weave back and forth until they come together in the end.
You wrote the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which the 2011 movie Hugo was based on. This morning at your panel you thought that book would never be turned into a movie and low and behold Martin Scorsese makes it. When you wrote this book, did you think it would be turned into a movie also?
Brian: No, I continue to remain surprised. When Martin Scorsese came to me wanting to make a movie from my book Hugo I was completely shocked and thrilled. But of course, once his name came up I realized that there wasn’t anybody better to make the film because not only is he a film scholar, he is one of the best directors out there. There were all these elements from his life that paralleled things that I hadn’t realized in Hugo. Sandy Powell, the Costume Designer on Hugo, suggested to me that Todd Haynes should direct a movie version of Wonderstruck. I was again thrilled when he took the job, but I designed Wonderstruck to be a book. The book itself is dependent on the way that the words and pictures interact with each other; you just can’t translate that into the screen. You can’t have a story told on screen that is just written language. The point of the book is that you read half of it and you look at half of it. So when Sandy suggested that Todd direct Wonderstruck, I decided to write the screenplay myself. I wondered if there was a way to cinematically make the two stories stand out from each other. So that’s when I got the idea to tell the story that is set in the 20s like a silent film in black and white and then just tell the story set in the 70s like a movie from that time period. The 20s story, we at first think we are watching a silent film because it’s 1927 right before sound was introduced with film, but as the story goes along, we discover that the main character is deaf. The world that we are experiencing is the world how she experiences it.
Talk a little about your writing process for novels because you started out as an illustrator and your process is a little different than other writers.
Brian: I have always drawn having grown up drawing pictures. My first book, The Houdini Box, I wrote and illustrated, but only because I need a story to write in order to have something to illustrate to show people that I could draw. It was a forty-eight page very long picture book that was great fun and very challenging to write because I had spent most of my career illustrating for other writers. Hugo was the first really large illustrated novel that I undertook, thinking about how to tell a story again with words and pictures. As an illustrator, I think in pictures, but when I am making a book I start everything off with text. So even if I know a story is going to be entirely in pictures, I begin writing what I want the plot of that story to be and then I will begin imagining what the pictures are and writing descriptions of those pictures. For example I would write; we see the moon, then the moon over Paris, then we see a train station, then we see zoom into the train station. So after I do all of those descriptions, I begin to do my first very small sketches and from there work on the larger, more complicated drawings.
What was the inspiration for Wonderstruck?
Brian: Wonderstruck was inspired by a lot of separate things that ended up together. I’ve always loved the Museum of Natural History dioramas. A friend of mine got a job there making dioramas, and he invited me to a behind the scenes look at the exhibition room. I thought, even back then, that it would be an amazing place to set a story. I documentary year’s later about deaf people and deaf culture. That got to me thinking it would be really interesting to tell a story about a deaf person in pictures because it would parallel the way that they experience life, which is mostly visual. I was the same age as Ben in the 70s and remember what it was like then in New York. So all these separate things came together to tell the story.
You’re a first-time screenwriter, was the experience what you thought it would be?
Brian: For me, I was in a very lucky experience. I was writing a screenplay from a book of my own. The book turned out to be somewhat cinematic because of all the pictures so that it was already visual. John Logan, who became a friend of mine after he wrote the screenplay for Hugo, agreed to take me under his wing and give me notes. So I had one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood telling me how to make my ideas work and how to turn the story into something that would work on the screen. He was really smart because when I wrote the first draft, every answer to my questions was yes. That allowed me to make bold choices and feel confident. It wasn’t till I had completed the first draft that he started challenging me with stronger questions, making me answer for making the bold decisions. So at that point it enabled me to take his questions and use them to reevaluate the story and make changes. Most of his edits were to making everything more concise. For instance, what takes five days in the book takes only one day in the movie. There are four clues in the book on who Ben’s father is, in the movie, there is only one. Those changes are done so that we can move along quickly in the movie.
Tells us about the lead actress in the film.
Brian: Millicent Simmonds is a deaf girl who lives in Utah. She is the only deaf person in her family; in fact, her whole family learned sign language to communicate with her. She had a teacher who saw the online casting call for the movie and encouraged her to make an audition tape. Apparently, she wasn’t quite sure what she was auditioning for, but it seemed like an exciting thing to do. Her audition tape was so beautiful that we all cried watching it. She signed and then had prepared cue cards showing us what she was signing. She talked so passionately about her pride in being a person that knows and uses sign language. When we brought her to New York for her call back, she experienced a lot of what her character Rose experiences in the movie, coming to New York and experiencing it for the first time. She had read the book and really identified with the character of Rose. She thought the author of the book must be deaf because it got the experience of being deaf accurately. It was really fun to get to know her and her family; they are amazing people. She is one of those brilliant and gifted artists who know what to do instinctively in front of a camera. Everybody on set couldn’t believe that this was her first picture.
Your film did something really interesting in casting this film, tell us about that.
Brian: We cast six deaf actors as hearing characters in the silent film part as an homage to the fact that during the silent movie era, deaf actors were hired all the time because they were very expressive, they could tell stories without language, and you can’t tell someone is deaf in a silent movie. We took it as a great opportunity to get deaf actors to portray roles that they just don’t get to play on the screen. They were all very excited to play characters that they normally don’t play. We had interpreters on the set and very early on, the director Todd Haynes, figured out that we had to do some special things to let the actors know when it was time to say their lines because they couldn’t hear the cue. So the hearing actor that was giving the cue would do something visual, like putting their hand on their hip, so the deaf actor would know it’s time to say their line. When you look at the silent film part, you can’t tell which actors have hearing and which are deaf.
So you did a cameo in Hugo, did you get to do a cameo in this film?
Brian: Yes I did do a cameo in this film, and luckily I didn’t have to talk in this film, I just had to sit and look really fast to the right. I was so nervous when I did my cameo in Hugo, saying my line ‘When can I sign up?” to Sir Ben Kingsley, so this was much easier just to sit and turn.
Thank so much Brian and I hope the film is a big success.
The Wonderstuck opens in Atlanta on Friday.
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