Stephen Chbosky graduated from USC’s prestigious screenwriting program in 1992, but it wasn’t until he wrote a book that his career took flight. Published in 1999, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was an instant success and ultimately spawned a successful 2012 film adaptation written and directed by Chbosky himself. His latest film is Wonder, an adaptation of the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio about a 10-year-old boy named Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with a rare facial condition and enrolls in a mainstream school for the first time.
Chbosky recently spoke with Boxoffice about the upcoming film, which also stars Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as Auggie’s parents, Izabela Vidovic as his sister, Via, and Mandy Patinkin as the principal of Auggie’s private preparatory school. During the conversation Chbosky opened up about working with a colossal movie star like Roberts, why he resisted using CGI in creating Auggie’s look, what effect he hopes the movie will have on young people, and what Beauty and the Beast’s billion-dollar success meant to him as the film’s screenwriter.
You directed the adaptation of your own book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Wonder is based on a book by R.J. Palacio. What’s it like directing an adaptation of another author’s work?
It’s much easier than adapting your own. Only because you’re more objective about what needs to stay and what needs to go. And it was also great in this case because R.J. Palacio was such a great partner though the entire process that I always knew I could go back to the source. When I was doing Perks, it was only me. With Wonder, I had an incredible partner.
In the movie, Jacob Tremblay plays a kid who was born with a facial difference and has been through multiple plastic surgeries. How did you decide what his face was going to look like? What were your reference points for that decision?
There were several. We had a very helpful leg up from R.J., because there is a young man named Nathaniel Newman whom she met after publishing Wonder, who she felt is what Auggie looked like in her mind. So we looked at several pictures of Nathaniel online, and we got to know Nathaniel and his family very much over the course of filming the movie. And so he became one of the biggest touchstones.
We also did a lot of studying about other people who had Treacher Collins [syndrome], and ultimately Arjen [Tuiten], our makeup designer, created this incredible helmet—where contraptions were glued under Jacob’s eyelids, let’s say. And with two clicks, you could drag his eyes down or bring them up. It was a remarkable invention, because we all felt very strongly that this could not be a CGI performance. He had to be a real kid. We only used computers to clean up some of the wires and things like that. But basically, everything was mechanical.
How long was Jacob in the makeup chair every day, and how did he react to seeing himself that way for the first time?
He was in the chair for one and a half to two and a half hours every day. Which really cut into shooting time, I’ll tell you that! And the first time that he saw himself—I don’t remember that moment. What I do remember is that Jacob in the makeup was Auggie; Jacob out of the makeup was Jacob. And the personalities were so remarkably different. The makeup became a large part of the performance for him.
You’ve got a great cast here, notably giant worldwide movie star Julia Roberts as Auggie’s mother. What was it like directing her in this? Were you intimidated at all when she came on board?
You know, that’s such an interesting way of asking it. I don’t know if I would say I was intimidated. Let’s just say that Julia and I had a great working relationship. And I never forgot that she was Julia Roberts, the international movie icon, but where Julia and I got along and related to each other was between a boy from Pittsburgh and a girl from Georgia, you know? There’s something so grounded about her.
Ultimately, what I found was that Julia doesn’t want to be treated as an icon. She doesn’t want to be treated with kid gloves. She wants to be respected as an artist, and helped along with her process. And that’s what I tried to do.
I worked with her for about a month straight on the film. At the end of the month, I told her that working with her was like watching Michael Phelps swim. That she was the best at what she did, more than anyone else I have ever known. She’s just so good at acting for the camera.
One thing I appreciated about the movie is that it’s very heartfelt and earnest in a culture that’s so heavy with cynicism and irony. Is that a quality of the story that attracted you to telling it?
Yes. This is a movie about kindness in a time when we can use all the kindness we can get. Look, I’m not saying that there isn’t room for darkness in art; of course there is. I’ve had a lot of my own. I will say, this one story, I just thought, “Let’s tell a story for the underdogs. And let’s not be cynical about it.”
I will say, one of the most gratifying things that I have experienced since I finished the film and watching it screen for—you know, we have these little screenings, mostly for students and educators and so on—when you see a nine-year-old boy cry in a movie, that’s really gratifying. Because look, all the adults in the world can be cynical. That kid isn’t, not yet. And I feel very proud to have created a movie for that kid’s generation, and to be part of a book for that kid’s generation, that encourages him to maybe hold on to some hope and idealism for a little longer. I think there’s great value in that.
I was reading that you were in the USC screenwriting program as a student. It seems a little ironic that you went through this screenwriting program, but it took writing a book for you to become known. How do you feel about having to take that side road to get to where you are?
I will answer your question this way: When I was 12 years old, I told my dad, “I want to be a writer.” What I meant to say was, “I want to be a novelist.” I just didn’t think that word. I just said “writer.” My dad’s response was, “Great writers are great readers.” That’s all he said. And I was left with that thought.
Well, I was a 12-year-old boy from Pittsburgh. I played sports and I watched HBO. I didn’t read a whole lot of books then. But I watched movies. And I loved Meatballs, and I loved Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and all these things. So I said, “Huh, okay, well I guess I’ll write movies then.” But what I always wanted to be was an author.
Now that I’ve worn all these hats, I realize that being an author is very close to being a director. Because the sense of details, and the sense of purpose, and the sense of theme and tone, are very similar for those two jobs. And I love them both equally.
You wrote Beauty and the Beast, which is the biggest movie of this year. It crossed a billion dollars at the box office worldwide. What does it feel like to have a movie that you wrote make that much money?
Uh, it’s great. [Laughs] You know? It’s the first unabashed hit that I’ve been a part of. And more so than even the box office, I will say, it’s the personal responses. Every dollar that is reported is represented by a human being that saw it, and based on a lot of the responses I’ve gotten personally, they are people that saw it and loved it.
My wife’s father had a stroke back in January of 2014. And my wife and I [and] our daughter, we moved back to New Jersey to kinda help him get on his feet. We were there for eight months. And there weren’t a whole lot of friends around, obviously, because we were out of our circle. So I spent a lot of time with my daughter. And I watched so many Disney princess movies with my daughter.
And that eight months became my training ground for how important these movies are, how far-reaching they are, and so when that became available, I jumped at the chance to be able to say something to my daughter through this movie. So as big as Beauty and the Beast is, it’s actually a very, very personal movie for me. It was my love letter to my girl.
What did your daughter think of the movie?
She loved the movie. But she likes the cartoon more. [Laughs] You know. That’s the way it is. [She said], “I really like your movie, Daddy, but I like the cartoon better.” Okay, honey. You’re five, that’s fine.