Last week I saw the film Wonderstruck and it was everything I'd hoped it would be. I first read the book the year it released, back in 2011, and when I'd heard Amazon Studios was making the movie I wondered how they would convey, on screen, a story that has one point of view told only in illustration. Author Brian Selznick wrote the screenplay and his vision combined with the work of director Todd Haynes is as brilliant as the book.
I interviewed Selznick for the book Wonderstuck six years ago and called him recently to talk about the film. Below is a transcript of some of that conversation, followed by a trailer for the movie which will be widely released on November 2nd and playing everywhere by November 10th. It's a pretty magical movie experience that I highly recommend whether you're familiar with the book or not.
Seira Wilson: How was the experience of writing the screen play for Wonderstruck? What was it like to do that for the first time?
Brian Selznick: It’s been great! I keep having these very unique experiences and these very unusual things happening to me. John Logan the screenwriter for Hugo took me under his wing…he encouraged me to make the screenplay what I wanted it to be, he encouraged me not to share it with anyone while I was writing it so I wouldn’t have any outside influences and then he just helped me make it into the format I wanted it to be in because, he said, it’s a very unusual type of movie that I’m writing. The dozens of drafts that become the first draft--just make it what you want it to be. So when I finally handed it to Todd Haynes, I had a screenplay that John thought was a viable, workable screenplay. And Todd had some suggestions but nothing major, and really what Todd ended up shooting is what I handed him that first day.
Seira Wilson: So the black and white silent film for Rose’s portion was your vision for the movie?
Brian Selznick: Yes, that was the first idea that I had. I really wrote as much as I could into the screenplay in terms of what it would look like, what it would sound like, fully aware that there were going to be many changes but I wanted to set the groundwork.
Because this book was very much designed around the interaction between the pictures and the words, I knew that once we lost that, because there’s no cinematic equivalent for turning the page of a book or for one story being told in drawings and one story being told in text, that I needed to find something that would parallel the way those two stories interact.
So early on I had the idea to tell Rose’s story as a black & white silent movie, since silent movies are a part of her narrative, but also I thought it would be great to have the language of silent film because the audience would think that it’s silent because it's set in 1927 but then they would eventually discover that it's silent because the main character in that story is deaf and we're experiencing the world the way she experiences it.
Then I thought we could film the ‘70s part of the story like a movie from the 1970s, so we could begin a little bit like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, in rural America and then move into Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets for kids. And those examples were written into the screenplay.
SW: Do you have a favorite book-to-film adaptation that you were working from in your head, wanting yours to turn out as good as ----?
BS: I’ve watched a lot of movies as inspiration and Todd, when he came on board, also had a lot of movies he was looking at as inspiration, but when I was writing the screenplay I was looking at movies from the two time periods, I was thinking about some of my favorite films.
I was putting quotes into the screenplay--there’s a music quote from Being There, which is one of my favorite movies, there’s references to The Wizard of Oz, so there are elements from some of my favorite movies, but when I think about some of the best book-to-screen adaptations, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Wizard of Oz, it’s often the case—and Matilda—that the movie, in many ways, is better than the book. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is way better than the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the original screenplay was written by Roald Dahl. He added Slugworth to the film and made a lot of very, very, smart changes. So I can’t say I wanted the screenplay to be better than the book, but I wanted the screenplay to be a framework for something that felt like it was always meant to be a movie.
SW: Sounds like you’ve been doing a ton of writing lately, just not on your next novel—or have you??
BS: Well… I do have a book coming out [February 27, 2018] that I made with my husband David Serlin that’s for younger kids called Baby Monkey, Private Eye. It’s about a baby monkey who’s a private eye, and it’s a 200-page beginning reader. It’s five stories about different crimes Baby Monkey solves and he’s a very good detective, solving crimes is very easy for him, but he has a very difficult time putting on his pants. So most of the book is about Baby Monkey trying to get his pants on. And then he goes and solves whatever crimes he needs to solve. David wrote it and I developed it with him and did the pictures.
And I’m working on a couple of theatrical adaptations of some of my work. I’m writing a musical based on The Houdini Box so I’m writing the book for the musical as well as the lyrics. It’s my first time trying to write lyrics, which are incredibly hard and very, very, challenging but exciting. And I’ve begun my next big illustrated novel, I’m a couple of drafts into that…
SW: What’s the topic of that, if you can share it?
BS: That’s a secret! But it’s coming along well, I’ve got an outline for the entire book, I’ve begun writing the text, and I will say it’s another book that will try to use words and pictures in an unusual way… I discovered a lot about the interaction between words and pictures when I made The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and then Wonderstruck was an attempt to take what I learned from Hugo and do something different with it. Then The Marvels was once again an attempt to do something different based on everything I’d learned from the two previous books, and now the challenge is to take what I learned from all three of those books and try to do something new.
So Hugo tells a single story, going back and forth with words and pictures, Wonderstruck tells two stories with words and pictures that are 50 years apart that interact with each other, The Marvels opens with 300 pages of pictures that tell a story that then becomes a kind of memory for the second half of the book which is told in words, and then I’ve got some ideas about what I think I’m going to do for the pictures in the new book.
And I’m working on my first book for grown-ups, also. It’s almost entirely pictures, and it’s a book about Walt Whitman, that'll be published in time for the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2019.
SW: I was going to ask you if you’re still collecting first editions of Leaves of Grass!? [We talked about collections when we first met since there are many in the pages of Wonderstruck and Selznick revealed that one of his is multiple editions of Walt Whitman's classic]
BS: [Laughs] I wish more than anything that I HAD a first edition of Leaves of Grass but I don’t have that much money! What I have are just editions of Leaves of Grass, so none of them are from when he was alive. They’re everything from weird tiny versions from the 1950’s to modern editions, to reproductions—I have a reproduction of the 1853 edition. I have about…oh, let's see, two or three linear feet of Leaves of Grass in my apartment.
SW: I’m so pleased for you and the success of Wonderstruck, it's been really nice chatting about it…
BS: It’s nice to be proud of two movies that were made from my books. I think it’s very rare for an author to feel as happy about a movie based on their books as I am. And I’m very grateful for that and I don’t take it lightly...
Check out the movie trailer for Wonderstruck--it's one you won't want to miss and you can find ticket info here.