Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
All of my books, in some way, have been influenced by movies, even though I never thought they could be movies.
WONDERSTRUCK author Brian Selznick is the only one who could’ve ever taken his own words and illustrations and transforming it into something wholly cinematic. Through the process of adaptation, he was able to discover a new facet to the tale of two children connected through time – one that contextualizes cinema in a unique, magnificent manner.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with the affable author/ screenwriter about everything from purism, to the challenges in transferring the reading experience to a movie-going one, to if he uses a Kindle.
This is a such a brilliant high-concept that’s accessible to all audiences – which seems like it was tricky making it this way.
Yeah. The original book it was based on was intended for kids, but I knew that it was going to be a very unusual structure and it was a structure I had not necessarily seen in a book like this before. When I go into making a book like this, I never know how it’s going to come out or how the strands of the plot are going to come together. But I liked the idea of having these two stories weave back and forth.
In the book, Rose’s story is told all in drawings and Ben’s story is told all in words. When I was starting to write the screenplay, I realized I needed to find a cinematic equivalent for that because you can’t do that on screen. There’s no such thing as part of a movie that’s all written language – or even spoken language with no images. That’s when I got the idea to do half the movie like a Black & White silent movie and half like a movie actually filmed in the 70’s. Todd’s such a master of film genres and he’s made movies with using so many different types of film language. I knew I was in the best hands from the very beginning. And he trusted the fact that kids would get it. He obviously never made a movie for young people before. I don’t really think of this as a movie for young people. I think of it as a Todd Haynes movie that’s accessible to young people. Maybe the first Todd Haynes movie that’s accessible to young people [laughs].
I was actually thinking about that after how this film is so wonderful because now young viewers will be able to grow into his work.
I kind of thought about HUGO in the same way with Scorsese where the idea that kids are introduced to Martin Scorsese through HUGO and then so many of the themes and images in HUGO play out in Scorsese’s other movies. Someone pointed out to me that the opening of HUGO, where he’s looking through the clock at the station below, is the same opening as GOODFELLAS, where young Henry Hill is looking at the gangsters through his kitchen window down below. It’s like a gateway drug for Scorsese in the same way that WONDERSTRUCK will be a gateway for the wonderful, beautiful movies of Todd Haynes.
What was the breakthrough moment in figuring out how to make the experience of the book, which is so different, make your illustrations and words come alive?
When I’m making a book I very much believe that the story of the book could only ever work as a book. So WONDERSTRUCK was completely designed to only ever be a book. It was designed around the interaction of the words and the pictures, which are the things you have to work with in a book. I love figuring out new ways to use pictures, to see how they interact with language. But I think all of my books, in some way, have been influenced by movies. Even though I never thought they could be movies, the movies have always been an influence on my work because I love movies and they are a visual medium. When you’re doing sequential art the way I do it so often in my books, there’s a natural parallel between how good movies tell their story visually and good directors use the camera to tell the story visually and what happens when you’re telling a story in a book with pictures.
When I was doing WONDERSTRUCK, I decided to set the story of the young deaf girl in 1927 because that’s when sound came into the cinema, so I knew I wanted to include the silent film as part of the world that I was writing about. It was very natural to look at silent films and let them influence what the drawings would be like. I had done the same thing with HUGO, which was very influenced by silent cinema, but also great directors like Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, who use the camera so brilliantly. For WONDERSTRUCK, I had the idea of telling a story all in pictures about a deaf girl would allow the reader to have a parallel experience with the silence of her world. For hearing readers, even if we’re reading to ourselves, we hear them in our mind. When we switch to pictures, even if the story is continuing forward, that part of our brain shuts off. The narrative part continues, but the language part shuts off and so it feels quieter than reading words even though, again, we’re still getting the story.
Having Ben’s story be all in text then puts us inside Ben’s head and gives us access to his thoughts in a way we don’t have with Rose because she’s just with pictures. We have to gather what she’s doing by what we see her doing. I like the idea that everybody looking at the pictures will describe what they see differently and everybody reading the words would imagine what is happening differently in their minds. But these two things work together.
I had seen this documentary called THROUGH DEAF EYES about the history of deaf culture and that’s where I first learned about the coming of sound being a tragedy for the deaf community because they had been able to enjoy silent movies with a hearing audience and then they got shut out when sound came and they were no longer able to enjoy movies in the same way. Trying to use the language of the silent cinema in a movie made perfect sense. That was really the first hurdle I had to get over.
As soon as I realized I could tell her story like a silent movie and his story like a movie in the 70’s and weave those two together the same way the two stories are woven in the book, but now in movies we have sound, we have music, actual silence you can use. All of these other tools that a book doesn’t have. I was able to write some of those into the screenplay as a springboard to whoever ended up designing the sound or editing the movie. All of the seeds of those elements were there and all the brilliant collaborators who worked with Todd – things I could have never imagined.
It’s funny. I was just speaking with someone about adapting a Stephen King book that was said to be “unfilmmable.” And we both thought wouldn’t that be like a feather in your cap to keep that cool cache?
Was there ever a moment for you where you were like, ‘Nah. I’m gonna keep this unfilmmable” or were more like you did want to see this happen?
I think everything that I write is unfilmmable. Because everything is designed to be a book. So I’m not just writing a story and the book just happens to be the way the story is told. It’s actually designed to be a book. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, that became HUGO eventually, when I was writing the book, I really thought that couldn’t be filmed because the book itself, the object becomes part of the plot. So I thought, at the end of a movie, you don’t have anything in your hand so it can’t ever be a movie. John Logan, who did the screenplay adaptation, figured out how to solve it that I think was pretty brilliant. What he did was take the intention of my book and reversed it without changing the plot. My book is a celebration of movies but is ultimately about the importance of books. And he made a movie that celebrates books, writing, bookstores and reading, but it’s ultimately about the importance of film, which is why it works as a movie. It’s a natural evolution, but that’s not something I would’ve thought of. That was a huge lesson for me because I saw that anything could be adapted if you find the right solution. We’ve all seen so many bad adaptations of books and usually fans of a book will be disappointed by the movie because big changes are made. Of course these changes are being demanded by the form. For me with WONDERSTRUCK, it was a matter of figuring out how to make the story feel like it was designed to only ever be a movie.
There’s hardly any language in the movie. I didn’t even realize it when I wrote the screenplay because I was involved in making things happen in the story and what the characters are doing. But when I saw the first cut of the film, I realized there’s over an hour in the middle of the movie with no spoken dialogue. I was really excited about that. I don’t think you’re necessarily aware of that because you’re involved in both stories. The fact that Todd trusted all ages of the audience to sit with that was fantastic.
That’s my favorite thing – showing and not telling. And it’s such a bold choice! There’s too much exposition in other films…
So much exposition in movies. Everybody feels like they need to say their reason for everything – say what their feeling. What’s great about cinema is we can see things and you can get across ideas visually. The other thing about Todd is that every shot is made from a very specific point of view. A lot of times it’ll feel like a director just put a camera in a space and then recorded what was in front of the camera. Even if the acting is good and the sets are beautiful, there’s a sense that it’s just in the room, recording something, and then there’s no point of view. With Todd and the really great directors, every shot, every angle, every choice is made to help tell the story in some fashion to get across an idea about the characters.
In any adaptation, you lose some things and gain others. What were some of the things you were sad to part with?
Every cut was incredibly painful. John Logan took me under his wing, because I had never written a screenplay before and gave me notes. Most of his notes were about making things more concise. In the book, Ben is in the museum for about a week. John said, ‘Make it happen in one night.’ Ben has like four clues as to who his father is and John said, ‘Pick one.’ So cutting every one of those clues and taking away every one of those nights in the museum…
Yeah. His first notes to me were to cut the first 50 pages in half. That took about two months. Even if I got close to 50%, it was like, ‘Nope. Got 3 more pages. Keep going.’ Every time I lost something, I saw how it made the movie move better. And it made the drive of the narrative stronger.
Does having this experience now alter how you write?
Not really. I’m aware that my books will be looked at by people who make movies in a way that they didn’t for most of my career. But when I’m sitting down to write a book, I’m still very conscience that it’s a book and it’s about what happens when you turn the pages and it’s about the binding and it’s about feeling the paper in your hand. It takes me three years to make these books. For the three years I’m making these books, they exist only as books. But once I’m finished, I’m aware, if I can find the right idea, it can potentially be adapted.
What’s your feeling on reading tablets? Personally, I still prefer an actual tangible book in my hands. I can’t read on tablets.
Yeah. I need real books. I need paper. I love the smell of books. I need to feel the weight of a book in my hand. If I don’t have at least two books simultaneously, I feel a little bereft. I’m a slow reader and maybe have become slower because of the iPhone and so many other things pulling you in different directions, but I almost always have a book on me.
WONDERSTRUCK opens in limited release on October 20.