If the name Brian Selznick sounds familiar, it’s because the author, illustrator and now screenwriter is a relative of famed Golden Age of Hollywood film mogul David O. Selznick, who produced dozens of films including Gone with the Wind. Brian’s grandfather was David’s cousin. He says having the famous name is a lot of fun, but it hasn’t necessarily helped him in any way.
Walk down memory lane
“I am from the New Jersey dry-cleaning side of the Selznicks,” Selznick says with a laugh. “When I went to visit my grandmother, her husband (my grandfather) and David O. Selznick had grown up together and they hated each other and never talked to each other for the rest of their lives. My grandfather died before I was born but my grandma’s house was filled with books about David O. Selznick and references to him and she was very proud of the connection.”
Though he claims he never aspired to be a filmmaker, one experience changed his mind. Director Martin Scorsese took Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret and made it into the 2011 film Hugo with a screenplay from John Logan (Skyfall). Selznick had a blast. “I wasn’t involved in it, but I got to see how movies are made. I had never been on a movie set before and my first one was designed by [3-time Academy Award winner] Francesca Lo Schiavo.”
Selznick befriended screenwriter Logan and got to read a few early drafts of the script.
What to cut and what to keep
“I was taking note of what he cut and what he changed. Even when I was upset by the cuts I immediately understood them. We lost one of my favorite characters in the book called Etienne but it allowed the two children to do even more on their own. In a book, we have the luxury of time. We have the ability to be discursive and go around things a little more. Whereas in a film, things have to drive through in a different way.”
After publishing his book Wonderstruck, Hugo’s costume designer Sandy Powell (The Departed) read it and said it should be a movie for Todd Haynes. “They’ve worked together many times and they are good friends. She just saw something in the story that he would connect with.”
Selznick talked to Logan and asked if he wanted to write the screenplay. His answer surprised him.
“John said, ‘Brian, you should write the screenplay. You can do it.”
Under the guidance of Logan, Selznick downloaded Final Draft and began translating the words and drawings in Wonderstruck into the language of film.
Wonderstruck tells the archetypal story of two children on a journey – Rose (Millicent Simmonds, later Julianne Moore) is in search of a mother, Ben (Oaks Fegley) is in search of a father. Rose is deaf and Ben has recently lost his hearing in a freak accident. This makes them both feel like outsiders, struggling to fit in.
“When I began working on Wonderstruck [the book] I saw a documentary about deaf culture called Through Deaf Eyes. There was this man who talked about growing up with hearing parents and they were great but it wasn’t until college that he met other deaf people and learned about deaf culture and history. I thought that was a very strong parallel to being a gay man growing up with straight parents. It wasn’t until I got to college then New York afterwards that I found out that there was a culture and a history. That parallel influenced the book very strongly. That’s probably what Todd Haynes saw in it, the idea of being different and finding your way in the world. That has always been a part of my work.”
The movie is dreamy and poetic, with Rose’s storyline set in 1927 and Ben’s in 1977. The two time periods vastly contrast each other and conjure a strikingly different New York. Somehow, it works.
“I pretty quickly decided to tell Rose’s story like a silent movie. For Ben’s, I wanted it to feel like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, but for kids.”
At a certain point, the two characters intersect and the story has a strong sense of completion.
While writing the screenplay, Selznick got lots of notes from Logan. “Most of his notes where about cutting things, it was about concision.”
In the book, Ben hides out in the Museum of Natural History for three weeks. Logan told him to cut it down to one day.
“Also, in the book there are three clues as to who Ben’s father is, John said pick one. So it was really about seeing how you can focus the laser beam to keep the story moving forward.”
Another common mistake Logan pointed out was that Selznick had put camera directions in the screenplay.
“John said, ‘Don’t ever talk about the camera. Let the director do that but write what you want it to feel like. I did go back to the Hugo screenplay and the last the last few minutes is a tracking shot that says, ‘We float through the window, we move through the hall.’ It was almost like we’re this disembodied presence moving through it without ever mentioning the camera.”
Wonderstruck opens Oct. 20. The legendary Selznicks live on.