Interview: Wonderstruck Writer Brian Selznick on his Master Class with John Logan

By November 3, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Shanee Edwards

Brian Selznick, a distant relative of famed movie producer David O. Selznick, is an award-winning children’s author. His book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was turned into the 2011 film Hugo directed by Martin Scorsese (The Departed). The screenplay was by John Logan (Gladiator, Penny Dreadful).

“When Hugo was made and the credits said ‘based on a book by Brian Selznick,’ it was the first time the name Selznick appeared on screen since maybe Dual in the Sun. So there was a certain familial pride I felt bringing the name back to the screen. I like the fact that it’s in my blood.”

Though Selznick says he never had the ambition to become a filmmaker, it was sort of inevitable. He is a storyteller and the film is the most modern, American way to tell stories. Now, he’s written the screenplay for Wonderstruck, based on his book of the same name. Todd Haynes (Carol) directed.

The film tells the story of two children, one named Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who’s deaf, and one named Ben (Oaks Fegley), who recently lost his hearing in a freak accident. Rose’s storyline takes place in 1927 and is shot in the style of a black and white silent movie. Ben’s storyline takes place in New York City in 1977. Both storylines are interwoven until they collide. It’s a strange but very fresh way to tell a story.

“In the book, Rose’s story is all done with drawings because she’s a deaf person. Ben’s story is told through language which allows us to go inside his head in a different way. There’s just no cinematic equivalent to one story being visual and one not being visual because in movies everything is visual.”

Selznick says he quickly came up with showing Rose’s storyline as if it were a silent movie. For Ben, he wanted it to be a child’s version of a gritty 1970s movie.

“After that, I let those two film languages interact with each other. So we’re experiencing the world the way Rose experiences the world, without hearing any language. Obviously, we see their lips moving but we don’t hear them speak. The actual words of an argument would be less important than us understanding that an argument was taking place.”

The transition from author/illustrator to screenwriter was difficult for Selznick. “I think in pages. I think in words and pictures and the way words and pictures interact with each other.”

Fortunately, one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood was willing to help.

“I got a master class from John Logan. He said, ‘I’ll take you under my wing, I will give you notes and you are going to do it.’ He said that Wonderstruck is a very cinematic book and that I would figure out how to adapt it.”

One of Logan’s early suggestions was not to show the screenplay to anybody else. “It’s unusual, it has a weird structure – it’s not like anything else and he was afraid that if I started showing it to producers or any director they would start giving me suggestions while I was writing it, steering me away from whatever I wanted to make.

Logan told Selznick to download Final Draft, open his book to page one and send him any questions he might have.

“The answer to every question I asked John while I was writing was yes. Always yes. I asked if can you have a flashback inside a memory and he would say, “Yes, it’s the movies, you can do anything.” He gave me a great amount of confidence.”

After he finished his first draft, he gave it to Logan. Logan returned it with about 25 notes.

“He was asking ‘Why? Why are you doing this here? What is the reason for this here? Is this necessary?’”

Selznick carefully went through each note and cut every thing he didn’t have an answer for.

“I was then able to think about it more critically.”

A still from the newly released “Wonderstruck”

And then there was the note that took Selznick two months to complete.

“He told me to look at the first 50 pages and cut them in half – and he wasn’t kidding. When I told him I’d cut 23 pages he said, ‘Well, you still have two to go.’ So I cut those last two pages and it was really hard, but I did it.”

When Selznick finally finished the screenplay, John Logan gave him a very important piece of advice.

“He said there there’s going to come a point in production where they will run out of money and I will have to rewrite some part of the screenplay. He said it always makes the movie better. And that totally happened! I had written the end of the movie as a live-action flashback. And we just couldn’t afford to cast all of the actors and build all the sets for this five-minute set of flashbacks where we go to 15 different places. So out of that came the idea to do the last part of the story in miniatures.”

For Selznick, that ending scene became the heart of the movie. Sometimes, running out of money is a good thing.

Wonderstruck opened in theaters Oct. 20.


Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

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