Behind The Scenes on ‘The Wonder’ with Niamh Algar, Sebastián Lelio and Emma Donoghue

This week, Dom Lenoir welcomes actor Niamh Algar, director Sebastián Lelio and Oscar-nominated writer Emma Donoghue to talk about their film ‘The Wonder’.

Creating the Character

Niamh asks ‘as many questions to the director, as they’ll allow; and that’s an opening, we don’t need to know anymore. Making sure we’re on the same page. I ask, even if I feel it is such an obvious question. It’s all about communication.’

When ‘we go on set (and the environment changes from set to set), you have to understand a director’s going to work differently to you and work out how you’re going to make that work as a unit. Especially for period drama, the clothes have so much of an influence on how you walk, how you sit, and these clues help inform your character.

You fit the character’s basic needs on how they would live day to day. And then finding where you fit into the story and what your role is within the story.’

How Niamh Got Involved

The casting agent sent the script to Niamh’s agent and asked to put her on tape. ‘I read the log line, Sebastián Lelio was directing this film with Florence Pugh, and it’s written by Alice Birch, from an adopted novel by Emma Donoghue. And that was enough.

That’s all I needed to know. Do they want me to play the tree, because I’ll do it for free? Florence has always made such incredible choices throughout her career. So there’s trust there. It’s such a great story of this woman and it has so many layers. You want to be a part of that story. Those are the films that I love to watch and so naturally the ones I gravitate towards.’

Actor-Director Relationship

The best directors that Niamh’s worked with ‘are always the ones that give you freedom but also give you boundaries – you need a certain amount of boundaries in order to make the most of that moment.

Directors are so different but the good ones listen.’ Ultimately ‘it’s their vision. And you’re to totally respectful that. And then it’s just communication and having that feeling you can have open dialogue, you’re making this together. It’s a collaboration.’

From Novel to Film

Sebastián said that the novel was beautiful, with a lot of literature in it. You’re able to learn how the characters think and feel based on the descriptions in the book.

‘And that’s a way for the novel to allow you to inhabit their interiors. We have to translate that onto film, and that can be quite brutal. You have to find ways of synthesising everything, so it was a process of losing things and finding the essentials.

But it was a story that demanded a very precise style of storytelling. Narrative machinery that has to work really well.’

Collaborating with the Team

For The Wonder, they wanted a ‘visual sophistication. The viewer could lost in the immersive experience – and that’s a lot of work – that’s fabricated, not a given. You have to fight for that. It’s a co-creation, so everyone on the team needs to be in symphony. Knowing that we are looking for the same thing is a process. A beautiful, mysterious process that doesn’t have a clear path.’

How Sebastián Got Involved

‘Ed Guiney and Tessa Ross had the book rights. They were associated with Emma and were looking for someone that could direct the film and for some reason they thought I could be the person.’

After reading the book, he thought it was great but that it would be very difficult to make ‘but I couldn’t take it out of my mind. And even though I knew I was going to put myself into a lot of artistic problems and lots of reasons why the thing could fail. I just couldn’t say no. The story was stronger than me.’

Casting The Film

Florence was in mind from the beginning. ‘We sent her the script and she said yes quite quickly. And then finding Anna, the girl, I was quite terrified about because we really needed a great young actress. We saw hundreds of tapes during COVID and when we saw Kíla Lord Cassidy’s tape, I was speechless.

She was incredibly committed and profound. Her real mother plays her mother in the film, which was a blessing, to have the luxury of that relationship. Also, Kíla was of the age right before changing from being a girl into a woman – a window in someone’s life that maybe lasts nine months, so we were very lucky to have her in that particular moment. 

And then the script attracted this great group of actors. Niamh Algar, and Toby Jones among many others. I felt very blessed to have them. It’s a luxury to work with all of them.’

Adapting the Novel for the Screen

Emma got the idea for the novel 20 years ago when she came across cases of fasting girls. ‘But it seemed too bleak, even for me, because the one fasting girl case I was looking at, from 1870s Wales, she died while being watched by nurses, paid for by the newspapers. And I found that too heartbreaking. So in 2014, I thought I could do a fictional version of this, which would be hugely engrossing but not as heartbreaking.’

Immediately after the novel was released, Emma thought the book could work in the cinema too. 

‘When I adapt my work, I never open page one and say, what do I do with this page? I keep the book shut and say to myself, I want to tell the story all over again but this time visually. You have to feel free to change or move around or abandon any element in order to capture the magic of the story as a whole.’

Writing the Screenplay

‘I’ve found with the two main film projects I’ve had, things get added in and then thrown away again. So often you end up with the bones being more or less where you’ve begun.

It can be hard to remember exactly what gets added when there are so many drafts. It’s a process of constant tinkering and reacting to things. As soon as we knew we wanted Florence for this, we began to think of the character a bit differently.

Alice Birch had written for her before, with Lady Macbeth, so that was a huge plus  – knowing we had someone who had collaborated so successfully with Florence before.

For more from Niamh, Sebastián and Emma – listen here.

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