The director and co-writer of literary adaptation The Wonder joins the film’s lead actress to discuss the power of storytelling, gender-neutral awards and Ireland’s unpredictable weather.
A period piece set in 1860s Ireland might not seem ideally suited to Chile’s Sebastian Lelio, a director best known for contemporary dramas such as Disobedience, Gloria (and its English-language remake Gloria Bell) and the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman. Having built his career by telling complex, female-led stories from an outsider’s perspective, though, Lelio was quickly identified by producers Tessa Ross (House Productions) and Ed Guiney (Element Pictures) as an inspired choice to take The Wonder from the page to the screen.
Based on Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel, the Netflix release — which shot in Ireland in August and September 2021 — tells of an English nurse who is recruited by a tight-knit community in the Irish Midlands to conduct an examination of an 11-year-old girl who claims she has not eaten for four months. The story that ensues, inspired by real-life cases of so-called “fasting girls”, pits the nurse’s rationalism against her young charge’s faith, a battle of wits and wills that earned the film 12 nominations at the British Independent Film Awards, winning for Matthew Herbert’s striking musical score.
The Wonder, which Lelio co-wrote with Donoghue and Normal People adaptor Alice Birch, made its streaming debut in November after a limited theatrical release and a festival run that included Telluride, Toronto and BFI London. Screen International caught up with Lelio and his leading lady Florence Pugh not long afterwards to discuss their collaboration, her role as Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright and the modern parallels that can be drawn from its story.
Screen International: How did you become involved in the project?
Sebastian Lelio: Ed Guiney, with whom I had made Disobedience, had the rights of the book, along with Emma and Tessa, and thought I would be the right person to tell this story and co-write the script. So I read the novel in 2017 and I immediately connected with Lib’s journey, the relationship she develops with the young girl Anna and how they have to save each other from this suffocating community. I thought it was a great journey for a great actress, and also a beautiful relationship to portray.
Florence Pugh: Back in 2020 I got an email from Sebastian saying he was making this movie and was thinking of me for the role, so we got on Zoom and had a chat. It is such an instant feeling when you have that first talk with a director if it feels good and feels right, and that’s how it was with Sebastian. All the things I loved about the script were things that he was just as excited about, so I jumped on board.
What was it about each of you that made you right for the film?
Lelio: Florence, you’re there, so this is going to sound like I’m flattering you.
Pugh: I’ll shut my ears.
Lelio: Florence has a natural genuine integrity as a person and that translates beautifully into her characters, generating a really strong bond and connection with the viewer. We trust her, and that was important in this tale of moral dilemmas where Lib descends deeper and deeper towards more layers of complexity. Florence has that capacity to allow the viewer to almost hear her thoughts — to think along with her, process the situation with her and be on her side. We’re always on Lib’s side because of the integrity and moral authority Florence has. Okay Florence, you can now start listening again.
Pugh: Yeah, thanks!
Your turn, Florence.
Lelio: Oh god!
Pugh: It’s been said many times by women who have worked with Sebastian that he has this fantastic ability to tell women’s stories. It takes a pretty special person to (a), not be from the country that the film is about, and (b), not have proof of doing an era like this before and tell a very challenging female story. I wanted to play Lib in a very raw and natural way and he was 100% behind me. Then, of course, you get him on set and you see the crew is in love with him and everybody is so happy to be working on that job. I suppose it all trickles down from the top and he gave such an amazing example of how to lead a film.
Much of the film hangs on Lib’s relationship with Anna, played by newcomer Kila Lord Cassidy.
Pugh: When you read a script that has such a predominant child role, you know that unless it is someone super-special it is going to be a challenge. But with Kila we never had that — from day one she was sparkling and she matched all the talent in the room. It’s so rare to have that amount of talent in somebody so young, who is so emotionally and intelligently switched-on. And she’s so ballsy too. Whenever we were discussing the dark parts of the film or if I had to manhandle her in a scene, she was more than ready for it.
Lelio: It’s rare you see a love story between a nurse and patient. Beyond the roles they’ve been assigned, beyond nurse and patient, there is a human connection — a sorority, friendship and complicity that we see being born in front of the camera. I loved the fact that what was hiding at the heart of the film is Anna and her fragility, her pain and her innocence. And I loved that Lib finds a way to save her that uses Anna’s own imaginary and conceptual tools and speaks to the role stories play in our lives.
Ireland can often bring rapidly changing weather. What was it like to film exteriors in County Wicklow?
Pugh: We were out in the elements all day, so it was pretty extreme; it was all four seasons in one day. We were on a mountain and it was like it was alive, which made all the scenes of me walking to and from Anna’s house really quite eerie. You could feel the texture of what the film was going to be — that it would be earthy, muddy, dark and ever-changing. But I love all of that stuff, especially in a period film; I love being out and hoisting my skirt up. There’s nothing frilly about it; it is what it is. You have the natural expressions of being exhausted in a wet skirt, because that’s what you are.
Why did you choose to open the film with a framing device that exposes the sets and artifice you use to tell the story?
Lelio: It’s sort of a playful beginning, but it’s also an invitation to the viewer to be awake and alert and aware. This is a story that analyses the power of fiction and storytelling in our lives; how a story can be used to power and control, and how it can also become a means to access new levels of freedom. I thought the idea of the film looking back at the viewer was a way of having a complicity with the viewer and also ask them, “What do you believe in and what are you giving power to?” They’re very contemporary questions in the era of fake news and false truth.
The Wonder earned 12 Bifa nominations including for Florence and Kila in the gender-neutral lead performance and breakthrough performance categories. Should gender-neutral awards like these become the norm?
Pugh: At the end of the day, it’s about talent; it doesn’t need to be specific and it also doesn’t need to make people feel shut out. If it’s a competition on which performance resonated with you the most, or what you think was the most groundbreaking, I don’t think that it needs to be [gender-] specific. It’s a competition of acting.
It looks like you enjoyed making The Wonder together. Would you like to work with each other again?
Lelio: Are you kidding? I would love to work with Florence again. But we have to find the right material.
Pugh: We have a fantastic friendship; we love going out for dinner, drinking wine and talking about weird things in life. Whenever you find a relationship that works, you always want to try and make it work again. Because then you’re making movies with friends, and that’s the best.
Interview by Neil Smith