Marcelo Zarvos composes a touching score for Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder, based on R.J. Palacio’s heartwarming children’s novel. Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), born with a facial deformity is about to start the 5th grade in a traditional school after being homeschooled his whole life. His family is protective and supportive as Auggie has to face the outside world and his oawn fears about fitting in.
The film’s structure, like the book’s, follows the school year from Fall to Summer and is very much from Auggie’s point-of-view, except for several vignettes from other characters’ points-of-view, complete with voice-over. Zarvos composed separate themes for each character, including Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), her friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and two friends from school, Jack (Noah Jupe) and Ximena (Emily-Rose Delahunty). In their meetings, Chbosky and Zarvos spent a lot of time discussing the different characters’ themes. “They all needed to have their own music,” said Zarvos. “It was very important to Stephen that the compositions would be self-contained.”
“In a lot of film scores, you leave things a little bit more vague, because you want the story to always keep flowing.” Zarvos continued, “But for Stephen, every single melody of every cue had to be a little mini story on its own, with a beginning, middle and end. Even a 30 second cue had to have a beginning, a chorus, and a bridge.” Zarvos would joke with his music editor, Eric Wisen, “Man, I don’t know if we can squeeze this much into a small place like this in terms of number of seconds.”
Zarvos wanted the mini themes to be “appropriate, but I also wanted them to be deep, like Auggie’s and Via’s themes,” yet with a “lightness of the texture we were exploring, with a lot of piano, which Stephen really loved.” Zarvos added, “We worked hard to find the little spark and gem that would capture these characters.” Via’s theme was really important, “almost as important to Stephen as Auggie’s, because her journey makes Auggie’s journey make sense too.”
Zarvos started writing the themes without seeing picture at first, and purposely did not name the themes. “I knew who I was writing to, but Stephen wanted to hear them on their own.” So he started by numbering the cues. Interestingly, Chbosky was able to pick out which theme belonged to which character. “I’m very proud that the music was able to stand on its own early on, and it was important to Stephen that it does that, and I think it pays off in how all of these pieces are like little mini short stories.”
Chbosky was specific in what he did not want. He didn’t want the music to be “very magical in a fairy tale kind of way, or too big or too heavy.” He wanted the music to be very grounded, “to have a lightness to it, but still have a lot of heart.” Instrumentation-wise, the “heart of the score is the piano, and it’s me playing, so it’s very personal and has to do with how I play the instrument.”
They wanted Via’s music to be appropriate for a teenager, so Zarvos “went more towards guitars, with a little bit more like an indie pop feel to it.” Auggie’s themes needed to express a whole range of emotions. “It was a delicate balance, with sadness or humor, but also it had to be whimsical. It’s a big part of the score.” They wanted the score to “draw people into the story and make them feel” what the characters are feeling.
In the scenes with the kids’ voice-overs, Zarvos had to “write around their voices, which tended to be really soft, especially Auggie’s and Via’s.” He balanced it “with the choice of instruments and just how thick the music could get. We couldn’t get too big because it would drown out the voices.” And they were careful not to become “too shy around it or be devoid of feeling and expression. If you end up over simplifying the music, it can become too amorphous.” Zarvos chose to use synths for the opening ambient music, as well as the Winter piece when Daisy the dog dies. He used the electric piano for some of the comedic cues, the first day in school, the school visit and the school photos. “There was this kind of Wurlitzer old electric piano we would use that somehow felt right and worked well for the comedic scenes.”
For the more emotional scenes, they recorded in Seattle with an orchestra featuring 50 musicians, “mostly strings, harp, percussion, and some woodwinds.” Stephen was very involved during the sessions. “We were really tuning up the emotion all the way to the very end. We did a lot of takes, and a lot of amplifying emotion, and then kind of taking it down,” says Zarvos. They “experimented with the intensity and expressiveness of the music. Very few directors will come to every single session when you record, but Stephen was there all the time. It was a very collaborative and rewarding process. He’s a special human being.”
Zarvos had previously worked with Alexandra Patsavas (music supervisor). Although they worked separately, they were very aware of what each other was doing, with creative input from Chbosky. “For the most part, it was pretty mapped out by the time I got into it, and we knew the places where it was going to be score and where there were going to be songs.” Talking about their collaboration, Zarvos said that,“it felt like everybody was very much in sync, and I feel like Alex really knew the parameters the songs would live in. I think we just trusted each other’s process. She’s such a pro and such a great artist.”
Zarvos’ engineer, Gustavo Borner, is one of his oldest collaborators. “He’s very good in all styles.” They spent a lot of time discussing the music before and during recording. During the music mix, a lot of care was taken every step of the way. “For a film that has a lot of music like Wonder, I do feel like we found a good balance where it just goes to the edge of where it needs to be without over doing it, and having every second be commented on by the music.”
When Zarvos approaches a project, he thinks about the story and the emotional content. “Music is emotion. I tend to be drawn to projects that are very emotional, like Wonder, which involves the human condition,” He explained, “I try to learn as much as I can from the story, but also try to see and understand how the director sees it. That relationship is really important to me, and also I feel like they know their story so much more.” They “talked early on about having too much sadness or not enough. It was important to “save it for the places where we’ve got to really turn it up, and also be able to step back and look at the story that is unfolding and all the funny stuff that happens.” Zarvos summed up, “I think great directors really know how to save the performance and save the music for the moments where we really need it.”
Speaking about the finished film, Zarvos exclaimed, “The beauty of it is that the message is for everybody. I think adults can really learn from this movie just as much as children. Stephen is able to talk to everybody at once. A kid is going to get something, a teenager is going to get something, and an adult is going to get something. It’s the same thing that he’s saying, but it takes on different meanings, and I think that’s at the heart of it. That’s what makes it such a special film.”