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Northeast Ohio-Native Todd Lieberman on the Challenges and Joys of Producing 'Wonder'

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Mandeville Films and Television, a production company run by Cleveland-born producer Todd Lieberman, has had a busy 2017. Earlier this year, the company produced Stronger, a movie about a man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. And now, it's produced Wonder, the film about a young boy with extreme facial deformities.

Based on the R.J. Palacio novel of the same name, the film stars Jacob Tremblay as the young boy who starts attending school and has to try to make friends for the first time. It opens area-wide on Friday.

Lieberman says he has fond memories of growing up in Northeast Ohio.

"I grew up until the age of 10 in Lyndhurst, and we moved to Pepper Pike after that," he says in a recent phone interview. "I went to Hawken School and was a lifer and was there from kindergarten to 12th grade. I moved to Philly and then L.A., but I have always maintained close ties to Cleveland. I have a ton of family there. I have two boys, 12 and 8, and have slowly but surely made them into Cleveland sports fans."

When he was 7, Lierberman started acting in plays. He did some directing too.

"I was always doing something storytelling-wise," he says. "I did that in college, too — lots of theater and comedy. The great thing about theater is that you can span different genres. I did much of that. I always loved movies too. I just love storytelling in general. Being weaned on the theater early on in my life set the stage for what my storytelling sense was. I do attribute a lot of that to my early days in Cleveland in theater."

He originally moved to L.A. to become an actor ("I realized I wasn't that passionate about acting and I frankly wasn't that good at it"). When that didn't pan out, he got a job at Summit Entertainment in the mid-'90s and began reading scripts and worked his way into the production side of the film business.

He read the novel Wonder right when itcame out and knew then that it had the potential to become a film.

"I've been producing for almost 20 years," he says. "Our goal is to get into things very early. My business partner and I read it just as it was published in February of 2012. We read it in the beginning of March. We both fell in love with the message. We both have children, and the idea of 'choose kind' felt like a great message to put forth. We had no idea the book would become a best seller. We knew it would be challenging to mount. It was an intimate story of a family and a boy with facial deformity. We knew we wanted to put our energies into something like this. It became kind of a movement. As it gained momentum and steam, we built off that and put it into production."

A certain amount of good timing came into play when it came to casting Tremblay

"We always had our eye on him. I had seen Room and was floored by that performance," he says. "He was so poised in that film. You could tell there's something phenomenal about him. A few times we were going to mount it and he was too young. We started with all kinds of other young men. By the time the movie had enough momentum and steam, he was thankfully of age. We sat down with him and offered it. We were moving forward and he happened to be the right age. He's so incredibly talented. I call him a once-in-a-generation actor. He's so poised and professional."

Lieberman hopes the positive message resonates with viewers.

"I love the idea that in a small way we can take two hours out of someone's day and make them feel better," he says. "I know that sounds maybe too large but that's what this movie is. I do think that when you leave the theater, you feel better. If we can do our small part with this film, that's a great thing." — Jeff Niesel

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