'Wonderstruck': How Todd Haynes Shot a Double-Period Film With Child Actors and Lots of Silence (Q&A)

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Todd Haynes

The indie icon tells THR of the film-within-a-film structure of his unique competition entry, working with a deaf actress, and the benefits of working with Amazon.

Just two years after his period love story Carol seduced the Cannes Film Festival, Todd Haynes, 56, is back in the competition with Amazon’s Wonderstruck, but the two films couldn’t be more different. Where Carol starred a pair of cinema’s most sophisticated actresses, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Wonderstruck is told through the eyes of two youngsters played by 12-year-old Oakes Fegley, who previously starred in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, and 14-year-old Millicent Simmonds, a deaf girl making her screen debut. (Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams play supporting roles.) 

The film, which screens Thursday, i s based on the 2011 juvenile fiction of the same name by Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret): In 1977, an orphaned boy is struck deaf and runs away from his home in Minnesota to New York City, and, in a separate, parallel tale, in 1927, Rose, a deaf girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey, heads to New York in search of a celebrated actress. In Selznick’s book, Rose’s story is told entirely through illustrations, and, in Haynes’ adaptation, her quest is filmed as a silent movie within the movie. Haynes spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about making a movie for Amazon, working with child actors and forswearing dialogue.

So Wonderstruck is, in part, a silent movie?

It is, or at least to the degree that Rose’s story has no sound, there is no dialogue and it is in black and white. We shot 35-negative anamorphic, so it’s not the aspect ratio of a silent film. But when one says the style of silent film, the thing you quickly learn when you go back and look at the final years of silent cinema is there almost was no one style. It was all styles and all manners of exuberant visual filmmaking that kind of took a nosedive for a while when sound came in, because the technology was so different, so big and cumbersome, the camera couldn’t move anymore. So I took that as a liberty. I watched a lot of silent films, and it was really humbling and thrilling to really be astounded at what they were doing, many different directors doing many different kinds of work at the time. So half the film is in black and white and is dominated by music. There is some sound design in it, but it is not naturalistic or literal. The other half is color-negative film that is very attentive to the visual language of ’70s cinema, but the interesting thing about this movie is, it’s almost all silent because both kids are deaf. For what feels like almost an hour into the film, there is basically no dialogue in either story.

Besides the technical challenge, what was the thematic appeal of Brian Selznick’s book for you?

Although almost all my films have been period films, this was a double-period film, so that was exciting — the ways that one could jam ideas and images of 1920s Manhattan against New York in one of its most difficult, economically declining eras in the later ’70s. But what I really love about this: It functions like a classic mystery. There are enigmas that the kids are setting out to decipher and learn, and often the answer to one yields more questions about the next stage of the story that propels them forward. And the central defining mystery is: Why are we telling these two stories and how will they connect?

Did you intentionally set out to cast a deaf actress?

Our first wish was to find a real deaf kid to play the part, not only because it would bring a sense of truth to that character and her performance, but deafness is such a part of both stories and it is a driving theme throughout the whole film, and we felt this was a way for all of us to feel closer to the deaf community and really learn first-hand about the deaf experience with a central deaf kid in the role. I said to Laura Rosenthal, my casting directing, “Lets go for this. In our limited time and resources, let’s do a national search for deaf kids" — which meant looking at nonprofessionals — "and if we can’t find somebody, we’ll resort to a hearing kid." We ended up finding Millicent Simmonds from Utah, outside Salt Lake City. Her performance speaks for itself. She had an unimaginable ease for being in this new circumstance.

 

How much did you have to change your working methods with two child actors?

Surprisingly little. Every actor comes with their own experience, method, methodology. We did luck out with an extraordinary interpreter, Lynette Taylor, who was an incredibly engaged and smart woman whom Millie really liked and connected to. She became a central part of the set. Kids do sometimes get tired, their attention wavers. The biggest challenge was making smart use of our limited hours with them each day. We had to shoot a little bit of each story each day. On most days, due to an ingenious assistant director and line producer on set, we managed to shoot a piece of the ’70s and a piece of the ’20s. You can only imagine the logistical complexity of that, but we pulled it off.

What was it like working for Amazon?

[Amazon Studios vp] Roy Price had read the script and really responded to it and loved it. I didn’t know Roy at the beginning, but I knew everybody else he had put together in this amazing department, from Ted Hope on down, because they all come from independent film. They wanted us to be as smart and economical in our spending as possible, but really deliver something that was an emotional, visual experience.

You know the Cannes drill by now. What’s that 24 hours from first press screening through red carpet premiere like?

With Carol, we had the press screening the night before our premiere and we had our press conference following the premiere, so it was a little more staggered. The press responded strongly to the screening, so there was a great deal of relief. By the time we had our red carpet moment, I could kind of relax and enjoy the pageantry of it, with Cate and Rooney and their outrageously beautiful gowns and playing “Our Love Is Here to Stay” from An American in Paris. So we could just live the fairy tale moment. It was really divine.

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