'Wonderstruck': Why Sign Language Is Only Used in Half of the Movie

Wonderstruck Still Millicent Simmonds - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Director Todd Haynes also tells THR of casting deaf actors as hearing characters and having the crew learn basic sign language.

Wonderstruck intercuts between two parallel plots: In 1927, a deaf girl living in Hoboken heads to New York City in search of a celebrated actress, while in 1977, an orphaned boy is struck deaf and runs away from his home in Minnesota to New York in hopes of finding answers about his past.

So why is sign language only used in half of the movie? It isn’t used in the Amazon and Roadside drama’s 1920s-set scenes because it wasn’t recognized as a legitimate means of communication during that time period.

“It was frowned upon — people were ashamed of the deaf people in their own family and felt they should be fully assimilated into the hearing world and learn how to talk,” explains director Todd Haynes. “That’s what dominated the deaf education world until the 1960s, when things changed and sign language was considered a real language and eventually taught in public schools. In a way, this movie compares how things changed for deaf people between these two eras, the ‘20s and the ‘70s.”

Not only is the young girl played by Millicent Simmonds, who is also deaf in real life, but her “silent movie” scenes also include many deaf actors who play hearing characters. “There were translators all over the set and sign language was being spoken constantly,” recalls Haynes, who also provided basic sign language lessons to the shoot’s crew. “We didn’t want to make them feel like outsiders; in fact, they were essential to this film. It was such an incredibly moving experience.”

Haynes — whose next projects include a Velvet Underground documentary and a “timely” episodic drama series — feels “reaffirmed” as a filmmaker after working with so many deaf actors on Wonderstruck: “The movies and performances that have always inspired me the most are those that aren’t really driven by dialogue. That’s confirmed by the artistry of deaf actors: their physicality, gestures, facial experiences. It’s about what a human subject can do on film without words.”