With films on his resume as vastly different as Carol, I’m Not There, and Safe, Todd Haynes has already firmly established himself as one of the most ambitious and versatile filmmakers working today.
The award-winning 56-year-old director continues to expand his range as an auteur with the just released Wonderstruck. Adapted by Brian Selznick from the juvenile fiction novel he both wrote and illustrated, Haynes’ latest chronicles dual stories that both focus on a pair of deaf children, Rose and Ben (played by Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf in real life, and Oakes Fegley), who are separated by fifty years but connected by plans to run away to New York City.
Haynes spoke with MovieMaker about the cinematic inspirations for his new film, making a movie for kids, and working with a deaf child actor.
Jeremy Kinser, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When did Wonderstruck come to your attention?
Todd Haynes (TH): It came to me through Sandy Powell, actually, my costume designer. She is not usually where one expects to find these sorts of projects. But with Sandy, one should always be ready to be surprised and blown away. She got to be close friends with Brian Selznick after they worked together on Hugo and she read the book Wonderstruck and she actually suggested to him that I might be somebody who could do something interesting with this book, and he was like, didn’t think I was the obvious choice, because I don’t really make films for this kind of an audience. But then the more I thought about it I think the more it kind of sunk in, so when he finished that adaptation he sent it to me. So it’s all because of Sandy Powell. She’s an executive producer on it, because we had to show our gratitude.
MM: Did you immediately see the film potential in the story when you read it?
TH: I did, because it was the script I read first, and that is because Brian had really, really thought about the medium in how he started to adapt it. He says in interviews that he never thought of the book as a film, that it could be a film, and the book is very beautifully conceived as half drawings and half text that are intercut. But he had certainly evolved from that position by the time he was adapting it as a script. The medium of film is considered in every capacity, particularly in the black-and-white treatment of the ‘20s story, as an homage to silent film, and the ‘70s story as an homage to urban American filmmaking of the ‘70s. But he really thought about sound, and how the two strands could have distinct roles in the sonic experience of the movie. So it was very inspiring for all those reasons.
MM: What was it about the story that you thought people could relate to?
TH: Well, I really thought, I really was excited about the premise. This could be something intensely unique that could be for kids. It would almost be like a cool gift to kids. A kind of stake of confidence in their abilities to get into something that we might not think they’re capable of these days in digital land, with them on their phones doing whatever they do, whatever we all do. And so that was sort of a defiant thing, like, yeah, I’m gonna do this for kids and prove that kids can get into it. So, kids, you have to get into it! Because I put myself on the line for you!
MM: Well, you sort of did it for their parents, too.
TH: I went to the Women’s March the day after Trump was elected, I mean, this movie doesn’t have to be for all kids, that’s fine, but I’m looking around at all the families that came out, the kids had all written signs. I thought, come on, there’s a lot of people that want to nourish their kids, give their kids access to the world, show them things and have them get involved in the world. Kids can really feel committed to what’s out there, and this is really the kind of movie that can really blow the mind of a little kid, or a not so little kid.
MM: I think when the connection is made, when you reveal how the characters are connected they’re gonna have this “oh my God” moment and maybe they’ll seek out other complicated films.
MM: Who did you initially see as the audience for this film? I mean it’s for kids, but perhaps sophisticated kids.
TH: Yeah, sophisticated kids, I mean why not aim high? I was a kid who, my parents exposed me to things that were a little beyond my reach. Those were the things that really impacted me, changed me, made me want to go there and learn and kind of reach back. That’s how we grow, that’s how our minds grow. For me, it also made me want to respond creatively. It got my creative juices flowing to have things that were sophisticated and interesting, and yeah, a little incomprehensible at first. I think it made me a creative person.
MM: Did you go back and watch the films you saw as a kid again before making this film?
TH: Oh yeah, I watched them all repeatedly, and I also put them on our dropbox for everybody involved in the film, these and then ‘70s films. As far as the ‘70s films, The French Connection, Midnight Cowboy, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I was definitely focusing on a lot of Owen Roizman’s cinematography which is just so amazing. I could not really get past The French Connection on this one too far, but Saturday Night Fever came out that year. It’s a great looking movie. Kind of the basics.
MM: What were some of the challenges in filming in New York today but creating a period of four decades ago?
TH: There were plenty of challenges, just in finding locations that we could dress, that would sort of have the bones of what we were looking for. Mostly we were shooting in Brooklyn, for the grittier neighborhoods of New York, but also for parts of the 1920s. Really I have to say the biggest logistical challenge for the production, logistical and creative challenges go hand in hand in most kind of movies that have infinite budgets, is that shooting with kids, you only have so many hours with kids per day, and what that meant was that we had to fashion a production, a daily schedule that enabled us to shoot ‘20s, and ‘70s every day. Because we could only shoot eight or nine hours per kid. So they’d expire, and we’d have to go to the other kid’s story. There weren’t enough scenes without the kids in them to make up a day. That really was the biggest challenge of the shoot.
MM: It sounds unbelievably complicated.
TH: Well, it’s Tim Bird, my AD, who figured that out. It was his daily puzzle. The movie is already a puzzle, but that was a puzzle on top of the puzzle. That’s how production schedules are anyway, but this one was just massive.
MM: That gives me even more appreciation for what you accomplished. How far apart were the filming locations?
TH: Well, we would have to conceive of things accordingly and dress them around that. I mean there were company moves, but company moves eat up so much time. When we shot in the Museum of Natural History, which was such a privilege to shoot in, that was hard to get the permission, and get through all the red tape to do so to begin with, but they were fantastic, but we couldn’t leave equipment in overnight. So we had to load in and load out each day that we shot there, and we could only shoot on the weekends. There were more limitations compounding the hours of limitations of the hours with kids. We had numerous challenges. Really what it all boils down to is that we were never waiting on the kids. The kids were so professional and so prepared, with minor exceptions, exceptions that just come up in any day of shooting with any actor. They were real troupers. This was true for Millicent Simmonds, as much if not more than any of the kids, who had never acted before in her life and was deaf. We did a great job casting. My casting director Laura Rosenthal led the process of finding Millie. But ultimately it’s luck that we found her, that she exists.
MM: She’s extraordinary. Besides how great she is in the movie, she has the look of one of those urchins like Jackie Coogan would pal around with.
TH: I know! She is true to the period. In the book she’s drawn with long hair, which wasn’t fashionable for girls in the 1920s. But Millie, her own hair was this awesome, cute, you know, windswept hair, shorter haircut, that really was of the time. In the spirit of great other kids movies like National Velvet or Little Women I thought lets just have her cut it off. So we had a wig for her for her home scenes in Hoboken, and as part of her symbolic liberation she whacks off her hair, and she’s a new person when she leaves. That’s cool for kids too, they dig that kind of transformation thing. And then it was like the real Millie, the Millie that just walked in to our life.
MM: When did you decide to make the 1927 part of the movie as a silent film?
TH: That was the conception in Brian’s script, of course it’s supported by the fact that that story is also about silent cinema, and the end of silent cinema, and what the end of silent cinema might have meant to a deaf person. All of those really poignant observations that I think escape even the deaf community today, because it’s so long ago, that are just incredibly touching and meaningful. It just describes one more way in which we segregate parts of our society without even knowing we’re doing it, let alone all the ways we do know we’re doing it. It was also just a beautiful way of differentiating the stories, and having you be like, “oh, it’s a silent film because it’s in the ‘20s,” but then you go, “oh no, it’s a silent film, because the central character is deaf.’” And that’s how she experiences the world.
Well the real truth is that the whole movie is almost a silent film. It’s almost an hour, from the last bit of spoken dialogue in the movie when Ben’s cousin leaves his room in his old house to when Ben starts talking to Jamie in the Museum of Natural History. It’s an hour with no dialogue.
MM: I didn’t realize that.
TH: That’s the best thing I could hear, that people don’t even realize that there’s no dialogue for that long a time. Because the story takes you along.
MM: What were some of the challenges in directing a deaf actress?
TH: The whole crew was given some instructionals for sign language. I cannot say I learned ASL language at all proficiently. I learned little words, apparently the part of the brain that learns language, the left side of the brain, is in a certain era of formation in our first five or six years of life, and then it changes. So when adults try to learn sign language, they don’t learn it using the same muscle memory that we do when we learn our first languages. It becomes something you think of visually not syntactically, or whatever the term is. That’s my fancy way of excusing myself for not learning sign language. I can finger spell. But we just had an amazing translator, Lynette Taylor, become instrumental to the process of shooting with Millie. I think what I learned and what we all learned is how much we always communicate without words. We do it all the time. A movie like this and a process like this reminds you of how much just your face, your gestures, your touch, tells people what you’re thinking and feeling. That’s what I ultimately relied on with Millie. But of course my words were being translated and her words were being translated all the time so it just became second nature. We also cast six deaf actors in the black and white portion of the film who are professional actors from deaf theater, adults who impersonated us, hearing people. That’s something they did in the ‘20s. They would often cast deaf people in silent films thinking they were more expressive facially and with gesture. It was so cool to have them around too, and to have translators everywhere on set, and to feel it had completely permeated our process.
MM: Would you have some advice to other directors who are working with children, how to get them to be natural and relaxed when they’re working alongside veteran actors like Julianne and Michelle?
TH: I think it’s just treat them with the respect and the intelligence and the sophistication you would if they were an adult. With kids this age it’s a little different. You probably have to do different things for younger kids. Although I have to say, when I worked with like a 7-year-old kid on my movie Dottie Gets Spanked, which actually had some difficult subject matter for him to have to portray, this is a short I made between my first two features, most people say it’s all about “kids should act natural, they should be themselves.” And I realized pretty quickly that the little boy in that story who was being called “feminino” by little girls at school and who was drawing pictures of his favorite female TV star and making his family feel like he was a little different, it was easier for him to actually be treated like an actor. We’d say to Evan [Bonifant] “you’re playing a kid who has these feelings, and who has these experiences.” Kids understand play acting, and that was the way he could safely embody somebody else. It wasn’t like saying, “this is you, and this is all about you.” So I don’t necessarily even comply to that kind of provided wisdom that kids just “have to be themselves” to be good actors. I think kids just know how to act. We all act, all the time. MM
Wonderstruck opened in limited release October 20, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.