Todd Haynes: Wonderstruck by Working with Child Actors

September 14, 2017
The revered filmmaker changes gears for the ambitious multi-period film, Wonderstruck.

Wonderstruck tells the story of two deaf children from different eras. Ben, from 1977, longs for the father he has never known. Rose, from 1927, is infatuated with a mysterious actress. When Ben discovers a cryptic clue in his home and Rose reads an enticing newspaper headline, both children set out on parallel quests to New York City to find what they are missing.

Wonderstruck is directed by Todd Haynes and based on the 2011 novel (of the same name) by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the screenplay.

“It was his [Brian’s] first adapted screenplay, from one of his novels,” Haynes said earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, where Wonderstruck premiered. “Brian is a film lover, and it was evident in his adaptation of the script.” Todd Haynes is best known for writing and directing his films – however, he has reached a stage in his career where he is opening himself up to projects that he hasn’t developed entirely. “The script for Wonderstruck came to me when I was working on the post-production of Carol. Brian waited for me to have time to really look at the script, and read it, and give it the attention it deserved. He was patient and said ‘I’m not going to move on, I’m going to wait for you’, which was really sweet. But then I was like ‘You know what? I want to do this! Let’s just do it now’.”

Part of Haynes’ motivation to get the ball rolling was his desire to avoid becoming too embroiled in the promotion circus of Carol. “The Awards season part of filmmaking is the most debilitating,” he remarks. “I like talking about the movie and touring the countries that are showing the film and talking to journalists, but all the Awards stuff and the Harvey Weinstein side of it all gets tiring. It’s much more a race for a shiny object than it is about getting people to go to the cinema and see the movie while it’s in theatres.”

Haynes has never made two films as closely together as Carol and Wonderstruck. “By the time I finished the Oscar weekend, which marked the end of the Carol promotion campaign, we had 2 months for pre-production on Wonderstruck, which was a challenging film to make in terms of production.”

Wonderstruck had a limited budget, restricted time, a cast of children and two eras to replicate. “The main challenge from a production standpoint,” Haynes says. “Was making sure that we really strategised the shoot. We had to shoot a little bit of 1977 and a little bit of 1927 every day, which was a strategic and conceptual challenge for our production. We had to make sure we included all the details, all of the objects, all of the clues, the close-ups of the hands… All the pieces of all the puzzle.”

Despite a challenging shoot, the film presents the 1920s and 1970s with astonishing attention to detail. Haynes gives credit to his crew. “It all started with Mark Friedberg, the Production Designer, who literally got into his car and started location scouting. He knows New York City so well, and there’s very little of crumbling New York blocks left anymore. So, finding the sort of bones of locations is the first step. And then there was fantastic extras casting, costume design, hair and makeup.”

The extras in the 1970s scenes were even instructed to avoid wearing underwear so that audiences could get the full 1970s effect. This attention to detail, and the look of the film in general, is also thanks to Haynes’ book of references. “I create a book of references – mainly stills from other movies that I’d love to emulate – for all of my films. It helps me get into the visual vernacular of the movie and is the best and most specific way to communicate what I’m looking for in each department.”

Haynes’ evident passion for cinema and the aesthetics of film began at age 3. “I saw Mary Poppins when I was 3 years old, and I was never the same. It provoked a strangely obsessive, creative response in me… It changed me utterly. I loved art, I loved music. But movies were the things that completely deranged me and rearranged me. So, it started with Mary Poppins, but then there’d be one movie after the next. There was Romeo and Juliet – Franco Zeffirelli was a major obsession. And The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan – I bring it up because it’s a film about deafness, blindness and language. I think kids are very interested in disability and in limited abilities, because they themselves experience that. They experience life with limited freedoms and limited abilities. I think they understand what it might be like. They’re curious.”

The young actress who plays Rose, Millicent Simmonds, understands what it’s like to be deaf first hand. “I so wanted to have a deaf kid involved, and to be around deaf actors, and Millie came out of the blue. She came out of Utah. Some great actors have taken an entire career to get to the right dimension of how big and how broad your articulation should be, to generate the strongest emotional response in the viewer. And then there are some people like Millie, who have an innate understanding of that. I really can’t explain it – she never overdid it. Sometimes I would watch her on set, and not think I was getting the full emotion, and then I would see the footage in the movie theatre and realise she’s actually crying.”

Although featuring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, Wonderstruck is Haynes’ first film starring children – and his first family-friendly movie. “I wanted to make something very unique and very special for an audience I’d never really addressed before in my career,” Haynes muses. “I almost have a stubborn insistence that this film would maintain the interest of kids, that it would draw them into the narrative puzzle of the film. But not everyone agreed – Amazon [who financed the film] was like, ‘You really think this is a kid’s film?’ And I’m like ‘You guys, did you read the script?’ The film has an innocence, a lightness. It differs from my other work quite markedly in that way, but I love that about it. It also has a formal complexity, and stylistic richness, that I never wanted to think kids were too impatient for.”

To make sure that the film remained accessible for children, Haynes kept them involved in the filmmaking process. “As we cut the movie,” he says. “We would show cuts to kids to get feedback. At almost every step of the way, they gave us notes that were so uncannily precise, even things I wasn’t asking directly. Kids, I think, can collect clues and details and bits of narrative information – I think they might even be more astute than adults at times. And they don’t come with expectations, prejudices, biases or developed tastes. So, in a way, they’re radically open to new experiences. This story really treats them with tremendous respect as subjects, and I love that about the material.”

Wonderstruck is playing at the Adelaide Film Festival.

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