- Monday, Oct. 30, 2017
Looking to open up a new world via parallel stories set 50 years apart, director Todd Haynes found his own crew members on Wonderstruck (Amazon Studios) personally discovering and being moved by that very same world almost as if life were imitating the art they were trying to create.
Nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Wonderstruck introduces us to Rose (portrayed by Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl who in 1927 runs away from home in New Jersey and makes her way to Manhattan to find someone who was an important part of her past. Fast forward to 1977 and we meet Ben (played by Oakes Fegley), a deaf lad beset by personal tragedy, who finds a clue about his family that leads him to run away from rural Minnesota to New York. Based on the children’s book “Wonderstruck” written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, Haynes’ film connects not only two stories, two eras and two runaway 12-year-olds but also provides viewers with a path into the deaf culture.
The crew assembled by Haynes also gained exposure to this culture. Many deaf actors were cast in the silent portion of the film set in the 1920s. Deaf actors portrayed hearing characters, a practice not uncommon during Hollywood’s silent era. Sign language was prominent on the Wonderstruck sets and locations, with signing and translators all about. “We had crews fumbling through learning sign language,” related Haynes. “It was a coming together of different cultures, different worlds. The deaf community had a different status in the 1970s as compared to the 1920s. In the kids’ stories we were trying to capture the deaf culture—and in making the film, our crew and myself personally embraced it. It was a coming together of worlds during our production which was a major takeaway for the crew, a very real personal benefit for me.”
Helping to further this feeling of discovery for the movie-going audience was the continuity of artists lending their talents to Wonderstruck. The film followed Haynes’ critically acclaimed Carol, with the director keeping many of the same creative partners on board to jump right onto the next storytelling adventure. These creative artisans included cinematographer Ed Lachman, ASC, editor Affonso Goncalves, costume designer Sandy Powell and composer Carter Burwell. “We just kept the energy going from one film to the next,” related Haynes. “We were all engaged in the theme of deafness. We did everything we could to delve into this world and to convey it.”
Pivotal was the good fortune of coming across the right actors, a prime example being Simmonds. “Finding a kid who had never acted professionally before, who was deaf and as special and unique as Millicent meant everything,” affirmed Haynes.
Another key was editor Goncalves. “Going into this project we felt the foundation of this film would be in editorial. And that’s how it played out,” assessed Haynes. “This was clear in Brian’s [Selznick] first script adaptation from his book, which demonstrated how scenes might be intercut. It was inspiring on page. But the specificity of how the two stories from different eras would interact, contrast and speak to each other would ultimately have to be figured out in the editing room—dealing with the narrative language, the mystery, why these two stories are carrying one film. What is it that’s linking the stories of these children?”
Goncalves was also integral in terms of music and sound. “In a black-and-white homage to silent film in the 1920s without audible dialogue, we couldn’t put two shots together if we didn’t have music. We had to have a temp track underneath,” noted Haynes who cited Goncalves’ “extraordinary ear and his ability to basically score a film before it’s scored. I have a strong interest in music and contributed to that aspect. But ‘Fonzie’ [Goncalves] was the one who started to piece together the first assemblies of the film; he had to score them, to assemble pieces of music and sound design. His work became the template for what Carter Burwell would later score to—it all really began in the editing room and in the picture cut. That’s not how most pictures are put together but we could do it because of that particular talent in his [Goncalves’] range of capabilities.”
In addition to Carol, Goncalves is known for his work on such films as Winter’s Bone for director Debra Granik, Beasts of the Southern Wild for Behn Zeitlin as well as the HBO drama series True Detective for Cary Fukunaga, and Haynes’ HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.
Wonderstruck afforded Haynes the opportunity to reach younger moviegoers in a way he never had before. He can thank costume designer Powell for that. Powell worked on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, based on Selznick’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” When Powell read Selznick’s Wonderstruck, she envisioned it as a Haynes film.
“I’ve worked with Sandy many times. She’s a genius and we’re great friends. I think she read one of the early drafts of the Wonderstruck script,” recalled Haynes who smiled that he saw a Los Angeles Times story reporting that Selznick’s first response when Powell suggested Haynes was something along the lines of “are you crazy?” But Selznick wound up bringing the script to Haynes who was in the midst of Carol at the time. When he got around to reading it, Haynes was drawn to the story.
Among the many facets of the story he found “beautiful” was how both Ben and Rose, surrounded by loss and isolation in their respective situations, develop interests and discover creative solutions for coping. “I love how it feels,” shared Haynes. “It’s a tribute to the things we do with our hands—the miniatures that Rose makes, the collectibles that Ben started to fill up his room with, even the way these kids ultimately learn how to communicate through different means. I think this is a great movie for the digital era—showing the handmade ways that help us cope and through which we can enhance our lives.”
This lesson for the digital age comes in part from capturing “two extraordinary periods of visual richness—the silent movie era contrasted with the 1970s,” said Haynes who entrusted long-time collaborator Lachman with much of that task. Lachman’s work with Haynes includes Far From Heaven in 2002 and Carol in 2016—both earning Best Cinematography Oscar nominations. “He’s a perfectionist,” Haynes said of Lachman. “He zeroes in on every detail. It’s humbling to look at Ed’s commitment to his craft and the indelible mark he’s made. I found in him a kindred spirit who loves to do all kinds of research and preparation. He loves to prepare the way I do. We’re film nerds.”
Preparation was essential given that Haynes and Lachman had limited hours each day with the child actor protagonists on Wonderstruck. “Ed and I had to make the most use out of the limited time,” said Lachman. “This meant that at times we had to shoot some of the 1920s and 1970s work on the same day.”
Wonderstruck adds to a Haynes filmography that includes Carol, and Far From Heaven which he directed as well as wrote, earning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination in 2003. He also won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director on the strength of Far From Heaven. Haynes over the yeas has been a perennial Spirit honoree, starting with nominations in 1992 for Best First Feature and Best Director on the basis of Poison followed by Independent Spirit noms in 1996 for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Safe, another Best Director nod in ‘99 for Velvet Goldmine, the Best Director win in ‘03 for Far From Heaven, and one more Best Director nom in ‘08 for I’m Not There. Also in ‘08, I’m Not There won the Spirit’s coveted Robert Altman Award.
Haynes’ feature directorial debut Poison won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. And on the television front, Haynes personally scored three Emmy nominations for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce—for Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Writing (shared with writer Jonathan Raymond) for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special, and Outstanding Miniseries or Movie. Mildred Pierce amassed a total of 21 Emmy nominations, winning five. Also repped for short-form fare, Haynes is on the commercials/branded content roster of Moxie Pictures.