The year’s most unique children’s movie comes from a most unlikely auteur, Todd Haynes, a filmmaker known for films that have all but exclusively appealed to an older demographic. Wonderstruck weaves together two stories set in New York City, 50 years apart. One, presented silently and in black and white, takes place in the movie palace heydey of 1927 and follows a deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds); the other, set in 1977 and presented in full color, follows a deaf boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) as he travels to New York in search of his long lost father.
The children’s stories intersect in wondrous, surprising ways, and the film, based on a Brian Selznick novel, jumps back and forth between the two tales, which are sewn together by a sprawling score that harkens back to the days of silent film. Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams also star.
Wonderstruck is a unique film on many fronts, not least of which is the fact that Simmonds is a deaf actress. Producer Christine Vachon spoke with Pop Matters about deaf representation in film, as well as the challenges of working with two child leads and the inspiration behind the film’s handmade aesthetic.
This seems to be a higher-minded children’s film than you’d typically encounter at the movies.
Anything Todd decides to do is by nature higher-minded because he does not talk down to an audience. One of the things I love about Todd is that he assumes that his audience is as smart as he is. I think so many filmmakers don’t. I think that’s why his career has lasted so long.
When the project came to us, there were so many things that Todd connected to, like the friendship between the boys, this idea of trying to figure out where you belong, coming to New York and rediscovering yourself. There’s the handmade quality to the story, too. Whether it’s the buildings Rose makes when she’s stuck in her room or the actual things Ben curates when he’s in his room, all of those things feel like you want to touch them.
There’s a tactile quality to the movie’s art and set design, isn’t there? Where did the inspiration for that visual style come from?
Most of the inspiration is in the book itself and in the city itself. Mark Friedberg, the production designer, grew up in New York City. His recreation of Times Square and Port Authority feel so authentic, and he really had a sense of, you know, finding corners in Bushwick and Crown Heights and Bed Stuy and putting them together to feel like ’70s Times Square. He had a wonderful way of finding the details that would make something resonate in that way.
I think it’s such a sad thing that a lot of kids these days don’t know what a traditional, mom and pop bookstore — like the one featured in the movie — looks like.
I agree. I also feel, though, that the pendulum is swinging back a little bit. I have an older teenager, and I feel like kids are growing a little weary of the constant online activity and the inauthenticity of experience when you’re looking at people’s Instagrams. There’s the desire to have a more authentic experience. With music, the only way to experience live music is to go out and experience it. You can’t have it on the bed or at home — it’s not the same.
I feel the same way about moviegoing. I hope that the movie will make kids think about the world in a very different way.
You mention music, and music plays a huge role in this movie. The score is massive and often drives the story, and I wonder what was behind making the music so pervading.
It’s 85 minutes of score, which is…
It’s crazy. [laughs] Todd started engaging [composer] Carter Burwell very early on, and editor Affonso Gonçalves has a really strong sense of music as well. Carter was coming up with the temp score from the very beginning, which allowed us to figure out how the collision of the ’20s and the ’70s would work and how the two children’s stories would enhance one another. All of those things were musically driven.
The movie’s score is one of its many unique attributes. I imagine the project presented unique challenges as well.
Kids work limited hours every day, so every day was a race. Todd credits his AD Tim Bird — and I think I should as well — for figuring out how to best make use of the hours we had with the kids on set. We sometimes had to shoot both time periods in one day, so we’d go from shooting Millie in the ’20s to Ben in the ’70s in order to make the best use of the time we had with the kids.
People often think that my answer to this question will be “working with a deaf actress”, but that was pretty easy. We had terrific interpreters and a lot of good will on both sides to make this work, and it was seamless.
The different time periods were a challenge, but we did, like, four time periods in I’m Not there. We were like, “Are we in the Old West? Is it ’70s LA? Is it ’60s England? Where are we?!” Switching time periods for Wonderstruck was challenging, but I’ve done it before.
Do you think knowing that Millicent is deaf going into the movie would add to, take away from, or not affect the moviegoing experience?
I don’t know that it would affect it. I know that it’s very meaningful, probably, for deaf children to know that there is a movie out there where they can see their experience onscreen. I also think it’s pretty wonderful that Millie isn’t doing press this week because she’s in another movie. I hope the movie will also be the movie that launches her career.
There are people who watch the movie and say to us afterward, “Wow, she was really deaf? That’s even more amazing!” And it’s like… why? It’s not more amazing. She’s a great actor.
She’s definitely a fine actor, period, but I will say that it was heartening to see a deaf actor do so well in such a prominent role. The deaf community should be far better represented in Hollywood, and I think this film is a step in the right direction.
There are a lot of deaf actors in the silent portions of the movie. We cast deaf actors in hearing roles, and where we could cast them, we did. We’ve had a lot of good responses from the community, though there has been criticism over casting Julianne as Rose grown up. I’m sure people would have loved to see a deaf actor in that role, and I get that. I’m very sympathetic to that, but there are a lot of reasons we cast Julianne, and she kills it. We’re working with Shoshannah Stern, a deaf actress, and Josh Feldman on a show for Sundance Now, which has been announced as The Chances.
I like how this movie sort of rubs up against Carol. It offers perspectives of New York City from two time periods that sort of sandwich Carol’s mid-century take. I like how it fits into Todd’s larger catalogue, as well.
People have said Todd hasn’t worked with children before, but that’s actually not true. He’s worked with children in virtually every film he’s made. I think there are a lot of elements in his other movies that are reflected back in Wonderstruck.