“Wonderstruck” is the perfect match of rich source material and cinema. Author Brian Selznick (“Hugo”) was inspired to adapt his own graphic novel intertwining two stories from 1927 and 1977 when costume designer Sandy Powell pulled it off a shelf and said, “This should be a Todd Haynes movie.”
Selznick, following the recent model of “Room” author Emma Donoghue, secretly adapted his own script on spec, with a little advice from “Hugo” screenwriter John Logan, which doesn’t hurt. By the time the detailed screenplay, complete with sound notes, got to Haynes, the director found its cinematic riches “irresistible,” he said at the Cannes press conference. He artfully weaves a propulsive mystery, throwing the audience clues in both the black and white silent narrative and the color with a ’70s story that eventually ties all the threads together.
“It was an intensely cinematic idea on the page, juggling two time frames, with attention to the experience of music versus sound and color,” said Haynes, who was also attracted to a movie about feelings that was “constructed like a true mystery, with clues. The formal conceit is at the core of the mystery: why are these two stories sharing one movie?”
Stars Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore are both terrific in supporting roles, helping the children at its center to tell their story. This movie will play for both smart adults and kids. But it will really play for the Academy, which will appreciate its visual and aural sophistication. Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions, which collaborated well on the release and Oscar campaign for “Manchester by the Sea,” have plenty to work with.
Here’s what we learned at Cannes:
Silence Is Golden
Inspired by King Vidor’s “The Crowd” and the films of F.W. Murnau, Haynes recreates the silent films of the ’20s. But the film is far more than an homage to silent cinema.
Because it’s told from the points of view of two deaf characters, the visually sophisticated movie relies on complex sound design and Carter Burwell’s evocative score covering two time periods. You can give him the Oscar nomination for Best Original Score right now. The movie wouldn’t work without it and it will be hard to beat.
The director discovered unknown deaf actress Millicent Simmonds on a video and immediately wanted her to carry the silent black-and-white story of 12-year-old Rose who runs away to New York in pursuit of a stage and screen star (Julianne Moore). She winds up searching for her brother amid the dioramas of the Museum of Natural History and its Cabinet of Wonders. At the press conference, her signer sat in front of her and spoke for her as she signed her answers.
Moore had a blast working with Haynes for the fourth time (“Safe,” “Far from Heaven,” and Joan Baez in “I’m Not You”).
“Todd sets it up cinematically, formally and linguistically,” she said. “All you have to do is show up.” In this case, she had to learn sign language for the film, which gave her access to another culture that “was a great gift” that changed her life, she said. “It boiled down to how we communicate and what languages we use, how we effectively use our bodies, our hands, ourselves. For me, working without spoken English, that was a first.”
Selznick’s book also wove two stories of a deaf person through visual language, so when writing the script he also “had to try to tell the story of a deaf person through visual language,” he said, “and find the cinematic equivalent of those two things by telling the story with black and white and silence and color and sound.”
Academy Voters Love Period Pieces
Like “Carol,” a valentine to ’50s New York, the creative team on “Wonderstruck” revel in recreating the ’20s in Manhattan and the ’70s in rural Minnesota and urban New York. But the visual palette goes even deeper as Hayne and crew took over the Museum of Natural History, offering a tour not only of the elephants, whale and giant insects but the Cabinet of Wonders and behind the scenes glimpses of scientists and artists preparing dioramas and collections.
Haynes loved having an excuse to go back to to film history, he said, but “the film is also a tribute to what you do with your hands, sign language, building miniature buildings, natural history salvage, the miniature of Manhattan.”
Academy voters will appreciate the loving devotion to craft and degree of difficulty on display in this film, which Ed Lachman shot on negative color film, in black and white and color, in a wide aspect ratio (Hayne’s first since “I’m Not There”). “It’s an homage to cinema itself,” said Haynes, who praised his production and costume designers for their thoughtful and balanced attention to detail, from the mundane to the outrageous. Lachman was influenced in the ’70s period by Owen Roisman’s cinematography on “The French Connection.”
Some may debate whether Haynes’ ambitious use of stop motion animation as a visual storytelling device works as yet another narrative device among many.
Trust Your Child Stars
The story relies on two child actors who express longing and loss, anger and isolation. Both are so conflicted and trapped that they are compelled to run away to find answers to who they are and can be.
Williams yet again proves her ability to nail a role in virtually one or two scenes, playing a mother trying to explain an absent father to her son. “Being a mother informs the person I want to be,” she said. “It leave no area of my life untouched, it’s at the center of every choice I make.”
Haynes wanted the film to be sophisticated and accessible to young moviegoers, so during the editing he showed the complicated cross-weaving narrative to kids, and used their comments to inform the editing, especially when to leave one story and return to the other. “We wanted it to be something that was not dumbed down and reduced in the imagination of children,” he said. “These stories have a metaphysical time travel going on in the span between the two characters.”
Because they were shooting with children, the production had to shoot ’20s- and ’70s-set scenes every day.
Editing Was King
“It’s a film that draws attention to the language of film in every conceivable way,” said Haynes. “The score is foregrounded, so the sound design is essential to a film about deafness. It all came together as a breathing entity in the editing room.”
Amazon Is Not Like Netflix
“Amazon, the film division, has true cineastes who love movies, who want film visions to find footing and expression in a vastly shifting market with future movie viewing practices,” said Haynes. “They love cinema. It’s about seeing this experience on the big screen which Amazon is as committed to as we are.”
“Wonderstruck” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions will release it in theaters on October 20.