Maybe Todd Haynes has always been too smart for his own good. The 56-year-old director has been making films for nearly 40 years, but in some ways he’s still the Brown semiotics grad who can’t resist the siren’s call of form. As he admits, “I like to set up obstacles at times, because movies are ultimately about what the spectator brings to them.”
That would seem to make him an unlikely candidate to direct a young-adult adaptation, but his “Carol” and “Velvet Goldmine” costume designer Sandy Powell knew better. When she discovered Brian Selznick’s 2011 graphic novel “Wonderstruck,” which intertwines stories from 1927 and 1977 in a young-adult mystery with little dialogue, she encouraged him to adapt it for Haynes on spec.
Indeed, Haynes found the “Wonderstruck” screenplay downright Haynesian. “Brian’s script was so ornately and attentively cinematic,” he said. “Not just the movie references, but the use of sound and music and the contrast between objective and subjective.”
Going back to the Barbie dolls of Haynes’ 1988 Sundance short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” Haynes explores cinematic form and technique with intellectual abandon. His most accessible features, Oscar-nominated period melodramas “Far from Heaven” and “Carol,” are the most conventional; films like “Velvet Goldmine,” “I’m Not You,” and “Safe” let genre be damned.
With “Wonderstruck,” Haynes artfully weaves a propulsive mystery in the black-and-white silent narrative and the in-color ’70s story that ties it all together. Warm, emotive actresses Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore anchor the movie in maternal supporting roles; two child actors play 12-year-olds (rookie deaf actress Millicent Simmonds and “Pete’s Dragon” star Oakes Fegley) who are so conflicted and trapped that they run away to Manhattan to answer who they are and want to be.
This sincere movie — one in a series of Haynes’ portraits of outsiders seeking inclusion — will play for both smart adults and kids. But the Academy crafts will truly appreciate its visual and aural sophistication. Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions, which collaborated well on the Oscar-winning “Manchester by the Sea,” have plenty to work with.
Inspired by King Vidor’s “The Crowd” and the films of F.W. Murnau, Haynes recreates the silent films of the ’20s with no acoustic sound, dialogue or sound effects. 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 (an astonishing 80 minutes, twice the usual) covering two time periods. The movie wouldn’t work without it. The composer could follow up his first Oscar nomination for the “Carol” score with this one.
To hear Haynes tell it, the musical element deserves as much credit as the script. “Essential. I mean to the degree that we couldn’t put two shots together in cutting the black-and-white without have some temp music in place. There was no way of judging how the black-and-white story would work without having music underneath it.”
While this was hard, Haynes also loved the process. “The whole movie functions in silence without dialogue. You grow accustomed to watching a movie that functions purely visually. It was exhilarating because I relied upon the pure cinematic language.”
The director discovered 14-year-old 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 to track down a stage and screen star (Julianne Moore), and winds up searching for her brother amid the dioramas of the Museum of Natural History and its Cabinet of Wonders.
“She had never been in front of the camera,” said Haynes, who “got chills” when he saw her audition video. “She had this exuberant self-possession. I thought, ‘This is a real, whole person,’ who came though in her signing and her gestures, her body. She was incredible. She holds something in reserve, maintained a sort of composure and mystery. And I don’t know how. That is not learned. That is who she is.”
Watch our video interview below, as her interpreter signed my questions, sitting next to me, and spoke for her as Simmonds signed her answers.
Williams 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. Haynes and Williams are old New York friends; he spent time with her around the time Heath Ledger died. “I said, ‘Look, you know I can’t help but think about the kind of regret you have when loss interrupts your life. And we both know that really well; I lost my mom way too young.'”
Haynes continues to rely on Moore, returning to who he calls “a seasoned master of movie acting” for the fourth time (“Safe,” “Far from Heaven,” and Joan Baez in “I’m Not You”). Here, she acts in both periods, playing the mother in the silent film and the adult Rose in the sound film. Although she uses sign language, she doesn’t speak.
“It boiled down to how we communicate and what languages we use, how we effectively use our bodies, our hands, ourselves,” Moore said. “For me, working without spoken English, that was a first.”
As “Carol” was a valentine to ’50s New York, the creative team on “Wonderstruck” reveled in recreating the ’20s and ’70s in Manhattan (and the ’70s in rural Minnesota). Haynes’ crew took over the Museum of Natural History for six nights, offering not only the elephants, whale, and giant mosquito but also recreating the Cabinet of Wonders and behind-the-scenes glimpses of scientists and artists preparing dioramas and collections.
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”). For the ’70s sequences, Lachman drew from the ’70s period with Owen Roisman’s cinematography on “The French Connection” as well as New York movies “Midnight Cowboy” and “Panic in Needle Park.”
For production designer Mark Friedberg, he just got into his car and scouted the locations himself; he knows New York so well that he could assemble half-blocks from Kew Gardens to Bushwick. “He doesn’t want any location guys,” said Haynes. “We’d just start to comb the streets of the city and go, like, ‘Oh, what about that? What about that?'”
Haynes’ post-production process is to go into a cave where he obsessively watches dailies, making pages of written notes on every single take. “I make a grid where I write the dialogue of the scene across the top,” he said, “and get all the take numbers along the side, and literally make notes about every single performance of a line in the shot.” Meanwhile, the editor is putting the assembly together, which is then informed by Haynes’ specific notes.
Haynes always shows friends and family his cuts for feedback; here, he also showed the 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.
Among their notes: Easy on the visual tributes to the detailed sets. “I had a stubborn belief that the kids could handle this material and be fine with two cross-cutting narratives from the past full of little clues. And I think I was right.”