If New York’s iconic American Museum of Natural History is the focal point of Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” then the tactile Cabinet of Wonders exhibit is the epicenter. That’s where the worlds of Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley), the two deaf children, converge 50 years apart (1927 and 1977).
“It was like winning the production design lotto,” said Mark Friedberg, who practically grew up at the museum and became a production designer as a result of its stimulating wonderment. “The Cabinet of Wonders is a glorious moment for a girl obsessed with making things and it’s where Rose’s journey stops. And it’s the place where Ben finally realizes he’s on the cusp of figuring out his mystery.”
A Tactile Theater of Memory
For Friedberg, building a set filled with such tactile historical objects is as good as it gets. Cabinets of Wonder, which date back more than 500 years, were encyclopedic collections of objects that were a theater of memory and a precursor to museums.
“There were those things that amazed people before we had the entertainment that we have today,” said Friedberg. “It was a way to connect natural, spiritual, and physical beauty into this bizarre conflagration of fetish, art, and amazement.”
First, Friedberg keyed off a pen drawing from the “Wonderstruck” novel by Brian Selznick. Then he immersed himself in the history of Cabinets of Wonder, finding his way into the world of the weird. “And what’s great is that these things in and of themselves are a little unsettling and yet altogether kind of beautiful,” he said.
The movie’s Cabinet of Wonders (shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman in black-and-white for Rose’s sequence and color for Ben’s) became a crucial metaphor for defining the role of the outsider. This pertains to both Rose and Ben.
The Beauty of Weirdness
“We began inventing what our Cabinet would be,” said Friedberg. “It was about a particular cabinet that Rose enters and is an ancient relic from some royal Habsburgian castle. And the rest of the exhibit were wondrous things that were put around it. Even in that cabinet there was a Russian doll sensibility. It was about the infinite resolution of science, art, creativity, and wonder.”
Not only did Friedberg create the set for the Cabinet but also recreated portions of the museum surrounding the exhibit. Then he had to tear it down and turn it into a storage room for Ben to sleep in.
But the fun part was filling it with wacky objects (including unhatched eggs and two-headed chicks). What were Friedberg’s faves? A bust of Dante and a real dinosaur, which he’d never done for a movie before.”
Everything scientifically and poetically pushes the theme of the beauty of weirdness,” Friedberg said. “In a way, we were chasing the same trajectory as the kids.”