At first glance, Todd Haynes' decision to film Wonderstruck as his first post-Carol project felt odd, like following up a seven-course Michelin-starred meal with a plate of chicken fingers and crinkle-cut fries. Carol was the director's most acclaimed work, zeroing in on themes (queerness, cinematic nostalgia) that he's been mining his entire career. Wonderstruck was a children's film, more whimsical than profound. But dig a little deeper and Haynes' decision makes a perfect sort of sense.
Wonderstruck, adapted from Brian Selznick's illustrated novel, is split between two time periods – the first is a silent-movie homage set in 1927, the second a slightly more dialogue-heavy melodrama circa 1977 – continuing the director's penchant for exploring the past, even doubling down on it. It's also a distinctly New York story, which fits in line with Carol's vision of a highly stylized Manhattan. And Wonderstruck pivots on its score and soundtrack – an area the musically obsessed Haynes built his cinematic career upon (see the glam rock drama Velvet Goldmine and the Bob Dylan homage I'm Not There).
Ahead of the film's release, The Globe and Mail spoke with Haynes about making a children's movie without the usual trappings of the genre, and why it's perfectly aligned to his varied, challenging filmography.
After releasing your most lauded film with Carol, why did you decide to make a film for younger audiences?
It was something I'd never tackled before, and I've always wanted to honour the perspective and experiences of young people. Here, with this unique concept, I knew I could make a film that kids could find their way to. It's something kids don't get to see much these days, especially a film that is so much about history and film language, and not reliant on dialogue.
Or previously marketed intellectual property …
Yes, no franchises or dragons or magic here.
How familiar were you with Brian Selznick's book before taking this on, then?
The first information I heard about it was in the form of Brian's [screenplay]. It was infectious, the way he thought about how every component of the film could work to tell the story. And without the aid of it being a story about the spoken word, it became an editorial experience and challenge. Making this was all about cutting and weaving between the two time periods, which meant that all the elements of cinema had to stand up and make their craft play in the foreground of the storytelling. I would say we spent seven months cutting this in the editing bay, and that includes two weeks for the stop-motion stuff …
It only took two weeks to make those animated sequences toward the end?
Well, it was actually not stop-motion, but it looks like it because we did this over-cranking of the motion-controlled cameras. We set up very specific shots that could then be repeated perfectly by a computer, and then we would do different frame rates of that shot. It would make it look like the puppets were wriggling around, a crude level of animation. The idea was to give that feeling of the sequence being through the imagination of a child, to be touched by a child's rendering.
That semi-use of stop-motion must have taken you back to your days on Superstar (Haynes'$2 1987 cult short, which used Barbie dolls to detail Karen Carpenter's anorexia).
It was funny, yeah, but it was something I didn't fully appreciate until I started doing it. My brain was so locked into the language of Wonderstruck, which is all about bringing this idea of New York City together in a way that's relevant to both kids' stories and adult lives and interests. We were looking at Edward Keinholz, the sculptor who uses frames around the heads of his figures, and thought, oh that's cool. I like how there's a different representation of putting stories into little frames and boxes. It's referential in that way, by design.
In terms of looking at translating Brian's work for the screen, did you pay much mind to what Martin Scorsese did with Selznick's Hugo?
Not really. I've seen Hugo once, when it first opened at the Ziegfeld on Thanksgiving Day, when I went with my boyfriend, and had a great time. I don't really care for 3D, but I thought that was the smartest application of 3D to Brian's story. It felt like clockwork. But those kinds of methods and approaches seemed irrelevant to Wonderstruck, and because there was some overlap in scenes and themes, I didn't want to look at [Hugo] again, in order to create our own independent perspective with our movie.
Carter Burwell's score is critical to the two slices of history you're working with here – the silent-version of 1927 starring Millicent, and the more explosive 1970s chapter. But I read that you only worked with a temp score for most of the production?
We did, because we realized as soon as we were starting to put together a cut, it was impossible to even put two black-and-white shots together without having some sort of music there to see how the silent portion works. It necessitated a temporary score before cutting even began. The music needed to play a huge part in both stories. It's the sinew between the two narratives, or the vertebrae of the film itself.
How much did you find your directing style had to change working not only with child actors here, but a deaf child performer like Millicent Simmonds?
The big surprise is how little anything changed. And that has everything to do with who we cast, and how much of the film rested on those good choices. Once Millicent was there, her interpreter Lynnette Taylor became entirely integrated into our process, and it sort of felt second-nature. Of course, I wish I spoke sign language while I worked with Millicent. It's a beautiful and complex and complete language like no other. But I figured out how we could communicate without words, and that became more important than ever. Trust really became the ultimate communication.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Wonderstruck opens Oct. 27 in Toronto before expanding to the rest of the country.