Accompanied by child actors Oakes Fegley and Jaden Michael as well as producers Christine Vachon and John Sloss, Todd Haynes gave a rapt audience at Deadline’s The Contenders London event today a taste of his enchanting new Amazon film Wonderstruck, the first by the auteur director that could conceivably be called a kid flick. Speaking to Deadline’s Diana Lodderhose, Haynes recalled that the source novel, written by Brian Selznick, was first brought to his attention by Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, who worked on Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s lavish adaptation of Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret.
Telling two stories – both set in New York but one in monochrome, silent-movie era 1927, and the other in funky, full-color 1977 – Wonderstruck finds two very different children brought together by a surprising coincidence. One, a girl, has been born deaf, the other, a boy, has been made temporarily deaf by a freak accident, so Haynes said he went out of his way to find a deaf actress (Millicent Simmonds) for the former role.
“I had never worked with a deaf actress before,” he said, “and we knew that it was an incredibly essential part of the film. We had to rely on this character to communicate without words. She doesn’t speak sign language – 1927 was a period where sign language was not being taught to deaf kids in the United States – and so she communicates in every other way but language. We all felt it was so important to try every possible means in order to find a deaf kid, bring a deaf kid’s own unique knowledge and understanding to that character and have that be a part of our production, but it was also a way for all of us to understand and get closer to the deaf community. And we also cast a lot of deaf actors in the black-and-white story as hearing characters – people from deaf theater who had much more experience in acting. And that was a great, rich part of the process too.”
The conceit of the film – jumping from one time to another – was both exciting and infuriating, revealed the director. “Creatively, it was an amazing opportunity to look back at maybe the most sophisticated period of film, which is the height of the silent era,” he said. “And then there’s the great period of ’70s urban American filmmaking. We looked at a lot of those films, and we also looked at films that just are films about young people that aren’t necessarily for young people. My editor and I watched a lot of Nicholas Roeg films from the ’70s that play with time in the most dextrous, rich and inspiring ways cinematically and have a kind of metaphysical, cosmic sense of time.
“But the challenge was the logistical part of having to shoot [two] time periods in one production schedule with kids as your central players who have limited hours every day. It meant that we literally had to shoot some of the 1920s and 1970s every day of the shoot.”