Working with Todd Haynes since the time of the director’s Mildred Pierce mini-series, Brazilian editor Affonso Gonçalves has long admired the joyous experimentalism Haynes brings to his projects—which is no less present in his latest outing, Wonderstruck. Based on Brian Selznick’s novel of the same name, Haynes’ film interweaves the mysteriously interconnected stories of two deaf youths growing up in two separate eras, the 1920s and 1970s.
Wonderstruck presented a number of obvious challenges for Gonçalves in the weaving of two stories from two time periods. Primarily, the editor needed to reconcile the film’s unique “back-and-forth” framework, finding the appropriate way to cut between storylines such that audiences could sit with each character for long enough to feel part of their world.
Secondarily, with its deaf characters, Wonderstruck was challenging in its reimagining of the “silent movie,” and what that could mean in different contexts. While the black-and-white ’20s storyline follows a girl who was born deaf, operating more literally within the conventions of the silent era, the beautifully-colored ’70s storyline follows a boy who becomes deaf, and was therefore approached in a different light.
Speaking with Deadline from New Orleans—where he’s cutting Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin’s next feature—Gonçalves discusses all the possibilities presented by Selznick’s timeless tale of childlike wonder, and the “wealth of experimentation” that went into Wonderstruck.
As an editor, what opportunities did you see in Wonderstruck? Certainly, it’s fairly unorthodox when it comes to sound.
That’s exactly it. No matter what, working with Todd is something that I love doing because he’s always trying to experiment. He’s trying to do something different, and I really like that.
With this one specifically, so much of the film plays as a silent film. Even some of the parts in the ‘70s with Ben play a bit like a silent movie. There’s not much dialogue in the film. But the eras—something that happens in the ‘20s and something that happens in the ‘70s—and the different styles of how we cut a silent film, especially a silent film that we knew was not going to use cards in between, like traditional silent films have…People talk and then you at least have the benefit of the cards that kind of explain a little bit.
This was a completely different idea. Also, the style of ‘70s films…Todd and I watch a lot of Nicolas Roeg films, and I watched French Connection and stuff like that just to get my head around what kind of styles we could go for. So, it was definitely something interesting.
I love sound, in general. Music and sound are some of my favorite things to work on when I’m cutting a film. I’m so aware that there’s a world that you see, and then there’s a world that you hear. So, working with that, and trying to get creative and sort of experiment, this film just gave all of it. It presented all those possibilities.
What was the approach when it came to interweaving two stories, led by two protagonists in two separate eras?
In the script, the back-and-forth of the stories that happened, there was actually more of that. We had a little bit of the ‘70s and then cut a little bit of the ‘20s, and it went back and forth. As I was watching the film, I realized that it’s too exhausting. Every time you break and go back to one of the stories, you emotionally break the contact, especially because it’s something very interesting, the world of no sound.
One of the challenges was [figuring out] how much you can group things together so that there was a little bit more, that you could actually get attached. Because if you cut too many times between the two time periods, after a while, you don’t attach to either one of them. It blows any chance you have to really understand what they’re going through.
We decided that we needed to find ways to sit in one story for as long as we could, to understand their emotional journey for longer periods of time. That was something different from the script that we had to find in the story, in the cutting.
The other thing, too, is that all the black-and-white stuff was actually shot with dialogue. When I cut the film, because of performance and everything, I wanted to cut with the dialogue in. There was one way you cut it, and when I stripped all the dialogue, the timing of everything just felt off. There were things that had to be longer, and surprisingly, there are things that could be much, much shorter. Because you don’t need the time of the dialogue, you understand that she’s perceiving something without having to have the whole thing on screen.
It was a great learning curve of how you deal with a silent movie, and how much you have on the screen, or how much to take off the screen. It was a cool way to rethink pace, rethink rhythms.
Obviously, the color contrast between the two stories is a useful tool in helping viewers connect with the film’s stories, and follow the separate storylines.
Yeah, exactly. If they’re inside the museum and they’re touching the meteorite, that’s an obvious way to cut from one era to another, but there were other things that we’d discover, and there were shapes on screen where you could dissolve from this move to this move. It was really interesting to find: What’s the right way, musically, when you cut from a Bowie song to the chorus tune? It was all just this wealth of experimentation that we allowed ourselves to have, which was really cool.
What was it like to work with the miniatures sequence that closes the film?
It was kind of amazing it was shot that way because it was basically somebody narrating that whole story, so we almost went about it as you would with a documentary. I laid down the dialogue first—I wanted the dialogue to have a specific cadence to it. I had nothing on screen, I laid the dialogue down, and I had some temp music under it and I felt like, “Okay, this feels right.”
Then, I did the reverse: I cut with no dialogue whatsoever, because then, I want to see how much I can get away with, not having anything said. How much can I understand just by looking at the images? It was a very interesting way to play both with just images, and then with just sound, and then try to work the two of them to enhance the experience of that story.
In addition to Wonderstruck, you also cut A Ciambra, Italy’s Oscar entry. How have those experiences compared?
It’s hard to say. The main difference is the people behind it. [On Wonderstruck], Amazon was absolutely incredible with us—very supportive. We could try and do whatever we wanted, and it was just an incredibly positive experience.
With Jonas [Carpignano] and A Ciambra, it was much more his film. It was always clear it was his film, and I think it was a little looser, in terms what you could do, or how much you want tp try. The only similarity, in a sense, is that Todd could easily be a European director. He was doing what he wanted to do. He had the freedom to do what he wanted to do—just, what was behind it was a little bit different.
How have you determined the balance you strike between American and world cinema?
Well, I’ve known Jonas for a long time and I did, I cut his first film, A Chjàna, and I cut this one. It’s, to me, the people that I love working with. I’m so lucky that I get to work with Todd and Jonas, and Benh Zeitlin and Jim Jarmusch. When those guys say they have a script, I say, “Well, tell me where and when and I’ll be there.” That’s pretty much it.
But they all have a similar sensibility. It’s very much their idea, and they’re going to try to do something the way they do it. I would love to work with more filmmakers in Europe—it’s more of the timing of that. Or even in Brazil, or Latin America. I really love directors and filmmakers that try different, new things and try to experiment. It’s very enriching to me.
What can you say about the project you’re working on with Benh Zeitlin?
I probably can’t say much, but it’s very similar—in the vein of Beasts [of the Southern Wild]. He has the same sort of energy, and the same beautiful story. It’s a really beautiful, interesting, complicated film in a way—complicated in a way that it’s so many stories. It has so many details, and there’s so many emotions that you go through in that film. So, it’s going to be a pretty wild ride.
After the success of Beasts—which received four Oscar nominations—are Zeitlin and Court 13 approaching filmmaking with the same collective mentality?
Yeah, pretty much. I think that’s another reason I think Benh decided to stay here in New Orleans, because he’s doing what he wants. He doesn’t feel like there’s a pressure to deliver this or that—he’s just doing what he wants to do, in the best possible way.
In the meantime, we all did [documentary] Brimstone [& Glory] together. The film is great, but the soundtrack is pretty astounding. He did it—him and Dan Romer, who did Beasts. It’s short—it’s 67 minutes—but the music is really incredible.