Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’s film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s YA book, spans time and space, and is largely silent, letting its spectacular Carter Burwell score do most of the talking. The story moves between the 1920s and 1970s, telling the stories of two children who share an unexplained connection: Ben and Rose (Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds), both deaf orphans traveling to New York to track down their missing parents. After his mother’s (Michelle Williams) death, Ben is trying to find the father he’s never known; Rose runs away from her cold, distant father to build a relationship with her glamorous mother, a silent film star (Julianne Moore).
Haynes was in postproduction on Carol when he got his hands on the ambitious script, written by Selznick himself, full of overlapping timelines and visual metaphors. Though Ben and Rose’s parallel quests unfurl like a dreamy childhood fantasy, Haynes treats the loneliness and curiosities of his young protagonists with seriousness, and his stunning finale — which employs dolls and a big beautiful diorama of New York City — will make you leave the theater wanting to call your mom. Ultimately, Wonderstruck gets at an enigma that feels deeply personal: Who were our parents before we were born, and how should we process their interiority? Todd Haynes spoke with Vulture about working with newcomer Simmonds and his frequent star Julianne Moore, the movie’s spectacular last scene — and how his boyfriend keeps up with your Carol memes.
Can you tell me how Wonderstruck came together?
Sandy Powell, my costume designer, got to know Brian Selznick working with him on Hugo, the Scorsese film. They became very good friends, and she read Wonderstruck. She said something to him about, ‘I can see this being [adapted],’ and he was telling her that he was going to adapt it to a script, and she was like, ‘What about Todd?’ And at first, he was like, ‘Todd doesn’t do stuff like this.’ Then he adapted the script.
I don’t know exactly when that conversation happened and how long it took for him to get a draft out, ready, that he sent me. I was in postproduction on Carol and I read this adaptation of the book. I read the book after I read the script. But already on the page on the script, he had started to really think about how cinematic form and language and style could bring these two stories to life and ignite the interaction between the two: He considered the image and he described the soundtrack and things that screenwriters don’t always think about, especially on their first time out.
The David Bowie song “Space Oddity” plays pretty prominently in the movie. Was that song in the description?
It was! The Bowie song was in it. There were even things like Deodato, the jazz-funk version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from 2001, the kind of disco song that plays when Julianne Moore is finally introduced in the third act of the movie. I knew the song — it was used in a movie by Hal Ashby called Being There with Peter Sellers, and it was kind of a nod to that movie in Brian’s script. When screenwriters include songs, sometimes directors, their shackles go off, like, ‘Well, I will decide what songs are in my movie!’ But we tried it and it just felt like the film had earned that moment and it worked so well. Again, it was just a really comprehensive and thoughtful, knowledgeable application of cinema to his book and it floored me. It was kind of irresistible.
Wonderstruck speaks so movingly about how lonely it can feel to be a child. How did you work with the child actors? Did you learn things about your directing style?
I think what I’ve learned over the years with different actors who are professional actors, and adults most of the time, is that you need to be flexible and that every actor approaches how they work differently. Their training is different, how much they like to talk and analyze the character, how much they actually prefer not to. How much they protect something very private in the process of how they get to the character — it’s all different. The best results come when you’re flexible and you give them the sense that their method is something you accept and want to protect as well.
I think I applied the same basic premise to how I worked with these kids. Kids like to feel that they’re respected, like they’re treated like any adult, that they have the sophistication, the intelligence to be talked to as a professional. The thing though about that age, this age like 12-ish — there’s something so wise about kids at that age. They’ve garnered so much knowledge of the world by that time, but hormones haven’t come in yet, adolescence hasn’t begun and sort of distorted the way we see things, especially in the case of boys. They have a sort of clear-sightedness that I think is pretty exceptional and I felt that with these kids.
Can you tell me about Millicent’s audition?
When we solicited tapes from the deaf kids for this role, we asked them to begin with signing who they were, telling us a little bit about themselves in sign language. It’s this language that calls on the hands, the face, the body, gestures, expressions and everyone signs differently, the way we all speak differently. With Milly, there was such a sense of her whole being being communicated to me when I saw her sign. She described how much she loved the language, ASL, and how much it meant to her. And one sensed that her experience and her consciousness of being a deaf kid provided her with tremendous strength and an outlook on the world that was something she derived great joy in and specificity in, that she felt like … she had a self-possession that came through. I just kind of fell in love with her when I saw it and my casting director, Laura Rosenthal, who I’ve worked with for years, I know she felt the same way. We both kind of didn’t say anything to each other because we didn’t jinx it, we wanted to be as objective as possible and keep watching each stage of the process unfold and she just kept flooring us.
The amazing thing is she doesn’t sign in the movie, because Rose doesn’t speak sign language. Milly had some, I don’t know what it is, but some sense of the camera or of communicating herself emotionally in a medium that picks up such nuance, that she trusted that you never have to overexpress. That you can hold back, that there can be a mystery, there can be secrets that you preserve in your performance. And, again, I don’t know how conscious this is, but that’s the result, and that’s why I think the performance is as powerful as it is. It’s nuanced, it’s understated, it’s sensitive. That’s something you can’t teach somebody. That’s something innate. It’s kind of unbelievable.
You’ve worked with Julianne Moore throughout your career. Did anything she did in Wonderstruck surprise you?
Julie always surprises me. Julie surprises me in films that I don’t direct, when I see her performances in other people’s films. In Wonderstruck she has a nonspeaking, sort of double role, with even a third movie within a movie in the black-and-white portion. She’s playing a deaf woman who did sign in her adult years. But something that happens when I’m watching her in the room when we’re shooting, sometimes I don’t see exactly what she’s doing. Again, exactly in the way that I was talking about Millicent, that it’s so nuanced, understands the calibration of the lens in a way that you don’t always see it with the naked eye when you’re shooting until we get the footage back and we cut the scene together that I’m like, ‘Oh, wow.’ A level of depth and emotion kind of is revealed in what she was doing that, of course, she must have known what she was doing all along. But it’s a certain kind of restraint that she just knows how to manage that I just find continually surprising when I see it working emotionally on the viewer.
The stop-motion finale, where Julianne brings this little boy to a diorama of New York City and tells him the story of her life and how his parents met, was so spectacular. How did you film that scene?
It was actually not stop-motion. We shot it in live-action, they were kind of conducted like little puppets. It was sort of scripted as a traditional flashback, but it made sense to give it a different characteristic in the movie, and it was not too many steps to come to the diorama as a conveyer of this sequence, because it was Ben reading Rosa’s story. It’s what he’s been anticipating through the whole film, so he’s visualizing it in his mind. But what we wanted to do is have it be depicted in a way that was relevant to the story, the language of the film as a whole and something that he had an affinity to, which was the diorama. That wolf diorama is the central core of the narrative that has haunted him, and we know later that it has a narrative that reflects back on his life. So that was really the thinking behind how those little tableaus were conceived.
It’s very similar to one of your first shorts, where you used Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter.
Yes, and similarly, that was also done like little dolls in miniature — not stop-motion, but also manipulated little dolls. Again, in both cases, I think there’s a kind of naïveté in the style. In the case of Wonderstruck, it’s because it’s from a kid’s point of view filtered through how he’s imagining it, but in Karen Carpenter, it was in the idea of kids playing with dolls. Something that kids do, that we all do on some level when we’re kids, as a way of describing how certain ideas of the female body and self-image are formed.
What were you like as a child?
I grew up in L.A. — well, okay, Encino, the San Fernando Valley. But I had parents that wanted to expose us to museums and art and movies and concerts, and grandparents who were culturally active and took us to the symphony and museums and on trips, and so I felt very lucky to be exposed to all that stuff. There were certain films that I saw all through my childhood that were always just a little bit advanced for me, just a little bit beyond my reach as a kid. And I think that just made me more creatively aroused by that, turned on by that and obsessed by it — kind of like, ‘I want to understand this.’
Well, probably the first sophisticated movie I saw was when I was seven when Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet came out in 1968. It’s a beautiful, lyrical treatment of Romeo and Juliet with the youngest ever actors playing those roles to that point. I think they were really 14 and 15 years old. It was the height of the hippie, counterculture era. The movie meant a great deal to young people, teenagers in the ’60s, because they all looked like hippies and they all had their long hair. I saw its effect on people around me and I was like, ‘Wow, this is plugging into contemporary society, but using this early Italian renaissance setting and story to do so.’ It was erotic and a little mature for me. [Laughs.] But I think it made me stretch my mind and my imagination.
Do you keep up with all the Carol memes on the internet?
Oh my God. [Whispers.] I don’t … I mean, I’m not sure. I see so many amazing things. My boyfriend Bryan navigates it for me and shows me stuff. It’s taken on a life of its own. It has taken on a culture of its own. And there’s such love and feeling for that film, it’s brought together a lot of people from different countries and experiences of lesbians all over the world. And it’s so witty. The ‘Harold, they’re lesbians’ meme is one of them. It’s just been a sort of continual pleasure to watch unfold.
This interview has been edited and condensed.