Double Fantasy: Todd Haynes' 'Wonderstruck' blends two children’s adventures in a daunting New York City

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Todd Haynes must thrive in past tense. All seven of his films are period pieces, he takes pleasure in pointing out, and his latest—Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios’ Wonderstruck—is no different.

Well, it’s somewhat different in that Wonderstruck is two period pieces, interlaced and unraveling at the same time. Set half a century apart, each story tells of a deaf 12-year-old coming to New York to find someone that’s dear to his-and-her hearts.

Orphaned Ben (Oakes Fegley) is lightning-struck (literally, having lost his hearing when hit by a bolt of lightning), looking in 1977 for a father he has never known. Rose (Millicent Simmonds), deaf since birth, is starstruck—the movie-star variety—searching in 1927 for a silent-film actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), she adores. It isn’t easily wrought, but somehow Haynes brings together these lives and ties them up in a big, spectacular, audience-satisfying bow.

But then, two-lane storytelling has been topped by Haynes before: He started out in three lanes, debuting with 1991’s Poison, juggling three Jean Genet-inspired yarns simultaneously. He doubled that by running 2007’s I’m Not There through a slice-and-dice machine and coming up with six Bob Dylans (played by Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin).

The way for Haynes to go with Wonderstruck was pretty much marked out on the galley proofs by the original author, Brian Selznick, who stayed aboard to do the screenplay. Rose’s half of the book, set in the year that movies started talking (but, alas, sadly, not to Rose), is told with graphic illustrations; Ben’s adventures in NYC are relayed in conventional prose, sharpening the contrast of the two worlds.

This juxtaposition of literary styles became a crisscrossing of screen styles. Rose’s story is told without a spoken word as a silent film, Ben’s in trashy street-talk of the ’70s. Haynes responded accordingly—taking his cue from the script, not the book. It was the first time Selznick ever adapted one of his young-adult novels (his The Invention of Hugo Cabret, filmed as Hugo in 2012 by Martin Scorsese, had a John Logan script).

“I opened up the first page and could tell right away Brian had begun the process of leaving the book and the illustrations behind and started thinking in cinematic terms,” Haynes recalls. “He had given it such profound cinematic consideration that it was visual, that it was auditory, that it was really thoughtful about how cinema could be relied upon to make this work and communicate without much dialogue.”

At the time, Haynes was deep in postproduction on his film Carol and opted to wait till his head was clear enough to give Wonderstruck the attention that it warranted.

“When I did,” the director remembers, “I just thought, ‘Wow! What a unique film in every conceivable way!’ Also, I thought it was something that might be special for an audience that had never been really interested in my work—young people—because it really respected them and really made this line between the imagination of young people, the language of cinema at its most elemental and the theme of deafness. All those things found relevance to each other in the way it was conceived.

“Ultimately, it made me think about how much movies meant to me as a young person—even the kinds of films that entered my mind and bloodstream and changed the way I saw things. They were always films that were a little bit beyond my reach, but that’s what you want to show kids, isn’t it? You always want to expose young people to complex, sophisticated, cool stuff that they make their own.”

Personally, Haynes admits to three favorite films that have filtered into his being and steered his career. First case in point—at the age of three—was Mary Poppins.

Clearly, this stirred up all sorts of moviemaking impulses: “It generated a uniquely, weirdly obsessive relationship to the film, which made me want to respond in kind to it creatively, to draw a million pictures about Mary Poppins and act out scenes from the movie and dress my mom up as Mary Poppins. There was this repetition of compulsions around this experience with Mary Poppins, the first movie I ever saw.

“After that, the next movie that blew my mind was Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. It connected to the youth culture of the time—very erotic and sophisticated and romantic. I remember teenage girls in 1968 in the theatre with their bare feet sobbing compulsively when Romeo kills himself, and you knew movies had a connection to culture and informed our experiences in the world in this visible way.

“The last early favorite was The Miracle Worker, which I saw around the age of the characters in this film. The life of Helen Keller is a fascinating subject for kids, with incredible performances by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It’s really a story about moving out of a pre-language moment—a kind of savage, instinctual moment—and understanding what language means and how it gives you access to expression and culture. It’s almost bittersweet what she loses and gains. Of course, we know she gained an entire humanitarian future as an incredible beacon for so many people.”

Selznick, too, is not without his cinematic influences. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, after all,grew out of his appreciation for Georges Méliès, the French director who famously filmed A Trip to the Moon in 1902. It has also occurred to Selznick that Wonderstruck might have been inspired by that classic moment when Dorothy opened the door from her black-and-white Kansas world into Technicolored Oz.

 

During his puberty, however, Selznick stuck to a steady diet of monster movies, starting early with Lon Chaney’s silent Phantom of the Opera. “I grew up in New Jersey, so there was the Creature Double Feature in the afternoon when I got back from school—Four O’Clock Monster Movies: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, King Kong. I’m distantly related to David O. Selznick, who produced King Kong, Gone With the Wind and Rebecca—so there was always this added thrill of seeing my last name at the beginning of all these movies that I really loved—even though they were from the California moviemaking side of the Selznicks and I am from the New Jersey dry-cleaning side of the Selznicks—but we were successful dry-cleaners.”