Wonderstruck: Interview with Director Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck world premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Fest (in competition).  Amazon Films releases the picture theatrically October 20, before it goes streaming.

I had the pleasure of meeting the esteemed novelist David Selznick at the after-premiere party.

Todd Haynes is one of the subjects of my new book, Gay Directors/Gay Films: Almodovar, Terence Davies, Haynes, Van Sant, John Waters (Columbia University Press, hardcover and paperback).

Brian Selznick Book

Todd Haynes: I actually didn’t know or see the book until I read the script and this is the first of his own adaptation to the screen from one of his novels. What he’d already done in his screenplay was really start to visualize this as a cinematic experience and really think about film.  He loves the history of film and that’s part of the story of Wonderstruck and part of the story of Hugo, particularly the silent era.  But this film because it also deals with two deaf characters, the central – the two kids who don’t have hearing asks even more of the cinematic language to take us through a film that doesn’t rely on dialogue to carry us through so much of the film because even though the black and white story is an homage to silent cinema, the color story, the story of 1977 also has very little dialogue and so the two components really rely on the visual, you know, language of movies, cinematography, production design, performances that are about gesture and faces and looks and the editing of the film and the music so I did look back at his beautiful book but I felt like and the illustrations are stunning but we’d already moved into a cinematic language he was evoking silent cinema, he was evoking movies from the ’70s and so that’s really where I started to plant my visual research for the film.

Amazon Vs. Netflix

TH: For me in this experience and the state and mandate of the Amazon films which I can’t speak for Netflix.  I have never worked with Netflix and that seems to be one of the disputes at Cannes that came up was around Amazon versus Netflix.  They are committed to cinema and to films on the big screen and preserving a theatrical window for their releases and they’re also attracting film-makers from the international film community and the US and domestic film-makers; people like starting out with Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and myself and many others, you know, working with Woody Allen.

This feature was shot on film, it’s a 2:4 aspect ratio.  It’s a film that really embraces cinema and its history in the fullest sense of the word. The sound design is something you really need to get the full impact of it, you need to see it in a theatre so everything about it has been about that experience which means so much to me and to Ed Lachman, the cinematographer.  The staff of Amazon Films is like a little mini history of New York independent film-making from Ted Hope on down.  My career evolved alongside all of these people and they’ve been handpicked by Amazon to assemble this very unique film division.

From Big to Small Screen

TH: I don’t know if it’s more quickly than – I actually can’t speak to how quickly it is in relation to other films.  All films will end up streaming, all films will end up on cable.  That is just the facts of the way in which we view movies today so the theatrical release of the film from what I’ve seen is also going to be staggered throughout Europe and play theatrically in every single venue where it opens and that will continue on into next year.


Shooting on Film

TH: It’s about the textures of the visual language and it’s about how negative film picks up light, how it conducts the apertures of light.  It is ultimately unique from digital.  It also I think makes you think about where the camera is like one by product of digital film-making is that the cameras are so light and freeing that you can shoot forever but most films are hand held films these days that are just figured out how they fit together and how the stories work in the editing room so where the camera is, why it’s where it is, whose point of view the camera is assuming, all of these in my mind fundamental questions about how you tell the story on film have been sort of forgotten in a lot of the practices around digital film-making and I think that’s a shame.  That minimizes what film has always been; the sophistication of these questions are paramount to how you identify the characters.  The camera and the relationship  to character and emotion is essential.  If it’s always the same method of floating around with no real point of view, you’ve lost a component of filmmaking and of emotional connectivity that I think has always been there.


Impact of Shooting on Film

TH: The outcome of shooting on film is all felt.  An audience may not be able to talk about the grain in the movie, whether they know it consciously or not, it’s being felt and a lot of things in movies are being felt when they’re not necessarily explicit or the things that you leave the theatre talking about first and foremost, I mean every component of a movie, its production design, its costume designer, its music, its sound design are all things that should ideally work together to give you a whole experience and you may not be able to identify every single component of that, a viewer, but if those things are considered I think that’s what makes certain movies really outstanding and really affect you maybe more deeply.

Film about Children

TH: The reason I did this film is that I’ve never really made a film that would be available to younger audiences the way “Wonderstruck” was by design in its original concept as a graphic novel, as a young adult novel. But movies meant so much to me when I was a kid and certain films had such a kind of seismic effect on my imagination and my creative life I think as a kid sort of formed me as a creative being and I felt like this movie had the potential to do that because it does parallel two stories about kids 50 years apart traveling in similar paths through New York City but it also functions like a mystery in that you want to know why is a story from the ’20s and a story from the ’70s being paralleled. 

There has to be a reason so the mystery component is what sort of holds the whole thing together but I think drives your interest throughout the film and ultimately those stories are answered by the film and what these kids figure out and their journeys about their lives and their own personal history so yeah, I was thinking a lot about – it wasn’t just from the point of kids, it was also the point of view of kids who don’t hear and how they navigate the world very, very differently and how particularly for men, the little boy in the ’70s who just lost his hearing.  Rose is born deaf, Ben becomes deaf through the course of the film.  All of a sudden everything becomes a new experience for him, a radically new experience.  He’s not only stepping into New York City in 1977 out of (inaudible) Minnesota which is like stepping into Oz, you know, from Kansas but also it’s how he sees the world and how pieces of information, visual information is cutting through his experience all the time so we use a lot more subjective camera shots in the ’70s portion of the film, different speeds.  It will go into slow motion as he’s looking around to kind of feel like you’re really tracking the world freshly and then in the ’20s portion of the film we were looking at really silent cinema and a lot of different kinds of silent films from the time and trying to evoke a more lyrical approach to Rose’s experience not as much from the strict point of view but looking at her more in relationship to her, you know, landscape but yeah, it was fantastic to work with the kids.  Also Oakes and I spent a day walking around the city with noise canceling headphones in pre-production just to feel like this slight sense of what that experience might be like and that really made an impact on me about how you see differently when you’re not hearing everything.

Sound Vs. Silence

TH: It’s often about how in this film those things are shuffled around and how the kind of normal hierarchy of senses are inverted. Information is not being told to you through dialogue, it’s is being told to you through observing.  Cinema is a visual medium, first and foremost, and I think there’s great, you know, traditions of film-makers who rely on dialogue to carry the film and have amazing dialogue in their stories from Lubitsch, through Woody Allen to Tarantino. You don’t consider the visual experience first and the auditory experience because I wanted the soundtrack to have a great dynamic range that could be as full throated as the lyrical – the orchestral portions in Rose’s story and then literally disintegrate into near silence in Ben’s experience, and sort of everything in between. So you really think about hearing and how much we sort of take it for granted as a hearing audience.

Photo: Director Todd Haynes