The newest film directed by Todd Haynes looks at life from the eyes of a child. The film lovingly depicts New York City in two of its most distinct periods: the silent 20s and the seedy 70s.
Although Todd Haynes, known for directing Carol and I’m Not There, has never made a film solely about children, Wonderstuck depicts the sensation of childlike wonder perfectly. It follows a boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley), in 1977, who has recently lost his mother, played by Michelle Williams, to an auto accident. While living with his aunt, his house is struck by lightning, rendering him deaf. Seeking to find the identity of his father, he leaves Minnesota for Manhattan.
Meanwhile, in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl living in New Jersey, yearns to go across the water to Manhattan to seek out a silent film star, Lillian Mayhew, played by Julianne Moore. The two children’s lives are more intertwined than they realize, especially concerning the mysterious cabinet of wonder.
We talked with the cast of Wonderstruck and its screenwriter, Brian Selznick, before its premiere as the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival presented by Fiji Water.
Q: There’s that early scene where it’s black and white, and it’s silent. Is something else required of you acting-wise?
A: Well, Todd offered us lots of films to watch from the 70s, and silent films from the 20s and one of the things I wanted to learn in particular, because I play a silent film actress, is what that language is. How did they communicate? What was it stylistically?
Q: And what was it like working with Todd Haynes?
A: It was great. It was wonderful. This is my fourth movie with him. He’s one of the best.
Q: How do you decide on the roles that you take?
A: You know, you just read them. A lot of it is about reading the script and seeing what is demanded of you and whether or not you’re interested in it. It’s the filmmakers, it’s the other actors.
Q: And do you have a best life lesson you’ve learned throughout your journey?
A: Just be persistent. Everything takes a long time. It takes a lot longer than you think.
Q: How does Wonderstruck compare with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and as a movie how does it compare with Hugo?
A: I didn’t have anything to do with the making of Hugo, but I was really lucky because Martin Scorsese, who directed it, really fell in love with the book, so he made sure that everybody who was collaborating with him used my book as the springboard for what they were doing with the movie. And obviously there are many differences, but the heart of the story is still there, and the main arc of the narrative was still there. And it was Sandy Powell, who did the costumes for Hugo, who brought Wonderstruck to Todd Haynes. And there were some differences in scale — Hugo was a much larger film, in certain ways, but in terms of the quality and the care and love that went into crafting the movie, it was exactly the same. The departments were smaller, the budget was smaller, but the amount of thought and insight and creativity that went into it was the same. It was a joy to watch both of these movies get made.
Q: What was it like working on a screenplay as opposed to a book?
A: It was fascinating because when I write books they’re meant very much to only be a book. They’re designed for paper pages that turn and that eventually come to an end. It’s about the intersection between the words and the pictures. And for a screenplay, when you’re making a movie, you have to tell essentially the same story, so that it felt like it had to be a movie. And I realized early on that I could do it with the language of cinema. I could tell it like a silent movie, I could use the language of film from the 70s, and that was a way to make it feel like it had to be a film, which I think Todd Haynes embraced really deeply. He’s also really great with genre films, and using different forms of cinema, and different time periods. He’s done that in other films. So we go from the style of the black and white films to the style of the 70s, and that helps with the narrative.
Q: You must be excited to be here!
A: New York’s awesome. It’s great to be here.
Q: What was it like working on this movie?
A: This movie was a great experience, working with tons of amazing people. So I’m really glad to be a part of this and I hope everybody likes it!
Wonderstruck is in theaters October 20.
Photo courtesy of Variety