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Wonderstruck director Todd Haynes talks working with Julianne Moore and deaf actress Millicent Simmonds

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Wonderstruck tells the tale of two children separated by fifty years. In 1927, Rose searches for the actress who's life she chronicles in her scrapbook; in 1977, Ben runs away from home to find his father. Adapted from the novel by Brian Selznick (Hugo), and directed by Todd Haynes (Carol), the film stars Oscar winner Julianne Moore and breakout star of A Quiet Place, Millicent Simmonds.

We caught up with Todd Haynes on the importance of this story, and working with his brilliant cast.

Photo by Mary Cybulski - © Courtesy of Amazon Studios

How would you describe Wonderstruck?

Wonderstruck is an incredibly unique story of two children navigating their way through Manhattan 50 years apart. Both of them are deaf – in one case, with Ben, he is newly deaf – and they are trying to figure out who they are and where they came from. And the film takes you on their journey and answers those questions as they discover themselves.

Let’s talk about Millicent Simmonds who plays Rose. 

Millie is a stroke of unimaginable good fortune, of finding an unknown novice who had never acted in front of a lens before who also happens to be deaf. She’s from Utah. I wanted to find a real deaf kid to play this deaf role.

To ask the obvious question why was that so important to you?

Well, I thought that not only would she bring a depth of experience to it and a personal specificity to that role but it would be something that we would all benefit from, we would all have access to this experience and this person and learn more about this culture. So it was my first choice and if we didn’t find somebody who could fulfil that job we would move on and go to hearing actors and there would be a much larger pool to draw from obviously. But when I saw Millie’s first audition tape there was a spark, a kind of self-possession, in this kid that was so clear and so strong it really brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it. And then you kind of cross your fingers and think ‘I hope this holds up in all the stages that we go through.’ and it did. So that was really the discovery of the film. Oakes Fegley, who plays Ben, is someone who has done some (acting) work before and he’s very smart, a very professional little guy. I think he’s going to be a director. He’s a great actor but he has a sense of the whole picture and an interest in all aspects of what’s going on and I think that suggests a future career as a director. And then there’s Jaden Michael who plays Jamie who had also done some (acting) work before and is just an incredibly sweet, loving kid and that quality really comes through in the role and that friendship. But as always, it’s all about the cast.

Could you talk about directing the children?

Well, this was all about the imagination, the vitality and the challenges and complexity of kids and in the film I really wanted to honour what I think young audiences can handle in a movie. I think they can handle a movie that has this kind of complexity and dimension to it. And these are two kids, little Ben and little Rose, who are isolated from their lives and their families, but have something that is driving them and forces them into the world to discover who they are. And so casting the kids was a central part of that whole puzzle. And I said right from the beginning ‘we really have to play a deaf girl to play Rose.’

Photo by Myles Aronowitz - © Courtesy of Amazon Studios

We wanted somebody fantastic, but we wanted to start with somebody from the deaf community and we searched high and wide to find the best person. We asked kids to send in tapes of themselves to audition because we had to go outside of traditional circles to find actors in the deaf community in America. And we had incredible good fortune to find Millie who from the very beginning, the very first time I saw her tape, I shivered. There was something about the integrity of her as a person, which shone through, that was true, and ultimately you see that on the screen. So our good fortune in finding Millie can’t be overstated. Oakes Fegley (Ben) had done some acting before as had Jaden Michael (who plays Jamie). But these kids are amazing and they taught us everything we needed to know to make this film.

This is the first time you’ve worked with children playing the central characters and of course one of them, Millie Simmonds, can’t hear. So how did you deal with the practicalities on set?

I think it’s one of those things where you look back after the fact and are almost stunned at what a risk one took and how many ways it could have gone wrong and it didn’t. And that’s true of Millie Simmonds. We saw a lot of self made audition tapes from deaf kids in the process of looking to cast Rose and every kid signs in a different way, the way we all speak in a different way, you can hear the accent, the personality, in signing maybe even more than with verbal speech because it’s using the whole body and the face to communicate. And we, as hearing people, might think ‘oh that must mean that they are all more expressive’ and that being extremely expressive is effective on film but there’s also the problem of being too expressive and that can become very quickly uninteresting to watch and doesn’t illicit your own involvement as a viewer when any actor is doing too much. And with the careers of some of our best actors, sometimes it takes them a long time to trust that they can do much less and have a stronger result. And the thing about Millie that I still can’t quite understand is how she trusted the scale of her performance and somehow knew that it would work. I don’t even know that she knew that, but it did. She knew how to be small enough and subtle enough and mysterious enough to illicit your interest and to keep your curiosity and to let you fill in the spaces, which is really what movies are all about, for me at least, giving the spectator the room to fill it in. If you tell them everything I think you stop caring.

This is the fourth time you have worked with Julianne Moore (following Safe, Far From Heaven and I’m Not There). Does she still surprise you with her work?

Working with Julianne has been an amazing through line of my professional life and creative career. We were a lot younger when we did Safe but I was stunned by the sense that I found a soul mate who understood this almost unimaginable character on the page of the script and brought a dimension to it that I was still vaguely feeling out. She brought clarity to that role and made it work conceptually. She brought specificity to it, a meaning to it that made the film richer. It’s been a privilege in my life to continue to work with Julianne. I keep going back to her and throwing her very different challenges each time. And this is our fourth film together. I remember when we were making I’m Not There when she played this hysterical sort of homage to (singer) Joan Baez that cracked me up so much that I had to leave the room because I was laughing so much that I would have ruined the take. But it’s an amazing thing to find a partner like Julianne. 

What was the theme at the heart of the story for you?

I think that there is something about limited abilities that kids innately understand. I saw The Miracle Worker when I was a kid and there was something about the story of Helen Keller and the story of language, a specific language that belongs to the disability of deafness – and that distinguishes that disability from any other because it has its own language – that was so fascinating to me and I think spoke to something that I already knew about the ways in which we all navigate the world with limitations. And kids get that. And I think there is something really poignant about the fact that both of these kids are doing that in these two very different moments in history. It’s something that we all carry within us in our lives and our own histories.

Wonderstruck is available on Digital Download, DVD, and Blu-Ray on 30th July 2018.

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