It would be inaccurate to say that Todd Haynes broke through with his 2015 film, Carol, because, after all, Haynes has been directing movies since the ’80s. And he received his first Academy Award nomination (for Best Original Screenplay) for 2002’s Far From Heaven. But it is true that Carol was huge for Haynes as a filmmaker. To the point that everyone would be asking, well, what’s next?
The maybe surprising answer wound up being Wonderstruck. Based on the YA novel by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck follows a young boy in 1977 who’s recently lost his hearing named Ben (Oakes Fegley) as he tries to solve the mystery of who his father is – a mystery that leads him from Minnesota to New York City. Wonderstruck is also the story of Rose, a young girl in 1927 (who is also deaf, played by Millicent Simmonds) who is searching for her mother in New York City. Along the way, there are clues of how these stories intersect, before finally hitting a convergence.
Ahead, Haynes explains why he wanted to go in a different direction by making Wonderstruck. Also, as a frequent past collaborator with Harvey Weinstein and current collaborator with Amazon Studios, Haynes comments on the allegations of sexual assault against Weinstein and others that are plaguing the movie industry.
With both Wonderstruck and Carol, you have a way of capturing New York. And I know a lot of Carol was filed in Ohio…
Well, they’re quite different movies, but they both call upon very specific moments in New York history. It’s just a lot of research, because whether you’re evoking New York, or setting New York and your backdrop is Cincinnati, Ohio, or whether it’s New York itself of the ’20s and ’70s, it’s something you’re constructing. And so it requires a lot of research, a lot of specific points of view about what is the filter on the New York that you’re looking at, what is the cinematic language that you’re trying to evoke or the visual iconography. It was great to be in actual New York City for Wonderstruck and to have the privilege of shooting in the Museum of Natural History and the Queens Museum, and streets in Brooklyn that, probably, a couple weeks after we wrapped, were starting to become gentrified and forever changed. So getting those pieces on film and preserving them that way is pretty cool.
After this movie at New York Film Festival, a lot of people were saying, “I just want to walk around New York now.”
Oh, that’s nice. That’s the nicest compliment. Because hopefully it does make you see the city more keenly. But not just because of its period framings, but also because maybe it’s about kids who don’t hear and the act of seeing takes on a different, more accelerated urgency and necessity and drive that that’s really what is conducting the film, the visual language throughout the movie.
You shot a lot inside the Queens Museum, and that giant Panorama of the city…
We had a drone that day when we were doing those fast-moving shots, which I’ve never worked with before. I was terrified.
Oh, that’s interesting. How did that work out?
Oh my God, we were so terrified it was going to drop, I don’t really understand how they move.
Well, especially around here, it might hit someone?
Exactly! If I hit someone or crushed the gorgeous Panorama, we’re way out where we couldn’t even reach it. It did stir up this insane amount of dust in the model that we had to clean up afterwards, but maybe it was a good little super clean that we did, a hyper-clean cleaning that we invariably did.
Were you ever worried about doing this movie? There’s not a lot of dialogue and there’s a large portion of the film where the audience probably has no idea how these two stories fit. Or maybe they do, maybe they come in prepared because of the book…
Yeah, you never know what they know. Well, I think that this is probably true for all the films I’ve made to varying degrees. And in some ways, lesser so with this material just because it was rooted in a young adult novel that had an audience and had a following and it had a writer with a history, and that there was a sort of known entity there behind the concept. And that kids did love this book and did love Brian’s Hugo – and there are some similar themes in Hugo even though it’s a different formal kind of strategy. It’s a mystery story, and questions are asked that the characters set out to answer and that the film sets out to answer and that they are answered in the course of the film: the central one and the sort of defining one being why are these two stories sharing one film? What are the links between the journeys of these two kids and why are there so many similarities and occurrences that keep crossing and mirroring from one to the other?
How long did you think you could give your audience before letting them know what’s going on? Bringing the stories together.
Well, to me, I feel like you are led along pretty regularly through the course of the story. From the beginning, a little boy finds a book in his mother’s drawer that’s called Wonderstruck, and it’s from the past. And then you keep cutting back to the past and so you keep thinking, oh, maybe there is some weird connection. There’s a bookmark in that book with the name of a person who may be his father, and an address in New York City. And so everything’s leading to New York City somehow. But all the while, Rose’s story is unfolding as well. So it keeps dropping breadcrumbs along throughout its course, even if some of the answers to come of the questions, like good mystery novels, are new questions that then turn the course of the narrative into a different direction. The thing is that I notice is that kids pick up these clues very quickly.
Oh, that’s interesting.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Adults are like, “What? Say what?”
I think it’s fair to say that Carol is, up to this point, your most acclaimed film. After that, did you feel like you had to do something completely different than Carol?
I don’t necessarily make those decisions based on the reception of films, I don’t think. I think it’s more just that it keeps me challenged and doing things that are different. You know, because I had already committed to doing Wonderstruck before and began the first steps of moving in that direction before the full sense of how Carol was going to be received was felt. So I was already underway with Wonderstruck, but it was just a different kind of movie than I had made.
The biggest shift I think was probably when I made my first feature and was put into this category of the New Queer Cinema directors from the early ’90s. And then my second feature, which took a little while to get financed because it was such a strange, unusual kind of story about a woman who is suffering from environmental illness, was nothing like films that were associated with New Queer Cinema. It didn’t have gay topics or sexy gay guys in it or whatever, and it didn’t seem to be about contemporary issues, even though Poison did it sort of in a metaphoric way. But it, in fact, really was about illness. It really was about the way we make sense of illness and it really was about themes that were relevant, I think, to HIV. But it changed, I think, the way people thought about what queer filmmakers might do and what their films might look like – and what does queerness even mean, you know? I remember some festivals were like, “Is this the next film by that guy?” But that was a good thing. That invigorated me and maybe also the audiences that I generated.
But it changed, I think, the way people thought about what queer filmmakers might do and what their films might look like – and what does queerness even mean, you know? I remember some festivals were like, “Is this the next film by that guy?” But that was a good thing. That invigorated me and maybe also the audiences that I generated.
On this press tour you’ve had to answer a lot of questions about Harvey Weinstein, and I’m sure you’ve gone through PR training with what’s happening at Amazon Studios…
Yeah, I think everyone’s trying to point fingers and try to find complicity in that particular story as if Harvey Weinstein is the exception to a culture that is progressive about these things. We don’t live in that culture. That culture doesn’t exist. This is an insight into a much larger, insidious problem that affects every industry and every business – and look at our president. Look who we elected. We have to really look at ourselves, I think, as a culture that somehow is still enthralled by male power and giving it permission to exist and not be challenged. That’s the problem.
Harvey Weinstein is a grotesque, extreme example in one tiny corner of a much bigger ongoing issue, that also, sadly, I feel is uniquely American. And I found that the contempt people had for Hillary Clinton as a woman seeking power was the other side of the same coin for the kind of thrill many people felt with an unfiltered male ego saying whatever the hell comes into his head.
And it’s both. And that we elected one person and castigated the other. And I think that’s really part of this misogyny that is insidious to our society. And that misogyny is built into a kind of love or worship of male power and dominance. We all keep letting this happen and pretending that we’re past it. I’ve made a lot of films about women in my career and about the limited freedoms women have to maneuver within – and I’ll continue to do so and I’ll continue to work with women and think very deeply about their predicament in life. And that’s my contribution.
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