In his new film, Wonderstruck, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s sweeping, era-spanning YA novel, Todd Haynes charts new territory but maintains his fascination with outsiders. Here, he discusses his goal of illuminating the past and keeping queer art alive.
OUT: Your last film, Carol, was a lesbian romance. Were you looking for a big departure with your next project?
Todd Haynes: I think so. Wonderstruck was conceived for younger audiences, and I’d never really explored that before. There’s also an element of mystery in the story, which I’d never approached head-on either.
Both films are period pieces set in New York City.
Yes. Customary to Selznick’s work, Wonderstruck had this great historical curiosity about New York life in two eras, 50 years apart. And, like Selznick’s Hugo, it explored this love of cinematic craft and the history of movies.
How did you approach that as a filmmaker?
The beginning is structured like a silent film from the 1920s: no dialogue, driven by music, in black-and-white. With that, we had to quickly determine the start of young Rose’s story, and her love for a silent-screen actress — one of two characters played by Julianne Moore — whom she’ll travel to New York to find.
Todd Haynes on set (Photography: Photograph by Mary Cybulski)
Rose is deaf, and you cast Millicent Simmonds, who’s deaf, to play her. What drew you to her?
She was the answer to all our hopes — a unique kid who’d never acted before. You take a leap of faith when you cast anybody, and with someone who’s deaf, we’re learning how to communicate as we’re communicating. But she could relax in front of the lens and let us in. It takes some actors their entire careers to do that.
You’ve shown an appreciation for outsiders and queerness throughout your career.
I’ve always embraced the idea of being a queer filmmaker beyond the content of my movies. Once upon a time, queerness meant you stood outside dominant culture, and there’s a lot to be gained from looking at culture from oblique angles. Both Rose and Jamie, the boy depicted in 1977 (played by Jaden Michael), are cast out in specific ways, so they perceive the world differently.
What’s your hope for Wonderstruck?
I knew this film wouldn’t be for all modern kids, who are distracted by so many things. But when we showed it to some kids in New York, they really latched on. Nothing made me more excited than to feel their openness to a story about the past and making things with your hands. I’m proud to put something out there that kids and families can see, but that is still complicated and subtle and weird.