Wonderstruck breaks all the rules

Todd Haynes examines deaf culture in this nearly silent film that leans heavily on music.


From his music-centric movies (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There) to the ones that use scoring to build its sense of time and place (Carol, Far From Heaven), Haynes has always been in touch with the power of music. None of his films thus far has posed as specific a challenge as Wonderstruck, however. His adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel features two parallel storylines in which the main characters are deaf — meaning that he mostly loses the ability to tell the story through dialogue.

The first story, shot in black-and-white and set in 1927, follows Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds, who is also hearing impaired in real life), a 13-year-old who lives for the films of silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Stuck in her tony New Jersey upbringing, she decides to escape to New York in order to meet Mayhew. Fifty years later, young Ben (Oakes Fegley) follows the clues left by his dead mother (Michelle Williams) to take a similar path to the Big Apple in order to find his birth father. Ben has recently lost his hearing, meaning that he doesn’t know sign language and can’t really parse reading lips, which complicates his new friendship with a young boy named Jaime that he meets at the Natural History Museum.

Though the film hardly ticks the boxes that would lead it to be considered a true silent film, long stretches of it unfold dialogue-free, a limitation that’s easy to achieve in writing, but considerably trickier on-screen. I mention to Haynes that although it seems obvious in retrospect, I didn’t really notice that the film was mostly silent while watching it.

“It didn’t fully penetrate my mind until I watched a cut of Wonderstruck all the way through,” says Haynes. “What really struck me was how silent the film was as a whole — not just the black-and-white story. It’s about two kids who don’t hear, and Ben only lost his hearing. He’s on his own, travelling through the streets of the city and eventually ending up at the museum. That’s an hour of silence! It’s not total silence because there’s a lot going on on the soundtrack but there’s still an hour. (…) I didn’t totally realize that that would be the case. Of course, it’s all right there in front of you, but it’s a new experience. I love that you mention that you didn’t even notice, because that’s the goal: to have a film that’s not reliant on dialogue.”

Wonderstruck also breaks a cardinal rule of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. That rule presents the idea that if a film is to convey a certain idea about a character, it should be through action rather than speech. (In other words, a character who eats a lot should be shown eating a lot rather than told “Wow, you sure do eat a lot” by a tertiary character.) In this particular case, however, there’s no getting around it: the characters have to write notes to each other. Haynes has to effectively show what they’re telling.

“That’s absolutely right,” says Haynes. “We broke all those rules. Here, nothing is told — everything is shown. It’s also true of how the music functions versus the dialogue, because music is something you’re not supposed to notice and dialogue is something that you absolutely notice. It gives the story definition and colour. Here it’s the opposite: you don’t notice that there’s no dialogue, whereas the music is something you pay acute attention to. It’s meant to be noticed, it’s meant to be heard. The sound design itself is something you’re really paying attention to.”

That music is comprised of Carter Burwell’s score, tracks by the Sweet and David Bowie as well as bits from the Eno & Fripp Evening Star record from 1977. “Experimental and ambient music which was beginning to inform scoring and artists at that time is a part of the score itself,” says Haynes, who memorably used Eno tracks in his 1998 film Velvet Goldmine. “It really helps underscore the subjective experience of Ben being this newly deaf person.”

Like many of Haynes’s films, Wonderstruck is a period piece. That notion has become kind of a calling card for the director, even if filming a period piece in 2017 can become more of a headache. “I think it allows me to time-travel,” he says. “It lets me literally go back in time. You have to take every element of that period into account when you’re making a film about it, even the things that don’t end up in your film: popular songs, what’s going on historically, the climate of the time. All those things I like to research and try to feel like I have a handle on when I’m directing actors and set dressers and costumers. That’s absolutely true in this case. (…) What was challenging about this movie is that we had to shoot a little bit of each period every single day because the kids’ hours would expire. We would actually have more hours in the day and we’d have to do something with them, so we’d have to shift to the other kid. That was a true logistical challenge.” ■

Wonderstruck is in theatres now.