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Wonderstruck - Millicent Simmons (Rose) in Wonders

The film about loneliness in New York with a brilliant, deaf teenage star

We speak to Todd Haynes about ‘Wonderstruck’, the brilliance of 15-year-old Millicent Simmonds, and how we take hearing for granted

Todd Haynes has always struck a chord when depicting outsiders. Whether he’s puppeteering a Barbie doll in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story or transforming Cate Blanchett into Bob Dylan for I’m Not There, the director knows that deep emotions, especially for isolated protagonists, can be best expressed through music. Look no further than his previous feature, the lesbian melodrama Carol, which memorably concludes with Rooney Mara and Blanchett swapping surreptitious glances from across a room – a crescendo of swelling strings does all the talking for them.

In Wonderstruck, Haynes’ exquisite new movie about overcoming loneliness, the music is even more imperative than before. The tale, adapted from a Brian Selznick novel, follows two deaf kids, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in 1927 and Ben (Oakes Fefley) in 1977. For lengthy periods, we hear no dialogue, just an elaborate score by Carter Burwell, the composer behind Carol, Being John Malkovich and every film by the Coen Brothers. In fact, what unites the parallel plots is Burwell’s playful, often jazzy arrangements, and the notion that certain songs, particularly those by David Bowie, can transcend time.

When I meet Haynes in London, the climactic ending of Carol is the first thing I mention, and that Wonderstruck seems to be a continuation. “Absolutely,” he says, “and it’s about taking it as far as you can imagine. Wonderstruck is really is a movie where I hoped that the sound design, the music and everything in the soundtrack would make you think about deafness, and what we take for granted as hearing people, and what it might be like to lose your hearing, and what it might be like to experience the world or a city like New York without hearing.”

In the 1927 storyline, Haynes opts for a black-and-white homage to silent cinema. Rose, born deaf, is practically locked inside at home by her authoritarian father (James Urbaniak). When enough is enough, she flees New Jersey to Manhattan in search of Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a movie star of the pre-talkies era.

The casting of Simmonds, a deaf actor, in the lead role of Rose, was crucial for Haynes. “It wasn’t just finding a deaf actor,” the director adds, “but finding a non-professional actor, because it would be a child without a professional career as an actor. And oh my God, Millie’s just the most amazing kid. She understands the camera in a way that most professional actors can barely compete with.” Simmonds has since gone on to star in A Quiet Place, set to be one of the genre hits of the year. “It’s the coolest thing,” he beams. “She’s a lead in another movie within two years of Wonderstruck. I’m so proud of her.”

At the same time, Rose’s scenes interchange with the Sirkian Technicolor warmth of a 1977 plot involving Ben, a young Minnesotan mourning the death of his hippy mother (Michelle Williams). When Ben loses his hearing after an electrocution accident, he runs away to New York in search of his absent father.

“Millie’s just the most amazing kid. She understands the camera in a way that most professional actors can barely compete with” – Todd Haynes on Millicent Simmonds

Intriguingly, the 1977 sections include certain conversations that drop in and out. For Haynes, it came in the edit. “You hear this muffled, really distant dialogue in different places, which I found, when we were playing around with the cut, to be almost more chilling. In the hospital when Ben first wakes up, it’s not only really distant, but it’s out of sync. He just lost his hearing, so there’s a memory of sound. It’s like a phantom limb of hearing.”

The jigsaw puzzle structure takes a while to reveal the meaning behind its mystery. A clue involves Rose and Ben stepping inside the American Museum of Natural History, the same building featured towards the end of Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale. Jesse Eisenberg, like the young duo, sprints towards the museum for emotional comfort. Was Haynes, like Baumbach, a regular visitor during his formative years?

“The museum has definitely haunted many creative minds,” Haynes says. “It’s one of the centrepieces of New York’s culture, but I didn’t visit it until I moved to New York after college. Mark Friedberg, my production designer, lost his mother when he was young, and he spent so much of his childhood in that museum. He would, like Ben, walk from Port Authority to the museum in the 70s. So it’s truly a New York City movie.

“The 70s was one of the most economically troubled times of the history of New York City where they were in bankruptcy and didn’t get bailed out by the Ford administration. We wanted to bring that intensity and complexity and richness to Ben’s experience of the city, and it had to contrast with Rose’s experience. But it’s also a place that these wayward people find each other. You feel like they’re going to figure it out somehow, and it’s due to this moment in New York history.”

Was researching this era of New York what led to Haynes’ next project, his upcoming documentary on the Velvet Underground? Apparently not. “The Velvet Underground came to me,” Haynes reveals. “It was an honour. Laurie Anderson, who oversees the Lou Reed estate, had a list of directors she wanted (Universal Music) to pursue, and I was apparently the first name on the list.” Will it resemble I’m Not There in any way? “No, it’ll be a real documentary, but one that has to find other visual means of telling what that moment was like culturally and historically. And because they came out of experimental film, from the 60s, John Cale in particular, Warhol and all that, that will be a place to start.”

I mention to Haynes that Wonderstruck reminds me of his directorial work on Sonic Youth’s “Disappearer”. The 1990 music video, too, shifts between colour and black-and-white. “I haven’t seen it in so long,” he chuckles. “But my boyfriend and I were just talking about Sonic Youth. I was so sad when they broke up. I think everybody was so hard on…” He pauses. “It was tough, because I care about Kim, and I think she had a hard time. But they also survived for so long, and they kept making such uncompromising music for so many years. That’s what’s so special, and we’re all so lucky that they did.”

“I hoped that the sound design, the music and everything in the soundtrack would make you think about deafness, and what we take for granted as hearing people” – Todd Haynes

The “Disappearer” gig came long before Haynes would shoot acclaimed features like Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven and, my personal favourite, Safe. Sonic Youth just happened to be fans of Superstar: A Karen Carpenter Story, an unconventional student project in which a singing Barbie doll gets whittled down scene by scene. Richard Carpenter sued Haynes, and it’s still illegal to possess a copy of Superstar.  But in Wonderstruck, a magical stop-motion sequence recalls the outlawed biopic.

“In the script, the flashback was just a traditional flashback, and I thought it’d be cool to do something that evokes the dioramas of the National History Museum. And then while we were doing it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s like I’m back at Superstar. Here I am with little sticks…’ The hands were on sticks. I was doing it myself.”

Thus Wonderstruck, Haynes believes, is also a film about what you do with your hands. And not just because of the sign language. “It’s about cutting and pasting and drawing and painting and making little buildings with your hands, and Ben making his little home-made Natural History exhibitions with his hands in his house. That’s just the kind of kid I was, and I just love that both of these kids have that as a kind of fetish or practice.

“In the story of Rose, we see it’s literally something she figures out how to apply to her life, and she becomes one of the model builders for the panorama and her career. It literally gets her through her isolation, and literally gives her a place in the world.”

What I want to know is how Haynes can make the puppet scenes in Wonderstruck and Superstar so emotional. They are, after all, just dolls. “The reason (in Wonderstruck) was more about returning to the form of the diorama,” he explains, “which is the source of the repressed memory of Ben’s life. He doesn’t know it’s a memory. It’s just a nightmare that’s haunted him. But it links him to the question of who his father was in ways that the whole movie is going to finally figure out.

“But dioramas are little narratives that we project movement onto, or a story onto, and that’s what happens in Superstar with the Barbie doll’s mouth – the face doesn’t move, because it’s a doll, and it asks the audience to project emotion and life onto an inanimate thing. The emotion is yours. And I think that’s what movies are. Movies are things that we make come to life with our emotions.”