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WONDERSTRUCK

About The Production
WHAT SILENCE LOOKS LIKE: ADAPTING WONDERSTRUCK FOR THE SCREEN

Anyone who read Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or saw Martin Scorsese's acclaimed film adaptation "Hugo," probably won't be surprised to learn that Selznick's follow-up, Wonderstruck, documents a child's sense of awe as they discover an adult world that is often marked by loneliness, confusion and regret. And like its predecessor, Wonderstruck manages to infuse its story with a childlike sense of magic and possibility, rendered both in word and image. A master of what he calls "bookmaking," Selznick's novels are as much informed by his amazing illustrations as they are by the vividly imagined characters and marvelous historical settings that populate his work.

"A lot of people who read The Invention of Hugo Cabret said to me that they like the sections of drawings, because it's like everything becomes quiet," Selznick recalls today about the inspiration for Wonderstruck. He goes on to explain how, "You hear the words in your imagination, and then the narrative continues in the pictures but without words - I think it shifts into a different part of your brain. All those words fall away and we're just watching what's happening, and I was so intrigued by the feeling of quiet from looking at pictures." A similar thought occurred to Selznick when he watched the 2007 PBS documentary "Through Deaf Eyes." "There was a man describing deaf culture as a visual culture because the language is a visual language," says Selznick. Describing with his voice and in sign language, Selznick continues, "I thought... Maybe if I make a book, where there are pictures that tell the story of a deaf character, it would parallel in some fashion the way that she experiences her life, because they would both be visual."

The result is a book that is unlike any other reading experience. Immediately after its publication in 2011, Wonderstruck became must-reading for people of all ages. The initial impulse to tell the story of a remarkable journey from the perspective of one deaf child grew into two stories and two journeys, told alternatively throughout the book. One story is shown entirely in Selznick's exquisitely detailed and delicate illustrations, in the tradition of the graphic novel - but without any text or words, the life as seen through young Rose in 1927. Born deaf, Rose lives with a father who hides her away, and she escapes into New York City hoping to make a connection with a famous actress, Lillian Mayhew. The sights of the great urban landscape at the height of the jazz age are experienced by the reader as if through Rose's eyes, the silence of her life all the more powerfully rendered.

The second story takes place fifty years later, and also features a young hero, Ben, traveling to New York City, this time looking for clues about his long-lost father. Ben is only recently deaf, so his story is told in traditional prose, as he experiences many of the same challenges and obstacles that Rose faces, but with a different set of memories, intentions, and abilities. Ultimately, of course, the two stories intersect; the girl who was once Rose emerges as an older woman who might hold the key to Ben's identity as well. But along the journey, the reader is drawn in and out of each story through Selznick's deft and confident play between these two very different modes of reading. What the reader "sees" in Rose's story defies language; what the reader "hears" in their head via the words in Ben's story spark the visual imagination in a way that no words could properly describe.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret as a film became a reality for Selznick only once Martin Scorsese became involved. Someone with such a rich sense of cinematic history, as well as brilliant technique, would be able to capture the book's magic. "Sometimes people ask me for advice about how to get into the movie business," Selznick jokes. "And I say, 'Oh, it's easy. You make books for about 15-20 years and then you wait for Martin Scorsese to call.'" Indeed, even with the amazing success of Scorsese's "Hugo" (which was adapted into a screenplay by John Logan), Selznick was sure that Wonderstruck would be even more difficult to get to the screen, simply given the unusual nature of the novel's main characters. "I thought, this book can't be adapted," explains Selznick. He goes on to describe that, "Unlike 'Hugo,' where it's one story told with words and pictures, Wonderstruck is designed to be two stories, one with pictures only, one with words only. I made the book thinking that it can't be adapted."

But finishing the book and seeing how successful Scorsese and Logan were in making "Hugo" a reality prompted the writer to reconsider. "I began to think maybe there were ways," he says. He took on the initial exercise of drafting a screenplay on his own, with some input from John Logan. "He really took me under his wing, and gave me lots of notes and guidance. His first one was the toughest," recalls Selznick with a chuckle. "Cut the first 50 pages in half." With Logan's veteran eye to keep him focused, Selznick settled on a screen worthy equivalent of his literary technique; Rose's story, set in 1927, would be shot in black-and-white and in the aesthetic mode of a late-era silent film, while Ben's would be shot in color and with a fully realized soundtrack. "We can weave those two stories together, and play with sound in silence, and include music. It's not restricted to words and pictures like is has to be for the book, and it's something that I thought would work for the screen," explains Selznick.

A PROJECT FINDS A TEAM

One of the people Selznick showed his draft of a film version of "Wonderstruck" to was another member of the esteemed "Hugo" crew, veteran costume designer (and a three-time Oscar winner) Sandy Powell, whose passion for the project and creative vision ultimately resulted in her assuming the role of executive producer as well as costume designer. "Even before Brian thought about writing the script," Powell remembers, "I had said to him about the book, wouldn't this be great as a film? And even at that point, I thought it would be great if Todd [Haynes] did it." After reading one of Selznick's early draft, Powell knew her instinct was spot on; "I'm going to ask Todd if he is interested," she resolved. Haynes was in the midst of editing his most recent film, "Carol," and Powell knew he would be preoccupied. "But towards the end of that process, I at least got Todd and Brian to meet. I knew Todd would instantly like him and be more inclined to read the screenplay and take an interest. He did straight away, which was thrilling for everybody."

With dozens of films to her credit-many of them lush, visual masterpieces by internationally acclaimed directors who demand precision and perfection-Powell's creative sensibilities told her that this was a special, almost magical project. "I just loved it," she enthuses. "I loved reading the book, where the story is told purely from visuals...but the most interesting part was the theme of deafness, and dealing with deafness, something that would be really interesting to tackle in film. How can you do that? It's interesting to see how sound and lack of sound is going to work in this story."

A dedicated cinephile, Selznick was flattered that the renowned veteran Haynes wanted to become a part of "Wonderstruck," though like many viewers, the fit might seem a bit odd at first. After all, Haynes is known for making provocative films about very "grown-up" situations related to sexuality, identity, and social responsibility. While his films do often feature children as characters, he is not the first person one might think of to make what is essentially a film about children for general audiences. But Haynes' strengths play right into the possibilities in Selznick's story, according to the author.

"I had never thought of Todd," Selznick admits, "but as soon as Sandy mentioned his name I thought, 'there's no one else who can do this.' Todd is one of the few directors whose intellect matches their artistry. You don't feel any sort of cold, clinical distance, when you see a movie of his. You feel the characters, you feel the life of these people, but you understand that he is in total control of the world in which they exist. He's a master of genre. He can make a movie feel like it came from any time period. The sensitivity that he brings to all of this, the queerness, the sense from seeing the world from an outside perspective - that was exactly how I was thinking about the way these kids in the book, as deaf kids, understand the world around them. They're both in search of family. They're both in search of community...in search of a history. And that is and feels in so many ways, part of what Todd has been working with from the very beginning."

For his part, Haynes was immensely impressed by the quality of Selznick's adaptation. "What was so remarkable," he recalls, "is that this is the first adaptation Brian had done of one of his books. It was so powerfully cinematic and it basically invited a maker of film into the process of re-visioning his beautiful book through a cinematic view which is what I responded to initially."

When describing the source material, Haynes says, "The book works at the deepest level, evoking the imagination and allowing spaces to fill in the gaps yourself, and you take possession of it and it's your own. The fact that it created a dialogue between these two periods of time, but having the continuity of New York fifty years changed-from the 1920s story to the 1970s story-just begged to be turned into the language of cinema."

Haynes' longtime producer Christine Vachon adds that in addition to the finely tuned characters and remarkably original story, the distinct timelines were something that gave the project a creative center and depth that made it a worthwhile challenge. Vachon explains, "The way these stories intersected in unexpected and beautiful ways means there is an evocation of childhood in both stories that also felt very authentic. There was the challenge of recreating 1970s New York...and I grew up in New York City, I was a young teenager in the '70s, so that really resonated with me."

That personal connection was important to Vachon, as some audiences might have forgotten about New York City's bleaker years. "That was the time of that famous Daily News headline - 'Ford to City: Drop Dead,'" she recalls about New York's national reputation as decaying and crime-ridden. Indeed, viewers of "Wonderstruck" who are more familiar with the New York of Woody Allen or "Sex and the City" might be thrown by "Wonderstruck's" spot-on depiction of a once-glorious metropolis struggling to survive. "When we were shooting at the Port Authority," recalls Vachon, "one of the younger PAs turned to me and said "Oh, but it was never really this dirty...and I thought 'are you kidding me, this is nothing compared to what it was like!' The infrastructure was crumbling, the city was bankrupt, street crime was up, people were fleeing for the suburbs, so the character of the city was very different - still exciting, but in a very different way."

"The story works so well because 1927 was a period of ascendancy and hope, and the city was still being built," adds producer John Sloss. "It was New York on the rise. But 1977 was the nadir and falling apart, and that's just factually true, and something that Brian really conveyed in his novel that is a key element of the film." Sloss believed so much in "Wonderstruck" that he came aboard as a full producer: a renowned dealmaker in the world of independent film for the last thirty years, Sloss is frequently credited as an executive producer, rarely taking on a more direct role in the day-to-day production work as he is with "Wonderstruck." But, the combination of the creative team and the material was inspiring to him. "It was the script - Brian is brilliant, and wrote a brilliant script. We were able to say to potential financiers, 'There's no reason to make this film if you're going to make it without this sort of inherent magic.'" It wasn't long before Sloss was able to set up the project on a workable but modest budget for Amazon Studios. "Amazon is a big corporation," Sloss concedes, "but it's also very familiar. Ted Hope [head of Amazon Studios' film production] is someone we grew up with and he's very close with Christine and Todd, someone we've worked with for a long, long time. Amazon Studios was smart enough to bring in a crew of people who are immersed in the independent film community, and they got the good ones."

WORLDS OF SILENCE

Studies indicate that about 1 in 20 Americans is functionally deaf; however, the vast majority of that population (well over 95%) become deaf long into adulthood, often as a result of progressive hearing loss that can be addressed and adapted to over time. The population of deaf children-some of whom, like Rose, were never able to hear, and others like Ben who become deaf because of illness or accident- is very small. For members of the deaf community and their allies, that has not prevented recent generations of deaf artists from expressing themselves creatively through storytelling and the visual and performing arts. The Tony Award-winning National Theatre of the Deaf celebrates its 50th year of existence this year, and Deaf West's production of the musical "Spring Awakening" has proven to be a hit with all audiences. However, the crossover of deaf characters into mainstream culture has been largely restricted in recent times to adult characters, from dramatic fare like "Children of a Lesser God" to Marvel Comics' deaf Avenger "Hawkeye."

The result is that there isn't much precedent in cinema for telling a story-two stories, in fact-from the perspective of a child who cannot hear. Because both protagonists in the film set out on their own, there is no guardian or protector, no "translator" (at least at first), and neither of them know how to use sign language. "Wonderstruck" cannot rely on secondary characters, subtitles, or other familiar narrative devices that might be used as a point of access for a film viewer.

Selznick had consulted with a variety of friends and colleagues involved in deaf culture and education as he was writing the novel, wanting to make it as authentic to the deaf characters' experience while still not making the story exclusively about the characters' disability. His own brother is deaf in one ear-the state that Ben begins in, before an accident shortly after his mother's death removes the hearing from the remaining ear-and that provided a different kind of perspective than others he knew who had been fully deaf for a large portion of their lives, like Rose. But books, at least the traditional kind on paper, don't have an audio component. Even so-called "silent" films were never silent, so Haynes knew that he would have to address the complex problem of what "deaf" feels like while still employing some sort of sound track.

"What's so exhilarating about 'Wonderstruck' is that it was always designed as a halfsilent film," the director explains. "The black-and-white story would be told as a silent film, and silent film plays a role in the story itself - Rose's mother is a silent screen star. Meanwhile, Ben, who's newly deaf, spends a good hour of the film on a silent voyage not conversing with anyone, just observing. So, the two stories interact without sound in very different ways. It allows for a very rich and nuanced role that the sound design plays between music and ambient sound, between subjective and objective interplay of sound that Ben is sensing, since he just lost his hearing. There's the suggestion that there's the phantom sound that haunts him, the memory of sound. I took this movie on because I had never made a film aimed at younger audiences and about younger subjects exclusively. I thought, there's a way to ignite the imagination of kids without the conventions of sound, just like how you filled in the gaps of the illustrations. When you ask the audience to fill in gaps, it ignites certain powers we all possess as viewers that we sometimes overlook."

Although it might not be immediately evident to viewers of the film, Haynes and his team went to great lengths to ensure that deafness was embedded in the film's creative process in a number of ways. For example, in an early scene from Rose's story, she visits a theatre where silent film star Lillian Mayhew (played by Julianne Moore) is in rehearsal for a new play. Many of Lillian's co-stars in that play are portrayed by hearing-impaired actors. "We cast seven deaf actors as hearing characters in the film, including Millie," Haynes explains. "The most prominent deaf actor cast was Lauren Ridloff, who plays Pearl, the Maid. Additionally, there was Dr. Gill, the deaf teacher, one of the policemen, Miss Conrad (who works at the museum) and the Director and Lead actor at the theater. Since they all appear in the silent portion, they were afforded the unique task of playing hearing characters. A lot of these people came from deaf theatre, and brought their own experiences and points of view to the process It was one particularly unique way in which Deaf artists and contributors were woven into our experience making the film. That was really awesome."

Similarly, Haynes decided to immerse some of his hearing cast into a new frame of mind through some old-fashioned acting exercises conducted with some new technology. With young Oakes Fegley (as Ben), Haynes employed noise-cancelling headphones on a walking tour of the portions of New York City where the action takes place. Haynes remembers, "It's a grossly reductive version of what a deaf person might experience on a daily basis, and we did it in a very condensed amount of time, but it was so intensely memorable and vivid, it was an indication of how perception can be heightened with a diminished range of senses, and how experience is heightened. I'll never forget the color and images that afternoon. It was the way my eye was registering the world and touch and smell and shards of light hitting the bits of the city as we walked around. When we took off the noise-cancelling headphones there was a dullness to life - it just shows how the senses could be heightened."

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