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About The Production (Continued)

Anyone who has ever made a serious, ambitious and dramatic film with children as the main characters knows that finding the right child actor to bring a role to life can be a daunting challenge. Often operating with a minimum of trained technique and "life experience" that make for strong film performance, young actors often work by instinct and have to "get lucky" with the right combination of material, character and director. "Wonderstruck" would be no different -except that both of the main characters, in addition to being complex individuals experiencing an almost fantastic once-in-a-lifetime journey through the world's most famous city, also happened to be deaf.

This was slightly easier for the role of Ben who, only recently deaf, is comfortable speaking out loud and has lived in communication with other people, a more-or-less "normal" kid who grew up with a single mom in rural Minnesota before fate and circumstance change his life forever. Although only eleven years-old when he was cast as Ben, young Oakes Fegley had the right combination of presence and experience for Haynes to be confident in the performance.

"Oakes is a very precocious, and intensely bright young man," Haynes says. Ben also has the benefit of a sidekick, Jamie-initially conceived of as a Caucasian child in the novel, Haynes suggested to Selznick that Jamie be played by a Latino actor, to reflect 1977 New York City's demographics more accurately and bring some perspective to how these two "outsiders" connect.

"I knew right away that this was a fantastic idea," Selznick says about the change. Jaden Michael, an actor Haynes brought on board as Jamie, was praised for his maturity. "He is a lovely actor with the dearest, most generous soul," says the director.

Fegley drew rave reviews for his performances in last year's "Pete's Dragon," holding his own against no less than Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford. Even though Ben is a deaf child from the year 1977, Fegley saw a lot of parallels between himself and the character. "I think he likes to learn, and I like to learn," he ponders. "Ben is very curious; he has specific things that he has found out that he likes, and he likes those things a lot." He was also appreciative to conquer the challenge of representing deafness. Recalling his noiseless afternoon walking around the city with Haynes in headphones, he remembers, "It was crazy - you pay a lot more attention to visual detail, looking at people's lips, smelling things. I also met with some deaf people before we started filming, and that has helped me figure out what it's like to be deaf."

"The story made me cry, and that's not something I do often," says Jaden Michael, a native New Yorker who has been acting since the age of three and already counts no less than Viola Davis (in "Custody") as a onetime costar, and most recently appeared in "Paterson" for acclaimed indie icon Jim Jarmusch. Michael can't hide his enthusiasm for working with Todd Haynes. "Todd Haynes is an amazing director. An amazing person. He's inspiring. You get into the character, but Todd Haynes just gives you the extra push and he's a wonderful director. I mean, the awards say it all. He's an awesome person to be around. He has a wonderful finesse about him, you just get a little bubbly happy feeling just sitting next to him."

But finding the right performer to play Rose was going to be more of a challenge, and from the beginning, Haynes, Selznick, Vachon and the rest of the team were determined that the character needed to be played by a deaf actress, to underscore the authenticity of Rose's experience as well as provide more opportunities for the production to be informed by real-life deaf culture. "During the silent era," explains Selznick, "deaf actors were employed all the time because they were so expressive, they could tell stories with their bodies. I thought we could pay great homage to the history of cinema, and we could have most of them do something they don't normally do, which is play hearing characters." The exception is the permanently deaf Rose, and that meant that casting director Laura Rosenthal had her work cut out for her. Contacting schools for the hearing impaired and deaf theatre companies all over North America, she led the search for a young performer who shared Rose's condition and could also render her professionally and with the complexity that Selznick's story demanded. "I imagine casting is a hard enough job to find the right person for each part, so the pride that Laura and her team then took in finding Millicent Simmonds is great," says Selznick.

Utah native Simmonds, thirteen years old when she was cast, does not have an extensive professional career, but her work on the set and her contributions towards the fleshing out of Rose has left her much older and more experienced colleagues almost speechless. That was evident from an early audition tape that Selznick still tears up as he describes it. "I have to learn how to not get emotional when I talk about Millie," he says. "They asked her to make a tape and just tell us about herself...and with her mother, she made some posters to show along with the English translation of what she was signing. She was able to sign to the camera who she is, her name, what she was thinking - and then hold up a poster, for us hearing people. Then she would put that poster down, sign the next was her pride at being deaf and the beauty of the language that she felt, and she was so excited to share and talk about. It was just beautiful."

Working with Simmonds, particularly in the scenes where other deaf actors were present and felt empowered to contribute to the process, was an eye-opener for director Haynes. Working through a hired translator (and sometimes Simmonds' mother, fluent in sign language), Haynes found his young charge imaginative and responsive. "One of the most moving and informative parts of making this film was bringing Millie into the fold and sharing it with her," he says. "We just lucked out... She had never been in front of a camera before, and her ability to evoke emotion, and her ease with her body was just remarkable."

Any young teenager working with an Oscar Award-winning cast and crew on their first film is likely to be a bit daunted, and Simmonds is no exception. "I never thought I'd be doing this," she says in sign language. "I thought I would just sort of lead a normal deaf life. You know, and try to get through my life and deal with the typical problems you face growing up. But this, this is an amazing experience. I'm helping Rose come to life, and by bringing her to life it's making the movie come true. The crew is like my family - it's really been an amazing experience."

And of course, she is more than a little, let's say, "wonderstruck." "I didn't think it would be this big a deal. But when I got here and I was like 'What?! Todd Haynes?! Wait, wait the real Todd Haynes who wins awards and makes these awesome movies?!' I mean, this is crazy. And Julianne Moore! I mean, when I was little I always looked up to her, she is the person I aspired to be. She's an Oscar-winning actress and here I am. This is crazy. And they're both so nice and so sweet to me. And they're not afraid of me, they're really open and comfortable working with me." Haynes is now a Simmonds fan in return. "This a singularly special, unique, strong, and self-possessed person who taught us everything," he says of Simmonds. "She really moved and touched the crew and all of us and informed us deeply of what we were doing."

About the material and the character that she plays, Simmonds is equally enthusiastic. "I was so surprised that a hearing person would write this book, would tell a story about two deaf people and it just, it really grabbed my heart. I thought, the person who ever wrote this is a special person... I loved the drawings and the artwork. I loved how the two stories blended together." As for Rose, Simmonds finds much fodder for her character. Noting that her own family has been generous and supportive (they all use sign language, and new text-based technologies have made communicating with the deaf much easier than it was in the 1920s), Simmonds sees how different things were for Rose and what a challenging obstacle her deafness must have been. "Rose's family, they don't really understand how deaf people live in the world, and they're afraid of her. They're really afraid of must be really hard to be Rose."

Though she recognizes that Rose's father, a physician ashamed of his daughter's condition, means well by trying to keep his daughter "safe" and essentially locked up, Simmonds also thinks that Rose's absent mother factors into Rose's psyche in a complicate manner. At the beginning of the story, Rose seems to suspect that famous actress Lillian Mayhew is her real mother, and that possibility suggests more than just abandonment. "She's a young mother, almost a little too young," Simmonds imagines, "and I think maybe she didn't want children. I think she wanted to be free and independent, and I understand that as a woman back then, she didn't have a lot of rights. Maybe she wanted to be the one to show her daughter that women can do things and be independent," she concludes as to what Rose finds so fascinating about the mysterious Lillian.

Rounding out the principal cast as Lillian, and as an older Rose, is Julianne Moore, who has worked with Haynes before on several projects ("Safe," "Far from Heaven"), who was thrilled to take on the challenge of performing multiple parts as well as bringing Selznick's novel to life. Though her initial impression as Lillian Mayhew is important in establishing Rose's journey, it was playing the elder Rose, 50 years on, that Haynes knew would be a worthy challenge. "As always, Julianne does meticulous research and wants to feel confident that she really has explored all the parameters of the role and its terrain," he says, noting that she immersed herself in learning ASL to better communicate with Simmonds and the other deaf actors on the set, as well as to build her character. "She worked with great translators, but she worked with non-speaking deaf people as well. And because her brother in the movie-played by Tom Noonan as an adult and Cory Michael Smith as a younger man-signs with her, but he's a hearing man, he would sign differently than a non-hearing person would and those differences were very, very important to Julianne."

A fan of Selznick's and the novel, Moore knew that the author and producers, Powell and Vachon, were eager for her old friend Haynes to come on board, and was initially skeptical, only because she thought Haynes preferred to only direct projects that he had initially written and conceived of himself. But once Haynes was on board, she says it wasn't a surprise to see the appeal. She explains, "I'm not surprised because of the depth of the storytelling, and the interesting characters and the huge amount of emotion and the tremendous production value. All of those things are things that Todd really responds to."

And working again with Haynes was a no-brainer for the veteran actress, who was just coming off her Oscar-winning performance in "Still Alice." "We've known each other for twenty years now," she explains, "and he's someone who is as gifted visually as he is with language, and that's very unusual. You know you can always rely on him for this extraordinary visual storytelling. It's pleasure because he gives you such a tremendous frame to work in."

It has also been a growing experience, both when the cameras were rolling, as she took on the challenge of playing to different characters fifty years apart in time, as well as in between takes, fully absorbing the magnitude of the story. "I think one of the things that's been really wonderful for all of us working on this movie is how much we've learned about deaf culture. I think anytime you're learning another language it kind of expands your brain and opens up possibilities for you in terms of thought and relationships, and this is a true example of that. It's been, that's the most exciting part, actually, of making this movie, our introduction to deaf culture."

And she is equally thrilled by her young co-star as Millicent Simmonds is with her.

"Millie just clearly has a natural ability for it-not just for being at ease on camera but for vivid emotional storytelling. You see it in her body, you see it in her face, you see it in her complete understanding of who this character is and it's a wonderful thing. Everyone has noticed it; this is also a crew that I've worked with for a long time, and we watching her work and saying how extraordinary she is. And they're like, 'How does she do it?' And I said, 'Who knows, I think she's just a natural.'"


It's not a stretch to say that Todd Haynes and his crew are experts at period recreation, but the filmmakers' ability to capture a specific time and place is often more than just a matter of getting the details right. For example, the lush suburban 1950s setting of "Far from Heaven" is as much a tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk and other directors of the era as it is about precision and accuracy, while the dazzling 1970s of "Velvet Goldmine" owes more than a debt to the stylized glam rock lifestyle of its characters as much as it does to the real time and place. That ability is demonstrated again, twofold, in "Wonderstruck," as the story takes place fifty years apart and almost entirely in New York City, with much of the action occurring at the iconic American Museum of Natural History.

The first important element for Haynes, his team and moviegoers, to appreciate is that the dates selected by Selznick aren't random. 1927, the year that Rose ventures forth from her home into the city, is the year that is often remembered as the turning point in film history, when Warner Brothers' "The Jazz Singer" ushered in the era of sound moviemaking after its debut in October of that year. In fact, most film historians note that the transition to sound film dates back much earlier and the full impact of "talkies" was not realized until a couple of years later, but for a "symbolic" point in time, 1927 will do. Brian Selznick points out that this key event in 1927 is often pointed out as "a triumph in technology, something that moves everything forward. But from the perspective of deaf culture and deaf history, it was a tragedy for the deaf community, because it separated them from the audiences who were enjoying the movies. Before that, you could go as a deaf person, and the action is mostly happening visually on screen. I had never thought about this moment as something that would be problematic for part of the population."

Indeed, though the character of Lillian Mayhew is not deaf, she finds herself in an equally troubling transition from visibility to perhaps irrelevance. As a young girl, Rose can't quite appreciate it, but Lillian's stock as a film star is clearly falling with the coming of sound, and her return to the stage is more of a desperate act to keep her fame alive than an ambitious career move.

When he thought about setting Ben's story fifty years later, the year 1977 also had a particular resonance for Selznick, as it would for anyone who remembers the image of New York City and the events of that year. "Fifty is a nice round number," Selznick concedes. "I was eleven in 1977, and that was the summer of the blackout, one of the lowest points in New York history. I had forgotten that the blackout actually happened over my birthday, July 14th, and was caused by a lightning strike - and I knew that lightning was going to play a part in the story, that Ben was going to go deaf because of a lightning strike." Beyond the personal and creative synchronicity, it also felt like an appropriate balance for the more optimistic and dazzling New York of flapper-era 1927. "I thought of Hugo as a kind of love letter to Paris," Selznick adds. "And I thought well, you know, maybe I could make a book that was kind of a valentine to New York, and it might be more powerful if it's set at New York's lowest point."

"The fact that the story created a dialogue between these two periods of time, while retaining the continuity of New York, just begged our foregrounding of the cinematic styles of these two eras and how they had changed," he says. "First, it was an invitation to go back to the crowning years of silent film and some of its greatest masters--Murnau, Vidor, Chaplin--and study how it was they accomplished what they did. And what they accomplished was nothing less than the invention of the language of film, not to mention some of its greatest masterpieces. But for Rose, the looming transition from silent film to sound takes on a profound meaning, severing her from a universal experience the hearing world takes for granted. Contrast to that what was happening fifty years later, directly following the demise of the studio system, in the filmmaking styles of the 1970's, a period of independent vision and artistic invigoration which continues to inform filmmakers today, and there you have the radical spectrum offered by Brian's parallel stories."

Bringing those eras to life fell to Haynes' veteran design collaborators like Sandy Powell, production designer Mark Friedberg and cinematographer Ed Lachman. There was no question that production needed to be centered around New York - so much of the film occurs at the museum, that a stand-in urban environment on a backlot or in Canada would be impractical. But New York of the present day actually barely resembles the New York of four decades ago, let alone one nearly a century in the past. Mark Friedberg, who jokes that his preparation for "Wonderstruck" was "spending the better part of forty or fifty years driving around the city and learning its ins and outs," explains: "Most places we went to shoot our 1970s sets, we were ruining people's neighborhoods, just making them look trashed." Ultimately, Friedberg found some portions of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights that have not yet been gentrified, and could pass-with a lot of art direction-as the Upper West Side of 1977.

Citing Haynes' visual inspiration in films like "The French Connection," "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," Friedberg observes that, "The last vestige of the 'mean streets' is hardly left in the five boroughs... So a lot of our art direction on the streets is a lot of distressed signage and storefronts. And Todd's been very particular about the art direction of our garbage. In those movies, the ground has garbage blowing all over the place. We forget how badly behaved we once were, and how dysfunctional we had become." Actor Oakes Fegley agrees. He explains, "I'm from the 2000s, so it wasn't easy for me to understand what it was like. But I watched a movie about the 1977 blackout...and in 1977, New York was not the best place! It was dirty, just not a very nice place...completely different now."

Though perhaps a bit more glamorous and in ways easier to disguise because of the freshness of the architecture and built environment, bringing 1927 to life was also quite a challenge, particularly in finding a "typical" Broadway theatre where Rose tries to find Lillian Mayhew at the beginning of her journey. Friedberg explains, "There are certain theaters that are historically preserved... A very limited amount of theaters in New York that were available, or even things that could be theaters or look like theaters. We looked at them all - we looked at Broadway, we talked about big digital expansions and it just didn't feel right. Then I was driving around Crown Heights, and I screeched the car to a halt, and there was a building I had never seen before, which is always unusual for me. It was a church and it had these signs covering all of it, and it was an unusual building and I saw this strange detail from under the signs and we looked it up and found out that it was the original Loehmann's department store. Under these signs were some spectacular friezes, which the people who ran the church didn't even realize they had under there. After some negotiation, we were allowed to build our set and take off all of the church signage, which was nothing special, and build our set. But actually, what we uncovered was this beautiful building, unseen before, at least for the last 75 years. And that became our Promenade Theatre."

But for Freidberg and many of the New York based crew-many of whom, like Friedberg and Vachon, grew up in and around New York City-the high point may have been working so many long nights, after hours, in the Museum of Natural History. It has stood as a benchmark for New Yorkers in film and literature for decades, from Holden Caufield's remembrances of sister Phoebe in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" to the playful tweaking of the museum's exhibits in the "Night at the Museum" films with Ben Stiller.

"That was a place where I've grown up and have great reverence for and know well," says Friedberg. "It's not a place where I'm trying to influence terrifically from a design place. I'm trying to honor it. There's been a lot of updating that went on over the last fifty years, so we couldn't just transform it back. Fortunately, the museum was very cooperative with us, in an unusual way...a way they have never been with any other project before. When Brian wrote it there, he got to know the people in the museum and brought them into this process of research and how that research became the meat of his story. The book is about the amazing power of curation, about the inherent energy of things in the museum, and they were very excited about partnering with us. They sensed that this story isn't trying to exploit anything about the museum and quite the opposite that we were trying to honor it."


In a sense, the backdrop of the museum-which, in "Wonderstruck" is not just a location, but a place where collected precious objects hold the secret to Rose and Ben's mysterious connection-is a perfect reflection of the magic that Selznick's novel and now Haynes' film attempts to render. While not relying on the supernatural or any sleight of hand, the "wonder" implied in the title emerges as a combination of time, space, character and circumstance that would inspire awe in viewers of all ages and persuasions, just as they might feel encountering one of the world's greatest collections for the first time. Mark Freidberg explains, "You know, the dioramas there are really like short films. They're not much about frozen moments but they're more about what's just happened and what's about to happen. I think they are great places to get lost in your imagination. And that's where these stories intersect, in this cabinet of wonders, and the idea that this sacred room has maintained the energy of what happened fifty years ago. It still lives in there enough that it propels Ben to the truth that he's really looking for."

Producer Christine Vachon, who has produced all of Haynes' films and is thrilled to be still working with him "at the top of his game," points out that despite the "family" nature of the film and the young age of the protagonists, adults will have no lack of wonder. "Both the characters' journeys, they're really about people discovering that they're artists, and I think that will speak to a lot of people who are trying to figure out who they're really are. I mean look for anyone who has kids and has suffered through the majority of children movies-not all, but the majority-and I know how grateful I would be to have something I can watch with my child and appreciate along with them."

Todd Haynes agrees, pointing out that the complex storyline-which winds up with surprising revelations about Ben's past as well as opening a window towards both characters' potential futures-is likely to resonate with all viewers. "In many ways, the story functions as a mystery, in turn answering and then uncovering more questions about what is driving each child's journey and why they are being paralleled. In the end, we learn the value of following your own instincts and curiosity and overcoming your fears through various kinds of creative practices... It's a transformational power that we have in our own hands. It's very much about what you can learn and experience through your own eyes and what you can accomplish with your own hands. Not just overcoming loss and the unknown, but how to reach out and communicate with one another."

For someone who will spend much of her life communicating with her hands, young Millicent Simmonds sees value in "Wonderstruck" beyond the film's more obvious themes. "I think this movie will help a lot of deaf kids," she signs. "It will show them that they can do everything, that they can do anything. And it will help hearing people to understand how people live, how deaf people live and the struggles that they go through. I'm so happy to help spread that message."

"I want to continue acting," she concludes. "And maybe if I become an actress, then I can also have influence over hearing parents and tell them that it's very important to learn sign language to communicate with your children and have a good relationship with your children. And I want to show hearing parents that we can do it! Deaf kids can do it! I mean the only thing we can't do is hear. But we can read, we can be active, we can be strong leaders, we have all our other senses just like everyone else. Deaf people are very expressive and we use a lot of our body language and a lot of our facial expressions and I love using all of these tools to tell a story."


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