Todd Haynes On 'Wonderstruck,' And Evolution Of Deaf Culture In The U.S.

Oct 15, 2017
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Todd Haynes might seem an unlikely director to make a children's movie. He first attracted attention and controversy with a film where film where Barbie dolls acted out the life of an anorexic singer. That was followed by melodramas, including 2015's "Carol," which conjures a forbidden lesbian love in the 1950s. Now Todd Haynes has taken a turn into entirely new territory with his film "Wonderstruck," where you'll find wide-eyed children chasing around the magical dioramas of New York's Museum of Natural History.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WONDERSTRUCK")

MONTAGNE: In "Wonderstruck," two children have run away to New York 50 years apart. In 1927, Rose, deaf since birth, carries a picture of a beautiful silent screen star, someone she clearly adores. Ben in 1977, who is newly deaf after being struck by lightning, is searching for the father he never knew. Ben's story is brightly colored and loud. Rose's world is black and white and silent but for a beautiful score.

Todd Haynes. Welcome to the program.

TODD HAYNES: Thank you, Renee. It's a pleasure to be back.

MONTAGNE: So the first part of the film really is in the silent era, and you have made a little silent film.

HAYNES: Yeah, we do. There's a portion in the story that shows the young Rose character, played by Millicent Simmonds, going to the movie theater. And we got to literally do the movie within the movie and a portion of the story that is very much about cinema.

MONTAGNE: So it is. It's a film within a film, and the young girl, Rose, is filled up with it because...

HAYNES: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...She can watch a film that she doesn't need to hear.

HAYNES: Exactly. And that's one of the first revelations, I think, in the film, that, you know, when sound entered the scene, it segregated a portion of the population. It's a momentous event in the film of "Wonderstruck" - and for little Rose to see that the theater she goes to in Hoboken is being transferred to a sound facility. And all of a sudden, she is left in the lurch.

MONTAGNE: But one thing about the way she passes through her life struck me as very interesting. She often is being yelled at. I mean, there's a lot of anger. It's silent, but you're seeing angry faces...

HAYNES: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...Because they either don't understand she's deaf, or they're upset. Is that maybe true to what it would've been like in her world in 1927?

HAYNES: From what I understand of the history is that following the era of Helen Keller, which was a really progressive moment for the way deaf and handicapped kids and blind kids started to be educated in the United States, oralism was imposed. And that was forcing kids to speak and to assimilate into hearing society as much as possible.

And it really wasn't until a leaven article that came out in 1960 that talked about sign language and described all the integrity of this language. And a new era of appreciation for what sign language was was ushered in. And I think you see in "Wonderstruck" both sides of that divide is played out in the two stories that parallel the film because Ben, the little boy in the '70s, also becomes deaf in the course of the film.

MONTAGNE: Rose, Millicent Simmonds - the actress is in fact deaf and could've been a star in the silent era, as she holds down the movie just with her eyes practically. She's an amazing young actress. How did having a deaf actress play the role add to the truth of this movie?

HAYNES: Well, I think it can't be overstated what having Millie (ph) - both the fact of having a deaf actor in the film but also this particular human being, who is just an exceptional person. And we couldn't have known what an innate sense she had for the camera.

MONTAGNE: And ultimately, for you, you've made serious movies for adults about people in difficult circumstances. Why a children's movie?

HAYNES: I felt like it spoke to something indomitable about the nature of kids and the ability for kids to be confronted with challenges and the unknown and to keep muscling through those challenges. And I think in many ways, it reminded me of movies that I saw when I was a kid that maybe were a little beyond my reach when I saw them but that my parents would expose me to. And they were films that made me kind of want to learn more about life and turned me on to the excitement of cinema and ultimately made me want to be a director of movies.

MONTAGNE: Todd Haynes' new movie is "Wonderstruck." And I'm sorry to say because of the news of this past week that I really can't leave you without asking about Harvey Weinstein. You have worked with him. He's distributed your movies. I know you've already commented and said it's distressing to hear these terrible things, these accusations and reports of his sexual harassments and assaults.

But one of the producers of your film "Carol," Elizabeth Karlsen, said she also knew about an executive who had experienced one of these assaults and that it actually affected to some degree some of the opening for that movie, "Carol," because news had emerged of another accusation. I mean, did you have an inkling?

HAYNES: To be honest, I don't know exactly what the executive Liz (ph) is referring to in that story. There was a news story that came out about a model who he made advances toward, but it hit the newspapers. It was while we were embarking on the distribution of "Carol." In the days since I was first asked about it, where it was certainly distressing to hear the first reports, it's continued to explode and snowball. I don't think anybody cannot not feel anything but disgust at the stories that we've heard.

MONTAGNE: Did you hear rumors, though?

HAYNES: I heard some stuff before I started working with Harvey. On my second feature film, I had an assistant director who had come from Miramax, and she left. She was an assistant for Harvey Weinstein. That was the first time I ever heard anything. But, actually, in the years that we really did work closely together on these movies, no. I did not continue to hear these stories myself.

MONTAGNE: You know, unintentionally, I mean, whether you knew anything or had heard just a rumor or suspected, you and other filmmakers who worked with Harvey Weinstein in the end did benefit from his abilities that nobody can deny, his ability to get a movie going and get Oscar nominations. Have you thought that one through?

HAYNES: I guess. I mean, there's - the films of mine that he took on were some of my more challenging films. And so they didn't receive huge commercial rewards, but they were distributed by Harvey for sure. And so yes, I benefited in that regard. To the degree of what's coming out right now, I'm shocked I didn't hear more about it, having worked with him over the years.

MONTAGNE: Todd Haynes, thank you very much for being with us today.

HAYNES: Thank you so much, Renee. It's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN SOLLEE'S "GROWING UP")

MONTAGNE: His new film "Wonderstruck" comes to theaters nationwide next Friday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.