The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Wonderstruck.
What was it like adapting your book into your first screenplay?
Brian Selznick: I started writing the screenplay secretly at night when I was illustrating and writing another book. On the set of Hugo, I had become friends with Sandy Powell and it was her idea to bring Wonderstruck to Todd Haynes. I then worked on the script for a couple months with John Logan, the screenwriter for Hugo. I only had only thought of this idea as a book, so that adaption was difficult for me. In the book, Rose’s story is done entirely and drawings so it’s a visual experience, while Ben’s story is told all words and no pictures. The interaction between words and pictures wasn’t something you can do on screen, so I had to find a cinematic equivalent for that. I thought of the idea of telling Roses’ story like a black and white silent film so we feel like we were watching the silence because we actually only later find out later that she’s deaf. Then we have Ben’s story which is told like a traditional ’70’s film.
“we walked around the city with noise canceling headphones”
How did prepare to portray a character who loses his hearing?
Haynes: We did a number of things. We talked about it and we had this day in pre-production when we walked around the city with noise canceling headphones and experienced life the closest way we could to would be like to sense New York City without hearing. It provided an insight for how the senses get scrambled and how the hierarchy of the senses get shifted. I just remember how visually clear the city looked in that exercise. We were touching walls as we walked along and the sense of touch was heightened. Afterwards I did feel like it was a little grayer when I took off the headphones as it was like the vividness was lost. We also talked to a guy named Tom who became deaf when he was six years old and Oakes asked him a lot of insightful questions.
Oakes Fegley: You don’t think about your senses individually when you think about your senses in the world around you. They all just blend together, which leaves your brain to just kind of figure it out. When you lose one, it changes the way they are mixed together and makes each individual sense heightened. That was something I really noticed in our exercise, so when I took this experience into my character, I made sure to utilize sight. I was always looking around trying to get visual cues from the environment. Throughout the film there’s so much that I’m trying to hear that I can’t because my character is adjusting to life without the ability to hear. It’s difficult for him because he knows that talking makes a sound, so he’s searching for the sound and it’s not there for him.
To craft the relationship between Ben and Jamie, did you get a chance to hang out before shooting?
Jaden Michael: We had a few weeks before the shoot where we just kind of hung out. During the costume fitting, we went to restaurants and just got to be friends. It really helps when shooting because we were already close and had more of a connection during the shoot. The fighting scene was a lot of fun to film because we just got to yell at each other, especially because Todd kept on pushing us to yell louder and get angrier.
Fegley: It was really awesome being able to meet Jaden and get to be friends before shooting because that carried into the movie. The first time I met him was my first day in New York and is very similar to the first time Ben sees Jamie.
You had the challenge of playing two roles in the film. How did you prepare each role?
Julianne Moore: I was, in a sense, trying to learn two languages: one being the language of silent film within a silent film, and the other that of deaf culture. Both required a considerable amount of research since neither of them are things I’ve been exposed to before. I had only watched a few silent films. Todd put together this wonderful compilation to look at for research and it was beautiful. We based her off of Lillian Gish, who was the most naturalistic and expressive silent film stars, so we heavily researched all of her films. In terms of playing someone who is deaf, I started working with my teacher on ASL. I watched Millie a lot too since my character is based on her actual physical being, so I asked Todd to send all of your dailies to see how she held her body and how she moved. She’s incredibly expressive and still. Her eyes are always moving and she keeps her mouth closed a lot so she’s unusually observant. The most important thing for that was believing that we’re the same character once the reveal is made.
The editing in weaving the two stories together flowed seamlessly, how did you accomplish this?
Haynes: It was an exercise from the formal concept of Brian’s script and playing with the contrast of these two historical time frames. It required setting up how different New York was economically, and how it had a different energy. We wanted to obliterate the differences and to find parallels between the two children’s destinies, since I consider this film a single organism. So, it was trying different combinations and figuring out how long to stay in one story and when to leave one story to get the audience involved. The music became the foundation of how the edit was built. Early on, I realized we couldn’t put two clips together without having a temp score to see how the silent parts work, so we had to curate a temp score before we could even put pictures together. We ended up with a very ornate and subtle temp score between the two stories and then it was Carter Burwell’s job to execute and bring it to life.