'Wonderstruck' Director Todd Haynes on Reuniting With Julianne Moore and Working With Child Actors (Exclusive)

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Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Todd Haynes relaxes into a couch in a suite at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, having arrived at his final sit down at the end of a long press day for his new film, Wonderstruck, which tells the interlacing stories of two children across different time periods: In 1977, Ben (played by Pete's Dragon actor Oakes Fegley) goes on a quest through New York City to find the father he never knew, while in 1927, Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), a young, deaf cinephile, likewise sets out into the city in search of silent movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). The movie marks the director's fourth collaboration with Moore, following 1995's Safe, 2002's Far From Heaven (which he was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay and she for Best Actress) and 2007's I'm Not There.

Considering Wonderstruck had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, followed by a run of the festival gauntlet with screenings at Telluride, BFI London and as the centerpiece selection at the New York Film Festival, Haynes has been out promoting the movie all year. Still, ahead of its release on Oct. 20, he is just as impassioned when discussing with ET the film, reuniting with his leading ladies and taking a chance on child actors.

ET: Carol [Haynes' 2015 romantic melodrama starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara] was very much a film for grown ups, so people have been surprised you chose this as your follow-up. More so, it is always difficult in movies about children, to not make them so childish that they're completely dumbed down and not so mature that they're little adults--

Todd Haynes: That they're unrealistic, yeah.

How did you strike that balance?

To answer your first question, I was excited by the premise of doing something that I'd never really done before. Or at least for an audience that I'd never really addressed directly before, which is younger viewers, and feeling almost a stake of commitment in the fact that some kids -- this won't be for all kids -- but that there are kids out there who might be able to go there and who want to be challenged and be exposed to things they'd never seen before. I just know that when I was a kid, it was movies and books that were a little beyond my reach, those were the things that stayed with me. Those were the things that made me wonder and keep returning to them and wanting to figure them out and wanting to reach back and grow. In many ways, those movies, that were a little bit sophisticated, were things that made me respond creatively to that gap.

But I think the balance of the kids and their maturity in this movie has a lot to do with this age that they're at, which is this interesting age of 12, which is basically right before puberty. Kids have reached a level of knowledge and awareness and wisdom and clarity that, I might argue, we never exceed in our life, because then hormones come in and all of a sudden we're back to base pigs for the rest of our lives. [Laughs] At least, I can only speak for men. But, you know, we're not the same! And I think there's something really special about this age that's just freed from that moment and capable of real insight and also intimacy with each other that isn't defined yet, closeness with each other that is really special and really beautiful...I was watching other films with great kid performances, like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet or Roddy McDowall in How Green Was My Valley, amazing performances that I've always loved. They're all 12 years old. It's, like, that age. I don't think [Elizabeth Taylor] has ever been more free in anything she's done, before she was a sexual object. She did all of her own stunts on the horse, and she's just amazing. I love Elizabeth Taylor, but it's just a really remarkable age.

I have no doubt that, if kids were taken to this movie, they would find a lot that they enjoy in it. But it's also half a silent film in black and white. Was there concern about the fact that this isn't a movie that has explosions in the trailer and it's not animation...

I think it's a challenge, I do. I think you're right. But I think we maybe bottom feed our culture a little too much these days and think less of what people are capable of. Parents are looking for things of nourishment to do as a family on the weekend. I went to the Women's March the day after Trump was elected and I'm looking around like, "You know, Wonderstruck may not be for everybody, but there are a lot of kids here with their families who made signs and their parents are engaged and pissed off and they want to see a different kind of world. And they want to see a world that really offers meaning and values and doesn't embarrass us." There are kids right there! If you take kids somewhere, they are remarkably open. They're more open than adults. If it's out there in the world, sure, a lot of kids may not respond, but there will be some that do.

Millicent Simmonds in 'Wonderstruck'
Photo: Amazon Studios

You've written most of your projects, so I assume it must take something special to sign on to something someone else wrote. What was it about Brian Selznick's novel and then script that made you want to direct it? And what did you feel you could bring to it as a director?

I read the script first, and the script was already really considered as a piece of cinema. Like, how to make the language of movies come to life and tell the story, because the story is not dialogue-driven because the kids don't hear. So, it means the editing, the music, the cinematography, the costume design, the production design, all these things tell the story, and the performances without words -- their gestures, their looks. It was like Brian had been bitten by the cinema bug. Clearly, he has been, because it's in his stories. It's in his content. But he was thinking about it in style and in form, and I just thought, How cool, you know?...I thought, This kind of a movie gets me and all my creative team fully employed in our creative ambitions. Because the only way it will work is when everybody is in top form and everyone has to step up and be noticed for what they do. And it's not gratuitous, it's literally how the film is going to work. The editing, the music, the sound design -- all those things. And I have all these great people to fit the bill.

Including, obviously, Julianne.

And Julianne! My god! And then these kids. Millie, like this discovery we made, this kid! This deaf girl who's never acted in her life, who comes out from outside Salt Lake City, Utah, and because of my amazing devoted casting director, Laura Rosenthal, and her team, we were just indefatigable about trying to find deaf kids in this country to audition, to send in little home tapes. That's how we found Millie.

What did it mean to you to cast a deaf actress in that role?

It meant that we were honoring this experience as something that we can't presume to know everything about as hearing people. Obviously, we knew very little about it, and so we wanted to feel like, Let's go to somebody who really would know what Rose's experience would be like, even in a very different time in the world, even without access to sign language. One of the first things Millie said in her homemade tape -- because we would ask the kids to slate and say who they are a little bit in sign language -- and she said, "I love my language! I love sign language!" Her whole body showed that. But she doesn't use sign language as Rose in the movie, so how the hell did this kid know how to perform for the camera without even that? Something innate was happening between Millie and the lens of the camera, and that is partly true to the fact that she's deaf, but it's also just who she is as a person. Because she's an absolutely unique and extraordinary kid.

Taking a chance on any unknown actor is a risk.

Yes, it's a risk!

And especially with a child actor, that feels doubly so. What was it about Millie that convinced you to take that risk?

She was extraordinary. I think Laura and I both fell a little in love the minute we saw her tape, but then you just don't know whether she can act. Like, you can love somebody and think they're a great person, but it doesn't mean they can act. Well, she could act. So, you know... When you asked that question, I'm thinking, like, What a maniac! What crazy person would even have taken that risk! Because not only did we have a deaf kid who had never acted before holding one half of the entire movie in her hands, we had two other kids holding the other half and we had a schedule where the kids could only shoot eight or nine hours a day because of union rules. Which meant we had to shoot some of the 1920s and some of the 1970s every day of the shoot to pull it off. So, that meant that there was no time for the kids to not deliver, or the time would be gone and we'd be screwed! We put so many eggs in those baskets and it just took a mutual sense of-- You almost think sometimes a plane won't take off unless everybody in the plane has the same mental wish that's completely irrational, that this multi-ton thing is going to go into the sky, and in a way, that's what a movie is. It takes this kind of irrational, communal wish that it's going to fly, or it won't. We definitely relied on that irrationality.

Wonderstruck Poster
Photo: Amazon Studios

And both Oakes and Millicent are wonderful in the movie. How does your directing process change when working with child actors?

I don't know that it does. At least, again, with kids this age, treating them with a mature respect and like you would any adult. Like, really being straight up with them and honest and saying, This is what we need, I think that goes a long way. And these kids were remarkably sophisticated and smart and well prepared and serious about what they were doing, so they liked being treated with respect and then they delivered and didn't feel condescended to or pandered to or worried over or something. It always helps when you have good parents, too, that you can communicate with and who are there if you run over a little bit. And that happened to be the case. So...we were lucky, man. We were f**king lucky.

It's been 10 years since you and Julianne last worked together. How have you seen her change as an actor over the years?

I've just seen her continue to multiply in just what you wish for all great artists, that they keep getting the chance to show what they can do and keep getting the platform and that's been true for Julianne, as it should. And I'm a fan! I go to see her movies like a spectator that adores her work, and then when I work with her, I feel like she comes to the set with the same kind of serious preparedness that I try to bring in my job and I think we both feel like we're in safe hands with the other.

There are times where her work is so amazing that I start cracking up. This happened on I'm Not There, where she would just make me crack up. She was playing this Joan Baez-inspired character, and I would just lose it and she'd say, "OK, Todd, you're going down the hall!" And so I would be banished down the hall. This doesn't happen with anyone else -- I'm very professional. But with Julie, there's something that gets tickled, so it must also be the feeling of, like, family or someone that you just lose your decorum around, because only she can bring it out in me. But it's only because she's that good.