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The Visual Language of ‘Wonderstruck’

"You feel the characters, you feel the life of these people, but you understand that [Todd Haynes] is in total control of the world in which they exist."

Wonderstruck, the new film from director Todd Haynes, “is an ode to silent movies,” says Kaleem Aftabh. The director says in an interview with Aftabh, “‘I find movies rely upon dialogue too much sometimes, and you lose the power of what really the most basic cinematic language is, which is the visual language.’

“Much of the film is without dialogue and it was the challenge of telling the story with pictures rather than words that excited Haynes so much: ‘I didn’t quite realize until we started to put together our first cut of Wonderstruck, how much time is spent with no words spoken whatsoever.'” To read Aftabh’s full interview with Haynes, click here

Adapted from the book by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck follows Ben and Rose, children from two different eras who secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known, while Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his home and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out on quests that unfold with mesmerizing symmetry.

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“Todd is one of the few directors whose intellect matches their artistry,” explains Selznick. “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.”

“I felt that excitement of somebody really thinking about film in a kind of way that made it all feel fresh,” Haynes tells KC Ifeanyi. “But I also felt that this was something incredibly unique, strange, and original for kids that could be unlike anything anybody else had ever seen before.

“I could give the same kind of attention to detail and be complicated and be cinematic and talk about film history and talk about American history but give it to kids to have it be their thing. It made me remember how much movies meant to me when I was a kid.” To read the full interview, click here.

The fim’s 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.”

“[The book] was so powerfully cinematic,” Haynes says, “and it basically invited a maker of film into the process of re-visioning [Selznick’s] beautiful book through a cinematic view which is what I responded to initially.

“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.”

To create these visuals, Haynes tells Michael Koresky, “I was compelled to look back at films that affected me a great deal when I was younger. They weren’t necessarily films set in [New York city], they were films that just underscored and ignited the point of view of young people in unique ways, like Walkabout. Or Sounder was a film that I loved, the Martin Ritt movie from 1972. And I thought, oh, that moved me so much as a child, I’m going to go back and it’s going to be a very sentimental, manipulative movie about a dog and a sharecropping family in the ’30s. But it is so restrained, it is so elegant, it is so sophisticated. It is told from the point of view of the son, who has to go on a sort of journey to find his father, who’s been imprisoned just for stealing some food to make ends meet in their poverty… I think I felt that what Brian [Selznick’s] concept offered me was a chance to do something extraordinarily artful, sophisticated, nuanced, mature—for kids.” To read the full interview, click here.

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Gallery: Wonderstruck

To watch an interview with cinematographer Edward Lachman, ASC, about the film’s visuals, click here.

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