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Todd Haynes on ‘Wonderstruck,’ Perceptions of Childhood, and David Bowie

Written by on October 17, 2017 

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It’s no small testament to Todd Haynes that this is the second interview this website’s conducted with him since August. Although the opening of his newest film, Wonderstruck, is a proper excuse, that’s only ostensibly the occasion; the truth is that we’d gladly go over his decades- and genre-spanning filmography any day of the week and still have plenty of ground to cover.

So it’s doubly to our fortune that Wonderstruck befits multiple rounds of discussion. A children’s adventure movie wrapped in a two-pronged period piece that can hardly conceal the tragedies this kind of work so often doesn’t want you to think about, it finds Haynes and the usual band of collaborators — DP Ed Lachman, composer Carter Burwell, and costume designer Sandy Powell among them — working on their biggest canvas yet. For recalling the director’s artistic history as much as anything else, it’s only natural that the film would act as the springboard for a one-thing-after-the-other chat.

The oldest available work of yours is a 1978 short, The Suicide, that surveys unbearably severe trauma inflicted upon a child; about fifteen years later, there’s Dottie Gets Spanked, another consideration of how childhood is so often a scarring experience; and now there’s Wonderstruck. Similar traumas abound therein, but, as evidenced from the title on down, it’s also more wondrous, even lighter. Can you chart this long arc of depicting childhood, as well as any (possible) perception of the projects as connected entities?

I haven’t thought about The Suicide in the context of Wonderstruck until this question, although we put it in the Safe extras because it just came back to me through friends at the time, and I was just like, “Oh, wow! Weird. An artifact from my life.” And I recently saw Dottie in Vienna — actually just a few days ago, when I was there for a retrospective, and it preceded a masterclass that I gave. That, probably in a way that is quite different from either The Suicide or Wonderstruck, is probably the most directly autobiographical of the three films we’re talking about. And that film, although I think it’s full of tensions between the sense of social law and limits that children, invariably or usually or normally, have to confront at some level — in some kids, it’s more of a conflict than for others — it’s full of so many expressions of desire that are played out in a creative practice that the kid has in the movie, where he kind of reveals who he is through the drawings that he makes and fixations he has in popular culture.

In that way, I think there’s a direct line to Wonderstruck, which, of course, is something I did not write; it did not come from my own life in the way that, maybe, no film does more so than Dottie, because it’s full of my own drawings and my own obsessions with Lucille Ball, and was occasion to bring those things together in this thing made for public television. But I did really feel that there was something that made tremendous sense, that I liked saying for a film about kids. Maybe there is more hope in Wonderstruck… I mean, there is, because he kind of finds a family. At the end of Dottie, he’s preparing this… he’s sort of repressing his own desires, but you feel like it’s in the interest of the future.

He’s literally burying it.

Literally burying it, but taking very good care with it. It’s almost like, “I’m going to be able to get back to this at some safer time, when I have more agency.” But for Wonderstruck, these kids also have creative practices. They’re also isolated, also confronting limited freedom due to circumstances and disability, but they figure out the value of how those creative practices get you through life and help you navigate finding the answers to your stories. It’s structured like a mystery, and so it’s structured in such a way that the questions need to be answered by the structure itself, by the genre of the mystery, and so they are. So it does have that sort of satisfaction of questions being answered, families being found — even if it’s not the family that he thought he was going to find. He ends up having to, sort of, find a different family.

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And your tastes are clearly sprinkled throughout. Looking at this through an auteurist lens, as your fans are wont to do, there’s some additional interest in (as far as I counted) four references to Bob Dylan: the silent-movie intertitle that uses the phrase “shelter from the storm”; the two album covers in the book shop; and, my favorite, the sign for a bus station in Duluth, Dylan’s birthplace. I assume those are intentional.

They actually weren’t. They were all inherited — except for the set dressing in the bookstore. Oh, yeah, and the bedroom, because there’s also a Dylan… one is in the bedroom and one is in the bookstore, I think. Or both of them are in the bookstore. There’s Blonde on Blonde in the back of the bookstore.

And Bringing It All Back Home somewhat obscured behind the top of the staircase.

That’s right. Further up on the stairs. Those were the only things that I, myself, inserted into this story, but they were not meant to be overly stated — in fact, there was actually Paul McCartney, one of the photos from Let It Be, on the wall where Blonde on Blonde was. We shot half the scene with the Paul McCartney photo where the Blonde on Blonde was, and we were like, “Oh, shit — that’s going to cost way too much money. We have a good relationship with Jeff Rosen and the Dylan estate, so let’s quickly swap out for some Bob.” It’s all quite relevant for somebody who does come from Minnesota, and the Duluth bus station is in the script because it’s all part of that.

But it was brought up in the press conference after the screening: someone said, “Oh, yeah, you put the Oscar Wilde quote in the beginning of the movie” — and, again, that was from Brian Selznick’s book and script. Because I had a friend who saw a cut of Wonderstruck and he said, “Yeah, I think it’s working well, but I really don’t think you need to impose your own stuff in it, like the Oscar Wilde quote and the David Bowie song.” And I’m like, “Actually, Greg, check out the book. They’re both there.”

Yet “shelter from the storm” was my “game on” moment.

Right, right, right! Right.

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I’m also a Dylan obsessive, so any little thing will make the antennas spring up.

Exactly. Well, he’s omnipresent, and I have to carry that as a legacy.

Worse things.

I’ll say. There are moments in my life where my name will come up in the lineage of “Sirk to Fassbinder to Todd Haynes,” or “Todd Haynes and David Bowie” in the same sentence, or “Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan” in the same sentence. It’s… yeah. The impact is not lost on me.

I imagine there’s gratification in using a Bowie song, given the somewhat legendary story of him reading Velvet Goldmine’s script and wholly rejecting the project. There’s no Bowie music there.

There’s no Bowie music in the movie, and I know that the movie is, I think, a better film for that. I do think that that concept of the parallel universe that we set up — that I kind of took from the language and discourse, or the elevation of artifice that was the mandate of the glam era that I found so contrary to what we often expect from music and art — made it better to have those songs that replaced those sort of spaceholders. And they were: they became structuring devices for how I wrote the script and how I conceived of the story. They were lifted out and replaced by other songs — often Roxy Music songs, a lot of Eno songs, and some Cockney Rebel songs — and so it was also music that was just lesser-known, and maybe freer for associations that one could then bring to the film and still fix back to Bowie, of which there are so many references and to which it is so indebted.

But yes: I have regrets that Bowie didn’t see I was taking his own invitation to kind of play with fictionalizing one’s self and creating parallel narratives and aliases and all of that stuff, and that I was just taking it to what I thought was the next logical place. But yeah, it’s certainly cool to now have it. And when he passed away — because it was sort of after I had started to think about doing this film — we were hearing a lot of Bowie music and I thought maybe “Space Oddity” would be too worn-out and feel tired and exhausted by that process, but it lives on with new associations.

I must be honest: initially, hearing “Space Oddity” made me groan a bit because I thought, “The guy who named a movie after ‘Velvet Goldmine’ is going to use the Bowie song from car commercials?” Then it connects to the characters and incidents in a way that, by the end, I found very moving, and in a way the song has pretty much never moved me. I love Bowie dearly, but that’s one of those songs towards which I have very few feelings.

Yeah. It’s not my favorite Bowie song or the one that blows my mind when I hear it again. It does feel like it belongs to an early… it’s almost like a one-hit wonder for David Bowie. It could be that guy who never made another song. It was essentially an attempt to finally get his foot in the door, because he made many attempts at incarnations before that moment, and it didn’t really hold and that one did.

But then there’s just another sort of metonymical, funny, internal riff that it’s “Space Oddity” — a riff on “space odyssey,” of course, because that was what inspired it initially. Then the Deodata song that comes in later in the movie, that’s obviously playing with “Also Spoke Zarathustra,” that’s a riff on “Space Oddity,” that also is, within the context of Wonderstruck — which is talking about the ‘70s and movies from the ‘70s — a riff on Being There, where the song was first used, that I know of, in the scene of Peter Sellers leaving his weird, sanctioned, early life.

Which maybe leads to something that was on my mind: when preparing for Carol, your actors studied the particulars of ‘50s speech patterns. Was a similar process undertaken for the ‘70s segments? I wonder if you’d be especially conscious of this, since you were alive at that time.

Not to the same degree, where a kind of codified idea of femininity that was so… this documentary, Lovers and Lollipops, had this female character who had a poise and a sort of self-conciousness in the way she presented herself as a woman. She was sort of middle-class, and it was such a specific way of self-presentation and speech, and felt like, really, a lost vernacular or practice. In a way, I do think codes of femininity have been exploded maybe more radically than the way people spoke in the 1970s, which I think has been incorporated — except for specific slang, where the kids would say certain things, when they would improvise, like, “Awesome!” And we’d be like, “No, you can’t say ‘awesome.’ You can say ‘neat’ and ‘cool.’”

I think more what we were trying to pay attention to was practices of non-speech, and the way that — and it had everything to do with Millie’s story — kind of vernacular, coming out of movies that was not about naturalism, but was kind of trying to find the correct lyricism, I think, to allow for some moments of acceleration and almost expressionistic little touches. But mostly to honor something that we don’t think of in silent film, which is an understatement in how people perform and how much you have to watch.

I was so surprised when I saw The Crowd — which I had actually never seen; it was hard to locate — how much key emotional moments were performed without intertitles. And it expected the audience to watch the performances acutely. They were very naturalistic performances, but they were expressing extremely serious, dire situations — or domestic situations, but they were dire to the people involved. And they were about how visual gesture and the face conveys the information and how we perceive it in ways that I think we don’t necessarily train, that way of perceiving, anymore. Not as highly fine-tuned as it was.

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Tom Noonan: great American actor or greatest American actor?

That’s the question?

Yes. I was so happy to see him show up here; I had no idea he was in the cast.

He also plays such a kind… just something I don’t associate with Tom Noonan, so I think we were asking of him something quite different than we expect of Tom Noonan in the amazing panoply of evil characters he’s played in movies over the years. Always unexpectedly, the way he conveys evil, because he has the sort of gentle, sweet giant quality.

A very soft voice.

A very soft voice and kind of a tenderness that he uses to trick us with his sinister characterizations. But Tom actually spent time in Massachusetts in the ‘70s, and he learned sign language a little bit and he remembered some of it. And he has these hands that are, like, this long [expands arms], so the physicality that Tom Noonan brings, I think, to everything he does was, in this role, asking, yet again, something unique from him. And then those sort of huge, wafting fingers that you literally felt the wind off of as he communicated with Julianne Moore. Yeah, he brought something that I hadn’t seen him do before, and that’s saying quite a lot in this film.

He’s one of my favorites, so it was a pleasure.

Yeah, it was amazing — one more little touch in the movie that I can’t imagine not being there.

Wonderstruck opens on Friday, October 20.


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