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Todd Haynes talks about sound and quiet in ‘Wonderstruck’

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Todd Haynes is pictured on the set of “Wonderstruck.” (Courtesy Mary Cybulski)
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Todd Haynes is one of the few American filmmakers that conveys ideas and emotion in equal measure. Movies like “Far from Heaven,” “I’m Not There” and “Carol” have well-told stories with both subtleties and analysis.

Haynes’ masterful new “Wonderstruck” may seem like a departure. It sports a PG rating, and it’s based on a kid-friendly book by Brian Selznick, whose “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2011 “Hugo.”

“The script was so cinematic and it really started to make you think about the language of film, while also telling a story about the history of film,” says Haynes during a recent visit to The City. “So it did fit into things that I’ve done before and what I respond to,” he continues.

“Wonderstruck” interweaves two stories. In 1927 — a segment shot and presented like a silent-era movie — a deaf girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) goes looking for her movie-actress mother (Julianne Moore) in New York City.

And in 1977, filled with grimy, grindhouse-era colors and a funky soundtrack, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is struck by lightning and loses his hearing. His mother (Michelle Williams) refuses to tell him about his father, so when he finds a clue, he likewise journeys to New York City to discover more.

“It’s a mystery story, so little clues are leading you in one direction, and the answer to one clue provides a new question that leads you in a different direction,” says Haynes. “But those questions and answers have everything to do with the way the stories are intercut. You’re always asking: Why are these two stories sharing one film?”

From left, Jaden Michael, Oakes Fegley, and Julianne Moore star in “Wonderstruck.” (Courtesy Mary Cybulski)

Haynes is especially aware of the way the characters, both deaf and hearing, communicate and respond to one another.

“It’s a film that considers the deaf culture and the deaf experience, but it’s made by hearing people,” he says. “This is a movie where we never take hearing for granted. You really think about it.”

He paid particular attention to the movie’s music and sound design: “It has a dynamic range. It gets so quiet one moment, and then completely full and lyrical and orchestrated. Just the sheer amount of music in this is unusual. We needed to do so many different kind of things, but not tire you out,” he says.

Haynes mentions a pivotal movie from his youth, “The Miracle Worker,” which surely had an effect on “Wonderstruck.” He describes the “eureka moment” when Helen Keller is first able to connect words and things, the signifier and the signified.

“It’s a beautiful moment and it’s all about language,” he says. “It gives me chills just thinking about it!”

Haynes, who grew up with movies, was bit by the cinematic bug at an early age. “It made me who I am. It made me want to respond creatively,” he says.

He also identifies with the young heroes in “Wonderstruck,” saying, “Both these kids have that, and it’s gonna help them cope and get through their challenges.”

IF YOU GO
Wonderstruck
Starring Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams
Written by Brian Selznick
Directed by Todd Haynes
Rated PG
Running time 1 hour, 57 minutes

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