FILMMAKER TODD HAYNES FINDS COMMON GROUND
Prolific independent filmmaker Todd Haynes has created a lot of movies over the past few decades, and many of them have a common thread reflective of his life experience as a gay man: a feeling of exclusion from "dominant society."
Haynes is considered a pioneer of the queer filmmaking movement starting in the 1990s — especially with his film "Poison" (1991) — and stories of those with repressed (or not) sexual identities is a common theme in his films.
But his latest PG-rated book-to-movie adaptation, "Wonderstruck," about two deaf children and their journeys in different time periods, is something a bit different.
Its release last month follows on the heels of Haynes' acclaimed film, "Carol," about two women having a secret affair together in the 1950s. Released in 2015, it received six Oscar nominations and is widely loved by the LGBTQ community.
Haynes, born in Los Angeles and who has called Portland home for the past 17 years, though he mainly works in New York, says "Wonderstruck" might not deviate as far from the path as one would think.
"There are all kinds of ways to understand difference and feeling exclusion from dominant society," he says, humbly but matter-of-factly ahead of a Q&A session with students at Tucker Maxon School in Southeast Portland. "So it's not just limited to stories just about queer kids and queer experience — the LGBTQ experience — and I learned that in this film. I felt like there were a lot of familiar challenges."
He further explains, "I really wanted to do something really special and artful and unique, but for a different audience, a younger audience."
"Wonderstruck," based on a 2011 book by Brian Selznick of the same name, follows two young deaf children, Rose, portrayed by 14-year-old Millicent "Millie" Simmonds (who is deaf), and Ben, portrayed by Oakes Fegley.
Rose's story unfolds in 1927; tired of being cooped up at home by her father because she is deaf, she flees her home in New Jersey to go to New York City to visit her idol, actress Lillian Mayhew, portrayed by Julianne Moore, who has performed in several of Haynes' films.
Meanwhile, Ben's story is told in 1977, starting in Minnesota. His mother died in a car crash, and he is living with his aunt and uncle. He discovers a bookmark in a novel left by his mother for a place called "Wonderstruck," a bookstore, with a note from someone who he thinks could be his father. Born deaf in one ear, then later losing his hearing in the other, he proceeds on an adventure to find his father, and at some point Rose and Ben connect.
Rose's part is told as if it were a black-and-white silent film, while Ben's is in color, each in the style of the time period.
"They're unique — they're different, but they're familiar to me (because of the difficulties) that these kids face, and that maybe kids in general face because they're still trying to figure themselves out and they're sort of outside, you know, adult privilege and access to society," Haynes says.
He recalls seeing "The Miracle Worker," a 1962 biographical movie about Anne Sullivan, the blind tutor to Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf.
"I was just obsessed with that film. It made a huge profound impression on me. That was before I understood my sexual identity, but I related to something about these challenges that Helen Keller faced," Haynes says. "In some way, that may have to do with the universal things that all kids comprehend, who are closer to the acquisition of language than adults are."
The 56-year-old wanted to tell a story that children too could watch and relate to. They played cuts of "Wonder-struck" to younger audiences while they were working on it to see how it played out for different age groups.
"I found that kids could completely enter these two worlds and really follow the lives and experiences of the two kids," Haynes says. "But it's not for every kid. It's a unique film about past and about a unique set of experiences and challenges that these kids face."
A weary-eyed Simmonds had just got off a plane to visit the Tucker Maxon School, where 40 percent of the students are deaf and hard of hearing. She embraced Haynes upon entering the school last week. The two began signing to one another (in American Sign Language). Haynes said ASL was something he already knew and didn't have to learn to direct Simmonds in "Wonderstruck."
The two took questions from Tucker Maxon students, ranging all over the board — though primarily directed toward Simmonds. Some questions were comical, such as, "Was the movie fun to make?," "Why was (part of) the movie gray?" and "How do you talk?"
Simmonds offered a reply to that last one, through a voice translator while she signed.
"Sometimes I use my voice. I'm probably not as good at talking as you all are. I tried to practice for a few years, but I'm not comfortable with talking. I'm not very good at it," she told the students.
According to a student newspaper in Utah, where she lives and attends school, she lost her hearing because of a medication overdose as a baby. Haynes has championed her performance in the film, which is garnering mostly favorable reviews.
Haynes says although "Wonderstruck" is largely about language, there's certainly a lot to take away from it.
"One has to think a lot about language, when you think about death experience," he says. "So, yeah, for all of it (making "Wonderstruck"), it felt like there were links between childhood experience, gay experience, death experience that I like to feel, and one was informing the other in various ways."
Glen Gilbert, executive director at Tucker Maxon, found it interesting that between the Q&A with the students and Simmonds, she signed while many of them spoke.
"There isn't one right way to be a deaf person," Gilbert says. "And part of what I hope things like this bring together is kind of a common ground, where people can get together and find they have more in common than they have apart."
Aside from "Carol" and "Wonderstruck," Haynes has made a number of films and independent projects including the Oscar-nominated "Far from Heaven" (2002) and an HBO mini-series, "Mildred Pierce." One of his earliest works was a short called "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" from 1988 about singer Karen Carpenter's life. It was especially different because it used Barbie dolls to tell the story, and further adding to the mystique, it was withdrawn from circulation in 1990 after Haynes lost a copyright infringement lawsuit.
Haynes' next project again will venture into new territory: documentary filmmaking. He's planning a music documentary about the Velvet Underground, an influential rock band from the 1960s and '70s.
Catch "Wonderstruck" at Hollywood Theatre, Century Clackamas Town Center and Regal Fox Tower Stadium 10.