The words “a new film by Todd Haynes” are enough to draw any true movie fan to a theater. Haynes, one of independent cinema’s most fascinating filmmakers, brought back the Technicolor grandeur of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas in Far From Heaven, cast six different actors to play the different stages of Bob Dylan’s life in I’m Not There, and directed Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara to Oscar nominations in Carol, the brilliant adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. His newest film, Wonderstruck, is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s dazzling children’s book from 2011. Working from Selznick’s screenplay, Haynes weaves together two tales of children searching for their identity — one from the 1920s, the other from the 1970s — into a spellbinding story. Wonderstruck will have its California premiere on October 13, and Haynes will be recognized with the Mill Valley Film Festival’s MVFF Award for his career as a director and screenwriter.
Each of your films features such remarkable craft. What is the creative process like and what kinds of decisions do you make in preproduction?
It is an incredibly fun and exhilarating part of the process, and I always wish for more time when I’m making a film. One of the real stages from moving off the page of the script and toward production is creating an image book, or a mood book. That’s really where I start getting my hands wet. I’ll gather paintings and photography and begin putting together a treatise about the stylistic language of the film. I also like to put a library of music and sounds together, not necessarily music that will be used in the film but that informs the feel of the film. I’ll use the book in my conversations with Ed Lachmann, who has been my director of photography on the last few films that I have made.
How did the Wonderstruck project come together? I read Brian’s script, which he adapted from his book, before I read the book. All of his work is so informed by his knowledge of movies and the silent era. His script was already showing this movement toward a truly cinematic language. And his original book did something very, very unique, straddling text with image, which required a special engagement with the reader. The reader needs to fill in information and to interpret the drawings into the narrative. Of course, it’s my job to bring the story to the screen, so I have my own techniques for that. In this case, I went back and watched movies that I loved when I was a kid, films that had wonderful performances by children.
What films did you refer to? The Miracle Worker made a huge impact on me, and it has a lot of relevance to this film. Arthur Penn’s film of that story is an incredibly fascinating and beautifully made film. It is also a film about language, which is relevant to Wonderstruck. I watched Sounder, Herbert Ritts’ film, which is a beautiful and moving story. Also, How Green Was My Valley and National Velvet.
You have visited the Mill Valley Film Festival in the past. How was your previous experience? I was there for I’m Not There, and it was just an incredibly special visit. There was this great little concert by local musicians who had some connection to Bob Dylan. The filmgoers and I had an incredible conversation about the film, which was particularly memorable.
How important are film festivals in this age of multiplexes and on-demand platforms? It seems festivals are the last remaining place that film buffs can see new and experimental works, then have a conversation about the film after the screening. I have to say that not all film festivals are like that, unfortunately. I’ve been to a lot of them — too many get caught up in the glitz and celebrity. However, the Mill Valley Film Festival is definitely an exception. The filmgoers are so enlightened and informed and engaged, and so passionate about the films. From my previous experience, it felt like the festival and the filmgoers were really interested in the work. I’m really looking forward to coming back for that reason.
Photo by Doreen Kennedy/Alamy Stock Photo