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Todd Haynes: 'I lived in London during the Britpop era – it was a cool time'

The filmmaker on ‘Wonderstruck’, why he’s okay that ‘Carol’ didn’t win an Oscar and remembering Cool Britannia

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Almost exactly 30 years ago, Todd Haynes introduced himself with a controversial short called ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’. Using Barbie dolls instead of actors, it located the exact midway point between a biopic and a trip to Toys R Us gone rogue. Several masterpieces later, he’s back with ‘Wonderstruck’. It’s an entirely different beast – there’s no spanking in this one – but the love of experimentation still burns: there’s an homage to silent cinema stitched into its fabric. He’s an Anglophile right down to the cup of English breakfast tea steaming in front of him and he’s clearly buzzed to be back in London.

You haven’t adapted too many books – ‘Carol’, of course. What drew you to Brian Selznick’s ‘Wonderstruck’?
‘It wasn’t the book that I first encountered. It came through Sandy Powell, my costume designer, who got to be really close friends with Brian on “Hugo”. His script was so cinematic. Because it’s all about deafness, it doesn’t rely on spoken dialogue, so it asks the film medium to step up and show what it can do.’

And you cast a deaf actress, Millicent Simmonds, as your lead.
‘Nothing was more central than finding Millie: having a hand in finding this extraordinary talent for film acting in this kid. Somehow she knows what the camera sees.’

Millicent Simmonds in 'Wonderstruck'

‘Carol’ blew audiences away but left the Academy cold. How did you react to that?
‘I ultimately don’t give a shit. We were nominated for many prizes and lost all of them, but I won’t let that ruin the experience. If it’s between getting an Oscar and having the movie touch entire communities and be taught in schools, well, obviously you know which I’d pick.’

The Oscar?
[Laughs] ‘Yes, I have a spot on my mantle for it.’

You were a pioneer of New Queer Cinema in the ’90s. Has queer cinema crossed into the mainstream in a way that makes labels redundant?
‘I hope not. I’m split: I believe in legislative freedoms for LGBT people and every possible civil right; on the other hand, I enjoyed being an outsider, threatening and upsetting people. I like what it taught me about the world.’

‘I don’t know that there’s a better living film actor
than Julianne Moore’

This is your fourth film with Julianne Moore. What do you remember about your very first meeting?
‘It was when she read for me for “Safe” [in 1995]. She was the new kid on the block then and she came in and completed my idea in a way that I wasn’t yet able to conjure. It was an amazing moment. I don’t know that there’s a better living film actor.’

‘Wonderstruck’ opens with a 1970s bedroom. What was your childhood bedroom like?
‘Full of my drawings of Cinderella and Mary Poppins. I had all the girls on my wall. My dad is the best but I remember asking him if I could buy a drawing pad. He said, “Will you draw some men?” I thought, Oh, I guess I’m not doing it right!’

Where do you like to go in London?
‘Normally, it’s my boyfriend who gets to roam around, but I love Brixton and I want to go to Hackney. We went to the Freud Museum last time. I lived here when I did “Velvet Goldmine”, during the Britpop era and I was so Anglophilic. Cool Britannia, man. It was a cool time.’ 

'Wonderstruck is in cinemas Apr 6.

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