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Sounds of Silence Ring Out as ‘Wonderstruck’ Depicts World of Deafness

When director Todd Haynes was preparing “Wonderstruck,” he made a startling decision: The character of a deaf girl would be played by a deaf girl.

What’s more, he hired seven deaf actors to play hearing characters. Hollywood has a long history of using hearing actors to play deaf characters; Marlee Matlin is one of the few exceptions to that.

“We learned a great deal about the deaf community and culture, its extraordinary language and a good deal about its history while making the film,” Haynes told Variety. With all the deaf actors on the set, “we were surrounded by signing and translators and deafness, which was an invaluable part of the process.”

The film, scripted by Brian Selznick from his book, covers two stories: A deaf girl, Rose, in 1927, who runs away to New York to find her mother; and a boy, Ben, in 1977, who loses his hearing through an accident and goes to N.Y. searching for his father. The kids are played by Millicent Simmonds and Oakes Fegley, respectively.
To find young Rose, casting director Laura Rosenthal and the filmmakers sent notices to deaf communities around the country, and saw 200 audition tapes. Among the hopefuls was Simmonds.

Most filmmakers would cast a hearing actress, assuming it’s easier — or less frightening.

“Filmmakers think it’s going to be difficult,” say ASL interpreter Lynnette Taylor, who worked with Simmonds. “It’s not out of a negative attitude; people want to do the right thing, but they are so afraid of making a mistake that they avoid it. There is fear of the unknown.”

Eventually, hearing people on the set realized it’s the same interaction as everybody else: You nod, you wave, you smile. Soon, everybody became comfortable, says Taylor.
There were a few adaptations. “We had to use sticks striking the floor or flags or waves at times to mark cues Millie couldn’t hear,” Haynes says. “We figured it out and it quickly became second nature.”

All of young Rose’s scenes were filmed with sound; but in post, Haynes opted to not use it.

“It was a courageous decision,” says sound designer/re-recording mixer Leslie Shatz. For those scenes, Haynes wanted to re-create the sound experience of a deaf person.
Like many others on the film, Shatz did research. Profound deafness — in which a person cannot hear any sound at all — is pretty rare. Sometimes a deaf person can hear sounds that are big or sharp — thunder and motorcycles, for example — and sometimes they feel vibrations, as in music. Not everything is through the ear drums; some frequencies are transmitted through bones.

Haynes, Shatz and the team wanted non-traditional sound in the scenes with young Rose, so the audience hears a counterpoint to what they’re seeing onscreen. “We tried to create the feeling if you could connect to a deaf person’s brain, and find out what they experience, and represent that that with sound,” says Shatz.
Logistically, a hearing actress would have been easier. But artistically, the film would have suffered.

ASL translator Taylor cites one example: when Rose falls on the N.Y. sidewalk. A man tries to help her and she points to a newspaper article that’s been her guide. “Everything is in her eyes,” says Taylor. “It’s the search for information. It’s good acting, yes, but there’s an intensity in the eyes that reads different from you would get from a hearing actor.”

“Many hearing people in the cast and crew were practicing and employing signing — it infiltrated our days onset,” Haynes sums up. “It’s a film about deafness. And it’s a film about communication.”

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