You’ve written most of your projects, so I assume it must take something special to sign on to something someone else wrote. What was it about Brian Selznick’s novel and then script that made you want to direct it? And what did you feel you could bring to it as a director?
I read the script first, and the script was already really considered as a piece of cinema. Like, how to make the language of movies come to life and tell the story, because the story is not dialogue-driven because the kids don’t hear. So, it means the editing, the music, the cinematography, the costume design, the production design, all these things tell the story, and the performances without words — their gestures, their looks. It was like Brian had been bitten by the cinema bug. Clearly, he has been, because it’s in his stories. It’s in his content. But he was thinking about it in style and in form, and I just thought, How cool, you know?…I thought, This kind of a movie gets me and all my creative team fully employed in our creative ambitions. Because the only way it will work is when everybody is in top form and everyone has to step up and be noticed for what they do. And it’s not gratuitous, it’s literally how the film is going to work. The editing, the music, the sound design — all those things. And I have all these great people to fit the bill.
Including, obviously, Julianne.
And Julianne! My god! And then these kids. Millie, like this discovery we made, this kid! This deaf girl who’s never acted in her life, who comes out from outside Salt Lake City, Utah, and because of my amazing devoted casting director, Laura Rosenthal, and her team, we were just indefatigable about trying to find deaf kids in this country to audition, to send in little home tapes. That’s how we found Millie.
What did it mean to you to cast a deaf actress in that role?
It meant that we were honoring this experience as something that we can’t presume to know everything about as hearing people. Obviously, we knew very little about it, and so we wanted to feel like, Let’s go to somebody who really would know what Rose’s experience would be like, even in a very different time in the world, even without access to sign language. One of the first things Millie said in her homemade tape — because we would ask the kids to slate and say who they are a little bit in sign language — and she said, “I love my language! I love sign language!” Her whole body showed that. But she doesn’t use sign language as Rose in the movie, so how the hell did this kid know how to perform for the camera without even that? Something innate was happening between Millie and the lens of the camera, and that is partly true to the fact that she’s deaf, but it’s also just who she is as a person. Because she’s an absolutely unique and extraordinary kid.
Taking a chance on any unknown actor is a risk.
Yes, it’s a risk!
And especially with a child actor, that feels doubly so. What was it about Millie that convinced you to take that risk?
She was extraordinary. I think Laura and I both fell a little in love the minute we saw her tape, but then you just don’t know whether she can act. Like, you can love somebody and think they’re a great person, but it doesn’t mean they can act. Well, she could act. So, you know… When you asked that question, I’m thinking, like, What a maniac! What crazy person would even have taken that risk! Because not only did we have a deaf kid who had never acted before holding one half of the entire movie in her hands, we had two other kids holding the other half and we had a schedule where the kids could only shoot eight or nine hours a day because of union rules. Which meant we had to shoot some of the 1920s and some of the 1970s every day of the shoot to pull it off. So, that meant that there was no time for the kids to not deliver, or the time would be gone and we’d be screwed! We put so many eggs in those baskets and it just took a mutual sense of– You almost think sometimes a plane won’t take off unless everybody in the plane has the same mental wish that’s completely irrational, that this multi-ton thing is going to go into the sky, and in a way, that’s what a movie is. It takes this kind of irrational, communal wish that it’s going to fly, or it won’t. We definitely relied on that irrationality.