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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Q&A with What Maisie Knew's Scott McGehee and David Siegel

The directorial duo turn a Henry James adaptation into an emotionally devastating tale of divorce and the damage done.

What Maisie Knew

The little girl, Maisie, sits by herself, as two adults—her narcissistic, self-centered rock-star mother and her narcissistic, self-centered art-dealer father—scream at each other. While the adults rip into each other as only spouses who know each other’s weaknesses intimately can, the camera stays on the kid’s face: An open book of fear, anger, sorrow, vulnerability and confusion.

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It’s the key shot of Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew, a modern retelling of Henry James’s 1897 novel about a child suffering in the wake of her parents’ divorce. While the film is filled with recognizable faces—from Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as the girl’s embittered parents to True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard as a bartender who ultimately befriends the child—it’s six-year-old actor Onata Aprile who carries the film, giving the sort of natural, unforced performance that allows you to see the film completely from her perspective.

Such a leap of faith is nothing new for a directorial duo that kicked off a fruitful career with genre deconstruction Suture (1993)—in which audience members had to accept the fact that a white and black actor are supposed to be considered near identical brothers—and a radical reinterpretation of noir maternal stereotypes in The Deep End (2001). But while Siegel and McGehee were no strangers to making more accessible movies about kids (see their 2005 adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s book Bee Season) this beautifully rendered take on the James novel finds the directors venturing into bold new emotional territory.

Time Out New York: Had either of you read Henry James’s novel prior to getting involved with the movie?
David Siegel:
I hadn't, no.
Scott McGehee:
I only read it after we’d been given the script.
David Siegel:
Even folks who know James’s work really well haven’t read it, though it’s quite a remarkable book.

Time Out New York: Not one that necessarily screams, “cast Julianne Moore as a middle-aged rock star”, but remarkable nonetheless.

David Siegel:
[Laughs] It is surprisingly contemporary in its attitudes towards divorce, though. And to be honest, we thought of it less an adaptation than a riff on the novel. The original mom is a pool shark; by the time the script was sent to us, she’d already been changed to a rock star. We actually resisted reading the script for a long time, as neither of us was that interested in doing another story about a child after Bee Season. You hear the words divorce, bitter custody battle and child all mentioned in the description, and it’s like, hmm….
Scott McGehee:
[Mimes throwing script over his shoulder] "Next!" [Laughs]
David Siegel:
Then I read it, and I was totally intrigued by how the story is all from the perspective of the kid. The notion of making a movie completely from a child’s point of view—that seemed intriguing. Thankfully, Scott felt the same way.

Time Out New York: How did you guys discover Onata Aprile? She’s absolutely amazing.

Scott McGehee:
My god, she is! It’s crazy to think now that we’d committed to making the movie, had brought other actors in, brought our usual crew in and were in the midst of prepping the movie—and had no idea who was going to play this young girl.
David Siegel:
The entire movie essentially rests on Maisie’s shoulders, and three weeks before we were going to start shooting, we had not casted the part. We were in a bit of a panic, to say the least, as we’d seen dozens of young actors and had to keep telling the producers “Yes, that young woman is really talented, but she’s, ah, not going to be able to sell this.” Then Onata read, and…it didn’t feel like she was acting. I know I risk sounding like I’m hyperbolizing, but it really felt she simply being this little girl whenever she stepped in front of the camera. There was nothing affected about what she was doing at all, which unnerved a few of the other actors. Alexander [Skarsgard] would tell us how he’d be preparing for a scene for weeks, and then he’d see this six-year-old perform and be like, “What the fuck am I doing here? She’s acting circles around me.”
Scott McGehee: Even after we’d had Onata meet with Julianne and Alexander for a very, very brief rehearsal period, we had no idea how this lovely, sweet six-year-old would hold up during what we knew would be a very emotional shoot. Until the very first day we rolled cameras, we kept asking ourselves if this whole thing was just going to come crashing down. And then she did her first scene, and poof. The doubts were gone.

Time Out New York: Her character has to deal with a lot of adults behaving badly, though there aren’t really any villains; just bad parents.

Scott McGehee:
That was the idea. If anybody starts coming off like a villain, the film doesn’t work. It’s not about casting blame. We talked with Julianne and Steve early on about the importance of not losing sympathy for these characters; though there’s a good deal of horrible behavior going on in how they deal with the disintegration of their marriage and their personal lives, there’s a fundamental love they both have for this child. That doesn’t go away even if their relationship with each other does, and we really wanted viewers to feel that, selfish of not, these two people had a bond with Maisie.

Time Out New York: You’ve both adapted, or riffed on, other works before, whether it’s Bee Season or doing a loose remake of Max Ophuls’s ’40s noir The Reckless Moment via The Deep End. How do you both find a balance between honoring the source material and making a movie your own?
David Siegel: It’s an interesting question.
Scott McGehee:
There’s always a distance to travel between the source material and the movie you think you want to make, or the movie that you see in your head vividly enough when you take on a project. Not to mention that every project presents a different set of obstacles to overcome and different elements to externalize. But it usually boils down to one or two things that initially interest us about the material, and we just work that common ground as much as possible.
David Siegel:
We both came to filmmaking because of formal interests, as opposed to, say, from an interest in performance. That’s obviously shifted greatly as we’ve continued to work together. But we still try to invest our personality in the formal aspects of what we do, and convey emotionality through the framing of shots, through set design, through the use of a musical score and light. And that’s where you, as s filmmaker, can make something your own while still serving another master.

Time Out New York: Do either of you feel like its harder to make a modestly budgeted, character-driven drama now—even one with the sort of stylistic flourishes you’re talking about here—than it was, say, five or ten years ago?

Scott McGehee:
No question. It’s most definitely harder.
David Siegel:
It was hard to get a movie like Bee Season made back in 2005; now it would be virtually impossible. Even this movie, with name actors and the modest budget we had for it, was tough to make. “You mean it’s a melodrama but it’s not maudlin? You’ve got the True Blood bad-guy sex symbol and he’s play an awkward hipster bartender and mumble and slouch a bunch?”
Scott McGehee:
“Hmm, okay…we’ll get back to you.” Click. [Laughs]

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear