Still opening across the country is the deeply emotionally satisfying family drama WHAT MAISIE KNEW about a young girl (Onata Aprile) caught between her selfish parents (Julianne Moore and Steven Coogan) and their respective significant others (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham), the latter two of which end of being better caregivers for this sweet child than her own parents. The film is actually an adaptation of a lesser-known, late-1890s book by Henry James, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
McGehee and Siegel are a directing team, and one of the big reasons I agreed to interview them was that I'm actually a great admirer of the array of different subject and genres they have tackled in the past like the weird conspiracy drama SUTURE, to the fantastically freaky THE DEEP END (featuring one of Tilda Swinton's greatest performances), to the family drama BEE SEASON, and the romantic time-split storyline of UNDERTAINTY (a recnet, under-seen work featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Many of their films cover the broad topic of family relationships, but few have had quite the emotional heft of MAISIE
I sat down with McGehee and Siegel recently in Chicago, and found them to be supremely nice folks, with a real gift for dissecting their work and opening up even more of their films' meanings. Please enjoy…
Capone: The thing that struck be about the film is not that it’s based on this 115-year-old novel, but that it doesn’t appear that the people who adapted it [Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright] had to make that many changes in order to modernize it. Sadly, it’s a very modern story.
Scott McGehee: So you know the novel?
Capone: I’ve become aware of it because of the film.
SM: We read the script before we went back and read the novel, so that was sort of our surprise also, and I think it’s because we were expecting a 115-year-old novel to be really, really different. Our surprise was how modern the novel is and how much of it could be imported. They did make a lot of changes, actually. The character relationships and basic plotting are very similar.
David Siegel: The characterizations on extremely different.
SM: And the ending is quite different. They reconfigured how people figure things out in the end.
Capone: About the screenplay then, what was it about that screenplay that grabbed you and made you say, “We can work with this. We can build on this and make it something people would want to see.”
SM: That’s a good observation. Initially, when the story was told to us, we were a little bit allergic to it. We were like, “A story of a child going through a custody battle?” It sounded maudlin, like it might be turgidly melodramatic, but the script was kind of light on its feet. And the script also went about telling the story similarly to the book in that it’s told elliptically. You get what she gets as little vignettes in a way. The story is more the story of an experience than it is the adult plot that’s going on around her.
In fact, as the movie went along, both the revisions that we did to the script, the shooting of it, the editing of it, that kept getting rewritten in a way, to some degree based on how amazing Onata [Aprile] was and how much we were actually able to stay with her. What appears as the background story is really the story, right? But it’s actually the background story. So that was an interesting thing. What really drove us towards the script was this challenge and intrigue of trying to tell the story from her perspective.
Capone: About halfway through the film I started to notice, the angles were down low and your perspective was lower. You tell us this story from her perspective. "How is a small child seeing this?” People forget, as children, our universe is so small, and it’s only the people who come into our line of sight, they define our world, and we don’t really think that much about what’s going on outside of the four walls we are living and the people that come through, and this film I think captures that. There’s a lot of eaves dropping. We don’t know what’s going on with the adults until they come and tell her what’s going on. Tell me about coming up with that style, because that’s a really great device. I’d love to see the film again, because I have a feeling it would be a very different movie the second time.
SM: Again, I think that’s an idea that started with Henry James, and the screenwriters used that as the model, where nothing that is outside of Maisie’s immediate experience is going to be a part of the telling of this story. So that was a fun thing, a fun challenge. There were a lot of really important plot points that would normally be in a movie that just aren’t in this one. They happen off screen. They happen between scenes, and it’s the audience’s job to put together sometimes what’s happening with the adult characters just through the pieces of information that you get from the scenes with Maisie.
DS: We thought this right from the get go, it has the inherent possibility of being extremely cinematic, right? Because as you’re saying, all the fundamental building blocks of telling a story from a cinematic point of view get reduced to their most elemental levels. The height of the camera, who is in the frame, who isn’t in the frame, what she hears, what she doesn’t hear, what comes in and out of the frame, how the music relates to her interior life. Every director deals with all of that with every movie, but when you put the kind of parentheses around how it’s actually going to be told, then those things get really rich on a super, super simple level.
Capone: The one scene that pops into my head is when Julianne Moore has all of those people over partying, and Maisie and her friend are in her room. In my mind at least, I remember that we hear the sounds of the party, but we don’t see the party until she comes into it.
SM: Right, she goes up the stairs. You start off with her hula hooping and stuff with her friend and the camera kind of tracks them as they come up the stairs and pass Lincoln in the stairs for the first time as they arrive at that party, then you see the music you’ve been hearing for quite a while.
Capone: But we don’t get the visual until she sees it. It’s so simple yet so effective.
SM: It’s a super-common thing to do in bits and pieces. This is movie that kind of took it as its parameters for every single scene.
DS: It was really fun and challenging though, especially on the editorial level, but I feel like we maybe learned more while editing this movie than we have on any movie, because of that simple program in a way. That was really great. You don’t get that many opportunities to play with things like that.
Capone: I’m glad I didn’t know that going in; I would have been totally distracted. [Everybody laughs] Most stories about children caught up in custody battles or divorces, the writers typically give us at least one parent that we feel has the best interest of the child in mind, and with this, we don’t even get that. What’s wonderful is you’ve been handed Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, these gifts just in terms of their acting abilities, and you've turned them both into very different types of monsters. She is a little more overt; he’s better at hiding what a monster he is.
SM: The English just are.
Capone: Were you worried about the fact that for a huge chunk of this movie, it feels like there’s no hope for this girl.
SM: That was a constant conversation with the writers before we started shooting and with the actors as we were shooting. "How much is too much? When will we cross a like that we feel like we need to call Child Protective Services? We can never redeem anything about these people.” It wasn’t interesting to us to make them complete monsters. We wanted to see that they were human and struggling in their way and that they were incapable of being good parents. Not that they were without love for their daughter, because I think both of them do love their daughter; they just aren’t good at parenting.
DS: It sort of takes us back to what you said with Steve and Julianne, the gift of having them embody those characters. We know their work. We know them as human beings and we were really confident that however bad it got, their ability to perform and what is always inherent with both of them in terms of that fundamental humanity at the bottom of their awfulness was going to be there. I mean, Steve’s practically made a career out of being a dick. [Laughs] It’s true. It’s not so much as being a dick as much that he plays beleaguer so well. And it causes him to do something bad, and you see that odd vulnerability at the base of it.
Capone: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a billion times, but tell me about finding Onata, because honesty you take one look at her and say, “Her face is a short hand to loving her.” You two had it easy in terms of making us feel for her and making this the most painful experience it could have been watching her go through this, because we just immediately fall in love with her. Talk about finding her and working with he.
SM: You're right that we had it easy.
Capone: I don’t mean that literally.
SM: No, we are so aware of how lucky we were to have found this little girl, and it took us a long time to do it. We were working with Avy Kaufman who is a really talented and successful casting director. She cast THE SIXTH SENSE, for example, so she knows how to find a little kid, and she did a really big search, put out all of the calls, was seeing kids from everywhere--from ballet schools to talent agents.
DS: For months. Many hundreds of kids.
SM: And she would bring us in and see the best of them, and a lot of them were super cute and really talented, and they just weren’t what we needed and we all knew it, like it wasn’t just us. Avy knew it too, we hadn’t found the right kid yet.
Capone: What were you looking for beyond just the look?
SM: We made two movies where an actress had to, with her face--because it wasn’t a dialog-rich part--be able to tell the story in a way that would allow you to believe that you were getting into their interior life as you were watching them think. Tilda Swinton in THE DEEP END was forced to do that, but she as a grown-up, 40-year-old; this is a six-year-old child.
That’s a rare talent and a rare gift for an actress or an actor, and I’m not sure you can teach it, you have to have that natural subtlety of expression and that something that let’s you in, and Onata has it n spades. It really was a gift. It allowed us, as we were saying earlier, the more we worked with her and the more we saw the footage, the more we realized we could really stay with her. Much of what we thought was going to have to happen around her could be paired away, because we could be with her.
Capone: Where did you find her? Where did she come from?
SM: You can imagine our panic as we got closer and closer to our start date, and everything was assembled and all of the departments were working. Literally, the costume designer was buying clothes for a little girl, and we didn’t know who she was or what size she was. So we were in the middle of this thing, and I think it was about three weeks before we started shooting, Avy calls us very excited and goes, “You have to come down.” We hop on our bikes and peddle down to our office, and there was little Onata and her mom.
There were two audition scenes that she prepared for us. One is the flower-pressing scene with the nanny, and another is a scene with a locksmith that was at the end of the movie that was later cut. But she did both of these scenes, and we were mesmerized. She was really amazing. But then as we sort of put the script away and just started talking to her, she was just such a natural, sweet, normal little girl who we just found ourselves really compelled with.
DS: We knew we couldn’t have a performer, right? We knew we couldn’t have a child performer, because any sense of that or any sense of precociousness, we just knew it was just going to ding the character really badly and Onata, as Scott was saying, as a person was just so natural. She’s a very confident, simple, happy kid.
SM: A little on the shy side until you get to know her a little bit, like a really normal six year old, and she’s just a New York kid, goes to P.S. 3 on Hudson Street. I don’t know how well you know New York.
Capone: Sure, I used to live there.
SM: Yeah, she's a downtown kid. I remember we went out and talked with her mom, that’s such a crucial part of the equation, to make sure you’re not getting into some stage-parent situation. Her mom is a very nice, normal person also, and David asked “Well, do you think she can do it? She’s six.” You really just don’t know. It’s this seven-week commitment to work every single day where you’re working eight or nine hours a day, and no one knows what that’s going to be like. What if she decides on day three “I don’t really like doing this”?
DS: Or day 23 of 33?
SM: Yeah, what if she’s like “I want to go home. This isn't fun anymore” So we had a conversation with her mom, “Do you think she’s up for this?” Her mom was pretty confident; she really wanted to do it and she knew the character of her daughter enough to know that she would stick with it. It was a big leap. It’s not like she’s ever done anything like it before.
DS: And she was unflagging throughout the production. And when we wrapped the movie, she was the last person to be wrapped. We haven’t been talking about this either, and it was such an extraordinary moment. I don’t know if you’ve been on film sets, but normally when an actor is done and you wrap the actor, the assistant director will call everyone and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a picture wrap on Julianne Moore,” and everyone claps and hoots, and everyone gives them a nice fair well.
So everyone was enamored with Onata through this, and she was the last actor to be wrapped, and it happened at like one in the morning. It was a late night, later than we were supposed to be going. The AD knew this was coming and so he made sure everyone was gathered. So there’s like 50 people just lurking around, and Onata really wasn’t aware of what was coming. She finished the moment, and her mother picked her up, and the AD was like, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a wrap on Onata Aprile,” and the place just--I’m going to get emotional talking about this--exploded. It was so much noise initially that I could see Onata flinch backwards, but very quickly though she realized what was happening, and then this enormous smile came over her face, and you could see on a little 6-year-old’s face “I did this. I actually got through it. I did the whole thing. I didn’t stop on day 23. I didn’t stop on day 33. I actually made it to the end.” It was really beautiful.
Capone: Someone just sent me a screener of THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK, which I know she’s in. And I think there was a film at SXSW, the new Nick Cassavetes movie YELLOW, which she's also in.
SM: But they are both small roles, and she did both of those before ours. She had definitely been on a set before and understood the basic principles of how to work in front of a camera before we got her.
Capone: One of the most interesting things about Maisie is that she never stops trusting people and being sweet. You see so many films like this with kids in this situation that just get bitter really fast, and they just start rebelling and hating everybody, but she’s not like that in anyway, and that makes it so much more tragic. She really just wants to believe in her parents.
SM: She’s the still center of the film, as we like to say. It’s about a very particular girl; it’s not about a universal girl. Yet, people identify with her in all kinds of ways and for really different reasons. That’s been one of the most gratifying things about watching people react to the movie--how deeply personal people identify with the movie and in completely different ways. You don’t find that very often, and we certainly didn’t plan on that. We hoped that people would react positively in all kinds of ways, but you never think that people will go to it in such a personal way.
Capone: I wanted to talk a little bit about the ending without saying exactly what happens. It’s a fantasy. I can’t imagine any situation that would ever result in what happens here, and yet it’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It’s exactly right, and it would probably never happen in that way. Were you sort of cognizant of that? “For one moment, let’s give her something good in her life.”
DS: It’s kind of a trick at the end to find the right moment to stop the movie where you feel fullness of hope. If you take the end apart too much, you see all of the potential for future problems, but that’s not what we wanted our audience to be thinking about right at the end of the movie. We wanted them to think about possibilities, so we chose that final frame very carefully--that was a moment when we didn’t want to show where Maisie was going to necessarily. We wanted to just show a little girl who was on the way to somewhere. We stopped the movie with her in motion, running toward the camera with an expression on her face that’s full of that moment for her.
SM: But beyond that even, the resolution with her mother, the fact that she takes that step, she’s able to say “No” finally in some way. And Lincoln and Margo are there to be with her, at least for a while. It’s fable-like in a way, like a weird, slightly dark fable, but it is fable-like in a way. And as I said earlier, not about the universal child, but about this particular child. Hopefully, the specificity of her and the specificity of this little fable then becomes universal in some way.
Capone: I was always curious with people who co-direct, did you have specific duties within the production? Or do you think with a single mind? How does that work exactly?
SM: The single-mind, two-bodies principle is our ideal, and it works pretty well that way. That’s kind of how we operate. On set, we're both completely up to speed, we’ve planned everything really thoroughly together, any question either one of us is asked, we know what the other one would say, and it’s the same thing we want to say. So it’s pretty seamless that way. We do have different personalities and end up occupying a different space on set. David is the more forward one and says, “Action.” [Laughs] I tend to listen more and often if I have a note to give, I will often give it to David rather than give it directly to an actor, because I don’t want to complicate the conversation.
Capone: Did it take a while for that balance to be struck?
DS: It sort of worked its way out organically. I mean 98 percent of the work we do from writing to editing is a 100 percent collaborative. So the difference on set did just happen organically out of the other work that was 100 percent collaborative. I don’t think it’s so different from the way the Coens work, form what I understand. [laughs]
Capone: But they’ve been like that their whole lives. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about these smaller-budget films and how much harder thye are to get done these days than the bigger-budget or micro-budget works, and you’re in that middle ground. Have you found that to be true? Has it gotten more difficult over the years?
SM: I think it is more difficult. The fact that we have 27 producers speaks to something. It’s hard to pull these budgets together, and we feel lucky that we managed to get this one to happen, and it didn’t happen for 18 years. This screenplay was around and no one produced it, so it was kind of nice confluence of opportunities and people that made it come together.
Capone: Both of you, thank you so much. It was really great to meet you.