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Interview: What Maisie Knew Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel

By (May 30, 2013) No Comment

maisie mainWhat Maisie Knew updates to present day Henry James’ 1897 novel about a young girl used as an emotional pawn between her divorced parents.

As directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (co-directors of The Deep End, Bee Season) from a screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, the new film navigates with rich emotional authenticity the subtle but deep issues surrounding children in the middle of a divorce.

It also creates complex, compelling characters, brought to life with terrific on-screen work from Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan (as Maisie’s painfully self-involved parents) and Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham (as their respective new spouses).

Most of all, What Maisie Knew pivots on a wonderful, low-key performance from six-year-old newcomer Onata Aprile as the title character.

I sat down in Chicago last week to talk with co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel about putting literature on the screen, getting nuanced work from young actors, and how to avoid making an “issue picture.”

What Maisie Knew is playing in select theaters across the country.

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alexander-confirmed-for-nys-what-maisie-knew--L-Jbq3aZThe film’s gotten very positive reactions from festival audiences. What do you think they’re responding to so enthusiastically?

David Siegel: The response has been really strong, even surprising to us in a way. People tend to identify with the film on a deeply personal way. A lot of people have had experiences with divorce, but there’s also something about the universality of how Onata portrays the life of this little girl. People see themselves in her in some way.

Childhood has its isolation and loneliness even in the best of circumstances for kids, and I think people see that and identify with it.

How did you go about creating Onata’s tremendous performance, from the novel to the script, through casting and on the set?

Scott McGehee: From the novel through the screenplay, the guiding program all along was the idea that this is told through the child’s point of view. The challenge was finding the right child to have that point of view, one that could carry that responsibility and have the charisma and also the innocence to make that feel good.

Finding Onata was a huge stroke of luck. We set out without knowing who Maisie would be, and if we hadn’t found the right girl, the film wouldn’t have worked at all.

What types of dangers or pitfalls in working with child actors did you try to avoid?

McGehee: On one side, you have to worry about a young person’s acting inability, and on the other side you worry about precociousness—those are the two huge pitfalls we were aware of.

imageSiegel: There’s a precociousness inherent in a lot of child performances because they’re little, they’re performing, doing something that isn’t natural to them. So you want a child who can relax enough to be subtle, be themselves and just live it in front of the camera. That’s what we were looking for. We really held it as a mantra, that even a whiff of precociousness was going to diminish the power of the performance.

McGehee: That was the bar we set for ourselves: a kid who felt like a real kid and could do it. And within those parameters, you then want to find the kid who feels special, who you want to watch for two hours and who your heart will go to.

It took us a long time to find Onata. We were casting for eight weeks before she turned up, so we saw a lot of girls, and a lot of them were talented and cute and they were six, so most of them were adorable.

So when we weren’t finding the one who could really carry the movie, there was a lot of pressure put on us: “What about this one? What about that one?” We had to keep those voices at bay and stick to our desire to find the right girl.

www.indiewire.comdJames’ novel, like all his novels, is mostly internal. And in terms of on-screen actions, Maisie is such a passive character. How did you make this six-year-old’s perspective come to live when it was so rich internally, but so quiet on the surface?

Siegel: That was really the hook for us in terms of our getting involved with the movie: the cinematic possibilities of creating a story from a child’s perspective.

Once you put the brackets on that conceit, all of the fundamentals of making a movie, the things every director has to think about – How high is the camera? Where is it? What comes in and out of frame? What does our main character see? How does the music relate to our main character? – they become distilled in a very particular way, and you get to play with those building blocks. That’s super fun for film makers who are interested in those kinds of things.

You talk about those cinematic building blocks, and yet the film feels very naturalistic. How do you maintain that authentic feeling?

McGehee: “Authentic feeling” is right pair of words, because of course nothing is really authentic. A movie set is the most artificial environment imaginable. You have a ton of people around and everything is created.

what-maisie-knew06Siegel: The tropes we attribute to naturalism change at every cultural stage. Fifty years ago, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff, and Paul Newman were considered method naturalist actors. Now we almost think ugliness and a lack of style depict naturalism, when they just depict a certain style of video documentary look.

Figuring out within the world of our cultural moment, what will feel or not feel natural to audiences is a tricky thing. We would never call ourselves “naturalists”—we embrace the idea of film style. But in a story like this you have to give the audience that feeling of naturalism.

McGehee: You don’t want anything getting in the way of the emotional connection, because that’s what a film like this is all about. That’s what it’s always about for David and me on some level: how to establish an emotional bond with your audience. That’s what we care about when we’re watching a movie, that emotional connection with the material.

One thing I noticed is how often Maisie is playing with toys, especially when adults are talking to her about their very grown-up issues.

Siegel: That was a conscious decision. We liked the idea of the toys, the more ordered world that she would create when the world around her was chaotic.

20901_356487047790508_945530912_nBut Onata helped us along the way. When Julianne Moore has her on her lap, talking to her about having married Lincoln, Onata’s playing with Julianne’s necklace. We didn’t tell her to do that, Onata would just find something like that. It was a reflection of what was going on for her as an actress. That was really a delight to watch her find those things on her own.

McGehee: It’s a common strategy when working with actors, if the scene is feeling too focused, to give them something else to do while they’re doing the scene. If you make a peanut butter sandwich while you’re saying your lines, it will immediately get better. It takes them out of that actorly engagement and gives them something else to focus on.

We used that when we were auditioning kids–we’d always have some toys. Even when a kid was running lines with us, we might play catch with them, and then they have to focus on where the ball’s going to land. But Onata did that instinctively. She naturally knew what to do.

Obviously you’ve updated James’ novel to the present day and even changed around some of its plot. But only like a certain other big-star, big-screen literary adaptation lately, you really maintain the philosophy, the themes of James’ book.

mcgeheesiegel2Siegel: Scott and I have adapted a number of books, and our approach is always to ask what it is about the book that we’re trying to convey in our adaptation. As long as we can define that for ourselves and stay true to that original concept, then writing the script is writing the script and making the movie is making the movie, and they have to exist on their own.

The idea of fealty to the book is something we never think about—it seems to us that’s shooting yourself in the foot. That’s the book, this is the movie, and they work on such different levels.

McGehee: It’s the same thing with fealty to the screenplay or even to the scenes you’ve shot. At a certain point you’re telling the story with a whole new set of tools, and you just have to tell the best story you can with the images you’ve got.

The film deals with such powerful emotions and issues—how did you keep it from turning into an “issue movie”?

What-Maisie-Knew-Onata-AprileMcGehee: The script led the way for us on that. When we were told about it, that was one of our fears, of doing a “custody battle” movie and all the problems for a kid in this situation.

But the script really was light on its feet and had enough pleasure mix in with the problems. Maisie’s point of view and her innocence was the key to making this feel like this little girl’s experience, and finding the lightness in that.