WHAT MAISIE KNEW
Q&A with Directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel
What inspired you to make WHAT MAISIE KNEW?
McGehee: It's interesting. Usually in our career, David and I have been the generators of our own material. We've either written a film based on a novel, or we've written original screenplays. Only once before have we directed a screenplay that was written by someone else. In this case, we knew one of the producers, Chuck Weinstock, and he sent us the screenplay by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, which we both read and really liked a lot. So there was already a great screenplay and Julianne Moore was interested in the film. What we connected to in the story was the idea of telling it from this six-year-old little girl's point of view. That was something that Henry James did in the novel and something that the screenplay preserved. So we thought that would be a really interesting challenge for us working with a young actress and trying to get into her six-year-old psychology and experience.
Siegel: We were interested in trying to tell a story from a child's point of view but not a childlike story. It's a movie for adults.
In your own words, tell us what the film is about.
Siegel: On the surface, it's about a child going through a custody battle. But I think on a deeper character level for Maisie, it's a story about individuation, about finding a voice, and coming to understand certain strengths about oneself and the need for self preservation.
How important was it for you to stay true to Henry James' novel?
McGehee: Not very -- we really used the screenplay as our blueprint. And we didn't think about the novel very much while filming. We both read it again before starting, to re-familiarize ourselves with the story and see what there was in the story that we would want to use. But, the basic situation and the basic kind of character relationships in the screenplay are actually quite true to the novel. It's a really interesting adaptation in that way. But the film gives a different context than the novel.
Siegel: I think also having done a bit of adaptations ourselves, in terms of staying true to a story philosophically from our point of view, it's only important to stay true to any kind of story, whether it's a short story or a novel, in so far that it is leading towards a good movie. If there's an idea from a novel that's a springboard for another kind of story, or if you're trying to get at something cinematic that is literary within the novel itself, then it sort of has to mutate to some degree. We tend to think that when you're jumping mediums like that, you need to first embrace the medium you're working in.
Tell us about working off of Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne's script.
McGehee: We talked to Carroll about this a bit. He was a big Henry James fan and he always had this idea in his head about updating the story. I think he had personal experiences that were kind of interesting for him to kind of explore through the framework of James' story. So it was that kind of combination that was a launching pad. He and Nancy wrote the script 18 years ago and wrote it pretty quickly. The screenplay had nearly been made a few times, but for one reason or another, it never came together.
As a film told through the eyes of a six-year-old, how did you go about capturing Maisie's perspective throughout the film?
Siegel: Telling the story from Maisie's perspective was sort of our way into the script in the first place. Really formally thinking about how you would do that. Where is the camera in relation to a six-year-old, who really, is a tiny little thing? And from an editorial perspective, how often, or how much do you stay with child versus the other adult characters? That was especially true when we cast Alexander Skarsgard to play Lincoln. He's a very tall man and Onata is of course a small girl. For them to even fit in the frame together -- he has to be holding her or the camera's going to have to be pretty far away. That alone forced some thinking about what it would mean to define Maisie's world simply by defining the frame that didn't include the heads and shoulders of the people who are sort of above her. But everything else -- like what kind of score might lend itself to the seriousness and lightness that would feel like it's the interiority of the child -- everything about the formal elements of putting this movie together had to be considered with the idea in mind of telling a story from a child's perspective.
Tell us about working with Onata Aprile and how she came to play the role of Maisie.
McGehee: We really found a great girl to play Maisie in Onata Aprile. There are actor-director relationships where the director really has to imagine the character for the actor and provide a lot of the ideas for them on how to portray the world of their character. But Onata was really special in that being a six-year- old; she was obviously really good at being six. We didn't have to teach her how to do that or teach her how to recreate a six-year-old for the camera. She was super comfortable in front of the camera and just embodying her six-year-old self. In the emotional and physical environment that we created for her, she was really just bringing all of herself to every moment. We kind of learned very early on to just sort of stay out of her way while we were shooting. We would just learn from her how a six- year-old goes about doing the things that we were asking her to do.
Siegel: We cast her through sort of the normal casting process. Avy Kaufman was our casting director and she found Onata. Onata had done a little bit of professional work, and she was a New Yorker. But she really -- and sometimes it sounds like we're really going overboard about her -- was invaluable. Her good nature and her desire to be there, and the way in which she'd show up every day with the kind of spirit that she has, was so extraordinary. It really infected the whole set. There was something where she was so adept at being part of the crew and set.
How do you see the character of Maisie?
Siegel: From an acting point of view as well as a character point of view, she's kind of a tabula rasa. It's more about taking it all in rather than being reactive. She reflects the turmoil that's going on in the adult world around her. So we think of Maisie as kind of a watcher and the whole movie is sort of about Maisie absorbing those experiences and finally finding the strength in her voice to kind of let her mother know that it's time for a change, for a different kind of dynamic. So I guess I would say, we saw her as an observer.
McGehee: I also think she's a really unique character that has so little power to affect the world she's in and yet she's got such a generosity of spirit. You feel somehow that the only power she has is to be generous with her love. And that is what saves her. It's this kind of incredible ability to accept the world for what it is and forgive its shortcomings to survive.
Julianne Moore showed interest in the script early on. Tell us abotu working with her and what she brought to the role of Susanna.
McGehee: She was fantastic of course. And it was fun to be working with someone who's been in just about every situation imaginable on a set. David and I have been working at this for quite a long time, but we've only made five pictures, so that's a completely different pace of work and experience. Her professionalism and her experience were amazing and exciting to be around, and we got a lot out of that. What was kind of fun, was that the thing she wasn't comfortable doing was portraying a rock star. She told us in her first lunch with her that she was a terrible singer, and that she didn't know how to sing but could probably manage something. She was pretty uncomfortable about that part of it. So we set her up with composer, Peter Nashel, who is a good friend of ours and someone we'd worked with several times. He got her comfortable singing into the microphone and worked with her as a vocal coach. Towards the end of the filming, we shot the concert footage where she is on stage as Susanna 'the rock star' performing. And she really owned it. She strutted on stage singing with a band and it was really fun to see that transformation. It was fun to see her really become something that she said from the get-go that she really wasn't.
Siegel: The flip-side was that she was also really excited about getting to portray a rock star. So, it was a kind of nervous anticipation for her. But we just thought she was great for the role. Susanna is a volatile and sometimes not all together likeable character. We loved the way Julie could have bite and show willingness to be brave as an actress in terms of going to those unlikeable places. Because she's incredibly talented she also of course had that tender vulnerability that was so important. She had read the screenplay and had expressed some interest before we became a part of the film. But then we took that next step together in a way, and thankfully in the course of six months it came together.
Steve Coogan is equally brilliant in the film. Tell us about working with him.
Siegel: He was our first choice to play Beale. He was the first person we thought of. And oddly his agent at the time had somehow read or gotten his hands on the script and we sort of had a meeting of the minds individually before we even spoke to him about it. We think he's a terrific actor and loved the fact that he could bring a certain kind of humor to the role. We also loved the fact that he could be sort of a cold bastard. He's pretty good at playing a cold bastard, and likes doing it. And yet, he too, like Julie, can show you a vulnerable side. We just love everything about the guy.
Watching the film, it is hard to find something likable about Maisie's parents. Yet you've mentioned a vulnerability to Beale and Susanna. How did you balance that duality of their roles?
McGehee: Honestly that was something that we talked a lot about and was a struggle. We thought a lot about it while we were shooting, and we thought a lot about it while we were cutting and editing the film. We didn't want villains. We wanted to represent people who just weren't cut out to be parents, who were just failing. And I think we got a lot of help from the character of Maisie. Maisie's ability to love them, despite their shortcomings helps the audience kind of find a way to love them too.
Siegel: It was also just the dynamic that developed on set as actors. There are certain actions that the characters have to take in the script. But they're interacting with this young child, and so their own personal affection and kind of attraction to her, that comes through in the performance and you feel that in the way they handle the kind of awfulness about it.
What makes Susanna and Beale, by most standards, such bad parents?
Siegel: In a weird way, they suffer from the same thing that a lot of people suffer from who pursue creative lives: they're sort of selfish. Perhaps to some degree overly devoted to themselves, to a life's work that is very self-involved. I think for people like that, it's hard to not put the wall up between your personal life and what it is that you've devoted yourself to. They're not good for each other. And even for those that aren't necessarily involved in those same kinds of pursuits, that fundamental struggle to not lose one's self in parenting is similar to that thing that Beale and Susanna struggle with. Most grownups can identify with that. However I also think most adults would be horrified with the way that Beale and Susanna deal with their daughter.
If you can find an upside to Maisie's parents' divorce, you might say that's the relationships she starts to formw ith Margo and Lincoln.
McGehee: It's interesting. Both Margo and Lincoln wind up being quite lovable. But I think when we meet them, they're both kind of complicated people. Margo marries Beale, her ex-boss, and someone in the midst of a custody battle. He's 20 years older than her. And Lincoln -- when we meet him, is a bit of a dirtball rock star groupie, hanging around and drinking. He marries Susanna when he barely knows her. Hopefully the film makes this kind of character complexity interesting rather than off-putting. What we hope for as filmmakers is that the audience gets to sort of watch these two people grow into themselves. The kind of forced responsibility of looking after Maisie is pushing them to be better than they might have been otherwise.
YOu could almost say that Margo and Lincoln find themselves caught in the middle of the custody battle just as much as Maisie.
Siegel: Margo, Lincoln and Maisie are all, to some degree, victims of Beale and Susanna. There was a parallel track though that we talked about in the story of the film. And that was the selfless versus selfish kind of track. There was a sort of parallel to Beale and Susanna, and Margo and Lincoln. For Lincoln and Margo, Maisie is taken to be the priority. While for Susanna and Beale, the priority remains themselves. We do believe there's redemption for Susanna in the movie, however.
Tell us about Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham.
McGehee: When Alex came to the role, and it felt like he came with a mission. He figured out that what he needed to do as an actor in order to make his character work, was to create a fierce bond with Maisie, with Onata. And he just really connected with her from their first day of rehearsals together. He was down on the floor with her, coloring castles, and telling stories. She took to him like a house on fire. She couldn't stay away from him on set. She was crawling all over him and they had this thing where he'd lift her up on his arms, it's actually in the movie a couple of times, and she would swing on him like he was a jungle gym. It was really a beautiful and strong bond. So that work he did as an actor in preparing his relationship with Onata really paid off. That chemistry really shows in the film in a special way.
Siegel: Things that we had seen Alex in weren't very much like this. There's something so simple and sympathetic about him as a man. And in a way, he let that come through simply and strongly, he didn't try to dig too deeply with the character, which was exactly what the character needed. He creates a kind of simple, sympathetic, strong presence for Maisie, and as Scott said, we think it works super well. We enjoyed working with him very much.
McGehee: And Joanna. She's a Scottish actress, and she really was quite young. When we were working with her, she was about twenty. So she plays a little older than she actually is. What's interesting is that she's a very mature 20-year-old and a very skilled actress. But, she still has a kind of youth about her and innocence and inexperience and vulnerability that really comes through in a nice natural way in the film. We were really delighted by that dimension that she brought to the role.
You mentioned Susanna redeeming herself. Tell us about that scene in the film and what it means to both Susanna and Maisie.
McGehee: We weren't a part of the script development when that scene was added. But I understand that that scene came to the script quite late, right before David and I got involved.
Siegel: We struggled with that scene in that it was written and re-written several times. We were having trouble finding a way of getting at what exactly Maisie might do to cause her mother to really understand that she was going too far. And the idea of actual fear -- which was an idea that Julianne Moore came up with in our discussions with her about the scene -- seemed to get at the crux of the problem nicely; that Susana's volatility comes roaring back at her in the physical reaction of her child. A child she deeply loves. That in this moment, maybe for the first time, she recognizes that she might be doing harm in some way. That she gets that she might just have to back off, at least for a while.
It was a fantastic scene between Julianne and Onata.
Siegel: We had a funny experience shooting that scene. We went out to the beach twice, and the first time we went out there, we were planning on starting to shoot around 10pm. So you know we get everything ready, we have to bring condors out there to light it. It's a big deal for a small production; we're more than an hour outside the city. And just as we're about ready to shoot, Onata falls asleep. And there's no waking up a sleeping six-year-old to work. Which is why we had to go back.
The film is quite weighty, but it's also a hopeful story. And you leave the film with that.
Siegel: We wanted the film to feel uplifting. A mother has to learn to step away from her own child; she has to grow up, in a sense, herself. There's redemption in that, we think, as it allows her daughter to grow, too. So we hope that the end of the movie has this joy in that.
McGehee: We stopped the movie when we do, because we didn't want to think too hard about what tomorrow is. What seemed important was that moment right there -- in that instant, Maisie achieved something. And she's enjoying the moment that she earned herself.
You both have been working together for quite some time. Tell us about your process.
Siegel: We have been working together for a long time, but we really do share sort of the whole experience in terms of prepping the movie together, rehearsing actors, figuring out the way we're going to shoot, and talking to our key crew. When we are actually shooting on the set, I deal with the actors a little more directly and Scott deals kind of with the camera a bit more. But it doesn't break up divisionally. We just sort of do everything together.
You're shooting in New York City. Tell us about shooting on location.
Siegel: This is the second film we've shot in New York. We shot Uncertainty here several years ago, as well. We enjoy shooting in NY. The city makes it pretty comfortable. And then there's always the fact that Scott and I are big bicycle riders, so it's easy to get to set. The script was set on the Upper West Side and we kind of took the movie down town. That was the biggest location decision. And to some degree it was because the script had been written at least a dozen years ago and felt a little bit dated that way. We felt someone like Susanna might now be more apt to live downtown. And we also thought we could get more of the feel of the city in by shooting downtown. We wanted to get the busy frenetic energy of the city to become a player in the movie even though there aren't that many scenes that take place outside. We hoped that we could give it that feel. Our Location Manager, Joe Sevey, found us Oak Beach, which was just across from Babylon and west of Fire Island. We wanted to find a place that most people don't even know exists, and it turned out to be just the type of idyll we were looking. A place where Margo can kind of steal Maisie away to, and use as a protective shelter.
What was the rehearsal process like for the film?
McGehee: We didn't rehearse a whole lot with this movie. And that was in part schedule related. We started shooting in the summer and Julianne Moore was away with her family and couldn't join production until about the third week. We did one big table read with the cast, but the time we all had together to rehearse was limited. And also, with Onata, we didn't want to rehearse her a lot. We wanted her to be comfortable with everyone, but we wanted her to stay as natural as possible and just be in the scenes as opposed to learning them. We had noticed during her auditions that each time she ran through a scene, her performance would become more predictable and similar. It was harder and harder to kind of find a fresh way for her to encounter the material. She's so good at discovering things that we wanted to keep that energy. So there wasn't a ton of rehearsal.
Did that leave room for some improvisation throughout the film?
Siegel: There wasn't a ton of that either -- but there was a bit for sure. It was a pretty tight schedule, and when you're working with a young actor you have a limited number of hours. And Onata's in every scene.
McGehee: There are scenes like the scene with Alex and Onata in the elevated park. That was really just about getting the two of them together and letting them be themselves until we got to the scripted part of the phone call. They were just having fun together and it was just us suggesting a few things -- but a lot of it was just goofing off and things they were making up in the moment because they liked each other. That kind of improvisation was really common.
Describe the look of the production.
Siegel: We worked with several keys that we have long relationships with; Giles Nuttgens who is our director of photographry shot The Deep End with us as well as Bee Season, Kelly McGehee our production designer has been working with us since we started making short films, and Stacy Battat the costume designer did the costumes on Uncertainty. So we had a strong center to the film creatively. In terms of the camera work with Giles, we shot the film more handheld than we had previously with other films because we wanted that kind of immediacy and we wanted to make it feel as real as possible. And we had to figure out ways for Giles to be steady on his feet at the height of a six year old which isn't that easy...
Tell us about the scoring of the film.
Siegel: The composer, Nick Urata, he's involved with a band called DeVotchKa and he's been composing films for quite a while. We're fans of what he does. We talked to him a lot about the score needing to feel -- not the whole score -- but the score as an idea needed to feel like it represented Maisie's interior life. We liked the idea that we could use the music of the movie to feel like we were underscoring and feeling the experience of the six-year-old, without it of course being childlike music. So that was something that we talked to Nick a lot about.
McGehee: We figured out early on that having a human voice, an innocent human voice, was very effective in helping us kind of zero right in on Maisie's point of view and her heart. Nick worked with a singer called Lucy Schwartz on several cues this way -- you hear her voice as almost an orchestral element. And Lucy composed the final song of the movie. So you finally hear her sing there.
What would you like audiences to take away from the film?
Siegel: That's a hard question to answer. I guess I'd like them to leave the theater feeling they'd had an experience of watching a story that deals with some simple and fundamental aspects of being alive, like love, individuation, selfishness and self sacrifice. And that maybe somehow we'd shown something worthwhile in the complexities of those basic human relationships, and the sticky web that connects us to others.
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