Directors David Siegel (L) and Scott McGehee
by Danny Peary
I rarely pay attention when a movie comes out in video, but I’m pleased that Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew, which has been overlooked by movie fans who should know better, had its DVD and Blue-ray Combo Pack release on Tuesday. It’s my favorite film of the year (along with Fruitvale Station), so I’m hoping that all the people who missed it during its theatrical run, including at the Sag Harbor Cinema, will remember its great reviews and make a point to see it now. In this smart, kindhearted, marvelously-acted modern-day adaptation of Henry James’s 1897 novel, six-year-old Maisie (a heart-capturing performance by Onata Aprile) learns that her loving but selfish, neglectful parents, rock singer Susannah (Julianne Moore) and contemporary art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) are divorcing. During their bitter custody battle, Susannah and Beale continue to be inadequate parents, but fortunately Maisie, who never objects as she is shuffled from household and household, receives unexpected care and comfort from her parents’ discarded new partners, bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and her ex-nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham). It all leads to the most gratifying movie ending of the year. McGehee and Siegel were in Manhattan this week and the following is our conversation about their special film.
Danny Peary: I’m sure you’re glad that your film is getting a new push with the DVD/Blue Ray release this week.
David Siegel: Yes, we thought, given the reviews, that it would have done better on the first chance.
Scott McGehee: The business has changed that way so much since we made our first film, which still isn’t available on DVD in a lot of regions. It’s just nice that home viewing has been raised to the standard that it has been. People can finally enjoy the movie they missed when it was in theaters. I’m happy for the second chance.
DP: I’m amazed by how prescient Henry James was to what’s going on now with dysfunctional families, neglectful parents, and custody battles that are more about the parents than the child. The script by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne has been around for eighteen years, so did you decide to make it because now it is so timely?
DS: We didn’t know anything about the script until it was sent to us. What we were really attracted to was that it was that we’d be trying to tell the story from a biased point of view and to get into a child’s interior place. We were told they had a lot more money than they actually had, and that Julianne Moore was attached to it, which in fact wasn’t true.
[Laughing] She had read it and expressed interest.
SM: Being interested and being attached are two different things in our business.
DS: So we met with her and she agreed to try to do the film with us, although she was as nervous playing a rock star. That was great because we’re really big Julianne Moore fans.
DP: I think Steve Coogan was an inspired choice to play Beale because the few American movie fans who know him probably think of him being funny.
SM:. We love him and it was our first idea was to cast him, but he was a tough sell for our producers, actually. It took a while to bring them around.
DS: They really admired him, but they were just worried about financing. They love his performance.
DP: In the interview you both did that is included in the film’s production notes, you were asked, “How important was it to stay true to Henry James’s novel?” Every filmmaker who adapts a famous book is asked that question and they always answer, “It was very important to be faithful to the novel.” Scott, you’re the only director who ever answered, “Not very!”
SM (laughing): Well, I think that if you can just bring that feeling that you get from reading the novel successfully to the screen, you’ve done a great thing. But it’s true that fidelity beyond that isn’t a big interest of ours.
DS (laughing): Well, you’d be foolhardy to not be true to certain novels because too many people love them and since movies are a commercial enterprise you’d be shooting yourself in the foot if you didn’t do that. But for most books, it seems like the responsibility is to stay true only to what you’re trying to take from the book. Because you’re make a movie from the book, you’re not putting the book up on the screen. “What is it that you’re doing to make a good movie?” That’s the question to ask yourself when you’re adapting a book. You decide what story you are trying to tell and then you stay absolutely true to that.
DP: You did keep James’s title, “What Maisie Knew.” For me, the title refers to when she finally is able to say out loud what she knows is best for her. I’m not sure if you thought she knew things earlier.
DS: What you’re suggesting comes late in the movie, but we talked about it as a process, an existential thing in the sense that we the audience knows only what Maisie knows [as the story moves along]. That’s because she’s in every scene and in all the exposition. We talked a lot about whether to keep the title when releasing the movie, but the title worked for us because what we convey in the movie is what Maisie knows.
DP: You’re talking about our knowing what she knows all the way through the movie?
DS: In the sense that she’s within every scene, all the moments of the movie. However, as viewers, we’re privileged in the sense that we’re reading lots of emotions on people’s faces, things that Maisies’s not necessarily directly privy to.
DP: It is Maisie’s story and you place the camera at her eye level, but I’m not sure I agree that the whole film is from her perspective. You probably want us to understand her interior world, and we do to a degree, but I felt I was always on the outside watching and rooting for her, rather than being inside her and looking out. I watched it from my perspective, as an adult watching this little kid get pushed around until the end, when she does know what she knows.
DS: I kind of like what you’re saying. That’s interesting. We can say the movie is only from her point of view, but if we’re really going to talk about film language then that’s not really true and it seems to be an easy, short-hand way to look at it. You experience this movie differently than you do others because there’s so much less exposition, plot, and story. The film is highly biased toward Maisie’s point of view and the camera does acknowledge some of the awful things happening to her, but you may still look at it from your own perspective or the perspective of another character.
SM: Talking to people after screenings, we’ve had really different reactions about what their entry point is into the movie. People identify with Maisie or this character or that character and feel very personal about it.
DP: In the book, Maisie grows into a teenager, and the title makes a bit more sense because over the years, she matures as she gradually learns things. Your Maisie learns everything all at the age of six.
DP: What I find interesting is that when she’s finally mature enough to make a really brave decision about her situation, she is protecting being a child. She is making an adult decision, which we would have made twenty scenes before for her, but she’s wise enough to not want to grow up very fast and have to make adult decisions all the time. She wants to be six and go on boat ride with Lincoln and Margo! You decided to keep her at that age rather than have her make such a big decision after she has gotten older and had more experiences.
SM: We preferred having it all take place during a short period of time. That’s what is in the script.
DS: It makes for a better way to tell the story.
SM: Actually, we kind of fell in love with that age during the audition process. The six–year-old thing. We met a lot of kids that age and there was something really special about them.
DS: We originally thought we were going to use an older child, because she would be easier to work with, but it seemed to us that at the age of six there’s sort of this fuzzy line of demarcation. When kids go beyond six, they started becoming just a little bit more self-conscious. But when six-year-olds make mistakes, it would be very natural.
DP: Well, your title works for me because of the six-year-old who plays Maisie. Onata Aprile is so convincing that we believe Maisie does mature enough at her age to “know” what’s going on and make a crucial decision about her future.
DS: We thought the title worked too, which is why we eventually decided to keep it.
DP: In the interview you two did, you talk about Onata’s “generosity of spirit,” and how it affected everyone so positively on the set. I’d say that Maisie has the same effect on those around her, particularly Lincoln and Margo.
SM: We also talked about Maisie’s “generosity of spirit.” That was a phrase we used a lot. The love that she generously offers to the world creates the environment she needs to survive. She got a lot of that naturally from Onata.
DS: It’s a funny thing, we searched and searched and searched for the right kid to play Maisie. We didn’t find Onata until we were less than a month from shooting, which was terrifying and kind of stupid, because what would have happened if we’d gotten even closer to production without casting anyone? A whole train was moving and we didn’t have the lead character.
DP: So were you saying to each other that you wanted to find a girl who has “generosity of spirit?”
DS: No, we were saying to each other that we wanted to find a girl who could communicate her interior life through the subtlety of expressions in her face. That thinking came from the direct experience of working with Tilda Swinton on “The Deep End.” Because in that movie also, her character is in almost every scene, and there’s not a lot of dialogue so Tilda had to convey with subtle expressions a whole world of emotion, a sense of an interior life. But you know, Tilda was forty and a very trained, highly cerebral individual. Onata was a six-year-old child who had the perfect natural instincts that enabled her to do it. It was breathtakingly inspiring watching her..
DP: Could you tell right away that she could do it?
SM: We knew she was really special and had something we hadn’t seen in the other little kids we’d been auditioning. But she was only six and had never done this kind of thing before, so there’s always that worry, “What if we’re wrong? What if we get her out there with the lights and the cameras and she doesn’t have it any more, or she can’t do it, or she doesn’t enjoy it and doesn’t want to do it?” There’s always that impending sense of crisis.
DP: You describe Maisie as an observer as people swirl around her and things happen. How much of Onata’s performance was created in the editing room?
SM: I’ll say this really sincerely. We didn’t cut around Onata any more than we cut around any other actor in the movie. You’re always shaping a performance and a character to some degree, but Onata really gave us that performance..
DS: And we used no tricks to get that performance on camera, either. She was very much in the scene.
SM: There were tricks keeping her from getting distracted because she liked being there so much and liked the crew. She was amazing, it’s really her on the screen.
DP: Did you worry toward that end of shooting that she might wear out or lose her spark and think you’d better finish the film before that happened?
DS: We worried about that early on. Like Scott was saying, you think you have the right kid, but that might be the kid who on day five says, “Mommy, I don’t like this anymore.” What are we going do at that point? So we worried about that, and we also worried about fatigue. But she never was fatigued. In fact, if she could have spent six more months shooting the movie, she would have been the happiest kid in the world. She just enjoyed being there so much, and it absolutely infected the set that way. The spirit on the set was really, really lovely.
DP: You said that Alexander Skarsgard really befriended her so that in the scenes with Lincoln and Maisie, the affection we see would be real.
SM: Yeah, they were so sweet together. And they still are when they see each other.
DS: Alexander’s a lovely guy. He’s often cast because he’s super handsome and all that, but I think he’s much more interesting when he’s more like himself.
DP: A moment I love is when Margo (Joanna Vanderham) asks Maisie if she likes Lincoln. And Maisie replies that she loves him. That’s an early example of Maisie knowing and understanding something. Maisie actually understands, I think, the difference between liking and loving someone and realizes this man is something special.
DS: It’s a good testimony for Lincoln if little Maisie loves him.
DP: That is his validation, and makes Margo look closely at him. My guess is that it was a very important moment for guys, when she uses the word ‘love’ rather than just say, “Yes, I like him.”
SM: Very much so.
DS: You trust Maisie more than any other character in the movie, and I think you’re right to latch on to that moment, because I think that’s the fulcrum that shifts the relationship between Margo and Lincoln.
DP: But here’s another disagreement. Because Maisie loves Margo and Lincoln, they are validated in our eyes, but Scott, you told the interviewer, “Maisie’s ability to love them, the parents, despite their shortcomings, helps the audience find a way to love them, too.” I never loved them!
DS: Did he really say that?
SM (laughing): Did I really say that?
DP: Yes, but you can change your mind. I think–and I believe this more accurately conveys your thoughts–we can accept and understand Maisie loving them because they love her and treat her well on occasion, but we don’t have to follow suit because we’ve seen how selfish and inconsiderate they are regarding her welfare.
SM: That’s fair enough. We all talked a lot with Julianne and Steve and amongst ourselves about how to keep Susannah and Beale from being monsters. They’re really challenging people, and we see them do some terrible things. Maisie’s innate love for them is really helpful, I think, in at least humanizing them. Maybe more importantly, seeing that they really do love her is part of that, too.
DP: She has the ability to accept her parents’ shortcomings. It makes her kind of a special kid.
SM: It comes back to her generosity of spirit.
DP: Reviewers often said Maisie “forgives” her parents because she loves them unconditionally. My feeling is that accepts their shortcomings and all their mistakes in parenting, but “forgiving” is not part of her thinking and never comes into play
SM: I agree 100%.
DS: That’s just not part of the framework in her life. . Her expectations get confounded at times, but I don’t think that elicits forgiveness.
DP: She could be disappointed, but it’s not about forgiving them. I think it’s really an important part of her that she doesn’t think in those terms.
DS: I guess that she would have to condemn her parents in order to forgive them, and she doesn’t do that.
DP: Actually, in making this movie, were you rooting for her yourselves? For us viewers, to feel so much for her, I think you had to feel a lot for her, too.
SM: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true.
DS: We’re the first audience for everything. It’s really odd how we have talked about this movie as much as we have and worked on it for as long as we did. That’s because the emotional relevance is so there, as it was when James wrote the book. It never ceases to surprise us.
DP: I’m not giving away anything when I say that the book ends with the teenage Maisie deciding to stay with Mrs. Wix, who has a very minor role in the film. You movie ends when Maisie’s still six. So your ending doesn’t mean that she still won’t end up as teenager with Mrs. Wix.
DS: You want to believe, optimistically, the fact that Maisie is now moving forward, that there’s some sort progress in her life. It’s not like we know what will happen at any point in time, but she has found her power and allowed herself to break free!