In the emotionally poignant drama “What Maisie Knew,” directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“Bee Season”) tell the story of a divorce through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl (Onata Aprile). The film was adapted from a late 19th-century novel by author Henry James.
During our interview, McGehee and Siegel talked to me about their amazing experience working with young actress Onata Aprile and shared with me what they were thinking one night on set when Onata fell asleep at a most inopportune time.
“What Maisie Knew” was released on DVD and Blu-ray Aug. 13.
What was the casting process like for Maisie and what led you to an actress as natural as Onata Aprile?
David Siegel: It was certainly something we were concerned about. We thought that authenticity and simplicity was something that were important touchstones for the character. You want audiences to be with her as strongly as possible. We went through a long casting process – about four months – and saw hundreds of kids. We didn’t find Onata until we were less than a month from production. It was scary.
As you’re auditioning all these kids, who would you cut right away? Would you cut the kids who were “acting” too much?
Scott McGehee: It was a process. I mean, we came into the process thinking we needed an older girl who could play younger. We learned really quickly that there was something honest and innocent about 6-year-olds that we weren’t seeing in older girls. Some kids were really good at learning lines, but they lacked a simple authenticity. Some kids you could tell just weren’t mature enough to do it. Those were the two extremes. We knew the whole movie was going to hang on Maisie, so we needed a kid we were going to fall in love with and who was going to break your heart and who was going to be engaging to watch.
You had worked with a young actress before in “Bee Season,” although not as young as Onata. How does your approach as a director change when working with someone so young?
DS: You know, it’s really interesting because Onata could really work and play with the other actors like a grown up. Once we started rolling, she was able to act in a scene like a grown up. She didn’t really require a lot of extra preparation or coddling in any kind of way. She didn’t require us to shoot around her in any particular way. She is so natural and able to live in front of the camera. With [actress] Flora Cross in “Bee Season” – not that she’s not a talented actress – it required a lot more preparation and special help because Flora was pre-adolescent and more awkward in her body and more self-conscious. All of these things we found didn’t get in the way with Onata.
SM: Even watching Onata now at 8-years-old, I have confidence that she would be as interesting in a movie now as when she was six. We definitely saw some tendencies. There was a line of demarcation between ages six and seven. Even before we chatted with a little girl, we could tell if she was six or seven. (Laughs) We thought we were experts.
I read a story about a night you guys went out to shoot a scene and Onata fell asleep. As directors, what do you do at that point?
DS: Cry. (Laughs) I don’t know how much you heard about that experience but it was really dicey because it was Alexander [Skarsgard’s] last week of production. We had crammed so much work in those last two days for him. We were a little behind. We knew there was no way we were going to get back to that location. And Onata was asleep, so we couldn’t shoot the scene with her. We had to figure out what we needed from Alexander without Onata in the scene before we could let him go. It was a bit of a panic.
Well, I have to ask this question since it’s so logical: Why didn’t you just wake her up?
SM: (Laughs) Well, I’m not sure we wanted to wake up a 6-year-old at 10 p.m. and ask her to deliver a performance. (Laughs) I mean, I don’t know. She just wasn’t wakeupable.
DS: Her mom also told us that wouldn’t work. She said once she was asleep she was down. But it’s tricky. There’s a fine line between wanting a kid to give you a professional performance and child abuse.
I’m assuming you wouldn’t have been so nice if it was Steve Coogan who fell asleep.
SM: (Laughs) We would’ve wakened Steve Coogan.
DS: (Laughs) Yeah, we would’ve kicked him a couple of times.
There was a lot of debate last year when actress Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Some people argued that, while she was amazing in the film, her performance was more about what the director was able to pull from her through certain techniques as less about her making a conscious effort to act. Did you feel like Onata knew she was acting because I know you used the word “pretend” on the set?
SM: Early on, we kind of stopped using that word on the set, which was interesting. That was a request by her mother. Do you remember that, David?
DS: Not entirely.
SM: She said we shouldn’t talk about it as “pretend.” We should talk about it as a different kind of thing. Maybe there is a semantic difference between pretending and acting. But I would say Onata was acting. She understood the emotional stakes of a scene. She was playing a character in a moment just like any other actor. Her process wasn’t so different.
DS: I would say unequivocally Onata was acting.
SM: It’s a strange thing that Onata in “What Maisie Knew” was doing the same thing 41-year-old Tilda Swinton was doing for us in “The Deep End” (in 2001). You want to say, “But she’s only six,” but that really is Onata’s performance. It was kind of a thing to behold. Everyone on set – the cast, technicians, crew – saw it. They knew they were watching something unusual.
It’s really interesting because director Benh Zeitlin has said for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” when a scene called for Quvenzhané to cry, he and other members of the crew would tell her stories about people they lost in their lives and were able to pull her emotions out that way. How do you feel about that? I mean, he got the performance he wanted from her, but he didn’t let it necessarily unfold in a natural way.
DS: I don’t really judge him for that at all. I think that’s fine. You’re putting together pieces bit by bit and creating something discretely. Then you string them together to create a continuous emotional experience. It’s all artifice. It’s all a trick if you want to think about it that way. With any actor, you’ll take a reaction in a way that wasn’t in continuity and you’ll put it in because it works. That’s the process of montage. We were prepared for that sort of enterprise. We had different strategies to affect a look or a mood. It just happens that in Onata’s case, she was an actress.
So, did she actually know she was making a movie about a divorce, or did you work around those aspects of the story?
SM: No, she understood the story to the extent a 6-year-old understands that kind of a story. She understood Maisie was a little girl who was left alone a lot by her parents. Both of her parents loved her but were unable to really show her the love she deserved – and on and on from there. Onata understood that story clearly.
DS: So, in a scene it would be us telling her something like, “You’re at breakfast with your dad and you want to go to England with him but he’s going to say goodbye instead. How would that make you feel?” That was the level of our conversation with Onata. It was very much telling her the scenario and asking her what emotional experience that suggested to her. Then, that’s what she would give us.