Scott McGehee & David Siegel – What Maisie Knew (DVD)

August 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

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.

What Maisie Knew

May 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, Onata Aprile
Directed by: Scott McGehee (“Bee Season”) and David Siegel (“Bee Season”)
Written by: Carroll Cartwright (“Dungeons and Dragons”) and Nancy Doyne (debut)

It’s a statistic stated so many times in the past few decades it is practically an axiom: half of all marriages end in divorce. While these days the stats show the number is closer to 40 percent than 50 percent, it seems unlikely that author Henry James could have known how timely his novel would end up being when he wrote it in 1897, a year when the divorce rate was a mere 6 percent. As a modern film adaptation of his novel of the same name, “What Maisie Knew” tells the story of a bitter divorce and custody battle through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl.

Set in New York City, rock ‘n’ roll musician Susanne (Julianne Moore) and her successful husband Beale (Steve Coogan) are embroiled in a failing marriage. As their relationship crumbles, a bitter custody battle ensues, causing their young daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) to get caught in the middle. Both parents quickly remarry and eventually dump off parental responsibilities to their respective spouses, Lincoln, (Alexander Skarsgard) a bartender, and Margo, (Joanna Vanderham) who serves as Maisie’s nanny.

Moore and Coogan both give very strong performances, and Moore is especially good at being completely selfish and unhinged. Both actors are particularly strong at conveying tension, especially during the scenes where they butt heads and argue. As the film progresses, it is clear that Lincoln and Margo become more parental figures than Maisie’s actual parents. Though Vanderham is good, Skarsgard is a nice surprise in this role. His character and Maisie’s are thrown together quickly and slow to warm up to each other. As the film progresses, the two actors show tremendous magnetic chemistry and Skarsgard’s charm and interactions with Aprile become very enjoyable to watch.

What keeps “What Maisie Knew” from being a completely upsetting film is both the age of the character and the brilliant performance from a young actress. Maisie is a happy child and one that is largely oblivious to the neglectful and vindictive actions of her parents. It is always a risky move to have a child actor be the anchor of a film, but Aprile’s natural delivery and screen presence is such a wonderful revelation. The young Aprile is able to express so much with a simple gaze or facial expression and she never feels overmatched or misplaced in an ensemble piece with such strong acting all around. Of course, a child actor’s instincts can only go so far and much of the credit should be given to co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel for knowing how to coax a nuanced performance out of her and capture the blissful innocence of a child pitch perfectly.

Since much of the film focuses on Maisie rather than her parents, directors McGehee and Siegel cleverly step around melodrama in a few ways. When her parents have nasty screaming matches or sling verbal barbs at each other, rather than focusing on those characters, they are heard in the background as the camera stays with Maisie sleeping or playing. There are also very few scenes where huge fights, arguments or major emotional scenes feel over the top. A very delicate touch is present throughout the film, never more apparent than in the wonderfully understated moments where Maisie is heartbreakingly neglected. Part of what makes “What Maisie Knew” so effective is that the majority of what is shown in the film is firmly rooted in reality.

“What Maisie Knew” isn’t exactly uplifting. It is clear throughout the film that Maisie, while certainly loved by her parents, is being used as a tool for them to get back at each other. A lack of communication and effort often leaves Maisie in terrible situations or the responsibility of taking care of her dumped off to her respective stepparent. What makes “Maisie” such a beautiful film is showing that a child’s unconditional love is infectious and though sometimes aided by ignorance and obliviousness, how strong and perseverant a child can be in such painful circumstances.