Contemporizing a novel that’s over 100 years old for a movie that naturally chronicles the emotional struggles a young child faces in the midst of their parents’ bitter separation and custody battle can be difficult process for filmmakers. But directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel skillfully adapted the 1897 novel ‘What Maise Knew’ by Henry James into a rare, intriguing drama. The movie emotionally chronicles two self-involved parents who are so selfish that they fail to notice their neglect for their daughter’s well-being. The fact that the duo was able to create a captivating story through a child’s point-of-view on a limited budget proved that working hard to find a solution to a problem, both on the production and in the context of the film, can lead to constructive results.
‘What Maisie Knew follows the title character’s struggle for grace in the midst of her parents’ custody battle. Told through the eyes of the film’s young protagonist, Maisie (Onata Aprile), the ever-widening turmoil between the six-year-old’s innocence with the selfishness of her parents, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), rises when they marry other people-Lincon (Alexander Skarsgard) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham).
Susanna is an aging rock star who doesn’t know how to cope with her lagging music career, while Beale is a contemporary art dealer who’s never home to care for his family. Their battle over Maisie’s custody is just another issue in the war of their personalities, and they fail to see how their inadequacy as parents is hurting their daughter. Maisie is always watchful of her parents and new younger step-parents, and she begins to understand that the path through her parents’ selfishness will have to be of her own making.
McGehee and Siegel generously took the time to talk about the process of filming the drama recently during an exclusive interview at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how wanting to maintain the lightness of a child’s experience convinced them to direct ‘What Maisie Knew;’ how they knew Aprile was right for the title role after seeing hundreds of girls audition for the character; and how setting and filming the movie in downtown New York City helped modernize the story.
ShockYa (SY): You co-directed the new drama ‘What Maisie Knew’ together. What attracted you both to the script?
David Siegel (DS): Well, we didn’t write this one, we just directed it. The script was the thing that really started it all. In a weird way, we were allergic to the idea, when we originally heard the story of the film was a child going through a custody battle. We feared it would be very heavy, in a way.
But in reading the script, we were delighted by the lightness of it. We thought, to tell a story and convey the experience of a child, we thought we’d have to maintain the lightness of a child’s experience.
SY: One of the aspects of the film that has been praised is the fact that it’s a relatable story for adults told through the eyes of a child. What was the process of creating the story of Susanna and Beale’s separation through Maisie’s point-of-view like?
Scott McGehee (SM): Well, it was challenging. But the script was structured that way, so we had to think of visual ideas with our cinematographer. We had to think of what the lighting would be like, in order to give it the right atmosphere. We also had to work with our production and costume designers to create the right environment and feeling.
But it was a process of learning, in a way, for David and I, in figuring how much we could rely on Onata’s performance to tell the story. The plot of the story is really what’s going on amongst the adults, but the experience of the story is what’s going on with her. It was, can we focus on her, and not lose the thread of that background plot? I think that was the challenge, and how much we could do that was what we learned over the course of shooting and finally editing the film.
SY: Like you mentioned, Onata portrayed the title role in the film. Since this is one of her first roles, how did you decide to cast her in the movie?
DS: Well, we searched high and low. (laughs) Our casting director was Avy Kaufman, and she saw hundreds of girls. We saw many of those girls, too. We didn’t find Onata until a few weeks before we began shooting, and that was a bit nerve-racking.
We were looking for a kid who could convey an interior life through her face, that rare skill that actors have, whether they’re six or 60. We felt it as soon as we saw her.
SY: What was it like working with Onata once you actually cast her? What was the process of forming the bond between her and Julianne and the rest of the adults on the set?
SM: Working with her was much easier than we expected it to be. She was very well prepared. She has a good temperament for being on set. Working with her wasn’t so different from working with the other actors.
Her mom and she would go over what the scene was about, and she understood emotionally what she was trying to convey. She understood the situation she was in, and understood her lines. We’d adjust certain things from take to take, but working with her wasn’t so unusual.
Developing the relationship with the other actors, she’s an easy kid. She’s easy to get to know, and is very trusting. She opens up to people quite easily. Alexander, in particular, made a conscious decision to get to know her early on, as we had more rehearsal time with him. He spent some real time getting to know her.
Joanna showed up on the set, and had to go to work the very next day with Onata. They didn’t have any time to get to know each other at all. Onata dealt with that very comfortably.
It was funny, the first scene that Joanna and Onata did together was the scene when Lincoln came to the school, and Maisie doesn’t know him. She was clinging to Margo and saying, “I don’t want to go with him.” But in reality, she had completely loved Alexander already, and Joanna was a brand new face to her. She had no connection with her whatsoever. The irony of that situation wasn’t lost on Onata. She actually said to us, “This would be perfect if it was the other way around.” (laughs)
DS: Yeah, she said, “If it were the opposite, it would be better.” (laughs)
SY: Speaking of Alexander, he’s primarily known for playing Eric Northman on ‘True Blood,’ who is completely different from his role as Lincoln. So what was the casting process like for him?
DS: He came to the work with some ideas for his physicality. At first, we weren’t really sure, but we got on board really quickly. There was a slouchiness to Lincoln’s posture and clothing, and he’s a slacker in a way. I think that makes his character vulnerable, in a way, which helps with the sympathy, and bonds him with Maisie. So we thought all of that was terrific.
We knew it was going to be a stretch in our minds. Well, not really a stretch, but we wondered if the guy who plays Eric was going to be the right person to play Lincoln. But as soon as we met with Alex, we were convinced he was, because he’s so gentle and kind and approachable. We knew we needed someone with that openess.
SY: The film is a contemporary retelling of the 1897 novel of the same name by Henry James. What was the process of modernizing the story like for contemporary movie audiences?
SM: I think the writers (Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright) did most of the heavy lifting of re-imagining it for the 21st century. They figured out which parts of the story were going to translate the best.
They wrote the screenplay quite a few years ago. So part of the process of working with them once we came on board was to bring the story downtown. They had imagined it uptown, but we brought it into a more contemporary space that we understood.
DS: The story tells a series of events relating to the child in an expository way. The book takes place over a much longer period of time. There’s something naturally cinematic about the way the writers constructed the script, but it’s not necessarily the easiest way to narratively tell a story.
SY: Speaking of setting the story in downtown, the movie was also shot around New York City. What was the process of shooting the film here like?
SM: It was great. Coincidentally, our main shooting location where we shot was right around the corner from Julianne Moore’s house. So that was convenient for her-she would go home for lunch between takes, if we had a long set-up, and spend time with her kids. In general, it was really great.
This is the second film we shot in downtown New York, and it’s great. We’re bike riders, and we could do our location scouting on our bikes. We love shooting in New York. It’s a great city for shooting.
SY: The film had a limited budget while you were shooting. What were some of the challenges of shooting an independent movie?
DS: There were so many difficulties. (laughs) Oh where do we start?
SM: When you work with a young child, you have limited shooting hours. We only had Onata for nine hours a day. So that just increases the challenge, because you have less time to do your work, and makes the budget even tighter.
DS: Our difficulties weren’t really that extraordinary, as compared to other low-budget, independent films. It’s just time and schedule, and figuring out how to put it all on screen.
One of the things that happened on this movie was a scene between Julianne’s character and Onata’s character on a beach. The mother tries to take her daughter away from Margo and Lincoln with toys at night. That was a distant location from here, on Oak Beach, not far from the bridge to Fire Island. It’s about an hour away, but it’s still in the zone, so we’re not putting up a crew. We were just taking them out there at night, without a lot of lights.
We had a very limited amount of time to do it, over about a two-and-a-half to three hour period out there. That was something like 9:30 at night to 12:30 in the morning. We planned it too late, and Onata ended up falling asleep very early on in the scene. When a six-year-old falls asleep, you can try to wake her up, but you wouldn’t get anything out of her. So what are you going to do, it’s past her bed time. Then we had to figure out on our tiny budget and short schedule how to get back out there with a 50 person crew and a lot of equipment.
SY: Susanna is largely self-centered throughout the film, and can only truly relate to Maisie if she brought her into the music studio with her. Was that important to focus on that aspect of their relationship overall?
SM: Yes, it was. That was an important part of the screenplay. We thought that was an interesting aspect of that character and their relationship.
Written by: Karen Benardello