MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

An interview with WHAT MAISIE KNEW’s Scott McGehee and David Siegel


What Maisie Knew, the latest film from the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, The Deep End, Bee Season), is about an endearing 6-year-old girl caught between her warring parents. Very loosely based on the novel by Henry James, the movie has a thoroughly contemporary look and feel, from its setting in downtown Manhattan, to its detailed portrait of a trendy, narcissistic “creative” couple’s breakup. Julianne Moore plays Maisie’s mother, Susanna, a fading rock diva who’s unwilling to relinquish either the limelight or her footloose lifestyle, even as her art dealer husband Beale (Steve Coogan) moves out, taking the child’s nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) with him. Alexander Skarsgard costars as Lincoln, a bartender who catches Susanna on the rebound. These four actors are so strong, and the plot twists so satisfying, they’d be reason enough to watch, but the film’s revelation is Onata Aprile as Maisie.

In her first feature role, Aprile gives a performance of such grace, confidence, and naturalism that she calls to mind other great child actors’ movie debuts, including those of Hayley Mills in J. Lee Thompson’s Tiger Bay (1959) and Tatum O’Neal in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973). You’d have to have a heart of obsidian not to fall for this little girl in a big, big way. Maisie is the calm at the center of the storm, a playful innocent at the mercy of capricious adults, yet she seems at times more mature than they. The film shimmers and pulsates around her. When New Yorkers McGehee and Siegel flew in recently to bang the drum, they couldn’t stop talking about her. Millennium Entertainment is orchestrating the platform release of this arthouse gem, which is likely to wind up on numerous Top Ten lists at year’s end. But don’t wait until then; find What Maisie Knew at a theatre near you, and see it now.

ANDREA GRONVALL:  This is my first time setting eyes on you, because I’ve never seen you interviewed. So, forgive me, but who is who?

Siegel, Aprile, McGehee.

SCOTT McGEHEE:  I’m the smart one.

DAVID SIEGEL:  I’m the handsome one.

AG:  Okay, thanks—good to have that settled! Let’s start with the script, because you usually do your own writing. Was the tone of the film pretty much already on the page when you first read the screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright? What, if any, significant changes did you make?

DS:  The screenwriters crafted a lovely script; we were attracted to its lightness of touch. We were most attracted to telling a story from a child’s point of view. But the original script was quite different from our movie. We admire it very much, but everything wasn’t all on the page. We were changing things as we went along, because once you start working with the camera, you find out what in the script works and what doesn’t.

SM:  And so much of that we owe to Onata Aprile, who plays Maisie. We fell in love with her on day one. Her spirit is just so lovely; every day she would show up, just happy to be there. We had as great an experience filming with her as we did shooting The Deep End in Lake Tahoe.

DS:  Onata is like Tilda Swinton and the lake rolled into one. I would wake up each morning knowing, “I get to go to work with Onata today!”

AG:  I’ve read your comments elsewhere about how from the very start Alexander Skarsgård bonded with Onata off-camera, resulting in their appealing on-screen chemistry.  What approach did your other actors take to working with her?

DS:  I think Julianne Moore’s approach to Onata was to make sure she was safe, because Julianne herself has kids, and as Maisie’s mom she had to scream a lot. So, she would sometimes say, “Here we’re going to play pretend. Let’s pretend that….” And Onata, who is very bright, picked up right away on the “pretending” aspect, and ran with it.

SM:  The casting of Steve Coogan as Maisie’s father was part of our strategy of preserving some comic moments. He was fantastic playing this really dark character, but he also brought a humorous edge to Beale.

SM:  None of our actors were into any “super Method” mode. Between takes the set was very relaxed, so it was easy to slip into acting, and then out. That seemed to come quite naturally to Onata. She has a great attention span, and is there to do what you need her to do, but when you call “Cut!,” she’s off exploring. Everything fascinated her.

DS:  Everything! From the dollies, to the lights, to the cameras. [When we were in development] at first we thought of hiring a 9-year-old actor to play Maisie. But then we began reading that after age six, kids become selfconscious. It was the right move to have a 6-year-old playing her own age.

AG:  Let’s talk a little about the look of your film. How early on did you begin consulting with your production designer, Kelly McGehee, and your cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens—for instance, on your color choices? The film’s warm color palette reminds me of those bold, saturated colors found in many children’s paintings. But it’s never harsh, even when Maisie’s parents are behaving harshly.

DS:  As you know, Kelly is Scott’s sister; we’ve been working together since we started making shorts, and so she was on board early. And this is our third time around with Giles [who also shot The Deep End and Bee Season]. Color palette is one of the first things—maybe the first thing—we always discuss when planning a movie.

The second thing we discuss is the quality of light. We knew Giles could get us the kind of luminosity we wanted. We were impressed by the effects cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieved in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men. Giles has a similar sensitivity, and got us that intense but spectral quality of light we were looking for.

AG:  It appeared to me that a number of the close-ups of the adult characters seemed to have been shot from below. Was this deliberate, to reflect the point of view of someone as small as Maisie?

SM:  You don’t always know in advance.  You spend a lot of time looking [through the camera], and then discussing what a close-up will mean.

DS:  To some extent, the angles of the close-ups did show Maisie’s POV, but often they were for technical reasons, like matching the characters’ eye lines in any given scene.

AG:  How much did it cost to make What Maisie Knew?  What’s on screen looks so rich, but I suspect you achieved that without a big budget.

DS:  I think you might have more money in you bag than we had to work with. Maybe I shouldn’t say, but it was $5,000,000. We enjoy working with constraints, but that’s a tight budget for shooting for 35 days, on location and with a union crew.

SM:  The challenge was to make that five million stretch across as many days as possible—which becomes a bigger challenge when you consider that our lead actor is a child who is in almost every scene, and there are child labor laws that limit the hours that kids can work. Not to mention that they sometimes get tired.

DS:  We had to go out to the beach twice to shoot the nighttime scene that’s toward the end of the picture, because on the first night Onata fell asleep, and that was that.

AG:  What cameras did you use?

SM:  An Arri film camera, shooting Super 35mm, using Cooke lenses and a 2:35:1 aspect ratio—as you noticed, we designed for the wide-screen format. You might think that was an expensive way to go, but after we had priced out various digital shooting options, the way we ultimately chose was comparable in cost. Our objective was always to conserve as much money as possible so that our actors had as much time as we could give them to deliver their best performances.

One Response to “An interview with WHAT MAISIE KNEW’s Scott McGehee and David Siegel”

  1. Mike Wilson says:

    Hello,
    I am a friend of Scott’s father, Bill. The last time I saw Scott was at his father’s wake. We all miss Bill. Bill and I taught at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, CA. I would like to have a way to contact Scott with a very interesting story about another fellow teacher, Jon Pawson. If you could forward this request, it would be very nice of you.
    Thank you, Mike Wilson

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas