As far as cinematic parents go, the ones in What Maisie Knew aren’t the worst. Susanna, a touring singer played by Julianne Moore, while too preoccupied with the state of her career to be attentive, isn’t screaming at her daughter about wire hangers. Beale, the father, seems to enter every conversation with an eye on the exit—a Steve Coogan-esque quality if there ever was one—but absence is arguably far from abuse. They just aren’t very good at being parents. What is excellent in the recent adaptation of the Henry James novel is the casting, which also includes Joanna Vanderham and a kinder, slightly hunched Alexander Skarsgård. But it’s Maisie, the young girl stuck in the middle of the conflict that is the focus, played with perfect quiet observation by six-year-old Onata Aprile. I recently sat down with directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (known for 2001’s The Deep End and 1993’s Suture), as well as an adorably monosyllabic Aprile (post-lunch and post-TV/radio junket) to discuss the difficulty of balancing a mature film on a young actor. [Editor’s note: At press time, the film was playing theaters in the U.S.]
Keyframe: So there’s that famous adage about working with children…
David Siegel: Children, dogs and visual effects.
Keyframe: How did Onata compare?
Scott McGehee: Better than working with a dog…
Siegel: …but not as fun as a green screen.
McGehee: We approached this movie with a certain amount of trepidation, because there was a six year old at the center of the film, in every single scene. That presents challenges on set, in the regular set work, but also logistical challenges. It shortens your day. There’s only so many shots in the movie that she’s not in, so when her day would end there wasn’t a lot of work for us to do. We weren’t sure how that would work. We managed on the logistical side. It was hard on our budget, but we managed fine. But on the more day to day side of working with her…
Siegel: …the creative side.
McGehee: Yeah, the creative side, it was not anything like we feared. She was super easy.
Siegel (to Aprile): Until we put food around you.
McGehee: There was one time, the big scene when Julianne Moore’s character Susanna comes to the beach house with the tour bus to pick up her daughter. It was a night shoot and we didn’t have a lot of night work in the movie. And this was not just night work, but night work at a distant location…
McGehee: So it was a big deal. It was way out in Long Island quite far from our production center in downtown New York, so everyobdy had to get out there. It was a lot of travel time for our crew and lights, and the tour bus had to be brought in from out of town. Everything was arranged and we had it all scheduled this certai day.
Siegel: And we scheduled it very specifically from like ten thirty to twelve thirty. We thought about it in advance, that those would be the right hours.
McGehee: We get everything set up and we go to do Onata’s stuff…
Siegel: Do you remember what happened Onata?
Siegel: You fell asleep.
Keyframe: That’s why you don’t remember.
Siegel: There was no waking her up. It was like ‘That’s a wrap.’
McGehee: We packed everything up, and we went back to the city. It was right near the end of the time where we had Alexander Skarsgård with us. He was going on to make another movie, so we quickly shot out the couple of shots that he was in without Onata, using, I don’t know how we even did that.
Siegel: Through mathematics.
McGehee: And then we had to find another place in the schedule two weeks later to come back and do it again.
Siegel: It was one of those situations where the producers said, ‘No, we can’t do this. You’re gonna have to figure out how to shoot it in a parking lot somewhere.’
McGehee: But we figured it all out and it went much better the second time. We shot a little earlier.
Keyframe: In the movie there is a lot of misunderstanding, particularly with her parents who don’t understand the level of maturity that their child is currently at, and they’re exposing her to these sujects that change her perspective. As directors you’re also exposing a young child to other actors fighting and this larger subject of divorce. Did you have any concerns about having to explain that?
Siegel [leans in towards Aprile]: Well we talked about all that, didn’t we? We talked about scenes that were kind of grown up…
Siegel: We talked about that they weren’t real, for one thing, and we talked about what they meant for the pretend characters….
Siegel: And then also talked about just doing them, being present for them, and not thinking about them in relation to anything else, just simply being in those scenes.
McGehee: Onata’s mother Valentine is also an actress, and she whould prepare Onata everyday before she came to set. So Onata would know all of her lines but also so she would know what the emotional terrain of the work was.
Siegel: So you would understand the, well, we use the term scenario, meaning you understand what all the relationships are, how people relate to each other, and what they are supposed to be feeling and thinking, right?
McGehee: And Julianne Moore was really good about that stuff, too, because I think of all the characters that had intense scenes with Onata, her scenes were probably the scariest, and she was pretty good making sure you felt comfortable. And making sure you knew she wasn’t really mad at you.
Keyframe: Onata, were you there when Julianne and Steve were yelling at each other, were you there?
Keyframe: Was it scary?
Siegel: It might have been a little scary.
McGehee: I was scared.
Keyframe: I think when people hear the plot synopsis of the film, they might think, ‘Here comes another child custody movie,’ or ‘Here comes two adults struggling with divorce.’ But it’s not really about divorce. The divorce is pretty much a given, it doesn’t seem at any point like these people are even going to try and hash it out. In terms of the adaptation or the script, framing it like that, was that something you wanted to focus on?
Siegel: The movie and the book as well are told from the child’s perspective, so much of the exposition of the divorce or the split and whats going on around her happens off screen. It’s principally about the experience of the child, with all of that as background. That’s the way we approached it and what was most interesting to us, trying to convey that experience from a child’s perspective. the experience of that, rather than trying to tell the expository story of a particular set of events.
Keyframe: And that was reflected often in the way it was shot with low angles and the sound. Often it would be Onata onscreen, and in the background you could hear an obscure argument.
McGehee: It’s nice to hear, you didn’t feel it was a movie about a custody battle or divorce. David and I had the same reaction that you had when we were told about the script, before we read it. We also were thinking, ‘Hmm, another custody battle movie or a divorce movie.’ Not that there are so many, but we didn’t really feel like we wanted to step into a movie that was one of those movies. So this one was nicely coming from a side angle enough that there was a kind of fresh feeling about it. A lightness.
Keyframe: Did you have any issues with how it ended? I don’t know if when the script came to you it had the same ending, but it’s a distinctly different ending. The book goes on for like a decade and Maisie doesn’t end up with…
Siegel: Yeah, I mean the very specific ending of this movie was kind of tricky to kind of figure out, but every version of it was distinctly different from the book. We liked that idea of the compressed time frame.
McGehee: That’s what for us kind of makes it work as a film. That you can be with the same girl in a moment of her life in a way. But it is very different from the novel, of course.
Keyframe: It’s a little happier, too.
McGehee: The novel is pretty dark. You’ve read the novel?
Keyframe: Umm, I’ve read the Wikipedia entry for the novel.
Siegel: I admire your honesty.
McGehee: It’s a really interesting novel. I recommend it. Like the movie, it tries to get into the girl’s head. When the girl is young the novel is actually quite difficult to read, and as the novel goes on her point of view gets clearer and more understandable, but yeah, the ending is pretty dark in the novel in an interesting way that suits the characters you’ve spent such a long time with.