Interview with Directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee about "What Maisie Knew"

Photo Credit: Photo by Matt Carr – © 2012 Matt Carr – Image courtesy
August 15th, 2013

Directing partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel have just released their new film “What Maisie Knew" and were kind enough to talk with Movie Room reviews about the movie.  “What Maisie Knew" stars Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, and Steve Coogan and is about a young child facing her parents custody battle.

Nick Leyland from MRR: You guys are new directors of the movie "What Maisie Knew". It came out in the US, I believe in May, and it stars Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan and Alexander Skarsgård. The film came out August 13th on a Blu-Ray combo.

MRR: Thanks for talking with us here at Movie Room Reviews. So, can you tell our audience about your new film, “What Maisie Knew?

David Siegel: Well it's based, it's a loose updating of a novel by Henry James of the same title.
And it's the story of a six-year-old girl going through a kind of rough custody battle between her parents and it's told very tightly from her point of view, from her perspective. And our little girl, her name is Onata Aprile and we just had an amazing time working with her and just really enjoyed it.

MRR: Was it hard to work with a kid? I mean, I know working with a kid would be difficult but for her, she was in almost every scene.

David: She's actually literally in every scene.  If she wasn't in a scene, the scene wasn't in the movie.

MRR: Wow.

Scott McGehee: Because it is entirely from her point of view. So with that, I think that was the most challenging thing in a way is managing that schedule. Kids have a shorter working day than adult actors. And even for an adult that's a pretty grueling task to be in every scene in a movie. Those kind of roles don't come around every day, certainly not for six-year-olds.

That was a big thing for us to take on but an even bigger thing for Onata and her mother. To make that kinda commitment to a process like this was a very brave thing.

MRR: I think it would be especially hard because I felt like she didn't have as much dialog as she  expressions.

David: Yes. She had a fair amount of dialog as well but yeah, that's sort of the thing that we really were attracted to with her is her ability to be as subtle and natural as she is in close up on her face. To be able to make us feel like we were watching her think, in a sense, and feel.

MRR: Right.  I think the most powerful scene is when you see her shed a tear for the first time.

David: Right. She was really really good at just being present in a close-up. We've thought about this a lot, we had the pleasure of working with a really great actress, Tilda Swinton, a few years ago and that's one of Tilda's great skills and something Tilda thinks a lot about is what does it mean to act in close-up and how can you kind of let people in to what's essentially a cerebral process of thinking or feeling through a close-up. And that's one of the things that cinema is so good at is showing a human face at that kind of proximity, it's rare that we in real life, can study someone's face in the way that a camera can. But we didn't really expect that a six-year-old could be as effecting in close-up as we found that Onata was and it really changed kind of our ambitions for what to do with her performance as we were editing it and kind of realizing just how honest and subtle her performance was.

MRR: And, your other actors too, Julianne Moore who, I mean, I'm not used to seeing her in a role like this. I feel like she always plays the responsible one in movies. [chuckle] But I think Steve Coogan plays a great jerk to be honest.


Scott: Yeah. He made a career of that or hasn't he?


MRR: I mean, he's a brilliant jerk, it's funny. But why do you think these actors played such great roles as self-involved parents?

Scott: They're both great actors, so, and there's the characters of both Beale and Susanna are... They're kind of complex, interesting, people that have a big coat to put on. It is sort of a little bit more like for Steve and for Julianne things that he's done before, but in a more dramatic way I think. Whereas often times its more comedic. And Julianne is a versatile great actress. It was interesting watching her. Our main set was right around the corner from her actual house where she lives in the west village, in Manhattan. And so, now and then her kids would come over at lunchtime or she'd go home and come back with one of her kids or something. So, we'd see her as a real parent, kind of how she is with her kids. It's quite different from Susanna, let me tell you.


MRR: How did those two characters relate to the actual novel?

Scott: The novel... It was written over 100 years ago, of course. It's about very different people in London. But, remarkably their relationships were kind of well described in the novel. The kind of particular way they were selfish and the way they sort of manipulate the situation with their daughter really, that its not about their daughter, its about their relationship. But, they're acting out through their daughter somehow. A lot of that emotional underpinnings of the story really were right there in the novel.

MRR: The story goes from happy to sad almost every 15 minutes I feel like. Why do you think this story is important to tell?

Scott: I think that, important is a big word. [chuckle] Something that we came to experience as we've shown the movie around, which was super gratifying, was how personally people identify with the movie. And I think it's because out of a child's experience and that was our goal in creating, in the way we went about making "What Maisie Knew" was to try and convey the experience of this child. And I think out of that experience people sort of touch back to something very primordial in their lives. And so many people have been touched by divorce in one way or another that I think it adds another layer to it.

MRR: I agree with you.

MRR: The film was shot in New York City and I enjoyed your scenes on the high line. I actually had just done that walk recently myself. What does it take to film in New York and is the extra time worth it, or the extra effort worth it?

Scott: It isn't a lot of extra effort. The city of New York makes the process very fluid. It's not difficult to shoot in New York City, there's management of traffic and streets and things like that but that's logistics and that's not so hard. Its not more expensive, the crews are very very good and you've got these great locations.

MRR: Well, I figured it'd kind of be a big pain in the butt.


David: I mean there are things that are challenging. Getting around the city, parking, there are things that are just part of being in a big city. But you've got a great pool of resources here as well. Great location, great crews, and the best actors in the world are often based here. So, it's a really rewarding place to shoot. One other nice thing about New York is New Yorkers are kind of unflappable and you can shoot right onto the street and people are good about ignoring you often. They just walk by and go about there business which is helpful when your a film crew shooting outside.


MRR: You don't have to hire extras, right?


Scott: Sometimes it works out that way.


MRR: Well something about you two guys, I know you probably get this question all the time. But, you two have worked together a lot. How do you go about sharing the power of the director seat. And what makes you guys work so well together?

Scott: We've only worked together in the film business... We started working together many, many years ago. We've been directing, writing and directing duos since our first film. So, we don't really know how to do it any other way I would say. We're kind of adapted to the way we do it. But we just really share everything. We start out planning together and when we're on set it's not like we take turns or flip favors or anything like that. We really kind of, hopefully, by the time we're on set, we've come to some agreement about every aspect of the material that we're working with and we like to be, two people doing one job and hopefully we're twice as efficient. We can be at twice as many places, answering twice as many questions and kind of moving things along that way. We're really good friends and so, it's based on that kind of trust and respect, I guess but no big secrets.


MRR: I figured one of you got to sleep in while the other one went to work and then the other one left and then the other one had to stay.


Scott: That'd be a different style.


Scott: We could try that.


MRR: Well, I really enjoyed the film and I was wondering what we can look forward to seeing you guys film in the future.

David: Well, we're working on a couple of bio-techs, which is something that we've never one before, never actually worked from a person's life who lived and that's been kind of fun. It's always so unpredictable though, the thing we're working on might not turn out to be the thing that comes together next, so, it's a very unpredictable business.

MRR: I believe you. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

David: Nice talking to you, thanks for the conversation.