Scott McGehee and David Siegel have been directing films together for decades now, but What Maisie Knew is in many ways unlike anything they’ve ever done before. The film tells the story of young girl Maisie, whose parents are divorced and locked in a bitter custody battle. It’s an excellent movie and to see our full thoughts on it, you can check out our very own Matt Donato’s review.
Recently, we sat down with Scott and David for an exclusive interview to promote the recent Blu-Ray release of the film. During our discussion we spoke about novel adaptations, working with child actors, and why Alexander Skarsgård is far too angelic to be given any churlish lines.
Check it out below.
Which one of you guys read the book first, and what made you feel that it’d be well-suited for a film adaptation?
Scott McGehee: You know it’s interesting, neither one of us read the book before we got involved with the project. There was a screenplay — written by Nancy Doyne and Carol Cartwright — I think they wrote the screenplay maybe a dozen years before we actually were ever shown it. The screenplay was our first introduction to the material, then we went and read the book afterwards, before we started shooting of course, but we weren’t familiar with the book before we got involved.
That’s interesting, had they been trying to shop it and then they just gave up? That’s a while ago that was written then.
SM: Yeah, I don’t actually know the whole story of it, but I think they had tried to make it a dozen years or so ago, maybe it lay dormant for a while, but I think they just never quite found the right situation for it. When we got involved they had found a financier, and Julianne Moore had seen the script and expressed some interest at some point, so when we got involved we were told that Julianne was already inclined. One of the first things we did once we got involved was get together with Julianne to sync gears and make sure it was something we wanted to make together. But that was the process.
I think depending on the viewer, a lot of the characters in the film can probably come across differently. For me, Maisie’s parents seem pretty incompetent, and I assume that is somewhat objective. On the other hand, though, a viewer who maybe is a parent like that or knows parents like that might not think they are so bad. Are Maisie’s parents deliberately positioned as “bad guys,” or is it meant to depend on who’s watching?
David Siegel: Hmm. I guess one’s individual perspective in watching that will be a big determinant. They’re not really supposed to be positioned as “bad guys” so much as, they’re just flawed people.
SM: Yeah, we talked with both Julianne and Steve a lot about that, as that was a concern of theirs too – they wanted to portray characters who weren’t one dimensional, you know, they weren’t monster villains, they were bad parents but not bad people I guess.
Right. And even Maisie’s mom at the end kind of shows her– well, like you said, they’re not bad people and that definitely shows at the end when she has her “letting go” moment.
SM: Right, exactly. You know, she doesn’t do too many things right in this movie, in a kind of human character way, but we did want you to see that she loves her daughter, and we want you to see that she is capable of some self reflection I guess.
So the film ends, and I would categorize it as a happy ending. On the other hand, the events that happen in the movie are kind of a snapshot, in that you don’t really know if Maisie is still going to be able to spend a lot of time with Lincoln and Margot, or whether her mom has actually changed or if she’s going to come back and be her same old self. I was wondering if the book gave any more or less indication of what will happen next, and how you guys decided to end it the way you did.
SM: The book’s quite different in the end actually, and a lot of those decisions were the decisions of the screenwriters, but the book takes place over maybe half a dozen years, and the decision Maisie is asked to make at the end of the book is quite a different one. Her parents have both kind of orbited out, and the decision in the book is really whether to spend time with the Lincoln character, who’s married to Margot at that point I think, or whether she’s going to go off with the nanny, Mrs. Wix. So, it’s quite a different situation.
Oh wow, the nanny in the film was pretty minor!
SM: Yeah, the Mrs. Wix character is a major character, she was reduced obviously, but she’s a major character in the book.
I’ve always wondered actually, working with a young actress – to me her performance seemed extremely genuine, probably one of the highlights of the film. But I wanted to ask, when working with someone of that age – is she really acting the way that the adults are acting? Or are you guys more trying to capture moments, or goad her into doing certain things and capture it on camera?
DS: You know, she’s six years old right, so she’s not an actor who has had training and experience, or who has a particular kind of technique – she’s a purely natural, instinctive actor. So, she needs sort of more guidance in the sense of, “OK Onata, now we need you to do this and now we need you to do that.” But, she was– that’s really her performance, she was an extraordinary natural actor, it was an amazing thing to watch.
SM: She understood the situation of every scene, and kind of the emotional feeling that, you know, the scene needed, and she would really just be herself kind of, but be herself in that particular situation, and kind of experiencing emotions that the situation generated for her. So, it was a real performance, and it’s not so different from what an adult actor does really.
I guess part of that too, I was curious if that was an adjustment for you guys, because I don’t know if you’ve directed with young actors or actresses like that before. From what you said it sounds like it wasn’t too jarring of an adjustment.
SM: We were prepared for a bigger challenge than we ended up with. You know, we worked with another child in a movie we made called Bee Season a few years ago, but she was a little bit older, I think she was eleven when we were working with her, and um, strangely, she was an interesting and talented little girl, but not as natural an actor as Onata is.
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