A short while ago I got the chance to watch an advance screening of ‘What Maisie Knew,’ the latest directorial effort of long-time partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel. The film, adapted by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright from a novel by Henry James, revolves around Maisie (played by debut actress Onata Aprile), a young girl and only child of a divorcing couple, as she is passed back and forth between the two parents – a rock and roll icon (Juliane Moore) and an art dealer (Steve Coogan). After seeing the movie, I was invited to a Q&A session with the directors – knowing how these sessions usually go, I expected to be welcomed along with a few other dozen journalists in a conference room and to never really get to ask a question. Instead, I ended up being invited in the directors’ private living room at a major hotel downtown, having a one-on-one (well, one-on-two) interview.
Roberto: What brought your attention to this story?
David Siegel: We didn’t write the story, so we were shown a script, and neither of us had read any James (n.b.: the story is based on a novel by Henry James), we didn’t know the book. We got very interested to try to tell a story from a child’s perspective – that seemed like a pretty unusual, challenging and interesting thing to do.
Scott McGehee: The other part is that Juliane Moore had read it, and we had wanted to work with her for a long time.
R: How was it working with a child actor?
D.S.: We had a bit of experience with that because we had made a movie called Bee Season which also featured a child actor, but this is unusual in that Onata (n.r. Maisie) is in every scene, so the entire story is told from her perspective. We were fortunate to work with someone as talented as her. She came prepared each day, she knew her dialogue, her mother made sure she understood what the work was that we were going to do each day, and we were able to direct her very much like the other actors.
R: Did you encounter any difficulties in working with a 6-year old?
S.M.: Well, there were some challenges for sure, because of child labor laws you have a shorter day, so a lot of our resources went to making sure we had more shooting days. Onata herself was super-friendly but she had a couple of quirks: for example, whenever you put her in a scene with food, she would get really distracted.
R.: Tell me more about your work with the other actors.
D.S.: We had never worked with any of the other actors. Juliane Moore is an amazing actress, we had wanted to work with her for a long time, and she was very good about talking to Onata about the fact that she would be screaming sometimes, or crying sometimes, and that it was pretend. Onata didn’t need quite as much managing because she is such an adaptable child. Alexander (Skarsgard) was the person who was around the most, he came a couple of days early, and he really bonded with Onata in a very deliberate way, so that relationship was really one built with trust and helped things go smoothly.
R.: Do you recall any incidents that might have endangered the production?
S.M.: Well, we talk about the last scene between Onata and Juliane Moore when Juliane tries to take her away (sorry, spoilers). It was a complicated scene because it was about an hour outside of New York City and it was at night on the beach, and we had to have a tour bus, and that had to be brought in from Tennessee; the first time we tried to shoot that scene our schedule was pushed a little bit too late and Onata ended up falling asleep, we had to stop shooting and we had to reschedule that in a way that was quite difficult for our little tiny production, but we managed it.
R.: Thank you for your time and good luck in your work.
S.M.: Thank you.