Since its release in 1979, Kramer vs. Kramer has set the bar for family dramas dealing with divorce and the children caught in its wake. But whereas most films follow the struggle both adults face to fight for parental control over their children, or deal with the heartbreaking acceptance of love’s end, there are few portrayals from the point of view of the kid caught in between. There are even fewer films that deal with parents who really have no desire to be so, adults who are more focused on themselves than taking responsibility for the child they’ve brought into the world. But with David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s modern retelling of Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, we see the trials of divorce through the eyes of a precious and wise six-year-old girl.
Starring bright new talent Onata Aprile in the titular role, alongside Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as her egocentric parents, we follow Maisie as she finds herself shuffled from one parent to another, and eventually onto their respective new spouses. From her perspective we gain a heartbreaking look at abandonment and the adults who are blind to their own wrongdoings.
No strangers to familial subject matter, Siegel and McGehee have directed Suture, Bee Season, Uncertainty, and The Deep End together, examining their affinity for portraying authentic drama in extreme circumstances. And with What Maisie Knew, they give us a thorough and emotional take on a family split apart, and the young girl who shows more strength than anyone.
Last week, I sat down with the directors and a select few other writers to discuss bringing the script to life, discovering Onata, and showing a different side to their actors.
The film ends on a elliptical note, we’re left wondering what’s going to happen to this girl. Did you want the ending to be ambitious?
Scott McGhee: We talked a lot about that ending, and what we’ve done with that is give you an image go a girl on her way. That was the concept, she’s on her way down the dock, she’s got a destination in mind and that’s where the film leaves you, with a girl in motion. That was very deliberate.
David Siegel: I liked the metaphor of her being in the process of things, as opposed to drawing any kind of conclusion. But something redemptive might have happened between her and her mother in the previous scene and she’s willing to take a step asserting herself and her mother is willing to take a step in listening to her.
How did you two work as director’s to evolve the script and bring it to life?
SM: As always when you’re making a film, things evolve as we work with the writers and work with the actors on set. And certainly Steve Coogan had some good ideas for lines and those found their way into the finished film. We worked on one of the later scenes with Julianne Moore on how she could work best with Onata in the scene where they’re saying goodbye. And in the editing process, of course it evolves further. But it was a very strong script to begin with.
DS: This movie in particular, especially because it’s told elliptically in these little moments that Maisie actually sees, involved a lot of discerning how much of that actually needed to be included to tell the background story of what’s happening for the adults. That was a big difference.
Can you tell me about discovering Onata and how she came to be in the film?
DS: The idea of a six-year-old carrying a movie was that not appealing to us originally—that’s a little bit terrifying. But we knew that was going to be the case no matter what we did with the film—how we shot it, whether it was beautiful or ugly, or how the other actors performances would be—it really came down to whether you would believe the experience of the six-year-old. In retrospect, we always say why would we have never started pre-production before having found that six-year-old, but in fact we did and we didn’t find her until a few weeks before shooting.
SC: We work with a very calming casting director who kept telling us, don’t worry you’re going to find the perfect girl.
Did you know instantly when you met her that she was your Maisie?
SM: It was instant that we knew, but it took a minute before we trusted our instinct.
DS: What I would add to that, we saw scores and scores of girls and Onata was the first girl who, when we sat down, we looked at each other and were like, this is a special kid. Not that these other girls weren’t talented, but we really believed we needed a child that could convey that sense that not many actors can: that you’re actually going into their head and watching them think.
SM: We didn’t have something specific she had to be but we all knew it would be a matter of when we me her we would know. It was a learning process for us even, we thought what we needed to find is a slightly older girl who can play younger, because then she’ll be more mature and easier to work with. But we learned that, no, in fact six-year-olds are really special. And there’s something uniquely innocent about them that really reads on camera, and no seven-year-old even is going to give us that. So it was a process for all of us, and Onata was a culmination of that.
DS: What was amazing about Onata is that she really is an amazing child. She was able to live in front of a camera in a way that a lot of actors really work long and hard at getting back to—a very simple being in front of a camera and that’s what she was so good at. So explaining a scenerio for her, she could just imagine it and be in it. When it came to dialogue, her mom would prepared so, to shift up the dialogue, that was a little difficult because it was stuck in her head and she worked hard to learn it. But you could shift up her environment, she would just live.
SM: Sometimes Steve Coogan would go off script and she was always right there with him. Like when he comes out of the elevator and says, "You’re my sixth favorite girl." Every time he came out of the elevator he would say something different and she would just react to what her daddy was telling her—like when she says "Who are your other girls?" that was just her begin in the moment. She was prepared for every scene so she understood what the emotional stakes were for every scene.
There are some very intense moments and arguments in the film—how did you prep Onata before these scenes?
DS: Julianne and Steve were really good with her. Before each uncomfortable scene Julianne would sit her down and say, "Remember I’m pretending—I might yell, I might cry, but it’s all pretend." Sometimes Julie would cry and we would call cut and Onata would start giggling because she found it so amusing that she was pretending that far.
SM: It’s something we talked about in particular because Julianne has kids and played a lot of moms over the years, so she had a lot of wisdom about how to protect a kid and make an environment hat was comfortable. It turned out that Onata needed less of that special care. She was a pretty equipt, a adaptable child.
Julianne and Steve’s characters were both so selfish and at times cruel but they weren’t completely evil. You could still tell that there was a deep love there that they weren’t able to fulfill the responsibility of. What did they each bring to these roles?
DS: Thanks, that was something we did talk to them a lot about, because we felt like if there wasn’t some sort of humanity at the core of their characters they would just seem like bitter people who were ego-obsessed—which they are—but there needed to be something fundamentally there. But Julianne had read the script before we expressed interest, so that was one of the first things that happened: we met with her and tried to see if we could make it and we never thought of anyone else because of that and she was so right for the role. We were really enamored of that idea from the get-go—and this rarely happens, at least in our little career, Steve was our first choice and that’s what happened. It just went very smoothly. We liked that he would also bring a little humor.
Julianne has played a lot of mothers but this was still a very different kind of roles for her. The same goes for Alex as well whose character was more vulnerable than we usually see him. And in terms of his physicality, he was always slouching and seemed very insecure.
SM: Well, Julianne expressed interest before we did—
DS: But I think that was something she wanted to explore something different.
SM: And the singing was something she’d never done before and something she was afraid of, but I think that says a lot about her as an actress—that something that scared her really attracted her and she wanted to give it to go. And with Alex, that was something that interested us. We hadn’t seen him do that much. We’d seen True Blood and we knew from Zoolander that he could be light and funny. But when we met him, he has a real gentleness to him in person and we just thought the idea of this gigantic, gentle giant handsome guy bonding with this really tiny little girl.
DS: And he brought that physicality to it, those were Alexander’s idea. We thought that was pretty terrific, to make his physicality vulnerable like his character might be, and that would tie him to the child a little bit more. From the first time she met him she kind of fell in love with him and the two of them, hey don’t see each other much anymore, but when they do it’s pretty sweet.