Maisie 3

By Paul Risker.

Author Henry James continues to find work posthumously, and last year directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel lifted James’ psychological 1897 novel of the dysfunctional couple amidst divorce in What Maisie Knew from the page and projected it onto the cinema screen. McGehee and Siegel discussed with Film International’s Paul Risker the collaborative levels of filmmaking, amendments to the auteur theory, the intertwined identity of cinema and melodrama, working with a fearless leading lady, and discovering originality through a child’s perspective.

Paul Risker: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?

David Siegel: Neither Scott nor I went to film school; we were both in graduate school doing other things. I was doing an MSA in painting and photography at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, and Scott was going to be an academic. He was enrolled in the rhetoric department at Berkley, where he was doing Japanese Film History. This idea of making movies grew out of conversations, and the idea at that point was, as you might imagine, only to try and make a short film or two. But it came out of a broad and general love of movies, and it also had something to do with the intrigue of what that joint collaboration between the two of us and other people might be like.

Paul Risker: Traditionally, films are helmed by a single director, albeit there are tandem directorial teams, most famously Joel and Ethan Coen. As the story goes, to watch them write the screenplay is like watching a badminton match. How would you describe the picture of your collaboration? Are you two individuals who are in synch with one another, or do you craft through a difference in perspective?

Maisie 2Scott McGehee: From what we have heard of how they work on set, I think the way that David and I work is very similar. We pretty much collaborate on everything from beginning to end, and we probably come at things very similarly. What has helped us to collaborate for so long is our general sense of what we like in the world, and what we think makes a good movie. Our taste is similar enough that we feel we are speaking the same language and therein we admire each other’s ideas. Occasionally, when there is a point of disagreement that needs to be hammered out, it is usually because neither of us is seeing the full picture, or that’s what we like to tell ourselves. If we do disagree on something and neither one of us can see the other’s point of view, it’s because we need to find a third idea that’s better than either of the ones we started with, and so that’s what we look for.

Paul Risker: Owing to the nature of your joint collaboration, which mirrors the collaborative nature of film as an art form that incorporates a copious number of individuals, do you consider the auteur theory to be one undermined by the collaborative process, or one that retains its validity?

David Siegel: I will go out on a limb and say that I believe the way that the auteur theory is spoken of in a very singular way—filmmaking as being derived from a very singular voice—is for the most part not true. It is not that directors are not the guiders, generals and overall constructors of their movies, because certainly in our case with the stylistic narrative, the structure and the ideas are derived largely from us. But the process is a collaborative one on so many levels that it just needs to be talked about in a different way. Our friend Steven Soderbergh famously does not take the proprietary credit of “A film by,” which has become standard in our business and which I think is unwise.

Scott McGehee: It is almost a strange thing to call it a theory; a way of collecting a group of movies. These are all movies that are directed by a certain person or pair of people that you can look at as a critic or member of the audience. You can look for the similarities between the films, and look for the ways in which the films talk to one another. That’s an interesting way of approaching a group of films; looking at it as a body of one person’s work. However, it’s just one of many ways of looking at a group of movies that then gives you something to talk about. It certainly isn’t the only way, and to say that is the beginning and ending of the creative soul of a movie seems like it is missing something.

Paul Risker: On the subject of the creative soul of the movie, Jane Campion, in discussion of the writing process for her television drama Top of the Lake (2013), spoke of how a story isn’t derived from a singular idea, but rather it is the product of a series of ideas that are brought together.

Scott McGehee: I just watched Top of the Lake actually, which is interesting. I’m trying to think of what to add to that, but I do agree with her. If you take the case of a film story, it is evolving for such a long time. You start with a screenplay which might have its origin in other material or various source materials, and then that gets filtered through the filmmaking process which involves the directors and the actors. As writer-directors, we will show up on set with very strong ideas about the identity of a character, only to have the actor come up with a completely different set of ideas that then informs the direction the story will take. You have to be open to that new interpretation throughout the process. Sometimes that is a very general sense of how a character moves, like how Alexander Skarsgård for example chose to stretch out his t-shirt and slouch throughout What Maisie Knew. Sometimes it is very specific like re-writing a scene with Steve Coogan or Julianne Moore, both of which happened on the set of this film. It was just by openly working with the actors that we happened upon a new take on a scripted scene, something we had never imagined going into it.

Looking back at your previous films, I would draw a line after Suture (1993) and The Deep End (2001) to mark a thematic evolution in your body of work. The suspenseful Suture and The Deep End seem to belong to a certain genre, whilst Bee Season (2005), Uncertainty (2009) and What Maisie Knew sees you moving in a different direction.

The Deep End (2001)
The Deep End (2001)

Scott McGehee: It’s not something we’ve thought about consciously. It is interesting because we always talk about not having made more movies than we have. There are those movies that we work on for long periods of time that don’t get over the hump, and which are not seen by someone like yourself who only has access to the things that we have made. I hadn’t really thought about it quite like that, but we have certain things that we are working on now that are more suspenseful or genre orientated, and relate more to Suture and The Deep End. But I do think that making What Maisie Knew has opened up our ideas to other sorts of stories that we haven’t considered before.

One of our formative experiences as filmmakers was when I still had one foot in graduate school and was involved in a seminar about American film melodrama. It was just a group of friends so it wasn’t so much a seminar, but we’d get together once or twice a week and watch every American film melodrama we could find. It was the kind of post-war period of film melodrama. The experience of watching those films in a concentrated way connected with something in us—the kind of family stories, and the way an emotional story gets wrapped around a familial crisis and the way emotions play out in those types of stories. The repression and unspoken things that somehow become an emotional tug of those stories. For us, that line from The Deep End to What Maisie Knew feels strong.

Paul Risker: Critics of melodrama may accuse it of being a tool for the emotional exploitation of the audience, but melodrama has been integral to storytelling from cinema’s earliest days.

Scott McGehee: I haven’t thought this through so just understand that I’m thinking out loud right now. I might go so far as to say that melodrama as an idea, like classical melodrama, even coming from Greek drama forward, but classical melodrama is almost the basis of western cinema. It’s where drama is derived just because of the nature of the way films are put together—what is shown and what isn’t shown, and the way music is used in relation to filmmaking. All of those things play into what we think of or what has come to be known as melodrama. It is sort of the basis of movie making as it is in a way of opera.

Paul Risker: At this point in your careers, what was it that drew you to What Maisie Knew?

Maisie 1David Siegel: What we were really drawn to was the idea of telling a story from a child’s point of view. Neither of us had read the Henry James novel before becoming involved in the project. We had been told about it by a producer whose pitch was based on James’ novel about the little girl whose parents are getting divorced, and the story is told from her point of view. The idea of a custody battle story didn’t really interest us, and it was not until reading the script that we saw the interesting possibilities of telling a story from the girl’s point of view. There was a lightness of touch to the story in particular, which had a kind of innocence because of that point of view, and which shifted the mood of this kind of story for us in a way that made it feel fresh and like something we had not seen before. So those ideas plus we were told Julianne Moore had read the script and was potentially interested in playing Susanna. It had been an ambition of ours to work with her, and so those were the selling points.

Paul Risker: How has the experience of directing Julianne Moore impacted your view of her both as an actress and a person?

David Siegel: I’m not sure we were completely tuned in to how direct and how willing she is to take on the ugly parts of characters. There is a part of Susanna’s character that is unattractive and we have worked with other actors who, without naming names, would have been a little concerned of the depiction of the character, and how that might come across in terms of how it reflected back on them as an actor. Julianne was never like that, and in editing the film we had to tear it back because we wanted the character to remain sympathetic on a certain level, and she did too. Just in terms of her willingness to give us a range of performance that we could work with, it was pretty great.

What experience do you hope audiences take way from the film?

David Siegel: We went about trying to make it in a slightly different way than we had worked before, in that what we were trying to do from the standpoint of making a film from the child’s perspective was to try and convey a sense of experience. That has not been a direction for us as filmmakers in previous work. So we hope that some of what feels emotional at the end of the film feels like it comes from the actual experience of the child, and what that experience might feel like, and not just from what happens to her or the way that the story unfolds.

Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering MythStarburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.

What Maisie Knew was released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on the 6th of January, 2014.

3 thoughts on “Scott McGehee and David Siegel: What Maisie Knew”

  1. Really glad to read this interview — What Maisie Knew is one of the best, and most overlooked films of 2013 — I saw it in a theater in New York this past Spring, and I was absolutely bowled over by the film’s originality, and the fidelity with which it captured Henry James’ original concerns and translated them to modern day Manhattan. I also blogged on it here — — and picked it as one of my Ten Best of 2013 for Senses of Cinema. This is what filmmaking should be; thoughtful, incisive, and personal. My best wishes to these two gentlemen with their forthcoming projects.

  2. Did either of the filmmakers at any point read the James novel? Is it worthwhile to comment on the extent to which the film achieves something like James’s outlook? Is all of this irrelevant? The Deep End is intelligent, but it seems unconcerned that it doesn’t attempt the radical social vision of the film that it remakes, Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment. That said, I’m glad that we have these filmmakers.

  3. Actually, it is interesting the co-directors, Scott McGehee & David Siegel admittedly only read the original James source material after they had read the screenplay, but in many interviews they do talk about the challenges of adaptation to the screen. They had heard about the script from a producer and they were attracted to the idea of making a film from the point of view of the child. The screenwriters, however, artist Carroll Cartwright her partner Nancy Doyne acknowledge that they directly based their script on the 1897 Henry James novel. Interstingly enough, Cartright decided to adapt the novel when he found himself involved in a nasty custody dispute and he was raising his own daughter in the midst of this chaos and discomfort. The novel, like the film, takes us into the mind and point of view of the child. James was no doubt influenced by his brother William’s work in the psychology of children. It strikes me that showing the point of view of a child is terribly difficult in both literature and film, but each artistic form has different challenges. This is a stunning and socially significant modern adaptation that manages to rise above these challenges.

    When it comes to adaptation, I think artists who adapt material should have a free hand in adapting, changing, and refashioning the work. In fact, I thnk that is their responsibility, otherwise why adapt? It is not a good idea to try to capture or record a novel. I do think it is usually better to stay ‘true to the material,’ when necessary, but I also think an adaptation should be able to stand on it’s own. It must have merit as an artistic text that is different from the original, even if it is does stray considerably from the original, as in the case of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, which is certainly not a faithful adaptation of Billy Budd, but is certainly a significant achievement on it’s own merit. Whenever a student writer approaches me with an idea about ‘adapting’ an original literary text, I remind them to do the work of ‘adapting,’ and to not merely replicate a masterwork visually and reduce it to a dull filmed theatrical piece that has no merit of its own. I don’t see the point in what I call the “Masterpiece theatre approach”: those types of adaptations strike me as visual Cliff’s notes. Dullsville. A copy that has the blood drained out of it. They are common and deadening — they often replace the novel, in a world in which fewer people bother to read the original text. Unfortunately, there are quite a few maddeningly dull visual adaptations of so many brilliant novels that fall into this category.

    It is interesting to note that in the many reviews of this new contemporary adaptation of WMK, there is a notable lack of any reference or acknowledgement of Babette Magolte’s first film, the 1974 version of What Maisie Knew, a radically experimental adaptation & deep philosophical riff on the original, one that summons the spirit of the original. Mangolte is best know for her cinematography of the works of more radically experimental film directors and artists such as Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, Marina Abramović and Jean Pierre Gorin, but her own filmed experimental works and photographic installations are also particularly significant, as is her adaptation of What Maisie Knew, which won many awards, including the “Prix de la Lumiere” at the Toulon Film Festival in 1975. Mangolte’s 58 minute version of What Maisie Knew is worth checking out.

    The Henry James novel is so beautiful and quintessentially Victorian in it’s fashioning of the point of view of the child, and so dependent upon the written word, that the challenge of adapting the original material in a modern visual context and form would seem formidable, if not daunting; yet visual artists are repeatedly drawn to James’s work, which, I think, is a testament to the beauty and political significance of his writing. James’s work will no doubt continue to be freely adapted in the future. I certainly hope that these myriad adaptations, whether mediocre, awful or brilliant, encourage more folks to read Henry James.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *