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?
Scott 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.
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?
David 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 Myth, Starburst 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.