Discover This: What Maisie Knew

Copyright: Pandastorm Pictures

When I arrive for the interview, I am all sweaty and hectic because I didn’t find the location right away and didn’t want to make Scott McGehee and David Siegel wait. I am welcomed with a smile and the two tell me to relax. We talk about Tilda Swinton’s holding up a rainbow flag in front of the Kremlin before we go into the politics of independent film distribution and start discussing their latest film What Maisie Knew which stars Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan and the amazing newcomer Onata Aprile. Scott McGehee and David Siegel debuted with the masterful black-and-white neo-noir Suture (1993), then made The Deep End (2001) with Tilda Swinton, Bee Season (2005) with Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche and Uncertainty (2009) with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. What Maisie Knew is a powerful, yet very tender divorce drama of a New York couple, seen from the eyes of their young daughter. It opens in German cinemas today.

Toby Ashraf: With the five films you directed together within the last years, you have made yourselves a name as independent filmmakers. The longer I think about this term the more difficult I find it to come up with a good definition. What is, from your point of view, an independent filmmaker?

David Siegel: A crazy person – someone who doesn’t want to be able to pay his rent (laughs). I can’t really answer that question, but I can tell you that it’s getting more and more difficult to get independent films financed these days. That is, films that have a small budget and are not produced by a major studio.
We were at the San Francisco Film Festival with What Maisie Knew and attended a talk by Steven Soderbergh who is an old friend of ours and who has helped us a lot in the past. It was interesting listening to Steven because his career is curious. He didn’t even get his last film Behind the Candelabra [which premiered at Cannes this year and stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon] financed by a studio for theatrical distribution, but he was quite easily able to get it financed by the TV station HBO. Steven is a person who has a lot of resources and who has made many movies over the years, but even he is feeling that kind of frustration.
So, down the line, filmmakers like us, or filmmakers who had even less success have a frustration that is extremely aggressive. What Maisie Knew cost around $5 million and it was very, very difficult to raise the money even with Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, and Alexander Skarsgård being associated with the project. Six or seven years ago, that movie would have been financed in a second. Take a film like World War Z – and I’m not even talking about whether the movie is good or bad – it is what it is. It’s a movie about zombies taking over the world and it cost more than $200 million. For me, the interesting question in watching a movie that costs $200 million is: What does a $120 million version of that movie look like? Why didn’t it cost half that amount – which would still be a lot – and why would they think that a $120 million version would make less money? I can’t answer that and I know a lot about making a movie. The studio executives must be asking themselves that too.

Scott McGehee: But that’s a completely different industry than the independent film industry. The blockbuster industry is a world of its own and has a logic of its own which in a way doesn’t concern us, except that there are only so many people going to movies, and more and more of their movie going time seems to be taken up with keeping up with the blockbusters.

David Siegel: But when you go to the movie theatre and see that a poster for What Maisie Knew sitting next to a poster of World War Z, people are asking themselves: Am I going see that or am I going to see that – that’s how they are related.

Photo by: Alpha Smoot
Scott McGehee and David Siegel – Photo by: Alpha Smoot

You debuted with Suture in 1993 and then it took you eight years to make The Deep End. Suture had a limited release in the USA and was sold to Japan, France and England. It was critically acclaimed and won awards at Sundance and Toronto. Why did it take you so long to make another film? Did that also have to do with the production situation and raising money or was it more of a long creative process?

Scott McGehee: It always has to do with production, I think. We had written a lot of screenplays and already cast and started preproduction on films that never happened. So there’s always a bunch of false starts before a movie goes through. I think that’s common for filmmakers. I mean for better or worse, it takes a lot to make a movie and you need a lot of permissions and you need to get a lot of people on board, whether it’s actors or financiers.

David Siegel: But it’s not common for a lot of directors, too. It’s something we are trying to change – to make movies more quickly.

Steven Spielberg caused some buzz recently when he predicted that the entire film industry will implode after half of the multi-million-dollar projects in production fail at the box office. His film Lincoln could have almost been a TV film as well. Do you think that ever since you started making films 20 years ago the situation has become more dramatic for you as independent filmmakers?

Scott McGehee: What has changed for us, I would say, is how small films get marketed and what chance they get in the marketplace. Just getting distribution for a small film feels like a victory nowadays. You need to make a lot of noise to get noticed in an environment where there’s a blockbuster coming out every weekend and it’s really hard to have an impact with little films these days. Sometimes a film is gone before word-of-mouth can really kick in.

Photo by: Alpha Smoot
Scott McGehee and David Siegel – Photo by: Alpha Smoot

That also seems to have changed dramatically in the US. Films have a shorter running time and the box office results of the first weekend decide the career of a film, whereas it used to be possible to have a sleeper film that gained a following a few weeks after its release date.

David Siegel: That almost never happens anymore.  More and more movies find their way into the cinemas and yet only very few of them are making any money.

Scott McGehee: I think there is still an appetite from the audience, but there used to be a system where the main suppliers of movies produced a wide range of films. Now, distributors don’t do that anymore. They used to have special divisions like Searchlight and Focus – these companies still exist, but they produce fewer films and fewer companies and studios make dramas or suspense movies anymore. Instead, they make big movies and that’s it. All the other kinds of movies that people are interested in have their place on television now. On US television, there is a broad range of things to watch nowadays and all those other kinds of movies have to be made through independent means, through equity financing, and all these other crazy ways that people put films together. It produces a more chaotic system.
For me, what got lost is the feeling that there’s a conversation happening. I miss the feeling that as a culture we are all aware of the movies that are coming out together and that we’ll be able to talk about them and remember them together. The cycle has gotten so fast that the conversation never has time to a get a foothold. We are all watching different things all the time and as a result the conversation never gets really deep and I really miss that. There was a time when American independent cinema felt like something we were all interested in keeping up with and something we could talk about with each other. It doesn’t really feel much like that these days.

Talking about What Maisie Knew, how long did it take for that to come together?

Scott McGehee: From the time we saw the script until it was done, a couple of years had passed. At first, the project was represented as something it wasn’t, when we got involved. The producers told us that they had much more money than they had, and they told us that Julianne Moore was attached to the movie and she wasn’t (laughs).

David Siegel: That’s their job (laughs).

Scott McGehee: It took a little longer to put together than we thought it might. It took a couple of years.

Copyright: Pandastorm Pictures
Julianne Moore – Copyright: Pandastorm Pictures

It seems to me that Julianne Moore has been an ally to you in this project. Apart from very few commercial films she admittedly made for the paycheck, she has been part of many ambitious and small art house projects.

Scott McGehee: Julianne was intrigued enough by the script and in her character to express interest, but then she wanted to know who else was also involved in the project because this was something she really wanted to have a gamble with. We had lunch with her to see that we were all speaking the same language and got her to actually agree to do it. And yes, she was an ally. She is married to a filmmaker [Bart Freundlich] and has been making independent films longer than most people. Whenever there were things that she needed to be an ally with she always was.

Do you allow your actors to create a space where they can develop or even change their characters?

David Siegel: We allow that space to be created, but there is less space now than there used to be in terms of time – it’s always about time. How much time do you have to shoot? How much time do you have to prepare? We spend time with Julianne talking about the styling of her character and went to a concert of The Kills together whose music is featured in the film. Julianne’s character Susanne is loosely based on Alison Mosshart, the lead singer of The Kills, and it was fun to watch Julianne watch Alison Mosshart perform on stage.

Scott McGehee: There’s also one big scene at the end when her character comes back in the tour bus to eventually say goodbye to Maisie. That was a scene that hadn’t really found the right way to sit in the movie and in the screenplay. It relied on Onata Aprile crying and having this breakdown that was supposed to be the catalyst for her mother’s self-recognition, but we felt that maybe that was the wrong emotional emphasis in that moment. So were worked really hard with Julianne on that particular scene to reconstruct it and put the emotional responsibility on Susanna rather than on Maisie.

Complicated family relations and questions of identity seem to be a common thread in all your films. Susanne definitely has problems defining herself as a rock star and a mother at the same time. You might link it to your first film Suture in which a man is forced through an assassination to take on his brother’s identity, mirroring the dysfunctional family in Bee Season. Is that something that always interests you in new material?

 Scott McGehee: Well first of all, thank you for pointing that out (laughs).

David Siegel: Yeah, we really like talking about that (laughs). When we first started working with each other, we watched lots of post-war melodramas. Many filmmakers like watching these films because their stories are painted with a four-inch brush, and the strokes are very broad, so to speak. Those melodramas are a lot about families and about people in social structures who are forced to either say or not say what their desires are. They often have to sacrifice themselves based on those desires and based on what they think the expectation for their actions ought to be. Those kinds of ideas are very well suited to movies. And I think watching these films has informed all of what we have done.

Copyright: Pandastorm Pictures

 How did you bring up the courage after Bee Season to have another child actor as your lead?

Scott McGehee (laughs): I don’t know. At one point you decide to step into something or not. One of the producers had read the screenplay of What Maisie Knew and made a pitch saying it’s a divorce case and custody battle scenario seen from the eyes of a child. None of that sounded good to us. We were like: “Let’s not even read that”(laughs).

David Siegel: (laughs) I think that’s actually what we said and then we said we were not interested. I eventually read he script anyway, because it was still such a tempting idea to tell the story from the perspective of a child. It doesn’t happen very often and it boils things down in the filmmaking process to a very elemental level. Everything that every filmmaker has to think about when making a movie – like  where the camera goes, what you’re going to see, what you won’t see, what’s in and out of frame- it’s all reduced to the frame of the child. You are working with the simplest blocks of filmmaking in a very particular kind of way.

Scott McGehee: We had a really nice time making Bee Season and the little girl, Flora Cross, is lovely and still a close friend of ours. But she was at a point in her life when she had no connection to her physical body. We had to help her with her performance – her face was great and she could really express something in a close up, but she didn’t know where to put her feet and what to touch. The basics of being an 11-year old was something that she didn’t really understand. So we really had to coach her through her performance in a difficult kind of way. There is something about making movies that is like amnesia.  It’s like childbirth or something and you forget how awful some of it was.

David Siegel (laughs): Only a gay man can say that!

Scott McGehee: So we really asked ourselves: Do we really want to make a film with a six-year old? Because that’s going to be really hard and then somehow we talked ourselves into it. And yet, we didn’t find Onata Aprile until one month before the shooting started. The search looking for the right girl went on and on and on and we started thinking we wouldn’t find her. The whole production train was moving toward start day, and we still hadn’t found the star of our movie.

You were lucky to have found her, because there are many child actors who I find annoying in that they are trying to imitate adult gestures and have already acquired this artificial acting style.

 Scott McGehee: Onata is unbelievable and it was an extraordinary experience to watch her in front of a camera. One of her greatest gifts is that she is comfortable being Onata. Turn the camera on and you have a whole crew around her with lights and people and she is just completely herself.

David Siegel: She might be the most natural actor we have ever worked with. We worked with Tilda Swinton, Julianne Moore, and Juliette Binoche – but this kid – she was just 100 per cent present, alive, and natural in front of the camera. It was really something to watch. There is this quote by Picasso who said: ‘I could paint like Raffael when I was 12 years old, but spent the rest of my life trying to paint like a twelve year old again.’ It’s like that with actors who often spend their lives trying to get back to that very simple thing that a six-year old can do.

I am afraid to ask you this question, because I figure it’s one of the most common questions you get – about you working together as a team. But I can’t pretend that I am not interested to know. (laughter)

David Siegel: Tilda Swinton described us once as two bodies with one mind.

Scott McGehee: And we wondered whether that was an insult (laughs).

David Siegel: We were not trained in film school. We went to graduate school and had other things planned – I was to be painter and Scott was to be an academic, so when we first started to make films, we knew nothing about the film business. It just seemed natural for us to try and do that together. It grew from there, and it was really fluid, because we do it all together and even write together, too. I don’t think it’s so different from how the Coen brothers work. It’s very collaborative.

Scott McGehee and David Siegel – Photo by: Alpha Smoot

Apart from sharing the work, I find it difficult to imagine that two people are constantly thinking alike – for example to have a common output and starting a creative project together after reading a script.

Scott McGehee: It is a challenge for us to find a project that we are both as excited about as the other one. If the other one proposes something and it doesn’t click, we don’t do those projects. Then we look for something else.

David Siegel: That doesn’t happen very often. In fact, that almost never happens.

Scott McGehee: We’ve known each other long enough and we were young enough so, as old friends and similar to siblings, we were able to develop a taste together. I really understand David’s taste, even if I don’t always share it. I think film in general is a very collaborative medium – an actor brings something, a production designer brings something, and everyone kind of has to come together.

David Siegel: It’s kind of like a lucky accident that our brains work together the way they do. I actually think – although Scott doesn’t always agree with me on that – that our sexuality has something to do with it because Scott is gay and I am straight. I think that has allowed the creative relationship to grow to a large degree in the way it has. Our desire in the world isn’t a competitive aspect of our relationship.

Scott McGehee: It that way, it makes sense to me – that we have ego spaces that don’t compete somehow.

Can I write this like this? I mean, are you openly out?

(laughter)

Scott McGehee: I am 51 years old. Yes, I am openly out, but thanks for asking. (laughs).

Well, many people in this business seem to be very careful about that.

David Siegel: And usually people think we’re a couple! (laughs)

Scott McGehee: It’s more like David’s way of coming out as a straight person when he tells our story. (laughs)

To come back to the beginning of our interview: How has What Maisie Knew been doing in the States?

Scott McGehee: This is kind of the perfect circle to this conversation – the reviews have been extremely good – in fact the best reviews we ever got for a film apart from those for The Deep End. They were really, really strong and passionate reviews. A studio like Searchlight would have spent a lot of money to push the film and it would have made a lot of money. But we were distributed by a small company, which wasn’t going to spend that kind of money.

David Siegel: There was a time when that approach would have worked, when you could nurture a film like What Maisie Knew and just let it sit there. But it’s harder now and the film will disappear quicker.

Do you think that reviews matter in the USA? In Germany, we have had big debates on what kind of influence film reviews actually have. Most of the festival hits, the films that win awards and are loved by the critics, are box office disasters and make you think about the relevance of film journalism.

David Siegel: I think there are two elements that are relevant for a small film. One is definitely the reviews of a speciality film critic. There’s still an audience that reads reviews and an even broader audience that looks at the opinio-meter, an aggregator, a kind of score for a film, created by the points that users give a film on film sites. It’s depressing to us that the detailed review gets completely lost and there is just some sort of averaging of opinion. The other aspect of a film is playability. Some films feel like homework assignments and I guess an audience can sense that. A film worthy of attention or a film about a serious subject is much harder to cross over.

Scott McGehee: But I still think it’s more about the noise a film makes than anything else. It’s a tough world. I am always struck that a conversation about independent film or the state of cinema comes down to a conversation about commerce and cash and having a sustainable business model and marketing and budgets. I guess it’s really a film business.

***

What Maisie Knew (Das Glück der großen Dinge), USA 2012, 99 min.

director: Scott McGehee/ David Siegel, cinematography: Giles Nuttgens, actors: Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham, languages: English, distribution: Neue Visionen

Berlin screenings (original version with German subtitles): Moviemento, Central
Dubbed version (German): Kant Kinos, Capitol Dahlem, Kino in der Kulturbrauerei

We give away 2×2 tickets for the following screening: Saturday, July 13th, 10.30 pm at Moviemento, Kreuzberg. Write an email to toby@stilinberlin.de until Friday, 11 am CET.

Discover This! is a weekly Berlin–based film comment.

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