Maisie in the Middle: McGehee & Siegel update Henry James custody tale to modern-day Manhattan


Now that first-graders are eligible for Best Actress Oscar consideration, the girl most likely to follow the lead of Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild seems to be the also exotically named, likewise six-when-she-filmed-it Onata Aprile, a pint-sized heart-tugger who plays the dickens out of the titular role in Millennium Films’ What Maisie Knew.

In this uptown update of Henry James’ 1897 novella, Maisie is a veritable football who’s passed, punted and drop-kicked all over the Greater Manhattan area in a contentious custody battle between a self-absorbed rock star (Julianne Moore, out for bear) and her easily diverted art-dealer husband (Steve Coogan, feigning indifference).

“In the original James story, the mother played billiards, so there was the metaphor that the child was a billiard ball,” points out Scott McGehee, who engineered this astonishing, wise-beyond-her-years title performance with the help of his directing partner, David Siegel (Suture, Uncertainty and, most notably, The Deep End).

As the ragdoll yanked this way and that by her unfeeling, unfit parents, Little Ms. Aprile musters a remarkably sweet-tempered dignity and maintains a clear-headed cool while the adults around her are losing theirs—a calm at the center of the storm.

“Trying to tell this story from the perspective of the little girl was what attracted us to this project initially,” Siegel admits. “And that was the real terror about not having her cast in the part until three weeks before, because we knew that no matter what we did as directors—regardless of how beautiful it was, regardless of how good the other performances were—if we didn’t have the right girl, the film wouldn’t work.

“Our casting director was Avy Kaufman, and she kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to find the perfect girl.’ He read lots and lots of little girls, but we had no fallback Maisies, which was pretty scary with shooting staring us right in the face.”

Miraculously, at the eleventh hour, the heavens parted and, just like in the movies, the right person materialized: a six-year-old New Yorker to play a six-year-old New Yorker. This one had the extra edge of having performed since she was four, coached by her actress-mother, Valentine Aprile.

Young Aprile brought more than a mature, emotionally penetrating performance to the table—she brought a contagious work ethic, which, according to Siegel, bordered on the upbeat. “Onata really has an infectious good nature, and it did imbue the collective work—from both cast and crew—and over the course of seven weeks, that was pretty amazing. I really can’t say enough about that kid. I love her, personally. She’s really a lovely child—but she’s really got something special.”

McGehee seconds the motion: “She was very disciplined and natural. Her mother was on the set all the time, preparing her for the day, making sure she understood the emotional terrain of the scene she was doing that day and what was going on. It really wasn’t about any tricks or fakery. It was really her putting herself in a scene and just being there with the actors, understanding generally what the scene was trying to do and the action of the moment—being there and being present and reacting to what was going on and doing a lot that she had learned. She was really comfortable in front of the camera and comfortable working with adults.”

Also, her hopelessly sunny mindset kept the self-pity and gloom her character was entitled to at a respectable distance. “Every time she thought she was supposed to be down—every time she thought she was supposed to go there,” Siegel notes, “the film would get maudlin, and it didn’t work. She really wasn’t very good at trying to make herself unhappy. She became more actorly and less natural when she did it.”

Of the five films McGehee and Siegel have co-directed, Bee Season and What Maisie Knew are the only ones for which they did not write the screenplay. Maisie is the work of Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, who did quite a commendable job of moving Henry James’ horse-and-buggy epoch up to contemporary hustle-and-bustle speed.

“We wanted to show New York not in a postcard sort of way but more in a lived-in New York sort of way,” says Siegel, who switched coasts eight years ago. “We wanted a more embedded notion of New York than the tourist notion of New York that’s in a Woody Allen movie.” The script, he feels, is “more of a touchstone than an adaptation,” but, McGehee quickly adds, “the framework of the plot and the basic character relationships are surprisingly like what Henry James originally put down.”

Maisie’s heart-divided plight is now, sadly, rather routine, but in James’ time it was a novelty worth satirizing. “The idea for writing the novella came to him at a dinner party,” McGehee says. “He heard about this outlandish situation where a couple was going to be splitting up and dividing the child part-time between the two of them. He thought it was the most absurd thing he’d ever heard of. The idea that the child would be shared between two families, he thought, would be material for a kind of farcical story. These days, of course, it’s the most common thing in the world. The cultural context of the story couldn’t be more different. Split custody is no longer a scandal. In fact, it’s easy to identify with the difficulties this presents now. James was such an astute observer of human nature that what he identifies in people’s characters actually translates very well over time. People don’t change that much.”
A child is at the heart of the majority of the directing duo’s films (Bee Season, The Deep End and, now, Maisie), but Siegel thinks that’s more happenstance than intent.

“I do think that Scott and I are attracted to stories about families—maybe because, when we first started working together, we watched a lot of postwar American melodramas.” Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment (on which, with a slight gender twist, The Deep End is based) was a guiding light for them, but they also took a shine to the “family films” of Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind) and Vincente Minnelli (Some Came Running, Home from the Hill, Tea and Sympathy).

“Those movies are so subversive in so many ways when you think about what they actually do narratively,” declares Siegel. “They’re societal wreckers. They break everything apart, then bring them back together—although they can never really be brought back together. Home from the Hill ends with a scene at Robert Mitchum’s gravesite with George Peppard, the bastard son, basically taking over the role of the patriarch for his brother, George Hamilton, and the father who never recognized him by assuming the paternity of a girl who had been impregnated by the legitimate son. It’s all sealed up together within the comfort of the headstone. It’s the craziest ending. They just blew up society, and now they’re pretending to put it back!”

On the subject of Parents Behaving Badly, neither Moore nor Coogan had qualms about playing their negative card. They jumped in with both feet and great relish.

In Moore’s case, the more unsympathetic, the better. “She’s a real sweetheart,” says Siegel. “She was interested in the script when we read it. We knew that, so when we first read the script, we had her in our head. And Steve was the guy we both pictured in reading the script. We’re both gigantic Steve fans. It doesn’t usually happen that the person you’re thinking of when you’re reading the script—or when you’re writing it—is the person you end up with. I think we got an incoming call from his agent about another actor for a different role, and we started talking to him and said, ‘We want someone in this other role that you represent.’ He’d been thinking of him, too. He just hadn’t brought it up yet. It all came together really nicely. Steve was working in L.A. at the time, and we got to meet him out there and got on really well.”

Two other characters are added to the bubbling cauldron when the custody battle takes a nasty turn. Coogan ups and marries Maisie’s young nanny (a film-debuting Joanna Vanderham), and Moore counters by instantly wedding a groupie bartender (Alexander Skarsgård of HBO’s “True Blood”), who shows up to collect Maisie one day at her school as a new and dutiful stepfather. While Coogan and Moore focus on their domestic wars, their respective new spouses meld together out of mutual sympathy for Maisie.

“By the time we shot that schoolhouse scene,” recalls McGehee, “Alexander had been working with Onata quite some time and done some good work really connecting with her. He has young brothers and sisters in his family, and he’s really good with children. He spent a lot of time playing games with her and getting to know her.

“Unfortunately, that was Joanna’s first day of shooting. Onata was supposed to be comfortable with Joanna and uncomfortable with Alex, and even she recognized the irony and said out loud, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it were the other way around?’”

The two describe their style of directing as “tag-team,” and it seems to work for them. “Neither of us went to film school,” explains Siegel. “I was a painter, and Scott wanted to be an academic, so when we started making short films—this was more than 20 years ago now—we really didn’t have an institution teach us how to do it in a specific way. We just reinvented the wheel for ourselves—kind of lucky that way.”

Five films in twenty years does make them “the Salingers of Cinema,” but they’re hoping to pick up the pace a bit. “The sad truth is we haven’t made more movies than we’ve made because lots of projects got far along and just didn’t happen,” says McGehee. “It’s a sad, but also common, story that we’re trying to rectify.”

Next? “We’re trying to figure that out,” he admits. “We have an old script we wrote in 1993 right after we made our first film, Suture, that we’re thinking about going back to. It’s a loose adaptation of an unfinished, 180-page Horace McCoy script that he wrote in 1949. Right now, it’s called Modern Mace. Horace McCoy called it Night Cry, and it’s very noir. It was called High Fidelity when we first wrote it—which should tell you how long ago it was—but it’s a project we have a lot of affection for.”