Directing Miss Maisie
What Maisie Knew is the fifth film that long-time filmmaking partners David Siegel and Scott McGehee have made together, in a partnership that has lasted since they first made Suture back in 1993.
However, it very nearly wasn’t; at first glance, the two were fairly unimpressed with the subject matter, an adaptation of the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name.
“There was a script,” Siegel explains. “We didn’t write it and we didn’t know the book, either one of us, beforehand. The script was sent to me by one of the producers and, frankly, it didn’t sound like such a good fit. It sounded a bit maudlin and heavy. But when we read the script we found it quite light on its feet and the challenge and interest in it for us really came from the idea of trying to tell the story from the point of view of a six year-old child.” McGehee agrees that the age of the protagonist is what really intrigued them. “I think that’s definitely what kind of stimulated us creatively as filmmakers was this idea of trying to figure out how to do that cinematically – not make a childish film but make a child-centric film that really captures her feelings, her experience through this thing.”
What that meant in practical terms was finding a child actor who could hold her own in scenes with such veteran performers as Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard and Steve Coogan. Suffice it to say, the search for such an actor was neither short, nor easy.
“It went on for weeks and weeks and weeks,” McGehee says. “We started really early, of course, because we knew it was going to be an important thing, but we expected to find the girl early so we could build our whole production around her, which is what you want to be doing. We didn’t have our little girl until about three or four weeks before we started shooting, when we finally found her. It just took them a while to get around to sending her in and we were already giving up hope.”
“Every week we’d say to our casting director, ‘We’re just not finding our girl. What’s going on?’” Siegel adds. “Her name’s Avy Kaufman, by the way, and she’s very talented – she cast The Sixth Sense, for example, so we knew she knew what she was doing.”
In the end, it was newcomer Onata Aprile who was able to combine the different characteristics that the two saw as essential to the portrayal of Maisie. As Siegel says, “One of the touchstones for us with her has this idea of her generosity of spirit. She has a kind of innocence and a kind of simplicity even, but there was something true in her heart that was open to people. She’s not a little girl who judges, she’s not a little girl who blames people – she’s quite accepting.
“That kind of openness and innocence was important to us. We really wanted that childlike openness – that mood – to resonate with you when you walk away from the film.”