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“What Maisie Knew” is an American film featuring in the 2012 competition section of TOKYO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (TIFF). Alongside the stellar lineup of Julianne Moore (“Susanna”), Alexander Skarsgard (“Lincoln”), Steve Coogan (“Beale”) and Joanna Vanderham (“Margo”), the eponymous Maisie is played by then 6-year-old Onata Aprile who is immensely talented and highly watchable with her natural flair for acting.
Reviewed positively at Toronto International Film Festival, this was a film on my hit list, if only to witness ‘Julianne Moore – the rock star.’ What greeted me was an astonishingly delicate and rich story of a young girl growing up while her divorced parents simultaneously tear each other apart, each on a collision course of self-destruction, in the process forgetting about the child and anyone else in their path. Based loosely on the Henry James novel of the same title (originating in 1897), it’s a beautifully crafted piece, generously giving screen time to all central characters, while sufficiently mindful of retaining the point of view of the perpetually ignored Maisie who with very little dialogue manages to steal the show effortlessly with great subtlety of expression and intensity of presence. There’s a real onscreen battle between Moore and Aprile as mother and daughter struggle to connect even in the intimate scenes with only the two of them, the filmmakers throwing us right from the start into the crater of the parents’ dysfunctional relationship of convenience in order to lay the groundwork for the push-pull relationship between mother and daughter.
It’s not every day that you see a film so sensitively shot and perfectly cast. Although Moore has been praised and dismissed in equal measure for her portrayal of the rock star mum, she smashes the part, capitalising on every look, gesture and line, successfully balancing herself between the obnoxious adrenalin-junkie creative and the damaged soul who has found a way to bury her feelings for her daughter and everyone else, at least until the final stage of the movie. Skarsgard is perfect as the doting Lincoln who takes Maisie under his wing, an unconscious act which sparks fireworks with his controlling rockstar wife, as is Scottish actress Vanderham who plays the naïve but well-meaning nanny. Coogan can do no wrong as the enigmatic father who continues to break Maisie’s heart with empty promises but who gives way to the more vibrant and morally-driven characters as the story moves on.
What is particularly delightful is how the camera focuses less and less on the adults and shifts more towards the child’s perspective during the course of the film, so that by the time we reach a critical point in the mother-daughter relationship, we are fully engaged and rooting for Maisie to find whatever safe way possible for her to survive and not wholly lose her innocence.
Praised in the press conference by the co-directors, Aprile turned out to be an actress of great natural initiative and sensitivity. Over the period of the 7-week shoot, she barely had time off, the directors referring to her as a “gift” given her positive attitude and high energy.
Meeting Scott and David at a TIFF party, we get chatting immediately about Tokyo and the film. They have a real passion for Japan, and it turns out that Scott once lived in Shiga back in high school and still speaks Japanese. After some jaunting around the city including a trip up the landmark Tokyo Tower, we manage to take some time out for some serious film talk.
So how did you get into film?
SCOTT: David was first a friend of my sister Kelly. After he finished his architecture degree, he was trying to decide what to do with his life and took art classes, then met Kelly. We became pals – he would be round the house during holiday times and vice versa.
DAVID: Then I went off to do an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. Scott started grad school at Berkeley, where he was doing Japanese film studies in the Rhetoric Department. When I was finishing my degree and he was finishing his MA, we were both feeling a bit at a loose end and cooked up the idea of making a short film. And Kelly has designed all our work apart from “Uncertainty” and still works with us. We’re self-taught filmmakers – we taught ourselves how to do it and just figured out our own process together, which is the reason why we share the credits. We’re more technical than a lot of directors, I think because there weren’t pipelines for us to fit in. We had to learn it a little bit more from the ground up.
SCOTT: We’re more technical in a more rudimentary way in that we started out making 16mm films, we learned the craft of building a film and what all the jobs are on set by having to do everything ourselves.
Do you think the way you learned your craft has made you better directors?
SCOTT: I think we both think it helps us do our job.
DAVID: Every director knows how to do all the things that we do. There’s just the anxiety of not being connected to any community. We were based in the San Francisco bay area for a long time and there’s not much of a filmmaking community there – there’s a documentary community, but we didn’t wind up having any filmmaking friends living there, so it felt very isolating.
SCOTT: I think that’s why people go to film school – they come out of school with a whole bunch of filmmaking friends, but we didn’t have that, we just had each other.
But you’ve worked on a lot of projects, even so…
SCOTT: It really depends on your perspective. If you look at what we wished we’d done, we feel like big failures!
DAVID: I mean, the many movies we spent years on that didn’t come into fruition…
SCOTT: Or you look at someone with a really productive career, like Michael Winterbottom or Steven Soderbergh who really crank out material, we look at those careers with a lot of envy…
DAVID: Money, money, money…
That’s a big factor…
Did that ever put you off from going into features? Did you ever have moments of panic?
SCOTT: It always seems like you can’t make it happen. Even when you’re on set, you always feel like it’s about to fall apart. It’s a very precarious business.
In those moments, how do you reassure each other?
SCOTT: I don’t know if we have a routine, but that’s one of the times when it’s really helpful to have each other because things get really dicey a lot. On this film in particular, all the way through production and post, we had huge problems.
DAVID: We had huge hurdles to overcome. On this movie, it’s unthinkable to have gone through what we had to go through on our own – it would have been awful. It’s interesting, Scott often talks about filmmaking being collaborative, but a directing job is a very forward-motion job. You have to be vulnerable to another person in a particular kind of way, you have to be willing to let go of things.
Scott and I made a rule early on in our work together which has really helped us through, which was that if we had a problem or differing opinions about a particular thing we were trying to do and we’d spent enough time talking it through but were still disagreeing, we would never play tit for tat and we would always look for a third way – and we hold to that really strictly. Probably 8 out of 10 times, the third route is the better route than either of the original ideas. We just have to both be able to believe in it, so in those moments, you have to let go of something. And there have been some moments where each of us don’t want to let go of that, but we don’t even think about it anymore.
So you guys clearly have a chemistry. In terms of this film, there’s a sense of chemistry going on even on the screen. How important is chemistry not just on the production side but on the set, working with the actors?
SCOTT: It’s huge – it’s everything. I know there are times when actors hate each other and manage to portray love – they’re actors and they’re good at faking things. But especially with a movie like this, when you’re working with a 6-year-old girl, a lot of what you’re seeing has to be honest. Alexander Skarsgard made a point of bonding with Onata Aprile who plays Maisie, because we all knew that relationship was the emotional core of the movie and it needed that kind of trust and connection – what you’re seeing is very honest.
Similarly, in our previous film “Uncertainty,” we spent a month rehearsing with Joe Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins, the 2 actors in that film. It was an improvisational film, so they had to learn to trust each other and understand each other’s history as people who have known each other for a long time would. We spent a month rehearsing with them just to build a relationship.
You mentioned in the press conference that Julianne Moore joined the project quite late in the day and it’s normally difficult to create chemistry on set when that happens, but that she’s so professional and talented that she was right there and ready engage straight away…
SCOTT: And maybe one nice thing about her character in this situation is that she was the person who people are afraid of – her daughter’s afraid of her, her boyfriend’s afraid of her, her husband’s afraid of her, the nanny’s afraid of her – so the fact that she was an intimidating presence worked as an advantage for us.
And you said she didn’t have much time to bond with Onata?
DAVID: And they didn’t ever really bond especially. I mean, Julie liked Onata and Onata liked Julie but that wasn’t a relationship. And it was interesting because it kind of followed from the film – she loves her daughter but in a way she loves herself a little bit more.
I mean, she’s not a deplorable character – I was actually wondered how far you would push it with her character, if you’d have her throwing things, if there would be a slap…
DAVID: The script and the material that got shot actually took her a couple of steps further than is in the movie, but we started feeling like we were losing credibility with the character, that people were just going to reject her, that we were going too far, that she just seemed like an unbelievable character.
SCOTT: And it’s important for the balance of the movie that you do see she intends to be a good mother but she’s just not really capable of it, that she does love her daughter, and her daughter loves her. There’s a strong bond between them, but it’s just not that maternal.
I guess if you made her too difficult a person, then you can’t understand why Maisie’s conflicted – you needed to have her somehow likeable…
DAVID: The movie’s full of those little moments like that. In the scene when she gets taken home by the waitress when Lincoln isn’t at the restaurant, when she parts the curtain and the waitress comes over, as written, Maisie is supposed to have more of a breakdown. But as talented as Onata is, being able to emote like that, like bursting into tears and being upset, isn’t really realistic. So we played with that scene quite a bit in terms of shooting. And in the end when we were cutting it, that was another scene where if we go too far with it, the audience is going to reject all the adults’ complicity in the story at that point and not accept the redemption that happens at the end of the film. You’d want to call in child services because it’s gone too far.
The scene towards the end between Julianne and Onata, where the light bulb goes off in Susanna and she realises she’s gone too far and that her daughter’s afraid of her, you’ve commented that a lot of the magic of that scene was thanks to Onata’s acting talent…
DAVID: We rewrote that scene at the eleventh hour with Julie, because we weren’t happy with the way it was scripted initially. Scott and I had played with it on our own, but the three of us sat down and started thinking about what to do with the scene. It was Julie’s idea to concretise this idea of fear and to make it about fear. We loved that idea, so went with it and cobbled together the dialogue part of it. To me, the dialogue is sort of unimportant beyond that very idea. Onata thought in that scene that she should become more emotional, so when we were shooting it, trying to get her to simply react physically to Julie was kind of the trick on the night, and that is the kind of thing Onata is quite good at.
We go to Onata twice when Susanna comes back to her: there’s a slightly wider shot and there’s a slightly closer shot – and in the slightly closer shot, Onata moves about just 2 or 3 inches and Susanna asks her, “Are you afraid of me?” and then we cut back to Maisie. There’s literally just a small movement, and actually that sells the entire thing. In everything we’ve done, nothing has ever been quite that subtle and had quite that huge an emotional effect.
SCOTT: It was to explain what it is that Susanna sees that allows her to turn – what she can see in what Maisie’s doing that will affect her emotionally so that she can then change her course.
Was Julie channelling any musicians for her role?
DAVID: We actually brought Alison Mosshart from The Kills to the table. Julie sings 2 of their songs. Alison was the stylistic benchmark – but she’s younger than Julie…
SCOTT: …and she’s not a mother… I’m sure if she were, she’d be a great mother! She’s really, really nice. Julie didn’t base the character on Alison’s personality… Before we started shooting, we took Julie, Alexander and Steve Coogan to a Kills concert – they happened to be coming to New York at just the right time. Julie watched her onstage, then I think they became pals.
Julianne Moore as a rock star – it’s a great idea. You could have really pushed it in terms of her homelife with the smoking and drinking, but again you seemed cautious not to go too far…
SCOTT: You want people to be able to connect enough.
DAVID: And we also wanted the rock star stuff to be the background that it is. We’re super allergic to the fakeness of that kind of stuff in movies – we really wanted it to feel authentic, to feel like it’s just the background of their lives.
The title of the movie comes from the title of the Henry James novel, but what do you feel the title refers to in this film version, in your own minds?
SCOTT: I guess just in a superficial way, it’s the structure of the storytelling – the scenes you see are Maisie’s experience and that’s the limit of our presentation of these events. You see what Maisie knew in the situation, that’s what makes up the story.
DAVID: I’m not sure the tense is exactly right for our movie. It’s more right for James because it takes place over a much longer period of time. In our film, it’s more like what Maisie “sees.” But it was the idea of trying to convey the experience of the kid that caught our attention in terms of wanting to do it – it’s less about the story and more about the experience.
Do you have a message for independent filmmakers who want to learn the filmmaking craft from the ground up as you did?
SCOTT: I’m afraid we’re in no position to give advice – I wish we were!
Anything you wish you’d known when you started out?
DAVID: This sounds so clichéd, but when we were starting out, I really appreciated hearing filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese talk about their young days – they’d say the most important thing was simply to make the work and find a way to make things. And I still think that’s the most salient advice you can give someone: Don’t keep thinking about things, actually go out and make them.
SCOTT: And that’s still advice we have to give ourselves all the time: If you’re making films because you like the result, it’s a really frustrating business or pastime, but if you’re making films because you like the process of what that is, then it’s a really exciting thing to be doing.