Crushing drama through the eyes of little Maisie

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel aren’t known for blockbusters, but their films, including the duo’s 1994 debut feature “Suture,” have a reputation for artful framing and pensive little spaces of silence in the dialogue. McGehee and Siegel attribute this trick to their deep admiration for Japanese films, particularly “Tanin no Kao (The Face of Another)” by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

“That movie was made in the mid 1960s, and back then, everything was widescreen,” Siegel tells The Japan Times. “But Japanese movies were different, a lot of directors didn’t use widescreen. So they had a completely different sense of time, space and texture.”

Siegel’s directing partner McGehee was once a high school exchange student in Shiga Prefecture, and he says, “I can still make out some Japanese words and phrases. So it’s fun for me to listen to the translation during press interviews. I try and match up the Japanese phrases to what I’ve been saying.”

The duo have been making films together and separately for two decades, but “What Maisie Knew” (released in Japan as “Maisie no Hitomi”) is a first in terms of working with a central character whose age is just 6. Onata Aprile is the daughter of actress Valentine Aprile, whose own mother is Japanese. The three-generation team have joined the two directors on the promotional tour to Tokyo, and in the press room set up inside the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Onata shows herself as a capable professional, fielding questions from reporters while holding an ongoing discussion with her mother about the following day’s schedule.

“Onata is a remarkable actress; she really is that natural in front of the camera,” says Siegel, adding that Onata reminds him of Tilda Swinton, who starred in their “The Deep End” (2001). “She has an enormous presence for someone so small. Onata is this movie’s center; she has this generosity of spirit that fueled the entire seven weeks of shooting.”

McGehee adds: “Because she was only 6, we thought about simplifying everything, stripping down certain dialogue and such, but Onata understood sophisticated situations and the emotional dynamics of other characters, so in the end we changed very little. She also had nothing but enthusiasm to make the final product as good as possible. We were both really thankful for that.”

Despite the film’s subject matter of a young girl whose world is torn apart by divorce, “What Maisie Knew” has a fairy-tale tinge to it, enhanced by Maisie’s tasteful but craftsy wardrobe and her two beautifully decorated bedrooms — one at her father’s (played by Steve Coogan), the other at her mother’s (Julianne Moore). She’s shuttled back and forth between Castle A and Castle B as her battling parents scheme to damage each other, first through a bitter custody battle and then by hasty marriages to decades-younger partners.

“True, the parents behave very badly,” says McGehee. “But we didn’t want the movie to be judgmental and we didn’t want the characters to be punishable. Like Julianne’s portrayal of Mom — it shows her up as this enormously self-centered woman, a poor parent. But Julianne went far not to make her look like a harridan.”

“Mom and Dad do have a certain sense of who they are and what they’re doing,” says Siegel. “We all sat down and discussed that, and Steve and Julianne worked to include little moments when they sort of wake up and ask themselves, ‘God, what am I doing to Maisie?’ ”

There’s a moment when the dad gets into a cab alone and he emits a tiny sigh of disgust. It’s clear that for a split second, he’s absolutely loathing himself as a father and a husband. It’s a brief but brilliant detail, and “What Maisie Knew” has small pockets like this when you see fleeting fragments of regret on the parents’ faces. And then they’re gone.

“But there’s a point when the mom does change, however temporarily,” says McGehee. “She realizes that though she loves her daughter, she can’t provide the time and care that her daughter really needs. So she leaves her in the care of people who can do that. We wanted that scene to reflect her growth as a parent, that moment when she stepped back and chose what was best for Maisie instead of just herself.”

“What Maisie Knew” is the contemporary New York version of Henry James’ late-19th-century novel of the same name, on which it was based. Though Siegel and McGehee’s film is built around the same pillars, they’ve muted James’ tone of indignation and indictment.

“Who in the modern world can say they’re completely innocent of busy-ness and self-absorption?” laughs Siegel. “The point of ‘Maisie’ is to look at the world through her eyes, to understand what it’s like for her.”

The filmmakers first read the screenplay and it was only after the project got off the ground that they read James’ novel. “I was inspired by how many commonalities there were between London in James’ novel and NY in 2013,” says McGehee. “On the other hand, I was struck by how we as a society have a lot more generosity and understanding toward adults. They make mistakes, and very often they’re not punished, but forgiven. It allowed us to have a more optimistic vision.”

“In the end, the movie comes out of a desire to capture Maisie’s sense of the world,” concludes Siegel. “It’s suspended in a certain time, and is made up of her unique experiences. That’s part of what cinema is about, I think — to capture that sense of how someone else sees things. Maisie never gets mad at her parents, because she knows that for all their faults, they really love her. So she won’t betray that.”