Dramatizing the human interplay of a bitter divorce through the eyes of a 6-year-old child is a risky creative assignment. All the more so when the source material is by an abstruse, introspective author generally associated with waxen costume dramas. In “What Maisie Knew,” co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have preserved the spirit of Henry James’ century-old story of innocence and broken attachments while radically reworking its outer details. The result is a superb film about childhood, “Kramer vs. Kramer” with a literary pedigree.
“It began with a great screenplay by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne,” McGehee said during the filmmakers’ visit to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. “We responded to the idea of seeing this situation from the vantage point of this little girl. The outer trappings were never central to the story.” Moving the story from wealthy gaslight-era London to today’s upper-class Manhattan was less challenge than finding a cinematic equivalent for the writing’s rich subterranean moods.
The filmmakers, collaborators since 1993 on movies featuring Tilda Swinton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Juliette Binoche and Richard Gere, believe that casting is crucial. “We were terrified of finding the right child to carry this movie,” Siegel admitted. They give full credit for finding the film’s namesake, played by gifted Onata Aprile, to their casting director, Avy Kaufman.
“She cast ‘The Sixth Sense,’ so she’s had some success with finding young actors,” Siegel joked. “Onata is an isolated witness to all the emotional upheaval among the selfish, thoughtless adults, and through her perceptions, we get the story. She can express a pensive sadness, and then turn it off like a switch.” The biggest technical challenge in presenting her performance, the directors agreed, was keeping the tiny actress and 6-foot-4 Alexander Skarsgård, who plays her kind stepfather, in the same frame.
Although she is an avowed non-singer, Julianne Moore was attracted to the role of Maisie’s egocentric rock star mother even before the directors came aboard. The interiors for Maisie’s apartment were filmed on the same New York City block as Moore’s home, which was an additional inducement. English comedian Steve Coogan, who is not afraid of playing cold scoundrels, was the first choice to play her arrogant father, and he jumped at the role, his first strictly dramatic part. The Big Apple’s colorful, sometimes harsh urban environment is a character in itself.
“When Julianne heard that we had that in mind, she said, ‘Oh, great. I get to stand around outside on concrete for hours,’ ” McGehee said, smiling at the memory of her mock annoyance. “Happily, she endured it for the good of the project.”