Interview: Onata Aprile, Scott McGehee, David Siegel of What Maisie Knew
In What Maisie Knew, we witness a custody battle gone sour through the eyes of the innocent center of contention, Maisie, played by the brilliant 7-year-old Onata Aprile. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan star as Maisie’s bitter, bickering parents, who each remarry, to Alexander Skaarsgard and Joanna Vanderham (respectively). The marriages turn out to be petty ploys in an attempt to win sole custody of the girl, but we discover Maisie’s step parents might be the loving parental figures she’s deserved all along. Aprile is absolutely stunning as Maisie, displaying effortless grace that occasionally outshines her quadruple-aged co-stars.
What Maisie Knew is David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s (Bee Season, The Deep End) fifth directorial collaboration. It’s a unique take on a child custody battle, as all the events are viewed through the innocent, un-judging eyes of Maisie. It’s a film for adults, from a child’s perspective.
As I was waiting in a room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco for the trio to arrive for our interview, I thought of Aprile’s fantastic performance. She carries the film with ease, acting with more naturalism than I’ve perhaps ever seen in a child actor. In fact, she never appears to be ‘acting’ at all, even when the camera is inches from her face. She’s quite the child prodigy, acting with skill beyond her years. ‘What is this mini master-actor going to be like off camera?’ I wondered.
Suddenly, Onata burst into the room in a blur, giggling and spinning, smartphone in-hand, and hopped into a chair five times her size. She dressed…like a 7-year-old girl. Brightly colored clothes with cute rubber boots (which I’d later learn were taken from the set of the film). She fervently swiped and tapped at her plaything, just like any other kid in the world would. I don’t know what I expected. Siegel and McGehee followed shortly after and we were off to the races.
Way Too Indie: Onata, you’re really amazing in the movie, congratulations. You look so comfortable onscreen—do you get nervous before takes?
Aprile: No, I was comfortable the whole time.
WTI: What was it like working with your four co-stars?
Aprile: It was really fun. They were especially fun when we were shooting and when we weren’t shooting.
Siegel: (To Onata) As opposed to another time when you didn’t exist? (laughs) You had a lot of fun at the beach with Alex and Joanna, didn’t you?
Siegel: There was a lot of running around at the beach. (laughs)
WTI: Do you watch a lot of movies, Onata? What are some of your favorites?
Aprile: Yeah. I really like The Grinch and…
Siegel: (To Onata) Have you ever seen Babe? That’s a GOOD one!
Aprile: I like Elouise’s Rawther Unuuuuuusual Halloween! [That’s how she says it!]
WTI: Onata, you have some really cool bedrooms in the movie. Did you get to keep anything from set?
Siegel: (To Onata) You got a few things from the bedroom…
[Onata then kicked her tiny feet onto the table, showing off the aforementioned boots she obtained from her movie wardrobe. Knowing that she’d had a long day answering the same questions over and over (something I could never have done at her age), I thanked her for her time and let her go do wild kid things. She skipped off (adorably), and I proceeded to ask Siegel and McGehee about working with the gifted girl.]
WTI: There’s a partnership going on between your camera and Onata’s performance. Everything we see is either a shot of Onata or a shot of what she sees. You’re building the character together.
Siegel: Telling a story from a child’s perspective is a really big challenge, and you don’t see it very often, especially when you’re shooting with so little money and so quickly. We were really trying to sculpt what the perspective would actually be for a child—not just literally how they’re framed, but the way the rest of the world is framed. It’s challenging when you don’t have a lot of time—you’re limited to how much you think you can cover. It was a great challenge.
McGehee: It’s what attracted us more than anything, I think. That and Julianne Moore’s interest, since we’ve [always] wanted to work with her.
Siegel: [The child perspective] let us play around with fundamental building blocks of filmmaking in a very different way. All [of] those elemental aspects of shooting a movie—what’s in and out of the frame, what our characters hear, what they don’t hear, how the color, light—all of those aspects of the mise en scene have to work to create a child’s perspective. It’s not a child’s story. It’s a child’s perspective in an adult story. Walking that line of schmaltz versus seriousness…we were allergic to the idea of a custody battle story because it’s too heavy, too maudlin. But, the script had a very light touch [because] of the child’s perspective. We were lucky to get our hands on [it].
WTI: Some of the film’s most memorable moments are quiet scenes of Onata simply being a kid. Can you talk a bit about Onata’s performance? It’s just so effortless.
McGehee: We’re a bit in awe of her. We didn’t really know what we were stepping into. [We agreed] to do a movie that’s got a six-year-old in it, and you expect certain challenges. We talked to all of the adult actors about what it was going to take to get a performance out of a six-year-old—what tricks [they might use] and what their job would be in relation to getting a performance [out of Onata] when they’re not on camera. Onata didn’t require any of those tricks in part because her mother prepared her so well, and mostly because she’s just a special little girl. She showed up understanding what the emotions in the [scenes were], and she was really comfortable in front of the camera, just being another version of herself.
Siegel: She could just live the scenario. The other actors would marvel at her. It’s so simple. When you go to acting schools, that’s all they talk about—the simplicity of the present moment, all of those things. But, you watch a child do it, and do it easily, with the ease that Onata does it with, and you’re like…”wow”.
McGehee: Sometimes we would understand that she was in situations children are used to being in, she was just being natural and had forgotten about the machine around her. But sometimes she’d be in a close-up with the camera [inches] from her face, and Julianne Moore or Steve Coogan, or whoever would be obscured by lights, and she’d be acting out the scene with them and they’d all just be really ‘in it’. She’d be giving us an emotional life in a close-up that very few actors can give.
WTI: Can you talk a bit about the adult actors?
Siegel: We were very [excited by] Julianne’s interest in the movie because it was hard to think of anyone that could play [the role of Maisie’s mom] better. Meeting with her and deciding to take a stab at [the film]…that was a big deal. We sort of built the rest of the cast around her. [Steve] Coogan was the first person we thought of for [Maisie’s dad]. His agent had read the script already, so there was a meeting of the minds right there. We had to do a little convincing because it would have been easier to finance the film if we had a bigger star in the role, but we thought he was exactly right. Alexander…was a leap of faith for us because we hadn’t seen that much work from him. He was much gentler in person than what we’d imagined he’d be from watching him act.
McGehee: Joanna Vanderham was the last of the four to join the project. We had difficulty casting that role [because we wanted] to find somebody who could be innocent enough and yet it wouldn’t feel weird when she marries Steve Coogan. [We didn’t want it to] creep you out. We had only seen Joanna on a British television series, and we couldn’t meet her—she was working and we were prepping our film—so we just had one Skype conversation to convince us that she was the girl. That was another leap of faith, but she’s a wonderful actress.
What Maisie Knew is in theaters now. Check out our review of the film from the San Francisco International Film Festival.