Filmmakers David Siegel and Scott McGehee, who met at UC Berkeley, never have compromised, releasing just five films in 20 years, including “Suture,” “The Deep End,” “Bee Season” and “Uncertainty.”
Their latest film, the intelligent, heartbreaking “What Maisie Knew,” which opened this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival and gets its theatrical release this week, displays the same high quality.
Based on Henry James’ 1897 novel and updated to modern-day New York, the movie concerns a messy custody case.
Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is caught between her mother, an aging rock star (Julianne Moore), and her father, a snooty English art dealer (Steve Coogan).
Both parents remarry, and the new spouses (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham) wind up taking care of Maisie most of the time.
The movie, like the novel, is designed to take place entirely from Maisie’s point of view.
“The rule is, if Maisie’s not in the room, we don’t know what’s happening,” McGehee said during an interview at the film festival. “It’s about things that don’t really happen in front of the kids, like fights or falling in love. We have to piece those things together the same way a child would.”
“It’s a seemingly simple movie that is actually quite complicated, and that was fun,” Siegel added.
The directors focused as much on the film’s mood and texture — including costumes, set design and music — as the story.
“The question was how do you keep some of the innocence and lightness of a child’s perspective in telling an adult’s story,” Siegel said.
After making movies together for 20 years, Siegel and McGehee found their working relationship tested on “What Maisie Knew.”
McGehee’s father fell ill during post-production, and he left New York to visit California several times.
“That was a really different experience to not be there and come back and progress had been made and choices had been made,” he said. “But I realized how much I trust David and I felt very comfortable.”
“I think it’s a miracle that we can work together,” Siegel said.
They faced other challenges, too.
Vanderham, whose only experience was on British television, had a crippling fear of puppets, and one of her scenes required her to watch a puppet show with Maisie.
“We didn’t know. It was just cold sweat. She was just white,” McGehee said. “So when we did her close-ups, we just had people running around on stage. We had to take away the puppets.”
Starring Julianne Moore, Onata Aprile, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham
Written by Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright
Directed by Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Running time 1 hour, 39 minutes