The co-directors discuss their new family drama, child actors and Julianne Moore's singing voice.
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6 Jun 2013 - 2:42 PM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2013 - 2:42 PM

Directing duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel made quite a splash with their 2001 thriller The Deep End, their second movie (after 1993's Suture). It received rave reviews and awards attention, at least in part because of Tilda Swinton's stellar turn as a beleaguered mum. Their bigger budget follow-up, 2005's Bee Season, may have boasted the star wattage of Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche, yet it was less intriguing and became a box office flop. Then their 2009 movie, Uncertainty, where they ventured to use younger actors, Lynn Collins and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, didn't even make it to cinemas here.

She was actually slightly defensive when we asked how she felt about the singing

Their latest movie, the heart-wrenching joint custody drama What Maisie Knew, is an unheralded gem, and boasts fine performances from Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård and Steve Coogan.

While Julianne Moore is fabulous as a divorced rock star mum—she would make the late Chrissy Amphlett proud—it's Onata Aprile as six-year-old Maisie who steals the show. Her directors were so amazed by her abilities that they shot her in close-up and were able to tell the story through her eyes. Interestingly, the screenplay, by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, is based on Henry James' 1897 novel.

The last time we spoke was over a decade ago for The Deep End and now again you are dealing with an emotional mother-child relationship. What are your influences?

DS: Scott and I spent a lot of time when we first started working together watching post-war American melodramas and they were a big influence on us both narratively and cinematically. I think that they tend to inform not just a lot of our work but things that we gravitate toward—even when they are more genre-oriented like The Deep End. We approached that wholly and completely as a melodrama, not as a thriller.

SM: Whenever we are talking about what to write or if we are reading a script that someone else has written, we always are looking for the emotional hook. What are we going to care enough about to stay interested in and what's going to make an audience care about these people? For us, the best action films, the best thrillers, are always built around something that really tugs at your heart in some way, some dilemma that is emotionally wrenching.

It's fascinating that the story comes from so long ago when society was vastly different from now.

DS: We didn't adapt the book but it's funny because we have read—and I think it's true, but I guess it's anecdotal—that Henry James was at a dinner party and heard about a joint custody situation, which he had never heard of before. I guess it was very rare at the time, as it's more of a 20th century idea. The absurdity in his mind of that situation is what sparked the idea for the novel. As much as it's very common now, the emotional terrain of what that might mean for a child isn't so different.

SM: We knew from reading the screenplay it was a nicely written, very emotional story set in contemporary New York.

How much did you want to make this a serious movie and how did you inject lighter moments? It could have been much more maudlin that it was. The tone is just spot on.

SM: Thank you. That was a big concern of ours because divorce drama sounds so heavy. We talked a lot about keeping the kind of innocence and lightness of Maisie's perspective on the situation. For a kid there is always a kind of hopefulness and optimism that could infuse the whole look of the movie.

DS: We talked about that with our cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who used a lot of natural light. That is his real strength as a cinematographer. This is the third film we have shot with him and we also discussed it with our production designer, Kelly McGehee, Scott's sister, who we've been working with since we were making short films. In both the lighting and the design of the film, we wanted have the feeling of Maisie's childishness without it feeling too much that way.

Where did you find Onata?

SM: Avy Kaufman is our casting director and she has done these kinds of searches before. She has this sixth sense and was very confident about finding a kid. But it wasn't until three weeks before we started shooting that Onata finally turned up. She's a New York kid who had done a little bit of acting. Until then, we were getting kind of nervous.

What was it like working with her? How did she meld with the adult actors?

DS: She is a pleasure of a child and she is a complete and total natural actor. Her ability to relax and be herself in front of the camera is extraordinary.

SM: Julie and Alex [Moore's on-screen boyfriend] met her quite late in the game. When we introduced them we were quite nervous because Onata was comfortable with us. We'd worked with her in front of the camera a little bit but we didn't know what it would be like when she actually met Alex and Julianne, who she was going to share a lot of scenes with. She got on really well with both of them and they reassured us that it was all going to go well which was a nice thing.

Moore and Skarsgård are both very warm people.

SM: They are. We all understood it was a group thing.

DS: The set dynamic on this movie was great in every way and I think to some degree it came from Onata.

Was that really Julianne Moore singing?

SM: Yes, it was. When we first sat down with her we talked about how the character was this rock and roll celebrity, but after her moment, and she was struggling to recapture this youth culture thing, which was part of who she is. As a parent, though, she is unable to deal with her kid as she is trying to stay young and relevant in her own world. Julianne said right off the bat that she doesn't know how to sing.

DS: She was actually slightly defensive when we asked how she felt about the singing. “I can't do that, I don't want to do that. I just want you guys to know right now if that's what you are expecting, I can't do that.”

SM: She said, “For some kind of punk rock thing, maybe I can fake it.” We settled on The Kills' music early on as an interesting model, particularly Alison Mosshart's style. We talked with Julianne and she was really interested in that. The Kills' music connects to a deeper roots rock and roll and punk sound. When we got the band interested we had these two songs ('Night Train' and 'Hook and Line') and we talked to Julianne about actually singing them. We hooked her up with our friend, Pete Nashel, who has composed music for a couple of our films and he worked with her and built up her confidence. She worked with another vocal coach that Pete knew and he got her to sing in the studio. When we finally shot the concert scene she brought so much to it. She was into it. [Moore ultimately sings the songs with The Kills.]

What Maisie Knew screens at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival and is released in cinemas nationwide August 22.Click here for our full coverage of the festival.