Divorce and its impact on children caught in its crossfire may be thought of as an issue of recent generations, but more than 115 years ago, Henry James made it the foundation of his novel "What Maisie Knew." A new film version of the 1897 book, updating James' story of a young girl's emotional education to contemporary New York City, opens May 17 in Los Angeles.
Co-director David Siegel calls the film "more of a touchstone than an adaptation," and as it opens, we find Susanna (Julianne Moore) struggling with the modern problem of being a mother and a rock star on the downslope of fame. (The movie also marks the first singing role for Moore, a four-time Oscar nominee.) Susanna is splitting up with her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan), an art dealer. Their quiet, perceptive 6-year-old daughter, Maisie (a finely attuned Onata Aprile), is caught between their clashing egos.
Beale soon takes up with their former nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), which causes Susanna impulsively to marry a bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). Soon Margo and Lincoln find themselves drawn to each other and caring for Maisie as they all weather the ongoing drama of Susanna and Beale.
When the "Maisie" script by Caroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne came to Siegel and directing partner Scott McGehee, the men weren't sure what they would find within its pages. They were reluctant to take on a film about adults and divorce but were pleasantly surprised by the screenplay's emphasis on young Maisie's view on the action happening around her. She may not see or understand every argument, but she intuitively feels their impact.
"It sounded like a story about a custody battle and we were sure it was going to be a bit maudlin and heavy," said Siegel by phone from the duo's office in New York. "But we really liked the way the writers had approached writing elliptically from her perspective. For us as filmmakers, you don't see many movies that try to tell a story from a child's perspective. It really is Maisie's story we're telling."
"The way the scenes butted up against each other, you just had the feeling it wasn't a normal causality like you see in screenplay storytelling," McGehee added. "It was things happening next to each other and you had to kind of piece together the story behind the observations and link the story beats of the adult story together on your own."
The pair, perhaps best known for 2001's "The Deep End" starring Tilda Swinton and 2005's "Bee Season" with Richard Gere, decided that they wanted to make the picture — but knew they had to find just the right girl for Maisie. Working with casting director Avy Kaufman, they chose Aprile, a New Yorker who herself was just 6 when the film shot in summer 2011 (though she already had a few professional credits under her belt).
"Whether they are 6 or 60, certain actors have that strange ability to make you believe when the camera is on their face that you are going into their inner lives, that you're watching them think, and maybe experiencing to some degree what they are feeling," said Siegel, comparing Aprile to Swinton. "It's not a teachable thing, and we could see that on Onata."
Susanna and Beale are wildly selfish characters, never putting Maisie or anyone else around them over themselves. Moore, who has two children, said she did not mind portraying such a recklessly bad parent.
"I'm pretty compartmentalized as an actor," she explained. "I don't think that my characters are me, so I don't believe they are necessarily living by the same set of rules that I'm living by."
What did make Moore anxious was the prospect of singing in a film for the first time. Not only would she be singing two songs and playing a brief lullaby on a guitar, she was to be seen in performance footage that would require her to stalk a stage like a seasoned pro.
"I'm not terribly cool," said Moore, "so being a rock star had never been in the realm of possibility for me."
Siegel and McGehee put Moore in touch with composer and producer Peter Nashel, who introduced Moore to singer Elaine Caswell. Caswell and Moore looked at clips of female rockers, including Patti Smith and Courtney Love, for inspiration, with Caswell helping Moore to find her own voice.
"You can't just tell somebody, 'Sing this note this way,'" Caswell said. "You have to have enough attitude to bring your head around the suppleness of it, the looseness of it. You have to find the grit."
Moore was to sing two songs by the Kills, whose dynamic lead singer, Alison Mosshart, also fronts the band the Dead Weather. Moore met Mosshart at a Kills show in New York before shooting and the two exchanged a few emails.
After finishing most of the "Maisie" shoot, Moore left to begin production on "The English Teacher" (by chance also opening this week in Los Angeles). Returning to wrap "Maisie," Moore and the production set up early one morning in New York City's Webster Hall to create concert footage with a backing band and small audience.
"It was a wild thing to hear her voice on those recordings," said Mosshart in an email, likening Moore's rock 'n' roll transformation to "a magic trick."
"I saw myself for a second and that was a crazy feeling. How did she do that?" Mosshart added. "I don't think I realized I had 'a thing.' It was like watching myself in a dream. She got my moves down, and I didn't even know I had moves. I was blown away by what she did."
Even with Moore having pre-recorded her vocals, Siegel and McGehee originally planned to shoot the performance footage in only short bursts of 45 seconds to a minute to lessen the pressure on Moore. Despite her own nervousness, Moore strutted like a veteran for the whole song through a number of takes, and "What Maisie Knew" wrapped shooting.
"We had anxiety too," said McGehee. "Who is crazy enough to put an entire film on the shoulders of a 6-year-old girl? And in this case, can Julianne do it? It's kind of thrilling and kind of terrifying at the same time."