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Divorce & Narcissism Through the Eyes of a Child in WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Q&A Screening)


What Maisie Knew is a heartbreaking and fascinating study of both divorce and narcissism, filled with realistic characters and important themes that hit home. This is the first film I can remember that shows divorce so accurately through the eyes of a young child, who doesn’t completely understand what is going on. Sure, there have been classic films like Kramer vs. Kramer to the more recent The Squid and the Whale that tackle divorce very well, but they are from the viewpoint of the parent and older children respectively. The directors and one of the co-writers were at a screening in May where they discussed the story and process of making this intricate low budget indie film with a seasoned cast, and a virtual newcomer as the lead.


Maisie is a six-year-old girl with two of the most narcissistic parents to ever grace the screen. Aging rockstar Susanna (Julianne Moore) and traveling businessman Beale (Steve Coogan) are going through a bitter divorce and custody battle over Maisie, their only daughter. These narcissistic parents seem more concerned with themselves than the welfare of their child. Maisie is a task in their lives, almost treated like a pet, often handed off to others. Many of their arguments are in the background while Maisie plays in the other room.

Maisie isn’t old enough yet to fully understand what is going on or how ugly her parents get with each other, or of their neglectfulness. Throughout the film decisions are constantly being made for Maisie, she’s being thrown back and forth between her parents, and then between the younger spouses they both marry.

The film is like a voyeuristic experience of bad parenting, watching Susanna and Beale make horrible parenting decisions. At one point, Beale invites Maisie to move to London with him. However, when she doesn’t understand that Mommy can’t come with her, he quickly rescinds the offer, not wanting to deal with any complications. Later, Susanna drops Maisie off in front of a bar and doesn’t walk her in to meet her husband Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), who happens to have the night off. These parents are so neglectful, you want to reach out and grab them and scream, “Wake up from your self-centered lives and pay attention to your daughter.”

What Maisie Knew is certainly a film every parent should see, to see what not to do when they have kids, and to see how their actions as a parent will affect their child. You just know poor Maisie is going to have some major abandonment issues when she grows up. Luckily for Maisie, her parents’ new spouses end up becoming her surrogate parents and treat her better than her real ones.

Susanna keeps claiming to Maisie throughout, “You know how much I love you,” but she consistently fails to show that in her actions. And by the end, Maisie sees this and learns to take control of her life by making a very important decision. Everyone has been controlling her life up to this point, and for the first time, she sticks up for herself, something she’s been unable to do. This is the arc of Maisie’s character.

What Maisie Knew approaches divorce in a unique way. In 1979, the Academy Award winning hit Kramer vs. Kramer shows divorce from the perspective of a working father and an unhappy housewife. Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale paints a picture of divorce of educated upper class literary New Yorkers and how it affects their kids, mostly told from the point of view of Walt, their teenage son. What Maisie Knew brings a new perspective to the “divorce” genre, a brilliant realistic telling of divorce from a naïve young girl’s view.


Attending a Q&A screening on May 17 at the Landmark in West LA, it was very interesting to learn about the difficulties of making a character driven drama like What Maisie Knew in today’s market. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel discussed casting, developing the story, and financing, and co-writer Carroll Cartwright, who was in the audience, also chimed in about the adaptation process.

The directors discussed how they saw hundreds of girls before finding Onata Aprile, who played Maisie, with the help of Casting Director Avy Kaufman, who found Haley Joel Osment for The Sixth Sense. She was just a little NY kid who went to PS3.

They said Onata was very bright and she understood very clearly each day with each scene what was going on with her character and the characters around her. “She’s a really remarkable kid because that was really Onata’s performance, it wasn’t cobbled together in the editing room. We figured out all kinds of tricks to guide her through, but in the end we were able to direct her like we directed the adult actors. That kind of generosity of spirit in the movie, little Onata brought to the set every day for seven weeks and it influenced the feeling on the set in a pretty profound way.”

The film is based on a novel by Henry James. Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright wrote the screenplay 15-18 years ago, then the directors got involved a couple years ago. The film didn’t cost a lot to make, although the directors weren’t allowed to divulge further information. Both IMDb and Wikipedia show the budget at $6 million. They commented how challenging it was to make a film on such a small budget dealing with the confines of a six year old and scheduling (minors can only work a certain amount of hours per day).

The directors mentioned that it was difficult to raise funds because dramas are not easy to get financed these days. The producers from Red Crown were the ones who raised the money, and it was still a tough road even with Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan and Alexander Skarsgård attached. There’s a total of 3 producers, 10 executive producers, and a variety of other co, co-executive and associate producers credited. The directors commented, “that’s just an indicator of how hard it was to raise the money.”

Carroll Cartwright stood up in the audience and answered a question about the adaptation process. He said he largely read the book many years before considering adapting it. Then he had a daughter and a custody battle and a few years into that the book came back to him.

For a movie that took 18 years to make, it got written in a few weeks. The script just poured out of him. It’s quite simple, he explained, Henry James plot is intricate, but it’s all laid out, he just poured emotion into it, and that was it. When Scott and David came along, changes in the script had to be made since it had been 18 years – they had to change pay phones into cell phones. Cartwright mentioned how he still clung to a vision of the upper West Side and he was told he’s been out of New York for a long time and it’s all downtown now. However, in many ways the script remains very similar to the original draft.

One of the aspects of the script the directors responded to was Maisie’s generosity of spirit, that she was a little girl who was capable of loving people unconditionally, she wasn’t judging and she looks for the best in people. Trying to tell the story from a child’s perspective was the real hook for the directors. McGehee commented that the other piece that attracted them was that Julianne Moore had already read the script and had expressed interest. They’d wanted to work with her for many years.

The directors went onto discuss co-directing. They’ve been working together for more than 20 years and have made five features together. Siegel said, “We’ve developed a process over the years where we work very fluidly together. It’s not so different from the way the Coens work from what I understand.” McGehee then chimed in, “Filmmaking is a very collaborative process from the get go. We try to clarify our ideas with each other before we communicate them to other people.”


You can listen to the entire Q&A podcast on Landmark’s website.

And you can go to the film’s website to find a theater near you playing What Maisie Knew (click on Tickets and look for your city).

Permanent link to this article: http://cinematicinspirations.com/2013/06/03/divorce-narcissism-through-the-eyes-of-a-child-in-what-maisie-knew/

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