By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 1, 2013 at 4:24PM
Film has the power to take you inside someone's head. And that's what under-appreciated aces Scott McGehee and David Siegel do with well-reviewed "What Maisie Knew," which opens Friday. They show what a sweet smart young girl feels (sharp-as-tack Onata Aprile) as she watches her selfish, narcissistic parents, a rock star (Julianne Moore) and an art dealer (Steve Coogan), break up. She soon realizes that they are ill-equipped to pay her much heed, much less look after her daily needs. So like a flower to the light, she turns to her attentive nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and her mom's hunky new boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). "I love him," she tells her babysitter. So, it turns out, does she.
Painter-turned-writer Carroll Cartwright and partner Nancy Doyne first wrote this script 18 years ago when he was a working screenwriter ("Jumanji," "Pearl Harbor," "Where the Money Is") in Venice, California. It's based on the 1897 Henry James novel, which Cartright decided to adapt when he found himself raising a daughter while he was involved in a nasty custody dispute. "As I was going through this I was very observant of my daughter," he recalls. "I'd write down a lot of what she said on scraps of paper, date them and type them into my computer, hundreds of pages of her speaking and observations, her physical quirks." His neighbor Doyne became a part of it. "We knocked it out," he recalls. "We thought, 'this will be walk in the park!' 18 years later here we are."
What was the problem?
1, it has a 6 1/2 girl at the center of every single scene in the movie," he explains. That meant that producers, financiers and filmmakers would read the script, they'd start imagining the reality of shooting with a 6 1/2 year old
star--working with strict hour limits and welfare workers. "There was always the question: what child can carry a
movie on their shoulders, who would not be so precocious as to be infuriating to watch within 3 minutes? They would say, 'nice script and good luck.'"
Various filmmakers including Ulu Grosbard kept stringing along producer Chuck Weinstock for years. He finally obtained financing from Red Crown and eventually landed Siegel and McGehee, who in turn found Aprile. "Onata got it, the forgivingness is the most poignant part of it," says Cartright. "She just needs an adult to love her and that she can love, she's willing, very accepting. Again, everyone knows that, if a child needs a parent, she has to go looking for one wherever she can get it."
The filmmakers understood that what James and the writers had done was singular and crucial to the movie: sticking to the girl. "To me the cinema is about getting into the point-of-view of the protagonist," Cartright says. "That's what I live for when I go to the movies, to take me into the mind and body of character of somebody I might not have imagined being before. Everyone has been a child, everyone remembers how vivid walking in that body behind those eyes is, it's not necessarily joyous. I hope that is the appeal of the film."
Cartright's daughter Sarah is now 25 and a writer herself. "She survived the bitterness of this custody battle in high style," he laughs. He sees the movie as a magic combination of "Maisie in the book, stealing from Sarah, and Onata the actress. It's absolutely a dream come true embodying these girls."
What was the genre?
"It's a divorce genre, which is why it has taken 18 years," he replies. "It's not romantic anything, really, its an observational drama. At this point being in movies is a problem and not doing TV. The last few weeks, everyone is saying, 'everyone wants TV series.' What's left for cinema other than 'Spiderman?' Cinema is falling into the same position as poetry, it's obsolete but it still exists, you get something amazing from it that you don't get anywhere else. If you're not going to give them 30 hours to watch over the weekend in bed on a computer, give them an intense concentrated 90 minutes."