David Siegel and Scott McGehee have one of the most diverse, interesting and unpredictable careers of any modern filmmakers. Their five films to date - SUTURE (1993), THE DEEP END (2001), BEE SEASON (2005), UNCERTAINTY (2008) and WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2012) - have shared thematic concerns but are very different from each other stylistically, and underscore that they are filmmakers who enjoy challenging themselves. In part one of a two-part interview I spoke to David and Scott about how they met and why they bonded; their first short films; making SUTURE, casting Dennis Haysbert and making a friend and ally in Steven Soderbergh; writing an episode of the brilliant but forgotten Fallen Angels TV series; and making THE DEEP END and working with the extraordinary Tilda Swinton.  

Where did you two first meet? 
DAVID: We met through Scott's sister Kelly, who has designed most of our work since we started making short films. I met Kelly at the San Francisco Art Institute, in between going to Berkeley and doing an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. Scott was about to go to graduate school as well when we first met, and was actually planning to be an academic, doing Japanese Film Studies at UC Berkeley. We would watch movies together at the Pacific Film Archive there, which has an amazing collection of post-warJapanese films. We started talking about the idea of possibly making short films and we went forward from that. Neither one of us had ever had a youthful desire to be a moviemaker so we kind of grew organically together out of discussing movies. 

What made you think that you would make good collaborators? 
SCOTT: I think when you're young and naive you think you can get on with anyone. And I also think that when you're young, it IS easier to get along with more people. We were malleable enough that we were still forming each other on some level; we were shaping each other's tastes. We had known each other for a couple of years already before we started working together.

DAVID: We have talked often about why our partnership might work but we've never talked about our inception as filmmakers, and what made us think at the time that we would make good partners. It is a really happy accident because I don't think there are any other current partnerships with any longevity that aren't romantic or fraternal. I think we are the only ones. It's the visual side especially that we really just sync up on. Some of our early interests were the same. I did architecture as an undergraduate and have always been very interested in that. It just grew from having the same kinds of perspectives. Also, I think Scott finally agrees with me now that one of the reasons our partnership has lasted is because Scott's gay and I'm straight. I think there's something in that difference to let our partnership work. It works like a marriage without being a marriage.

SCOTT: The only way I agree with that is in that I think we both occupy very different ego space. We are not competitive in essential ways that other guy friendships might be. 

Can you talk about your first short film, BIRDS PAST (1989)? 
SCOTT: We really knew nothing when we started making films. David and I starring in BIRDS PAST is evidence of that. My character works in a pet sematary, and David's character talks me into going up to Bodega Bay in search of Melanie Griffith, who he hears is vacationing up there. We bring a video camera with us, and the idea is we are going to go up there almost like paparazzi. This narrative is intercut with short street interviews at specific locations along the way from San Francisco to Bodega Bay that were significant in the film THE BIRDS (1963). These clips of people on the street recount the narrative of the Hitchcock film from beginning to end, but only from their memories. We called it 'a meditation on THE BIRDS'. It involved black and white and color film cut together, as well. It was a good project for us because the interviews allowed us, as we were figuring out how to do the narrative part of the story, to start the process of making the film by just talking to people on the street. It was a real technical education for us. 

Did Melanie Griffith ever see the movie? 
SCOTT: No, I don't think she ever did. We did meet her mother, Tippi Hedren. We wanted to use Tippi's voice in the film, so we reached out to her, and she graciously invited us for a visit at her animal preserve north of L.A., Shambala. The whole experience was fantastic. 

How about your other short film, SPEAK THEN, PERSEPHONE (1990)? 
DAVID: We thought we were making a kind of teaser for what was going to be our first feature film. It's a retelling of the myth of Persephone with the underworld being San Francisco and the overworld being Orange County, California. The world that Persephone wants to occupy is her art student world in San Francisco, but she's forced back into her mother's flower shop in Laguna Beach. And once back in Orange County, she is coerced into participating in something that they have every summer, The Pageant of the Masters, which is a tableau vivant festival. She ends up in Rossetti's 'Portrait of Persephone'. The whole thing was way too much up its own ass, and we don't really intend to let anyone see that film again. 

SCOTT: Right. We made the short film, and then we gave up on the feature film version, and started on Suture instead. 

SUTURE is a one-of-a-kind movie. What inspired it? 
SCOTT: Around that time we were watching a lot of black and white Japanese films from the 60s. They became a real interest of ours, films like THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966) by Hiroshi Teshigahara. They did beautiful widescreen photography in that era. I was still dabbling in graduate school during this period and there was a kind of film seminar that I had organised one semester where we watched a lot of post-war melodramas, as well as Cold war paranoid thrillers. Films like SECONDS (1966) and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), and a lot of noir films too. We were both super into twin films, as well, like A STOLEN LIFE (1946) and THE DARK MIRROR (1946). It was in talking about these kinds of films and how they got at issues of identity that we germinated SUTURE. We collected a bunch of films that were talking about identity and we discussed some of their narrative tropes and strategies. Then we started kicking around plot ideas. We got the idea of using a black actor and a white actor to play look-alike brothers – which really came later - and that really shifted the ground on it. It became a whole different conversation about the film, one that really brought it to life. 

Were you considering any kind of particular audience when you were putting together the film? 
DAVID: That was part of the beauty of our naivete. We just thought we were making something that we liked and could be provocative. We thought we could make it beautiful and we thought it played into a tradition of independent cinema. We weren't really thinking of the commercial marketplace.

SCOTT: SUTURE had a great festival life. We went to Telleluride, Toronto, Sundance and Cannes. They won't let you do that anymore. You kind of have to have a US premiere and then pick a foreign premiere, and that's it for the major film festivals. That experience was really fantastic and we met great people. The film had a better life in England than in any other place in the world. It did just okay in the art market in the US. 

How did Steven Soderbergh get in your orbit? 
DAVID: We went into production with only enough money to shoot the film and then get it to a rough cut stage. We knew we were going to have to raise the rest of the money in post-production. If someone were coming to us to ask for our advice now, we would tell them to never do that. As it turned out, our first assistant director was friendly with Steven's wife's sister, whose name Is Alison Brantley. We met Alison and she introduced us to Steven. We set up a screening of the rough cut, which turned out to be the worst screening that we would ever have. The movie started and we found out the gate on the projector was oval shaped for some reason, so we had to stop. We fixed it, and started over, but then when Reel 2 came on it was actually Reel 3. So we had to stop again and put the reels back in order. We started up again and the film broke at a certain point in Reel 4. When it was over, we thought it was a truly terrible experience. All Steven said to us was ''When would you like to talk?'' So we made a time to talk, and thought ''Geez, bummer. He must have hated it. '' But he came to our editing room the next day, and the truth was completely the opposite. He loved the film, and wound up doing a ton to help us finish it. He invited lots of people to screenings to try and raise the money. He'd introduce the movie wearing a SUTURE T-shirt, and just really talk it up. While he was at Cannes with KING OF THE HILL (1993), he had a conversation with the guys who had distributed SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989), a company called ARP, and they wound up coming in with the completion funds. Steven's still a good pal. 

What led to Dennis Haysbert acting in one of his first lead roles? 
SCOTT: Dennis had done some smaller roles in a few studio films like MAJOR LEAGUE (1989) and NAVY SEALS (1990). Then he had this crazy break where Denzel Washington dropped out of a film with Michelle Pfeiffer called LOVE FIELD (1992) and Dennis was cast to replace him. Unfortunately, Orion, who had made the film, went into bankruptcy and the film was potentially not going to get released. It was completely in limbo. 

When we met Dennis he was in this weird position where he was officially a movie star with this great role opposite Michelle Pfeiffer but nobody knew who he was. He and his agent saw our movie as a problem solver for him. It was a lead role in an independent film but not the kind of thing he would be making after LOVE FIELD. In the meantime it would allow him an opportunity to stand out in something different. It worked out well for us. 

SUTURE began your fascination with the theme of identity. What is it that fascinates you so much about the theme? 
DAVID: Maybe its origin is simply that there are two of us, and we've always had to negotiate who we are with each other from the very beginning. We both have a natural interest in stories of people's becoming in one way or another. I'm not sure I've got a deeper answer than that. 

What was your experience like writing Good Housekeeping (1995), the episode from the Fallen Angels TV series? 
DAVID: Bill Horberg was the guy who made the show., and he was part of Sydney Pollack's company, Mirage, at the time. He came to us to write an episode and he gave us a list of books, articles and short stories, from which we found the story that we ended up adapting for Good Housekeeping.

SCOTT: We had a good time writing it and had wanted to direct it. But Michael Lehmann chose our script, so we were out of luck. Almost as a consolation prize, Bill Horberg showed us another script he thought we might be interested in. 

DAVID: It was an 180 page unfinished screenplay called Night Cry by Horace McCoy, who was a novelist from the 30s and 40s, and is most famous for writing the novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The first half of Night Cry became the first act of our next script together, Hi-Fidelity. Our original pitch was for us to do it as a feature length Fallen Angels, but we felt it would be better set in the 60s - for a number of reasons – so we dislodged it from the anthology and tried to make it as a feature film. 

Why was there such a long gap between SUTURE and THE DEEP END? 
SCOTT: It was a very difficult time for us. We were trying to make movies the whole time. We had a couple of really close calls. Things just didn't come together for various reasons. Hi-Fidelity was meant to be an indie film, but ended up blowing up in scale, and then not being makeable. It still hasn't been made. We had another go at a sort of comedic kidnap/ heist drama comedy-drama that was going to be shot in Italy. We even wound up scouting locations there, and beginning to hire crew, but that one fell apart too. It was originally called Snatch (later Baby Baby), and was based very loosely on a book of that title by a Scottish writer named Rennie Airth.

We actually ended up selling the title Snatch to Guy Ritchie, though we hadn't intended to. He wanted the title but we had registered it with the MPAA, and the project was still alive for us at the time. it was still an active project for us. The fact that it was based on a book gave us priority. We told him we weren't interested in selling, but the studio had already called the film SNATCH (2000) in Europe. They came at us saying ''Well, your title is worthless now in Europe, so if you don't sell it to us, we'll go ahead and call it Snatched in the United States. '' We said ''Go ahead, that's a terrible title. '' This was all done through Guy's representatives. We never actually had any direct contact with him. Maybe the people around him were misleading him. Anyway, they eventually offered quite a bit of money, and we sold. 

What made you decide to remake THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949) as THE DEEP END? 
DAVID: Sometimes you think all the pain, the waiting, the difficulties are worth it. We went back to thinking about melodrama again. American post-War melodramas had an enormous impact upon us. Some people might argue for noir but I woud say they best define what American cinema is. We had seen the Max Ophuls movie The Reckless Moment, and loved it. We never really thought about remaking it but what we had thought about was the difficulty of making melodramas now. Mostly how we are now much more open as a society and how we believe in the importance and feasability of emotional communication. Which defines personal sacrifice in a very different way. In talking about things like that, we started talking about THE RECKLESS MOMENT, which made us go back and read the book that it was based on, The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. We started wondering what a modern adaptation of the book might be like, which is where the idea of making the child a closeted gay son, rather than a daughter, came from. We wanted to make it edgier, and felt the boy's sexuality could create enough friction that there was a natural distance between him and his mother. 

How was working with Tilda Swinton? She seems to excel in melodramatic and noir films. 
SCOTT: One of her great skills as an actress is her ability to work in close-up. You can put a camera on her and just watch her think, which was so helpful because we could rely on her to tell the story of a woman who spends so much time alone. And thinking, not talking.

DAVID: It was important for the audience to be able to understand the inaction and the repression, and to be able to identify with the binds that the characters find themselves in. Working with Tilda was a true pleasure. She'd only done one American movie at that point, a film called FEMALE PERVERSIONS (1996). People mostly knew her from her work with Derek Jarman. And ORLANDO (1992). We were such admirers of hers and we had a great experience with her. 

How concerned are you usually with being faithful to a book when you adapt it? 
DAVID: We think that if you're focussed on being faithful then you are not approaching the adaptation in the richest way. 

Do you enjoy the challenge of working within the limitations of a genre? 
SCOTT: We do enjoy that, yeah. It's a pleasure in one way because we are such film fans. Lately though, we have been thinking less about film genre and we've been thinking about story more openly. 

You were thanked in the credits of DON JON (2013), THE NIGHT LISTENER (2006) and THE DOOM GENERATION (1995). How involved were you in those movies? 
DAVID: Only really in being friends with the filmmakers, and talking with them about their projects and being supportive. We made Uncertainty with Joe Gordon-Levitt obviously, and we worked with Patrick Stettner on his first film, so we were close while he was making The Night Listener. And we've known Gregg Araki since the SUTURE days, and had the pleasure of seeing an early cut of THE DOOM GENERATION. 

SUTURE is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow, and has been restored and remastered.

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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