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 the second part of our two-part interview I spoke to David and Scott about the nature of how they collaborate, how they choose and find inspiration for their projects, how actors they work with respond to having two directors, some of their as yet unmade projects, working with Richard Gere and Steve Coogan, and the making of UNCERTAINTY and WHAT MAISIE KNEW.
Part one of the interview.
Part one of the interview.
DAVID: Oh yeah. But they usually get nixed at a nascent stage. We've never had any big disappointments because one couldn't convince the other.
SCOTT: We focus on the ones that we are both excited about, and the other ones just fall away.
DAVID: To be honest, usually we go down the road and we both agree that something sucks.
How is your writing routine? Do you actually sit down together and write?
DAVID: The way we do it is not so dissimilar from other writing partnerships. We beat out the story in very fine detail from beginning to end. Then we go back to the beginning and start writing sections separately. Long before we finish a script, we put it back together and re-read it, and re-outline it. Then we start trading each other's sections and re-write each other from the new outline. This goes back and forth many times, and we often say that by the time the script is finished it is hard to say who has written what.
When you direct, do you each have different responsibilities?
SCOTT: During pre-production, we share the same responsibilities equally and work side by side. Post-production works the same way. On set, David tends to be more our voice and I tend to be a couple of steps behind him, supporting him and communicating through him. But only in the broadest sense. Not as a rule or anything. It's just our tendency.
DAVID: Our working style on set is really just a way of keeping things moving. The substance of the film – its look and feel, its tone of voice, the work we do with actors – is really a 100% partnership.
How do actors usually respond to having two directors?
DAVID: When we talk to actors, they say that if they entered the process of working with two directors with any degree of scepticism, they come out of it really enjoying it because there really are two of us on the set who know everything that is going on. I don't think, from what I hear, that it's dissimilar from the way the Coens work.
Do you spend a long time developing your projects?
SCOTT: We spend a lot of time finding the project we want to do and talking about it, and then of course it takes time to get it made. Or the project falls apart. We've often joked that we've not made many more movies than we've made. We are always aiming to narrow the gap between our films.
DAVID: We're working on more projects simultaneously than we ever have before.
With the knowledge beforehand that you are going to spend a long time on a project, does the nature of your previous project factor into the project you choose to work on next? Do you try to do something different from the last film?
DAVID: We never think of it that way. I think if we had had a pattern of making movies more quickly that notion might have been more present.
Where would you say you find most of your inspiration for projects?
SCOTT: I am not sure there's a pattern to be honest. We react to things in the world. There are things we hear about or find, and there are things suggested to us.
DAVID: Something shifted after we made WHAT MAISIE KNEW. Almost everything we are working on now tends to be culturally, socially or politically topical and relevant. I don't know if it's the times we are living in or the stage of life we are in. Or just a general sense of urgency in regard to our work. We've had some frustrations in the last year with some of our projects but I think we feel a personal connection to our work right now that is deeper than what it's been before.
Was it much of a transition working with a big star like Richard Gere on BEE SEASON?
DAVID: A transition in the sense, maybe, that when you are in a room with someone like Richard, you feel like you are in the room with an aristocrat or something. Which is a little weird, at least the first time, for a couple of middle-class kids. But Richard is a really nice, really down-to-earth guy, and he brought some of that famous sparkle to the film.
SCOTT: The process of working with him was very straight forward. He had agreed to be in what was essentially an independent film, and he took it very seriously and worked with us well. He was great.
What was the project that you tried to get off the ground before UNCERTAINTY?
DAVID: That was Baby Baby, another iteration of Snatch. We tried to make it right after BEE SEASON, and got very close before it fell apart.
SCOTT: We had moved the location from Italy to Istanbul, and done a big rewrite on it.
How did UNCERTAINTY come about?
SCOTT: We were so frustrated after Baby Baby fell apart and wanted to try something that was immediate and different and improvisational. We worked in an improvisational style with young actors, and made it with the smallest crew we could manage. We didn't have much money, but we were able to run around the streets of New York. It was a way to freshen things up for us when we were feeling like things were really stuck.
How did the film change things up for you as filmmakers?
DAVID: UNCERTAINTY wasn't commercially successful but it really shifted things up for us as filmmakers.
SCOTT: It changed how we thought about writing and working with actors. Before the film we had been much more specific about what we put on the page and in what we wanted to put on film. It loosened us up.
Did you feel like UNCERTAINTY took you full circle to SUTURE?
DAVID: We were thinking about that when we were writing it. The real highlight of making that movie was the rehearsal process that we had with the actors, Joe and Lynn. We took a month where we did improvisational play in relation to their characters' backstories. We wrote the film in script form, but there was no dialogue on the page, only scene direction that described what the characters would be talking about. The idea was that we would come upon the dialogue based on the rehearsal. It was like a Mike Leigh situation. So, by the end of the month, we had created backstories that could hopefully act as a kind of shared history for the actors that would come across more as a shared life on screen. It had a real profound impact on Scott and me. We had had really good working relationships with our actors previously, especially with Tilda Swinton and Juliette Binoche, but we hadn't gone through this particular kind of intimacy before. There was something about the simplicity of it and the unconventionality of it, and how open and free Joe and Lynn felt during the process. It was absolutely lovely.
I loved how high concept and beautifully mad the film was on one level, but how real and palapble the central relationship was.
SCOTT: I think of the relationship between Joe and Lynn as the real achievement of the film. They really worked hard on that and really developed something. Our crew sometimes felt that they were watching two people who really were in the middle of something. And they weren't. Lynn was engaged to a guy who actually spent some time on set.
DAVID: Joe and Lynn decided early on that they would just be together all the time. They started living their days together as if they really were a couple, always together, always holding hands.
SCOTT: Lynn has a strong, womanly kind of presence and Joe's youth was still a dominant note. They worked on really 'manning' Joe up, and it really showed. You can see it in the thriller plot where he really takes charge and looks out for her. The subtlety of how their relationship worked together was something they worked on together in a really lovely way.
In general, do you always want the shooting style to mirror the themes of the film?
SCOTT: Yes. We are big believers that the style of the film should be relevant to what the film is about.
DAVID: That hasn't changed at all over the years. When we write scripts we are designing them as much as we are writing them.
How did you manage to convey so vividly in WHAT MAISIE KNEW the world as seen through the eyes of a very young girl?
DAVID: That was the hook that drew us to the film – to see the world through the child's eyes. Which is what Henry James was doing in the novel, as well. Structurally, he had written the book in a way that was pretty challenging, but it felt, to us, like something that lent itself to cinema.But it did require finding a child who would be adept enough to pull it off, and we didn't have an actress until four weeks before the shoot. Our casting director, Avie Kaufman, had been looking for a long time, so we were really starting to panic. We found Onata Aprile here in New York. We were so lucky because we had no back-up who we thought would be up to the task. In hindsight, it might've been a little nutty to go into pre-production without having found a kid. But we did find her in Onata, who was amazing. She's one of the most naturally talented actors we have ever worked with. She was 6 years old so she wasn't even able to memorise dialogue, but she was preternaturally able to live within the scenario of a scene in a way that blew other actors, like Julianne Moore, away.
I was impressed by how, often, you would just let her be quiet in a scene, and not always have her emote or 'act'.
SCOTT: She was just so good at that. We didn't have to trick her with scenarios that weren't scripted just to get a reaction from her. She could really let her imagination run in the direction of the story we were telling, and really just live in that moment. She was so natural at it that we could really let the camera watch her. We talked a lot about her in cimparisonto to Tilda Swinton actually. She also has one of those faces that lets you in and lets you feel like you are experiencing some interiority.
Did the experience of making a film told through the eyes of a child change you at all in any ways?
DAVID: Not so much in relation to my actual childhood, but I would say that making the film had an emotional impact on us. We were both going through some transitions in our personal lives, some unexpected. I had a dog who was 17 years old and very close to me who died a few months after we finished shooting the film. Scott's father became unexpectedly ill right after we shot the movie and ended up dying a few months later. I had an uncle who also passed. I had other issues going on in my personal life, as well. So, in a way, the film became a kind of rite of passage. When you're cutting a movie, that's really when the feelings of a film really hit you because you're watching it over and over. All these things were happening during this period, and it did really have a big impact on us.
How was working with Steve Coogan?
DAVID: We loved working with Steve. A great experience. He's a super talented actor. We had a lot of fun with the off-screen fight between him and Julianne Moore. Couldn't stop laughing. I mean, Julianne Moore is one of the great actresses but even she couldn't hold a candle to him in the comedic improvising department. He'd be feeding lines to her, making suggestions to help her keep up – ''Talk about my hair!''
SCOTT: He was the guy we wanted for that role the moment we read the script. One of the things that appealed to us about him is that he can be a jerk but still be so lovable. When he's behaving at his worst, you still care about him. We thought that would be a real help with that particular character.
Did you rework the film at all during the editing?
DAVID: The editing of that movie was a big deal. The story is told through a series of ellipses, with most of what you might think as 'plot' happening off screen, or between the scenes. It reflected the script in that way. We tried to shape Maisie's point of view and dynamically modulate what the pitch of that was in terms of what was being fed to her by the adults in her life, as well as what she was actually witnessing and processing. So that balance was the real challenge, editorially, but fun and creatively rich. We value having a program that you're pushing against. Here it was the structure of the book. It winds up opening other ideas and ways of thinking that are inevitably rich. When you're thinking about something as specific as what she is experiencing and what she would or wouldn't be seeing, it's interesting to see how far you can deviate. That's a fun game.
SCOTT: Staying with her emotionally became our guide. Which meant that in scenes where Julianne Moore is giving an amazing performance, we were sometimes not looking at her, but instead looking at this six year old actress whom no-one knows. Maisie became our way through the movie.
DAVID: We found that we learned things editorially on that movie that weren't as apparent to us before.
When did the idea to use bold colors throughout the film come in?
DAVID: The idea was to color the movie in a little bit. The film isn't literally from her point of view, but we wanted to infuse the whole movie with the sense that it was hers, without it feeling like it was a child's film. We designed the film so it stayed an adult story but somehow still felt like it belonged to Maisie.
SCOTT: We were also very conscious that audience expectations of a divorce or custody battle drama would be that the film was going to be a downer. We worked with Giles Nuttgens, our cinematographer, Kelly McGehee, the designer, Stacy Battat, the costume designer, and Nick Urata the composer to keep a sense of buoyancy. It also reflected Maisie's optimism and her ability to see the best in people. We wanted that color to be the brightest color.
With your love of drama and storytelling would you consider going into TV at any point?
DAVID: We are actually working on three television projects right now.
SCOTT: It's been a real education getting our feet wet in the TV world. We're really excited. It's a different way of thinking about story.
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.