by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel
When budgeting and scheduling a film, the production team builds in buffers and contingencies for most situations. We have insurance policies to cover accidents and mishaps. We have cover sets to go to if it rains. But on day 25 of our 33-day What Maisie Knew shoot, at 9:30pm on a beautiful breezy late summer’s night, an hour into one of our few night shoots, we found ourselves faced with a contingency never contemplated.
We were shooting the emotional climax of the film, and had only begun an hour earlier. Between takes, slight adjustments are made, a few notes given. Giles Nuttgens, our director of photography, tweaks the lights, and a few minutes later we’re ready to shoot again. The camera goes up on Giles’s shoulder; the AD asks for quiet. Sound is ready. Lights are ready. Julianne Moore, the other star of the scene, is ready. Everyone is ready!
None of this matters: our film’s star, six-year-old Onata Aprile, has fallen asleep. In her mother’s arms. We’re done for the night.
Never mind that we’ve hauled trucks and trailers and loads of other gear out to a distant location an hour’s drive east of Manhattan, our production base. Or that a tour bus featured prominently in the scene has driven in from Tennessee. Or that Julianne Moore has gone through hair and makeup and is poised and ready to finish the scene; or that Alexander Skarsgård will be lost to us in two days, with no flexibility in his schedule to return for a reshoot. It’s simply past Onata’s bedtime.
We planned well; but maybe not well enough.
Looking back, what’s remarkable to us is that over seven long weeks of shooting What Maisie Knew—a film told entirely from six-year-old Maisie’s point of view—this kind of thing only happened once. In every other scene, on every other day, or (earlier) night, for 33 consecutive working days, Onata showed up cheerful, prepared and eager to act. With nothing but an enthusiasm and generosity of spirit that left us, and the cast and crew, in awed wonder.
Looking further back, what’s remarkable is that two relatively experienced filmmakers ever imagined they would find a six-year-old girl capable of not only showing up prepared and motivated every day, but one who possessed the natural talent and unaffected charisma to carry a movie on her tiny shoulders.
But on this one night (and this night only), it was Onata’s mother who was doing the carrying: Onata was leaving our set to go home to bed. We quickly shot the one shot we needed Alexander for (without Onata), packed up our lights and tour bus, and went back to the city. And three weeks later somehow found time in our schedule to get back to Long Island. An hour earlier this time. And our little Onata stayed awake and engaged, for every moment until we wrapped.