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Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile in “What Maisie Knew” (all photos courtesy Millennium Entertainment)

CINCINNATI — In the narrow hallway outside the Park City Library Center, a school auditorium–turned–Sundance Film Festival screening venue, self-taught directorial duo David Siegel and Scott McGehee paced the floor while an audience watches an early screening of their sophomore movie The Deep End, a mother-son thriller starring Tilda Swinton. It’s nearly impossible to walk through the crowd, but Siegel and McGehee manage to do so while straining to hear noises from inside the auditorium. I head in after a quick break, glancing back at Siegel and McGehee in the process. They remain too nervous to sit.

Some 12 years later, when I recount this tale of nerves and hallway crisscrossing, Siegel and McGehee laugh. Their filmmaking careers have evolved since then with three additional features, including their latest, a contemporary adaptation of the 1897 Henry James novel What Maisie Knew.

Directors David Siegel (left) and Scott McGehee (right)

What Maisie Knew, currently playing nationwide from Millennium Films, updates James’s lesser-known novel to present-day New York City with Julianne Moore as Susanna, a veteran rock star dealing with the aftereffects of a hurtful divorce from her art dealer husband Beale (Steve Coogan). Standing in the crossfire of their daily arguments are Beale’s new wife (Joanna Vanderham), Susanna’s current boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård), and most of all, their six-year-old daughter Maisie (newcomer Onata Aprile), who’s constantly shuttled between the former spouses.

Moore and Coogan are the film’s marquee players, with Moore especially receiving the lion’s share of attention for her role as an absent mother. Their portrayals are dependably average. The film’s standout performance belongs to child actress Aprile, starring in just her third feature film and delivering her first lead role.

If you really want to know the movie’s standout feature, though, it’s not Aprile’s acting but how Siegel and McGehee capture and portray Maisie’s evolving understanding of her battling parents and disintegrating family life. Performances don’t matter as much in Maisie as beautiful storytelling technique.

Just as James employed his literary devices to tell Maisie’s tale, Siegel and McGehee use their cinematic tools, including musical scores (by Nick Urata) and lighting and framing of images (Giles Nuttgens shot the movie on 35mm film) to capture the fluid expressions of Aprile’s face.

“What sparked for us when we read the script was the formal ways in which the story could be told,” said McGehee, speaking alongside Siegel recently at the Soho Grand Hotel. “There aren’t that many movies that try to convey an individual’s point of view, let alone a child’s. I hope this doesn’t sound goofy, but it’s a deceptively complex movie because it doesn’t feel like it’s as oddly structured as it is. The oddness of the structure, you know, the series of ellipsis that really make up the story, allows us to play with the most basic building blocks of filmmaking in a really interesting way.

“We think about where the camera actually is in terms of height and perspective and what comes in and out of the frame. We think about what the set is going to sound like in terms of what Maisie hears and doesn’t hear and how the score is going to play into her character. You don’t get to do that very often.”

Onata Aprile and Steve Coogan in “What Maisie Knew”

Siegel and McGehee, who have been making films together since their 1995 thriller Suture, about a murder suspect who goes to great lengths to switch identities with his half brother, tend to be smart and bold in their choices.

Bee Season, their 2005 movie starring Richard Gere, is remembered for their creative use of computer-generated technology to illustrate the way a young girl figures out how to spell complicated words. Their 2008 Brooklyn-set film Uncertainty spins off two distinct stories from the same characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins. The Deep End, their best film to date, remains known for Swinton’s lead performance as well as the gorgeous cinematography by cameraman Giles Nuttgens (who also shot Maisie) of the Lake Tahoe setting.

Toss Maisie onto the list and you have an eclectic filmography. What’s consistent is that Siegel and McGehee take risks and try different things. Sometimes they fail, which is better than not taking any risks at all.

The pair often reference their artistic origins outside the conventional models of film school or working one’s way through the film industry. Siegel comes from a background in painting, and McGehee studied rhetoric in college. They’re film outsiders of a sort who haven’t had any qualms about jumping into moviemaking.

“That outsider-ness is relevant for us still,” Siegel said. “Although I don’t paint anymore it’s still sort of an ambition and I still poke around in my studio. I value the way my brain worked and still works as a painter. It’s more fundamental to how I see myself individually than as a filmmaker, and that manifests itself in the way I look at art. I think I still see the world from those eyes, and it informs what I do without being didactic.”

That sensibility carries over into Maisie. There’s a final sensation that comes from watching hectic New York City life unfold through the vision of a sad six-year-old girl.

What Maisie Knew is currently playing in select theaters nationwide.

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Steve Ramos

Steve Ramos writes about art and art cinema; contributing to New York Magazine.com, indieWire, Boxoffice.com and The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel among others. He programmed a monthly film series for...