INTERVIEW: Housewife Noir: Siegel and McGehee Dive into "The Deep End"
by Ryan Mottesheard
In Max Ophuls‘ 1949 film, “The Reckless Moment,” a mother compares her feelings at seventeen to those of her daughter’s — and the daughter smugly replies, “The difference is, when you’re seventeen today, you know what the score is.” Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“Suture”) decided to revisit the female-driven Hollywood melodramas of the ’40s by adapting the same book that Ophuls’ film is based on; Elizabeth Sanxay Holding‘s “The Blank Wall.” The story, about a housewife who will do anything to protect her family from her teenaged daughter’s sleazy, older boyfriend, may seem a bit out of step with post-feminist P.C. filmmaking.
And while Siegel and McGehee’s version may contemporize the story in “The Deep End” — the daughter Bea is now gay son Beau — it is also archaic in a gentle sort of way. Furthermore, the character of the mother, Margaret Hall (subtly played by Tilda Swinton of “Orlando”), proves that super-moms can muster up more heroine-ism than any hell-bent, female Tomb Raider on her best day. indieWIRE speaks to the directing duo about getting their second feature off the ground independent of a studio, American melodrama and surface tension.
“The Deep End” opens today (August 8) in New York and Los Angeles.
indieWIRE: It’s been eight years since “Suture.” I know there were a few false starts on other projects during this time, including a Patricia Highsmith adaptation.
“We felt like we were snake-bit. Everything felt really imminent, then it wouldn’t happen. We were on this strange treadmill, working really hard to get these movies made.”
Scott McGehee: Money is always a factor. One film was about casting. The other was a combination of casting and money, a European co-production where all the pieces have to come together and they ‘would’ come together, then one piece would just pop out. It felt like every three months we were going to be shooting again.
David Siegel: It was really a frustrating experience. It was about five and a half years between the end of “Suture” and the real beginning of another movie. We felt like we were snake-bit. And the insidious part of it was that everything felt really imminent, then it wouldn’t happen. Almost like we were on this strange treadmill, because we were working really hard during this time, trying to get these movies made.
iW: I’m sure your approach to filmmaking changed in those years?
McGehee:We’ve joked that this isn’t our second film but our fourth or fifth. We really feel like with two of these films, we actually made them in our heads. We spent so much time planning them that we feel like more experienced filmmakers than we are.
iW: How do you balance all the other elements, including your handling of actors, to fit into what seems to be a fairly rigid mise-en-scene?
Siegel: We’ve been really lucky to have actors who have embraced the design of our films and used it as fodder for their own creativity. Both Tilda and Goran [Visnjic. of ER fame] really got into what we were trying to do visually, and participated in how their performances fit into the [film].
McGehee: One of the exciting things about making movies is that there are so many people involved. However much you plan, there are always new personalities with new ideas who are intersecting your plan. Part of being a director is knowing how to react to spontaneous things that happen and being able to capture things when they’re good and steer away from things that don’t fit into the general plan of things.
“We talked to Tilda about surface tension, a quality not only of water but of her character’s predicament as well, this fragile membrane that’s holding everything in.”
iW: You guys are obviously filmmakers who’ve seen lots of films — “Spellbound” and “Seconds” in “Suture,” for example. What films did you look at in preparation for “The Deep End,” aside from the Ophuls of course?
Siegel: Nothing when we were actually writing the script or making the movie, but the movies that got us interested in this film in the first place were post-War American melodramas. We became interested in the emotionality of these films and the crises that women go through in them. This encompassed movies like Sirk‘s “Written On The Wind” to more suspense-oriented pictures like “The Reckless Moment” and “Mildred Pierce.” Even though “The Reckless Moment” is often described as film noir, it’s really a melodrama disguised as a suspense story.
McGehee: I think this is rare for us in our filmmaking process, but we weren’t consciously looking at a specific film pattern in making this film. I think every film we’ve planned to make in the past; we’ve pointed to a set of films or a single film to decide how we wanted it to look, the atmosphere, etc. I think one of the reasons we didn’t here, is that we were so taken with Lake Tahoe.
iW: Both of your films have made use of a very specific locale — Lake Tahoe here, Phoenix in “Suture” — what kind of affect do you feel environment has on your characters?
Siegel: We think it’s hugely important. In both movies we thought a lot about location and how it would act as a foundation for the story. For “The Deep End,” we were really attracted to the physical beauty of Lake Tahoe, but also, the idea of Reno as this inversion of Tahoe. Both are basins, but they’re very opposite. One is a desert basin, one a mountain lake. And the naturalness of Tahoe contrasted well with the artificiality of Reno.
McGehee: The lake and water became a controlling metaphor for us. We talked about it in terms of design and color palette, but we talked about it with our actors a lot as well. We talked to Tilda about surface tension, a quality not only of water but of her character’s predicament as well, this fragile membrane that’s holding everything in. Tilda felt her character was