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‘What Maisie Knew’ Writer Waited 18 Years to Make Film Adaptation of Henry James

'What Maisie Knew' Writer Waited 18 Years to Make Film Adaptation of Henry James

Film has the power to take you inside someone’s head. And that’s what under-appreciated aces Scott McGehee and David Siegel do with  well-reviewed What Maisie Knew,” which opens Friday. They show what a sweet smart young girl feels (sharp-as-tack Onata Aprile) as she watches her selfish, narcissistic parents, a rock star (Julianne Moore) and an art dealer (Steve Coogan), break up. She soon realizes that they are ill-equipped to pay her much heed, much less look after her daily needs. So like a flower to the light, she turns to her attentive nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and her mom’s hunky new boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). “I love him,” she tells her babysitter. So, it turns out, does she.

Painter-turned-writer Carroll Cartwright and partner Nancy Doyne first wrote this script 18 years ago when he was a working screenwriter (“Jumanji,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Where the Money Is”) in Venice, California.  It’s based on the 1897 Henry James novel, which Cartright decided to adapt when he found himself raising a daughter while he was involved in
a nasty custody dispute. “As I was going through this I was very
observant of my daughter,” he recalls. “I’d write
down a lot of what she said on scraps of paper, date them and type them into my computer, hundreds of pages of her speaking and observations, her
physical quirks.” His neighbor Doyne became a
part of it. “We knocked it out,” he recalls. “We thought, ‘this will be walk in the park!’ 18 years later here we

What was the problem?

1, it has a 6 1/2 girl at the center of every single scene in the movie,” he explains. That meant that producers, financiers and filmmakers would read the script, they’d start imagining the reality of shooting with a 6 1/2 year old
star–working with strict hour limits and welfare workers. “There was always the question: what child can carry a
movie on their shoulders, who would not be so precocious as to be infuriating to watch within 3 minutes? They would say, ‘nice script and good luck.'”

Various filmmakers including Ulu Grosbard kept stringing along producer Chuck Weinstock for years. He finally obtained financing from Red Crown and eventually landed Siegel and McGehee, who in turn found Aprile. “Onata got it, the forgivingness is the most
poignant part of it,” says Cartright. “She just needs an adult to love her and that she
can love, she’s willing, very accepting. Again, everyone knows that, if a child needs a parent, she has to go looking for one wherever
she can get it.” 

The filmmakers understood that what James and the writers had done
was singular and crucial to the movie: sticking to the girl. “To me the
cinema is about getting into the point-of-view of the protagonist,”
Cartright says. “That’s what I
live for when I go to the movies, to take me into the mind and body of
character of somebody I might not have imagined being before. Everyone has been a
child, everyone remembers how vivid
walking in that body behind those eyes is, it’s not necessarily joyous. I
hope that is the appeal of
the film.”

Cartright’s daughter Sarah is now 25 and a writer herself. “She survived
the bitterness of this custody battle in high style,” he laughs. He
sees the movie as a magic combination of “Maisie in the book, stealing
from Sarah, and Onata the actress. It’s absolutely a dream come true
embodying these girls.”

What was the genre? 

“It’s a divorce genre, which is why it has taken 18 years,” he replies. “It’s not romantic anything, really, its
an observational drama. At this point being in movies is a problem and
not doing TV. The last few weeks, everyone is saying, ‘everyone wants TV series.’ What’s left for cinema other than ‘Spiderman?’ Cinema is falling into the same position as poetry, it’s obsolete but it still
exists, you get something amazing from it that you don’t get anywhere else. If you’re not going to
give them 30 hours to watch over the weekend in bed on a computer, give them an
intense concentrated 90 minutes.”

Future options?

“It’s time to accept what the function of movies is at this point,” he says. “I never thought we would be seeing this. We get these shakeups,
so I guess it’s time to
assess what we’re doing. It’s a challenge. When I came to Hollywood in
the 80s it was still a factory. When I first came here I loved Paramount
Studios, I was so excited to work there. Every actor had
development deals, scripts were pounded out left and right. Just the
other day I stopped outside of Paramount and was looking at the posters
on the walls. Now it’s a completely
different world. There’s nothing there for me anymore.”

“You could rethink your career,” he says. “You could try to do television. Or you can try to do your goddamm best work for the next 20 years and hope some
producer is insane enough to want to realize a piece of poetry written from
your heart. I’m being asked to go speak at colleges. I’m afraid to do it, I don’t want to be discouraging or give these
kids false expectations. Everyone is a little panicky. I do believe
the minimization of talent will work itself out in new ways. Who knows what
they will be? Story and the ability to invent character and drama and
poetry and imagery, that’s not going anywhere. Maybe in a different
form, whether it’s 3-D holograms: if you can create characters that people can
relate to there will be, I assume, a market for that.”

Next up:

Cartright is developing another film, “Jane, Jane Tall as a Crane,” with Mr. Mud, the producers of “Juno.” It’s another project for children written from the point-of-view of a girl who loses her hand-clapping partner and is set up with a boy instead. It’s based on poems that get handed down in school yards, which Cartright started writing down, natch. “It’s the interior monologue of a first grade girl pondering life, death, good, evil,” he says. “How can she eat animals when she loves her poodle so much?”

This time he’s directing the movie in L.A.

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