Nearly two decades after scripting What Maisie Knew with writing partner Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright reflects on what inspired him to “reimagine” the Henry James novel and why its story still resonates more than a century later.
Written by Joseph Ferrante
(May 17, 2013)
With his new film What Maisie Knew, Carroll Cartwright found that not only does art imitate life but sometimes life reflects it back again. Based on the Henry James novel of the same name, Cartwright wrote the script 18 years ago with Nancy Doyne, who was a neighbor at the time.
Cartwright was originally drawn to James in college, and the story of young girl who watches her parents battle for custody of her became one of his favorite books. At the time, he found the novel’s dense language supposedly written from the point of view of a child to be amusing. “There was something quite funny in that there seemed to be kind of a nod to Edwardian children’s literature in the construction of the sentences, which I thought seemed very sly,” he says.
Later in life, Cartwright didn’t find the book so amusing as he struggled through his own divorce and custody battle. He turned the tables by reimagining Maisie’s story and modernizing it with the experience of his own personal struggles and that of his daughter, thus completing the circle and bringing art from life. Now, after nearly two decades, the film is finally being released this month with a cast that includes Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, and Onata Aprile, who gives a remarkably nuanced performance as Maisie.
Cartwright spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his personal relationship to the material, how the script was structured to bring viewers into Maisie’s world, and why, as much as he would like to change some of the things he wrote so long ago, he doesn’t trust his own impulses today.
You wrote this script almost 18 years ago. At what point did Nancy Doyne join you on the project?
Photo: © 2013 Millennium Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile in What Maisie Knew.
We lived on the same street in Santa Monica Canyon. I am forgetting the sequence of events, but we were friends and over dinner I told her and her husband about writing this. One day, she was walking her dog and found me in my garden. She mentioned that she had been thinking about it and wondered if I wanted a writing partner. So we sat down together, outlined it rather quickly and went to work.
What brought you to this story and why did you choose to adapt the Henry James novel?
I was kind of a Henry James fanatic, and I remember reading him fairly young. At first, I kind of hated him as he seemed so troubled and that got under my skin. My dislike for him eventually turned into an obsession. I have loved this book in particular, among the many of his I have read. When I got myself into a custody battle, years after having read What Maisie Knew, it came to mind as something I could relate too and bring up-to-date without much trouble. It definitely resonated with what I was dealing with in my life.
Your script was described as a “reimagining.” What do you consider the difference between an adaptation and reimagining?
We definitely took in the book and the plot and did not try to redeliver it to fans of the book as something recognizable. Though there were elements – a lot of elements – of the plot reproduced in the script, at a certain point, we leave that behind, and it is more a sort of spiritual guide. An adaptation would be plot points delivered more faithfully. The novel gets into moral issues at the end that don’t quite resonate. Well, it didn’t resonate 20 years ago when we wrote it, and they don’t quite resonate today.
Once you decided to reimagine the novel, what was your strategy to break it down into script beats?
The only real strategy that was consistent throughout was being faithful to the character of Maisie. She’s coping with incredibly complicated adult machinations, and she walks through it with a certain grace and attractiveness, which was our guide throughout. It’s like following a torch through the darkness. It was her lack of self-pity, her lack of complaint about her situation that guided us more than anything else.
Maisie seems somewhat mature and well adjusted for her age compared to her parents. When you were writing her character, was it a conscious decision to contrast the child with her parents’ childishness?
Yes, the Henry James character of Maisie was the guiding light, but at that point I had a daughter at about her age. She was dealing with a very difficult situation in terms of the custody dispute, and she was dealing with it with enormous equanimity it seemed. There’s a moment in the movie where Julianne Moore looks at Maisie and searchingly says, “What are you thinking?” And, well, I have certainly had that moment many times with my daughter wondering what she was really thinking.
Nancy drew off of her experience as a child having [been through] a very difficult divorce situation. So, I would say we were drawing on all those things. As much as all the children that I reference seem to be dealing with these situations maturely, one often wonders what they’re holding inside. The hope was that the mystery in the child’s face would not necessarily betray what is going on inside, that it would remain a mystery that would draw an audience in. We all know that things are often better left unexplained so as to leave room for the audience to read into the image to take what they will from it.
The emotional beats in this movie hit extremely hard, particular between Maisie and her mother and father. How did you go about choosing those beats and refining them?
For a good section of the script we did have Henry James’ plot and some of the beats were laid out for us. Our principle was always to lay out the situations in the script and comment as little about it as possible. When you have a rather mute central character reacting, we trusted that an audience would read their own emotional touch points into the quietness of the character. I don’t feel that the film or script is dramatically “sound.” I don’t think that it is classically structured to reach an emotional climax at some point. That is why some people have a hard time watching it. The tough emotional points are throughout the picture. It is a bit of an emotional slog for some people, particularly if it’s touching something in their own childhood or parenting.
It didn’t feel like a three-act structure when I watched the film. Perhaps you wrote it that way, but do you feel there was another act structure to the script or did you feel the act breakdown was irrelevant to the film?
It’s such an odd plot. What’s odd about it is that it’s not a plot movie, but there’s tons of plot. You have a breakup, two marriages, both of which breakup and a romance swirling. That’s a difficult thing to break into a three-act structure. But we did, we just considered all that swirl of adult activity as noise, ambient noise in the background of Maisie’s life that she is trying to survive and negotiate through. Honestly, we didn’t really worry about the structure.
Both parents are particularly disturbing characters. Was there ever a concern of going too far with them?
Yes, there was a fear. In the reactions to the film we have been forgiven that. Most people say these characters are really beyond redemption but most seem to enjoy seeing Maisie thread her way between them. It’s a little bit of a comment on the baby boomer generation and their narcissism. Maybe we went too far, and not to blame it on Henry James, but they were pretty unredeemable in the book. On second thought, in thinking of the novel, maybe narcissism didn’t start with the baby boomer generation.
I love what Julianne did with the character, and I particularly love what Steve Coogan did with his character in the scene where he finally, definitively abandons her. He had a great struggle with how he was going to play that part and that moment. I think he was willing to seem like a completely heartless, soulless person and then bring him fully to life in his final scene.
Did you find writing dialogue for a child any different than writing it for adult characters?
She didn’t have much dialogue since it was always better to leave things unspoken for her. I don’t remember having much difficulty with her. I was a very close observer of my daughter and was often frantically scribbling away her speech. Not for this project, but rather than taking snapshots, my photo album of my daughter was all in what she said. I wrote it down, now I have hundreds of pages of it.
She must love to read that now…
She discovered them at a certain point and at the age of six she would comment with amusement on fallacies of her thinking at age three. I then wrote that down, and it became a little bit of a circular mechanism. Of course, she is a writer today.
We haven’t talked about the characters of Margo and Lincoln. Besides being a foil to Maisie’s parents was there anything more you wanted from the characters as opposed to the novel?
They are a little bit of an antidote to the baby boomer generation. If the parents are the people who are too far gone to be brought to heel or to reason by being parents, then Lincoln and Margo are younger people who are influenced positively by the experience of having a child. In the book, there’s a moment that didn’t make it in to the script when Maisie sees Lincoln and Margo coming together. One of the things she knows is that she brought them together. It kind of freaks them out that a six year-old is their enabler.
Speaking from my own experience, when I found out I was becoming a father, it definitely pulled me together. I was living pretty much for myself, selfishly. It was a big wake-up call and one that did me a lot of good.
As small as a child is, they have an enormous amount of gravity. They pull people into a new form of behavior in a unit called a family. And families have become a much wider term than in the past and yet a child always creates a certain center of gravity. I am always shocked when I hear about really bad, narcissistic parenting. Well, as screwed up as I think I am, I think I rose to the occasion of parenting. So when I hear about parents who couldn’t do that I always think, I guess I’m not as screwed up as I thought I am because it would take a lot of dysfunction to fully resist the gravity of the child and the child’s needs.
In retrospect, are there any scenes now that you feel you would have written differently?
There are but I am not sure I trust those things. No matter how much I flatter myself that I might be able to write Maisie today it was a script of a certain period. I was reacting to certain situations in my own life and didn’t have much perspective on them. It is a piece of work that represents a unique moment in my life, so I am not exactly trusting of my more dispassionate craft impulses or what I’ve learned since then. Sometimes we learn too much for our own good. I have an instinct that the choices I make now might lead to a lesser script.