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In Features, Issues

STILL WATERS
San Francisco-based filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel update a postwar melodramatic novel to contemporary Lake Tahoe in The Deep End. Screenwriter Howard Rodman speaks with the directing team.

Goran Visnjic and Tilda Swinton

Collaborators for more than a decade, David Siegel and Scott McGehee made a few art-school shorts (Birds Past; Speak Then, Persephone) before shooting their first feature, Suture— a widescreen black-and-white tour de force inspired in equal parts by Japanese noirs and American paranoid thrillers — premiered at Sundance, won the Cinematography Award and was distributed by MGM in 1993.

The duo’s work together has a formal elegance – a rigor, honesty and intelligence – that may have rendered them out of step with the more slapdash strains of "independent" cinema of the 1990s. Although they managed to produce a pair of adventurous and beautiful films (Lush; The Business of Strangers) through their production company, i5, they spent most of the decade trying to mount their second feature.

They had a number of false starts: Snatch (an Italian-set kidnap caper), This Sweet Sickness (a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, developed at the Sundance Institute) and an earlier incarnation of their new film, The Deep End. Finally, though, McGehee and Siegel financed The Deep End themselves through private equity raised through i5. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance, won the Cinematography Prize again and sold for a healthy advance to Fox Searchlight, the very studio that had almost made the film the first time around.

The Deep End more than fulfills the promise of their earlier work: it retains Suture’s extraordinary visual grace, but gains in craft and, above all, in emotion. It is in every sense worth the wait. Although Searchlight is now distributing the film, it is far more pure and personal than almost anything that might have come out of a studio

The duo, who both live in San Francisco, came down to Los Angeles this past spring to work on the color timing of the print and while there spent a long lunch at a modest Los Feliz Japanese restaurant with Howard Rodman. Rodman, a screenwriter (Joe Gould’s Secret) and a founding committee member of Filmmaker, has known the duo since the early 1990s. Parts of The Deep End, in fact, were written at his house, where Scott and David have often stayed.

Scott McGehee (left) and David Siegel photographed by Richard Kern

HOWARD RODMAN: When did you first think about making The Deep End?

DAVID SIEGEL: We saw The Reckless Moment, Max Ophuls’s 1949 adaptation of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s novel The Blank Wall, nine or 10 years ago at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley. We’re both big admirers of Max Ophuls, and the movie just kind of stuck with us. Then, out of curiosity, one of us bought the book, and The Deep End became one of those slow-germinating ideas. We were looking at a lot of postwar American melodramas at the time, and The Reckless Moment fit in with those, even though it usually gets classified as a film noir.

SCOTT MCGEHEE: We call it housewife noir.

SIEGEL: We got interested in how beautifully all those films work on an emotional level, a level that comes from things like unspoken feeling, repression and sacrifice – places where you don’t see emotion come from very often anymore in movies.

RODMAN: These days most emotion comes from "triumph."

SIEGEL: Right. Or it comes from itself, from the need in film narratives to "emote." We as an audience believe in that as a film construct in a way that we don’t in our lives, I think.

RODMAN: : I went on a binge at one point and read a lot of the allegedly "literary" sources for various screen adaptations: Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil, which Welles made into Touch of Evil; Lionel White’s Obsession, which Godard made into Pierrot le Fou; things like that. And it’s wild what you learn about the film from going back and reading the book. Obsession is a book about a guy who is increasingly unable to think about anything but his kid’s babysitter, and he runs off with her with disastrous consequences. In the movie, Belmondo looks at Anna Karina, and five minutes later they’re in a car! Were there things that enticed you to do The Deep End from reading the book The Blank Wall, as opposed to seeing the film The Reckless Moment?

MCGEHEE: Well, the main character is really different in the book, and I think we learned a lot from that. The book is called The Blank Wall because of the protagonist. She has anxiety about being a legitimate person. She thinks other people are more fully "people" than she is, that she’s not really a good housekeeper, that her maid covers up for her, that she married too young. The level of her anxiety about being a good mother, being a good wife and being a whole person is very extreme.

MCGEHEE: We admire The Blank Page a lot, but there’s something kind of –

SIEGEL: old fashioned –

MCGEHEE: super old-fashioned about it. It’s kind of a romance in a way that neither Ophuls’s film nor our film is exactly. [The story] was originally published in Ladies Home Journal just after World War II. The protagonist’s husband is away at the war, and she’s left all alone with deep need and loneliness. [The story is] ultimately a kind of lonely woman’s fantasy: this really handsome blackmailer comes, he is initially a threat, but he is actually the person who can save her.

SIEGEL: Holding is an interesting writer. I think she wrote 14 books altogether. I’ve only read The Innocent Mrs. Duff, The Unfinished Crime and Miase.

MCGEHEE: We’re convinced that the similarity between The Innocent Mrs. Duff and The Talented Mr. Ripley isn’t coincidental.

SIEGEL: As soon as I started reading The Blank Wall I thought, Patricia Highsmith knew this woman’s work, because they really have a similar sensibility.

RODMAN: When you found the book’s charms increasing over time, what was your next step?

MCGEHEE: First we told ourselves we couldn’t possibly make this movie because we were such fans of the Ophuls film. And then years would pass and then we would kind of think about it, and then we’d tell ourselves again that we couldn’t possibly make this film because we were such fans of the Ophuls film.

SIEGEL: It wasn’t until we thought of changing the child to a closeted boy, that we found the really important piece of the puzzle that allows the family to not communicate in a particular way. That’s when it all started making sense.

MCGEHEE: : It really was that little thing that shifted our consciousness enough to see a path through it.

RODMAN: I’d like to ask you about your interest in genres like melodrama. Do genres allow you to do things either stylistically or in terms of the emotions, that are useful?

MCGEHEE: I actually think genres help me and David find a starting place. Because there are two of us, you know? An individual filmmaker might just ruminate on something he or she is interested in doing, let it germinate into its own thing.

RODMAN: As in, "My parents were mean to me as a child, and now I’m going to make a movie about it …"

MCGEHEE: [laughs] Yes, that. But with me and David, if we have a genre, a kind of objective thing out there that we can both look at and point to and talk about, it helps. And I think that’s one reason we’ve been drawn to adaptations more recently. It’s a great starting place for us, to have a physical object to discuss and agree on.

RODMAN: Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Does one person type while the other paces?

MCGEHEE: We tried that approach actually, long, long ago. It works for others, but not for us!

SIEGEL: When we start thinking about an idea, together we work out a very detailed scene-by-scene outline of the whole story. And then we take individual parts of the script and start writing scenes.

MCGEHEE: Individually, in our own corners.

SIEGEL: And eventually we have a whole script. So in a strange way it’s sort of like an assembly of a movie when it’s done. Then we start going through it and revising the outline as well as each other’s work.

MCGEHEE: It’s sort of a long process of negotiation. We try to shape each other’s vision.

RODMAN: So basically anything David writes, you at some point take a pass at or rewrite?

MCGEHEE: Yes. It really is very, very hard to remember at the end of the script who wrote what, and I love that in our process.

RODMAN: Sometimes among writing partners, I’ve heard complaints that the process of collaboration results in something homogenous, something that has its edges worn off. How do you do it in a way that preserves your voice? Or is there a voice that is the voice of the two of you together?

SIEGEL: We probably do have the edges taken off a little bit. But I think we gravitate toward stories that lend themselves to being figured out instead of just being "personal."

MCGEHEE: Yup, I think that’s right. I think in a strange way we are limited in the kinds of material by our approach. I think where David and I tend to disagree most often is about humor. Our senses of humor will be slightly different. That’s probably the most personal kind of thing that we find ourselves struggling with.

RODMAN: So there’s the outline that is worked on together. There are individual scenes that each of you write and then the other rewrites. How do you know when you’re done?

SIEGEL: That I imagine is no different from any other writer. As Robert Rauschenberg said, "I’m done when I stop!"

MCGEHEE: The first time through our assembly, we’ve both got tons of things to say, things we have to address – and eventually those things get pickier and pickier, to the point where we just don’t have anything more to add. And then we’re done.

SIEGEL: We do believe in the critical process really quite a lot. So we’ll have people read the script and give us an edit. That kind of feedback is really invaluable.

RODMAN: How conscious are you of the budgetary implications of the scenes as you are writing?

MCGEHEE: Hyper!

RODMAN: What are the financial restrictions you try to anticipate when writing?

SIEGEL: Locations are really key. How many locations, the difficulty of [securing and shooting in] the locations, how long it will take to shoot out those locations. [This film] wasn’t quite as cheap as we had thought it was going to be, but it’s actually pretty close.

MCGEHEE: From the conception, knowing this is a contemporary story, that there’s a set and a location that we understood, it seemed to be a manageable production plan. And then of course our first thought was, let’s talk to a studio!

SIEGEL: We actually approached a few people about financing it at a slightly higher budget level, and Fox Searchlight was really interested in it. But we couldn’t quite come up with the same approach for the movie.

RODMAN: Was that a question of casting?

MCGEHEE: It always is, I think. The strange thing is that at any budget level, there is a very small list of actors that you can point to and say they’re going to make a difference at the box office. The studio seems to need those people in movies, whatever the movies are.

SIEGEL: I just don’t believe [the studio’s] approach. I understand it when it’s explained to me, but it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think people turn out in large numbers to see midlevel stars.

RODMAN: But you’ve probably heard the counterargument from Steven Soderbergh, who saw with Erin Brockovich the reaction of an audience to Julia Roberts: he said that he understood that there are things that a movie star can do that are not simply about acting; it’s about that thing.

MCGEHEE: It’s about embodying a person that people identify with in a particular way.

Tilda Swinton. Photo: R. Kern
RODMAN: Basically and completely. But my own feeling is, regardless of what her "bankability" may or may not be, Tilda Swinton is a movie star.

SIEGEL: An underground superstar, she called herself – jokingly, but I think that’s a very apt way of putting it.

RODMAN: So when things didn’t work out at Searchlight, what did you do?

MCGEHEE: To make it ourselves we had to shrink the budget by almost half. But we got some things for doing that. When we were going to make it with Searchlight, we were going to have to shoot it in Canada because of various budgetary and union issues that we now, as a smaller independent film, could avoid. We got to go back to Tahoe, where we really wanted to shoot, and we got to cast an actress who we really thought was fantastic. We just had to make it a little more quickly and frugally.

SIEGEL: We formed this company, i5, with our friend and partner Rob Nathan. From the start we thought The Deep End would be a film of a scale that we could eventually finance. And then Tilda was someone that we thought of immediately. When we started watching her, watching the way she works in close-up primarily, we really started becoming convinced that she was the right person. Because Margaret is a character who takes a lot of actions based on her own thoughts and motivations, which she doesn’t communicate to anyone, we really have to be able to see it on her face.

RODMAN: Both of your feature films won the Best Cinematography Award at Sundance with two different cinematographers.

MCGEHEE: Thank you for noticing!

RODMAN: That either says something about the eye you have for picking cinema-tographers, or it says something about the nature of your collaboration with them. How do you work with them?

MCGEHEE: We are probably a little bit obsessively involved with the frame and composition.

SIEGEL: We composed the movie relatively fascistically. But I think the reason we’ve had good experiences with the two d.p.s that we’ve worked with is because our movies tend to be very design-oriented from the start. I think d.p.s enjoy getting involved in that, feeling like they’re lighting something that’s being thought of from the ground up.

RODMAN: You had the same editor on both features?

SIEGEL: We worked with Lauren Zuckerman on both movies, and she is great. And again, we tend to be super involved in the cutting of the film, because we love that process.

MCGEHEE: Our shooting plan is usually fairly lean. Although, ugh, it’s always a shock and a horror to see the editor’s first assembly of any film I think, and no less so with ours, our starting place is usually relatively close to what we had in mind, because we don’t shoot crazy.

RODMAN: Well, I would say we just tend to shoot in a relatively edited fashion. I wouldn’t say that we’re super spartan or anything in our shooting. Especially when Scott’s calling for take 12 and 13.

RODMAN: Do you ever use B cameras and things like that?

SIEGEL: We did on this movie. On the B camera, we wound up using two cameras on the insert car when we were doing the car work and were shooting on the water. It’s useful, but it’s a really super wasteful process. You wind up burning through film.

MCGEHEE: It doesn’t suit our filmmaking style especially well either. I think it’s impossible to get really interesting shots with two cameras running at the same time. I mean, you are staying out of the camera’s way, and it’s not as controlled a process.

RODMAN: Who is the kid who plays her son?

MCGEHEE: Jonathan Tucker. He came in to read for us just in the regular process of casting. He was boy number six we saw on day three or something. We knew Tilda was going to be Margaret at that point, and we thought he looked like her in a really sweet way. His ears stick out in the same way hers do. It’s something you don’t even notice that much on film, I think ultimately, but there’s something similar about their complexions, and we thought they made a really convincing mother and son.

SIEGEL: And it was very important to us that Beau feel like an 18-year-old, not like a 24-year-old.

MCGEHEE: In fact, he was 17, and that became a problem because we had to do a scene where he has sex with a grown-up [man], and he [legally] had to be 18 to do it. So we had to actually build the schedule around his 18th birthday, which happened while we were in Tahoe. His manager had told us as soon as we cast him that Jonathan was very comfortable with his heterosexuality. So we knew it wasn’t going to be a huge problem, but we also knew it was going to be weird. And of course it was. He called his girlfriend three times while we were shooting that particular scene.

RODMAN: What problems or delights did shooting on or near water bring?

SIEGEL: There are no delights [laughs]. You hear the big stories about the big films that go near the water and how horrible the experiences often are. And we had the tiniest little experience with water, and boy, do we understand that. Strangely, the underwater stuff was a breeze.

MCGEHEE: The underwater stuff was easy, and that was the stuff we had braced ourselves for.

SIEGEL: It was very straightforward, and I think just because it’s very still under water. For the guy with the camera, the water helps control him. But above water you’re dealing with the wind, the bouncing of the boat, everything is always shifting – and so things are always just slightly off.

MCGEHEE: And then of course the water was really cold.

RODMAN: But you guys were directing. Surely you didn’t have to go in.

MCGEHEE: Well, David actually jumped in valiantly.

SIEGEL: I jumped in to be in solidarity with Tilda.

MCGEHEE: Tilda had to go in just in her skivvies, so she had no protection at all. And she’s a person who gets cold quite easily. She’s really tough, and very brave, but she doesn’t have a lot of body fat to keep her warm or anything. We sweat a lot over that stuff.

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