A pair of aces
Scott McGehee and David Siegel share the director's chair for
A movie's director is usually imagined as a solitary figure, dictating orders to cast and crew. Once in a while, though, two directors share the job and the credit. One such duo is Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who've codirected their third film together: Bee Season, a drama about ten-year-old spelling-bee champion Eliza (Flora Cross) and her academically accomplished but unhappy family.
"Working as a team is less complicated than you'd think," jokes McGehee, the more outspoken half of the duo. "We agree on everything." Presenting a united front on the set is no joke, however. Siegel, the quieter, dark-haired one, says that he and McGehee work hard to present a "sense of preparedness, which inspires confidence."
Sibling duos behind the camera are not uncommon in Hollywood (there are the Wachowskis, Farrellys and Coens, for example), but McGehee and Siegel are one of the few unrelated, unmarried and otherwise uninvolved professional teams. An interest in screenwriting and filmmaking were the factors that drew them together. "That and an initial lack of technical expertise," Siegel says. "Neither one of us had gone to film school, and it's tough trying to make a short film by yourself. Halfway into it, we realized we were codirectors. It seemed to work, and that's how it's been ever since." Siegel had studied architecture and painting, while McGehee had done postgrad work in film and Japanese cinema. Both were living in San Francisco, and they've tried to set all their films in the golden Northern California sunlight that cinematographers find so magical.
Their 1993 debut film, Suture, was an arty psychological thriller based on their original screenplay, but the duo broke through to the mainstream with 2001's The Deep End, a Lake Tahoe–set update of a 1949 noir melodrama called The Reckless Moment. In their adaptation, Tilda Swinton plays a mother who conceals a family scandal and then murder. (Swinton earned an Academy Award nomination for the role.) Bee Season, with its theme of family secrets and parental sacrifice, attracted their interest, as did the complex screenplay by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, an Oscar nominee for 1998's Running on Empty. "Naomi always talks about how kids manage to survive their parents," Siegel says. "That's very much what's going on in Bee Season."
Eliza's father, played by RichardGere, is a professor of religion who tries to impress upon her the concepts of Jewish mysticism and of Tikkun (healing the world), but ends up imposing on her a crushing sense of responsibility for healing her fractured family. The girl's mother (Juliette Binoche) suffers the aftereffects of a childhood trauma, while Eliza's brother (Max Minghella) strays toward a cult.
Many of Bee Season's key scenes rest upon the shoulders of an untested child actress: Cross, who'd sent, via a manager, a crude VHS audition tape. "She's an unusual kid," McGehee says. "Flora was born in France and speaks French as well as several other languages. She's lived all over the world. She is a beautiful, solitary child. Everyone felt protective of her." Cross's grave, thoughtful screen presence has drawn favorable comparisons not merely to extraordinary child actors like Sarah Polley, but to her grown-up peers as well.
The directors' next project, they say, will be a return to melodrama and mystery—and another update of 1940s material. Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), the prolific novelist-screenwriter, left one screenplay—a "mystery-romance hybrid"—unfinished, and McGehee and Siegel will adapt and direct it. "Melodrama's been the core of American cinema for 75 years," Siegel says. "There are so many dark undercurrents to explore."
Bee Season is now creating a buzz in theaters.