Scott McGehee and David Siegel have made only two movies, and people think they‘ve got them pegged. They seem to exert a lot of energy fending off false impressions. Just because their stylized films tell tangled tales of crime and betrayal, they insist, doesn’t mean they should be typed as neo-noir revivalists. McGehee, 39, says he can understand why their 1993 release Suture was marketed as a thriller, even though it “was not really delivering to a thriller audience what a thriller audience wants.” And while Siegel, 41, is willing to admit that Suture may have been too “cold,” he quickly adds that when it comes to their new film, the duo “worked hard to make sure that The Deep End would connect with people emotionally.”
McGehee and Siegel‘s filmmaking is to an unusual extent an extension of their friendship, which in turn was rooted in shared cinematic interests. They met a decade ago in Berkeley, where Siegel was studying architecture and McGehee was working on a graduate degree in film history with a thesis on Japanese “home dramas” of the 1950s. Siegel began tagging along to McGehee’s thesis screenings at the Pacific Film Archive, and before long they decided to put their vigorously argued reflections on the medium to work in a couple of award-winning short films.
Their relocation to Los Angeles to make Suture was followed by a long dry spell. The long gap between their first and second films was mostly a matter of bad luck, Siegel says: “Basically we had three different movies take a year and a half not to happen.” Out of frustration they returned to the Bay Area in 1996, gathered investment capital and formed a production company, i5 films. (Another i5 production, The Business of Strangers, will be released later this year.)
Now comes The Deep End, which, like Suture, is a conceptual exercise in at least one sense: It grew out of the passion McGehee and Siegel have for the female-centered suspense melodramas that were once a Hollywood staple, overheated melodramas about ordinary women struggling through heightened depictions of domestic turning points. “These films are usually challenges to what is considered the accepted role for a woman,” says Siegel, “like her place in relation to a husband, in relation to a child.” Says McGehee, “There are certain kinds of binds that are common to melodrama, and that seems to be where the power comes from — these moments of unrequited desire and unspoken sacrifice.”
The Deep End derives a lot of its impact from the clenched conviction of Tilda Swinton‘s central performance as a suburban American housewife who makes a startling discovery during a lakeside morning walk: the corpse of her teenage son’s adult lover. Assuming the worst, she does what any protective mom would do. She dumps the body in deep water so her kid won‘t be implicated. Before long, ER’s Goran Visnjic turns up peddling evidence that links her troubled son with the victim.
In the end, McGehee and Siegel had turned not to one of the familiar classics of the form, such as Mildred Pierce, but to Max Ophuls‘ The Reckless Moment (1949), with Joan Bennett as the body-hiding mom and James Mason as the sleek extortionist. Then they dug deeper to the 1947 source novel, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall. They loved the sly subtext of Holding‘s story: that a foursquare household environment could be an ideal training ground for such unforeseen tasks as concealing bodies and fencing with criminals. “She had the resourcefulness of the mother, the domestic woman,” Holding writes of her protagonist, “accustomed to emergencies. Again and again she had had to deal with accidents, sudden illnesses, breakdowns. No (she thinks), I can do this.”
In the novel, the endangered child is a teenage daughter, entangled with an unsavory older man. In order to produce a comparable shock to the system of a worldlywise modern mom, McGehee and Siegel made one major strategic alteration: They replaced the threatened daughter with a son. And for the incriminating love letters that represent the threat to tranquility in both earlier versions, The Deep End substitutes a graphic videotape of the two men making love.
“The moment when Margaret sees her son again for the first time after watching the tape,” Siegel says, “was pivotal for us. It’s as if a Martian has appeared in the doorway. She has to mentally re-configure everything she thinks she knows about her son. To a great extent, we cast Tilda because we knew that she could make that moment work. If people didn‘t believe what she does then, the movie wouldn’t work. We always half-secretly hoped that mothers most of all would really respond to the movie. And to our delight, it seems that they do.” McGehee smiles. “One of the most gratifying things for us at Sundance was that we had all these nice middle-aged women saying how much they identified with Tilda‘s character.”