Interview: Kenneth Lonergan on why 'Margaret' shouldn't be perfect

Posted by · 5:32 pm · July 10th, 2012

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic — Kenneth Lonergan begins our interview with a stumble — a literal one, as he trips himself trotting up the stairs to our plush riverside hotel lounge in loosely laced sneakers, sheepishly proffering a hand as he breaks his fall. He cheerily mocks his own gracelessness, but still seems a little outside his rhythm as he takes a seat, sugaring his cappuccino with a light tremble of the hand. He crinkles the paper sachet as his gentle gaze finds me through two-tone spectacles. He is not, I suspect, a man given to visible and expansive relaxation.

And yet Lonergan must be feeling more relaxed than he has done in many a year — and not only because all practical realities seem a little further away in the mountain air and fierce sun of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where his second feature film as a director has just been unveiled to an appreciative Czech crowd. That film, “Margaret,” was, for five years, something of a creative millstone around the literate, soft-spoken New York playwright and screenwriter’s neck — tangled in post-production complications that have become the stuff of industry lore, not to mention an ongoing lawsuit. 

“Margaret” may not be entirely out of the woods yet, but it is, finally, out of the shadows. Released to US audiences last autumn, it has slowly burnt its way into the cultural consciousness, landing on many a critics’ Best of 2011 list (mine and Kris’ included) — and is finally set to reach its widest audience this week with its long-awaited DVD release. 

In the process, it has taken two forms: the already sprawling 150-minute edit released in theaters last year and, now, a 185-minute extended cut that Lonergan devotedly assembled for the DVD. Deemed by Kris to be even richer than the film he named his favorite of last year, it’s the culmination of a tortuous editing process for the filmmaker, whose story of a teenage girl’s flailing quest for retribution in the wake of a daylight tragedy presented him with any number of narrative and emotional circuits. Now tasked with presenting two edits to audiences where completing even one recently seemed an impossibility — the original theatrical cut is the one screening in Karlovy Vary, and still traveling the global cinema circuit — Lonergan appears gravely content, if such a paradox is possible, with the outcome.  

“They’re two different movies,” he explains, though he stresses that he doesn’t feel notably more possessive of one than the other. “The extended cut isn’t definitive. Indeed, it’s hard to say what’s definitive after a certain point. Some things, whether it’s a play or a film, you get on the first go, and you can be pretty sure that’s definitive. But once it’s taken on a longer life, and taken more time to put together, it becomes blurrier. I wrote a play once called ‘Lobby Hero,’ which I thought turned out very well, but there’s no final version of it. I published the one we produced, but there are seven other versions with different variations sitting in my desk at home. Other things I’ve written, every word is the right one. This isn’t one of those.”

In a sense, then, Lonergan views the new DVD edit of the film as another draft — not better or more conclusive, but a different way of working through his ideas. “The nice thing with the DVD now is that I don’t have to decide. I presented it one way, and now all the other ways — the ways I wasn’t necessarily sure about — I can put in the longer version. I could see in the theatrical version where I should have left this scene longer, or left that scene out. And I’m sure there will be moments in the extended version where I’ll think, ‘Why did I need to put that in?'” 

Not that Lonergan has come to these realizations yet. The new edit is only slightly less fresh and malleable for him than it is for audiences encountering it for the first time. “I haven’t seen the films side by side, so I don’t even know which one I prefer,” he says ruminatively. “They’re quite different, I think. I’m very curious to see how it plays. This film has had so many screenings, and there have been so many versions of it over time. Which is not unusual in itself — it’s just this one was unusually protracted.”

What difference, then, has an extra 35 minutes of footage made to a film that, to the sometimes simultaneous bemusement and delight of critics, never quite seemed set in stone to begin with? “The best way to put it,” he says carefully, “is that things merely suggested in the theatrical release, including whole sides of Lisa’s [the protagonist’s] personality, have now been explored, elaborated upon, in the extended cut. Which approach is more effective will be for others to decide; I’ll have my own opinion. I hope there’s no repetition, no needless extension of things we’ve already understood and with which we are satisfied. It may be half an hour of drudgery and dreariness. We’ll see.”

A more concrete difference, meanwhile, lies in the film’s music — for many critics, a sinuous standout of the original cut. “That’s very much a departure. I loved Nico Muhly’s score in the theatrical version, but I had a simultaneous idea for a score that incorporated more existing classical pieces, and more music from the opera.” A performance of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” is viewed by Lisa (Anna Paquin) and her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) in the film’s emotionally crescendoing finale. 

“I liked both those approaches, but I couldn’t decide, so I ended going with Nico’s score for the theatrical release. Now I get to use my other idea in the extended cut — I couldn’t quite afford every piece that I wanted, but I hope it works.” Lonergan emphasizes once more that he views the new score as an alternative rather than an improvement. “It was actually very easy to make the decisions for the extended cut on the DVD, because when in doubt, I simply did what I hadn’t done initially. It’s kind of therapeutic: if there were two approaches I liked, I now get to show both of them. Which is unusual, because one tends to think, with a work of art or entertainment, you only get one chance and one way to present it. And now with modern technology, which I always thought I was largely against” — he pauses to chuckle — “I’m able to have it both ways.”

I suggest that a film like “Margaret” — which deals, after all, with such messily imperfect lives and emotions — hardly lends itself to a tidily definitive edit, that there could hardly be a story more open to alternative tellings. “Exactly,” he nods. “I know, watching the extended version, there will be many things I’ll be very happy are now there. But there will be many things I’ll wonder about still. It’s  the nature of the work — it’s never perfect. I sometimes feel that if it was perfect, it wouldn’t be any good.”  

This glorious imperfection, he explains, stemmed from an unusually liberated writing process. “One of the many things I’ve seen in print about the film that isn’t true is that the shooting script was 186 pages. According to everyone except me,” he says with a wry half-smile. “The shooting script was actually 162 pages. That’s long, of course. It’s a big movie. I enjoyed writing this script more than any other I’ve ever written, because I knew what was going to happen very clearly. And that allowed me to improvise as I was writing, to not worry about any editing issues whatsoever. So I wrote it with an unusually open channel to my unconscious — it was almost as if I just closed my eyes and wrote what I was hearing in my head.”

“The first draft came out at 378 pages.” He shakes his head, indicating the tome’s size with a thumb and forefinger, like a fisherman miming a minnow. “I had it bound in leather and after the film, I gave it to the actors to read, just for fun. It reads perfectly well, it’s just more.

That very “moreness” of it led Lonergan at one point to consider making the story as a television miniseries, retaining its vast form but breaking it up into chapters — but his directorial gut insisted on cinematic treatment. “I wanted it to be a movie. I grew up going to the movies, not watching them on television, so I’m still a bit resistant to TV as a medium. There’s something about the impact of a big screen that means something to me, even though I realize almost every film is fated to be seen for a year in theaters, and then forever after on television. Martin Scorsese is keenly aware of this: he shoots for the big screen still, but he’s so canny.” 

The mention of Scorsese, of course, isn’t incidental: the master is a longstanding associate of Lonergan’s, who received his second Oscar nomination for co-writing “Gangs of New York.” Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker even offered editorial input on “Margaret” in the midst of its post-production limbo.  

“Scorsese once said to me, ‘You can’t do wide shots anymore, because if the faces are too small, no one’s going to see them.’ Of course, he shoots all these wide shots, but he’s Martin Scorsese. He can afford to break his own rules. But there’s something to that. It’s a bit like shooting something without sound, which you wouldn’t generally do, because you want people to hear it. It’s not a question of integrity, it’s a question of how people are going to watch your film.”   

The naming of Scorsese, and the memory of the project’s darkest hours, leads me to wonder just how much the film’s reception has been shaped by its backstory: in the long run, does Lonergan think the film benefited from having had to fight so hard to see the light of day?  

“The only benefit I can see is that it provoked this unexpected and very welcome championing of the film,” he replies after a moment’s consideration. He’s referring, of course, to the so-called Team “Margaret” movement, a critic-led campaign of sorts for the film that protested what many observers saw as unduly quiet publicity from its studio, Fox Searchlight. 

The movement, such as it was, ignited in late November, shortly after it screened for British critics, who added their voices to the chorus as awards season weighed on the minds of its American fans. The unprecedented result was an expansion of its initial UK release, while across the pond, a handful of screenings were arranged for those who had missed the boat in the fall. (The London Critics’ Circle, meanwhile, made good on their initial championing of the film, handing Paquin their Best Actress award, while most US awards bodies turned a blind eye.) Twitter, to the unapologetically technophobic Lonergan’s amazement and amusement, was a key enabler in this turnaround.

“I despise the internet, and as as a matter of principle, I’m not supposed to like critics,” he laughs. “We’re supposed to be above the praise, and to ignore the disparagement when people don’t like our work. And yet I’m so grateful to the critical community for rescuing the film. I was just swept away by that, I must say. It was not something of my making, and it was very touching to me. To the cast. To everyone — Scott Rudin, Sydney [Pollack], who, alas, wasn’t alive to see this. They worked so hard for so long and for so little money, just because they liked the film. And the thought that no one would see it was painful. So to see it become something of a cause célèbre was humbling. It makes you believe in critics.” He throws me a playful glance. “And the British.”

My suggestion that the Team “Margaret” phenomenon is something that would have pleased the self-righteous, eagerly crusading Lisa is met with another smile: “Like me, I doubt she would have thought of anything so effective,” he quips.

Still, he refuses to romanticize the film’s struggles. “In that one way the backstory perhaps helped a little,” he allows, “but the truth is that it was simply a very long post-production period which wasn’t helpful to anyone. Maybe the film would have had exactly the same reception had it been released straight away. Or it might have not done well, and then wouldn’t have been rescued by critics, because there’d have been nothing to fight against. Who knows?”

As it stands, the film wound up first hitting screens in September 2011, neatly coinciding with the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — which themselves weigh heavily on the mind of Lisa in the film. “Margaret” has been described by many critics as a valentine of sorts to post-crisis New York City, and one of American cinema’s most searing reflections on the tragedy to date. Did Lonergan intend it as such? The answer, though he admits he started writing “Margaret” before the attacks even occurred, is yes. 

“The film isn’t set exactly in time, but I always imagine it’s set in 2003 — any more recently than that, and Lisa would be too young for it to mean what it does to her, while if it had just happened, that would be a very different environment too. But it absolutely pervades the atmosphere of the film, and was meant to. There’s no didactic parallel between her story and the story of New York after 9/11, except in that there’s a terrible thing that’s happened that widens her view of the world, and she doesn’t know what to do with that, or her sense of responsibility for it.”

Lisa’s feelings of fury and futility in processing a tragedy — a fatal bus accident — in which she’s both complicit and a victim stemmed from Lonergan’s own political frustrations in the wake of 9/11. “I was very angry with my political team — the lukewarm leftwing intelligentsia of New York, who immediately blamed America for getting blown up,” he says. “America’s committed its sins, no doubt, and continues do so, but I feel the people responsible are in fact the people who blew us up, and who are trying to blow us up still. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that, and it made me sick at the time, the number of analysts turning their blame inward.”

“We must blame the Islamist extremists. We can blame America for its sins as well, but it’s not the same thing. People don’t always know what to do when faced with two bad guys. And I think that describes Lisa’s confusion about what to do, her desire to both take responsibility for what she’s done and make sure that the other person acknowledges his responsibility too. So you can draw all kinds of parallels to 9/11 — it’s not an allegory, but the film wouldn’t be the same if it hadn’t happened.”

Lonergan is particularly proud of a shot, newly restored in the extended cut, which nods to the film’s brittle, uncertain post-9/11 environment. “We shot a lot of airplanes — we even went out in the street one day to shoot nothing but airplanes going by. And one of those shots I really love. It’s in a section where Lisa really doesn’t know what to do, where she’s on the phone trying to track down the bus driver, and all it is is a very long shot of a plane going over Broadway while she’s talking. The simple fact is that in 2003, whenever an airplane went by in New York, you got nervous. Now, you don’t — we’ve gotten used to it. But for two or three years, you would have an enhanced reaction. And this shot conveys that for me.”

By Lonergan’s timeline, then, Lisa is now in her mid-twenties. Has he given any thought to who and where she is now? Now living in Obama’s America, is she is angry and effortfully engaged with politics as she was as a teenager? 

“I don’t think so, no,” he says, answering more decisively than I’d perhaps expected. “To me, the sequel in Lisa’s life to what happens is that she grows up and becomes an adult. A regular adult going about her business, concerned with her own concerns, the way adults are. The way, excepting those unusual and heroic people who devote their lives to other people’s concerns, we all are. Which was really her obstacle in the film.”

It’s not, he thinks, necessarily a positive outcome. “You know in the film there’s a shot of the back of Lisa’s head, where she walks into the crowd, into Broadway, and disappears,” he says, suddenly animated with specificity. “It was Anne McCabe, the editor, who suggested we make that the last shot of the film. But I think that would have been a depressing note to end on. Not that the film has to have a happy ending, but we’ve already thoroughly explored the dark side of growing up. She’s tried so hard to fix things, and she fails — she’s forced to acknowledge that her mother’s not perfect and neither is she, which is a point that most adolescents take a while to reach.”

He swallows the last of his coffee and glances out the window into the white morning light, briefly looking more melancholy than a man presenting his magnum opus to the world might be expected to. “It’s not a character flaw to become an adult.”

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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