“Things Happen that are Too Big for You…”: Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan on the Director’s Cut of his Masterpiece, Margaret
Margaret may be one of the best movies you’ve never seen. It’s the second film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, whose first, You Can Count On Me, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2000, and third, Manchester by the Sea garnered two Academy Awards for Lead Actor and Original Screenplay. But Margaret suffered a different journey, shooting in 2005 and being released much later in 2011 for a very limited run — and a cut 36 minutes shorter than the one Lonergan preferred.
As part of its series, “The Way I See It: Directors’ Cuts,” the Quad in New York City screens the extended cut of the film this week, which runs over three hours long, so it feels an appropriate time to revisit what critics have called a “thwarted masterpiece.” Were the constraints put on the film warranted, or did they keep it from a post-9/11 audience that would have greatly connected with its characters and appreciated its themes?
Margaret takes its name from the poem “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and centers on a teenage girl named Lisa, played with vibrant vulnerability by Anna Paquin in her best role to date. Lisa is living in NYC with her actress mother Joan (Lonergan’s real-life partner J. Smith-Cameron), when she is witness to a fatal bus accident. As much as Lisa tries to continue as normal, her life colored with other complex relationships, the incident becomes overwhelming and unavoidable. Lonergan weaves together a story that is as much about Lisa and her teenage troubles as it is about the lives of the New Yorkers around her and each ones’ survival need to get something accomplished in a world that’s self involved. It’s the smaller scenes and behavioral moments in the film that inform the epic length but also add to the incredibly palatable, raw and profound texture of the piece.
We had a chance to talk to Lonergan about how he crafted Margaret, from the scripting phase to what actually occurred in the the tumultuous post production process. The parallels between the core story of the characters and the production journey of the film itself are evident. As Lonergan puts it, Lisa is “finding out that it’s hard to get anything done since everyone else wants to get what they want done as well — just as much as you do.” For many filmmakers, it’s a battle they face with every project. Lonergan offers some wisdom on sticking to the truth of the story, while also satisfying demands and opinions that can feel as infinite as the art of cinema itself — and the “defeats” that come with it.
Filmmaker: I’ve always wondered about your writing process in general and especially with this film, given its scope. The original script ended up being 150 pages?
Lonergan: No, it was never that short! The first draft was very long but I never intended to shoot that much. When I was writing it, I tried to switch my mind off and just write, not edit at all. Normally when you’re writing a script you think, okay, it’s getting a little long, aim for somewhere between 100 to 125 pages. I decided to see what would happen if I didn’t do that at all in the first draft. And for some reason, there was a lot to write about. The first draft ended up being something like 370 pages. The final shooting script was 168 pages — or 175 pages, depending on the formatting you use.
Filmmaker: I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing book right now —
Lonergan: Oh yeah, I have that. I haven’t read it yet, but I just bought it over the summer.
Filmmaker: I have no idea what you will think about it, but he talks about just writing for your characters as opposed to writing plot. Plot will come through your characters. Is that something you thought about when you approached this?
Lonergan: I knew what the framework was, and I knew what the story was for the most part. For me, when I have the basic sequence of events in place, then I try to be pretty loose about what else might happen or what else might come up in the scenes. It’s easy to let the story go wherever it wants when you have a framework.
Filmmaker: And that also allows for these amazing in-between and behavioral moments — it makes the film feel epic. In a lot of cinema now, we have the plot points: the car accident, the sobbing in the shower — but not these smaller scenes. I love the moment after the bus accident when Lisa comes back to her room and sits on the bed and she accidentally drips blood on the comforter. How do these behavioral specific scenes come about? Are they in the script, or do you discover them while you’re shooting?
Lonergan: Most of it comes about in the script. Once you have actors and everybody else who’s there to make the movie, of course other things come up all the time on the set. That scene, for instance, is scripted. I’m glad you liked it, I liked it too. The idea is that it’s catching up with her, what just happened, and it’s much more than she can handle, but she’s still herself. She sits and then says, “Good one, Lisa,” which is such a teenage thing to say about an imprint of a dead woman’s blood on your bedspread. I can see why it makes her throw up — just the way people’s feelings kick in at such odd intervals. Things happen that are too big for you, and it’s so hard to process them and it’s like your whole system is in revolt.
Filmmaker: Absolutely. And with that scene, it’s shot like there’s a hidden camera in her room — the only moment in the film where I noticed that choice.
Lonergan: Well, it’s shot from above at a very severe diagonal angle, and we did two takes, I believe. The idea was to make you a little seasick, because that’s what she’s feeling. You’re the first person who’s mentioned that, but it does look a little like a security camera, and I didn’t think of that. But it’s apt, because the movie’s looking in on her more than it’s being told from her point of view.
Filmmaker: When I talk to some directors about the transition from the script to the shooting process, it’s this whole metaphorical approach — how to bring themes in the script to life. As much as Margaret has a lot of big ideas embedded in the script, it sounds like your approach was very practical, one shot at a time.
Lonergan: Pretty much. I try to be guided by the feeling of the scene, not so much the meaning of the scene. The only thing I would say that got to a metaphorical level was the idea that Lisa’s not necessarily the protagonist in her own story. We had a lot of discussions about this. I wanted the city to be a real presence in the film, not just in the shots of the city, but in the whole film. We discussed pretty early on the idea of shooting the movie as if she wasn’t the main character. It was impossible to stay totally true to that, but the idea was there, and informed a lot of the shots and a lot of the way the scenes are choreographed. As much as possible, we tried to introduce other points of view, because that’s one of the big things the movie is about. But, you know, hopefully the metaphorical level of that is in sync with the literal, on-the-ground telling of the story: she’s finding out that it’s hard to get anything done since everyone else wants to get what they want done as well — just as much as you do.
Filmmaker: Speaking of this, what actually happened in the six years, 2005 to 2011, it took to finish the film, as much as you can tell me?
Lonergan: Really, we need several hours for me to tell you everything that happened. It’s a very long and not very interesting story. Basically, the shortest version I can think of is that the people who were paying for the film lost their confidence in my ability to finish the film on time, even though I assured them that I could. Then things got pretty hostile and they got adamant that I not show them any version that was not two-and-a-half hours long, which was the contracted length. But in most situations, there’s an informal understanding that you can mess around with the length a little bit as long as the movie is going well. And because they had very little control over me, they clamped down on that, and I foolishly tried very hard to cram it into that. They basically wanted it to be two and a half hours and for me to be happy. Both of those things became impossible.
There’s no way to tell this story quicker. We tried; it didn’t work and fell apart. We did a pretty early cut which had a conventional approach and all the scenes were as short as possible, got in as late as possible, got out as early as possible, just like you’re supposed to do in screenwriting school, and there was not enough narrative to sustain it.
Filmmaker: If you’re trying to stick to the truth, is it just, throw length out the window? Is there an issue with the restraints of American cinema?
Lonergan: Well, I mean, at a certain point, everyone’s got notes about what you’re doing, and you have to listen to them because they’re paying for it. That’s completely different. Let’s put it in a more friendly way. You show the movie to 10 friends, and they all have different thoughts on it. There’s this constant interplay between needing a little help and someone to bounce things off of and needing to say, “No, no, you’re right to hold that shot that long, it’s not boring, it’s really interesting.” It’s this funny interplay between the help you need from other people and then the help you really don’t want from other people when you know what you’re doing.
The other funny thing, I was thinking about at one point, when I was really lost — there are literally thousands of decisions to make, how in the world does anyone do it? And I thought, when Beethoven’s writing a symphony, he can’t possibly be thinking of it note by note. He hears something in his head and he writes it down, and then if he has a little trouble with the next part, he has to do some work and add a cue here. I don’t mean to sound mystical about it, but you kind of hear the whole thing, or you have a feel for it, and if you lose your feel for it then you are forced to reconstruct it note by note and of course you’re going to fuck it up.
Filmmaker: I did want to discuss the choice of music in your films. Nico Muhly’s score in Margaret, coupled with classical music adds to this universal scope of the film — there’s something about classical music as the tie that binds us all.
Lonergan: The starting point is just the kind of music that I like, that means something to me. In the case of Margaret, Nico himself said something really incredibly insightful about [Wagner’s] Lohengrin: “It sounds like the music you like is not from her point of view, it’s from higher up.” That first time when Lisa’s walking in slow motion and you hear that beautiful, beautiful Lohengrin, it’s so cool because it’s from her point of view because of the slow motion and the close ups, and suddenly [the film is] anthropological. You’re looking at all these humans struggling, and you’re out of her experience and in it at the same time. That particular piece was so rich in what it gave. It’s so beautiful and so slow and sad and big. It just gives her teenage travails such a beautiful human and universal context.
Filmmaker: Manchester By the Sea and You Can Count On Me also deal with these people trying to find personal growth and some sort of catharsis after these awful tragedies. Lisa is holding a dying woman in her arms and the movie basically starts, which is normally not where a story begins. 2017 was such a shitty year, and we’re all trying to find personal growth after tragedy. Do you think that’s something we can do? Is that a question you ask yourself since you continue to write about it?
Lonergan: I think it’s possible — that’s a good question. All three films are interested in people who are grappling with things that are too big for them. In a certain way, political realities are not quite as big as that, hopefully, and they’re a bit more in the nature of problems that can be — “solved,” I think, is asking too much, but addressed in some way. So I don’t quite put them in the same category as these big existential problems. In a way it would feel a bit defeatist to do that. On the other hand, when you get exhausted and you don’t know what to do and things just seem too big and too awful to deal with, I guess that’s where these particular stories come in. Lisa also has this incredible belief that she can wreak some kind of justice out of everyday indifference and normal life. This particular film is about how difficult it is to do that in the face of how much life there is to deal with, and how much other people want to do what they want to do. It’s not really about the fact that everyone else is awful and she’s right, but everyone else is busy pursuing their own ends. I think at the moment it feels like we’re in something very big historically, but in terms of its universal scale, it feels like a bit of a smaller, more local struggle, which I hope isn’t quite as difficult as the one she’s grappling with. Although it may be.
Filmmaker: I do think it’s a story that people connect with because everyone is trying to make a change, in whatever small demographic or bubble they’re living in. You watch the film and think well, if she can do it, and she’s like what, 17, 16, then hopefully there’s hope for all of us.
Lonergan: She comes pretty close, but it doesn’t quite work though. The very end of the story, through the defeat of her personal crusade, she’s able to forgive her mother and have a bit more understanding for someone else. That’s a positive note in the story. That relationship could go to pieces if she had more of a narrow mind. But she’s able to understand that her mother is no worse than she is, through her attempts to do everything she could possibly do, while not listening to anybody. It’s not just the story of someone who’s defeated, but some who’s defeated and forgives her mother for also being defeated.