After six years of legal battles and editing bay drama, Fox Searchlight finally released Kenneth Lonergan‘s long awaited “Margaret” this weekend in a handful of theaters. Pushed by a marketing campaign that could generously be called “modest,” the film opened to fairly dismal numbers and even though it will rollout to more cities next weekend, the extended imbroglio seems to earned the movie a quiet death. Except, in the court of law, the saga of “Margaret” is not over (more on that in a second) but moreover, for anyone who has seen the film, the news that a longer version of Lonergan’s film never made it to screens will be an added frustration to a picture that flirts with greatness only to become unhinged in its wild second half (indeed, it split The Playlist team in half).
As it stands, “Margaret” runs at its contractually mandated two hours and thirty minutes, and it’s exactly the length of the film that has long been at the center of the dispute between the director and the producer Gary Gilbert. To recap, filming had actually wrapped way back in 2005 but for whatever reason, Lonergan simply could not find the picture in the editing bay. A legal battle erupted, with suits and countersuits filed. Lonergan apparently requested further time in the editing room, while multiple editors apparently also took control of the film at various points both with and without Lonergan’s ok and the sticking point became the length of the film: Lonergan’s cut ran about two hours and fifty minutes, but his contract stated a running time no longer than two and a half hours. The project took another interesting direction this spring when it was revealed that Martin Scorsese was working with Lonergan to “arbitrate” a cut of the film. And when the release date was suddenly announced in August we assumed that Scorsese’s edit was the one we were getting. Guess again.
In a profile of the film, The Los Angeles Times have added a bit more to the history to the movie. One that suggests that attempts to contain Lonergan’s sprawling film only served to hurt the movie both on the business side of things and financially. According to their investigation, once Lonergan ran out of money to continue editing “Margaret” — he even apparently borrowed money from Matthew Broderick to buy some more time — Gary Gilbert brought in his own editor to try and wrangle the film down a manageable size. The extremely talented Dylan Tichenor (Paul Thomas Anderson‘s regular collaborator) delivered a two hour version of “Margaret,” however, once Fox Searchlight pressed the filmmaker for the movie in June 2008, Lonergan instead handed in his own two hour and thirty minute version.
It was at this point that all the legal dramas really started heating up, and it essentially took three years for the everyone — the director, the producer and the studio — to come to an agreement on which version to put into theaters. Giving things another added twist, Scorsese’s version apparently ran longer than the mandated 150 min. limit. According to the paper’s sources, those who have seen this version say it was “strong” and the idea was even batted around to give Scorsese an executive producer credit or even a Martin Scorsese Presents tag. But again, disagreements over whether or not his changes were worth the extra money it would cost kiboshed the idea. And it’s probably not too far off to suggest that some involved may have thought that Scorsese’s sympathetic relationship with the director — he executive produced “You Can Count On Me” and Lonergan co-wrote “Gangs Of New York” — may have poisoned the well with those already frustrated by efforts to get Lonergan to scale down his picture.
But perhaps the bitterest pill was delivered by Gilbert. According to Lonergan, Fox Searchlight was ready to sent the movie to TIFF but Gilbert did not give his approval (he denies this). So where does this leave “Margaret”? Unfortunately, in its current state at least, it’s a deeply flawed movie that shows every evidence of having been hacked and cut (particularly in the final forty five minutes) to meet an arbitrary runtime. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
While Mark Ruffalo has described the nearly three-hour cut as a “masterpiece,” we actually wonder if another ten or twenty minutes would make much a difference with a third act that already overreaches. Without spoiling anything, the last portion of the film contains some left-field reveals, a character death and simply juggles one subplot too many. At times watching “Margaret” it feels like a mini-series desperately trying to be a movie. Certainly more time would allow the film to breathe even more — and it needs that space — but how much that would resolve some of the fundamental problems is hard to assess. However, while it might not cohere the plot, if anything, the extra time might allow Lonergan’s film to reach a thematic peak it flirts with throughout the movie. “Margaret” is very much a pained, beautiful and insightful ode to the emotional fallout from 9/11, transposing the national reaction onto a wide ensemble of players. There are undeniably startlingly honest and true moments throughout the movie but — in its current version — as it races toward the end, the deeper layers of meaning are lost in attempting to tie together a laundry list of plot elements.
We doubt we’ll ever get to see the movie as Lonergan intended. After this long of a tug-of-war just to get it into theaters, don’t expect a Director’s Cut DVD — but we’re sure at some point we’ll learn what ultimately had to be left on the cutting room floor. There is a bigger point here to be made about holding filmmakers to arbitrary runtimes and also knowing what you signed up for. With a script that was apparently 186 pages, everyone involved (including Lonergan) from the start should have realized that expecting a two and half hour cut (or more insanely, a two hour cut) probably wasn’t realistic.
And while the movie has finally arrived, the battle continues. While Gilbert and Fox Searchlight have settled out of court, things are heating up between Lonergan and Gilbert. The producer asserts that “Margaret” from day of shooting, began getting out of control forcing the budget to be raised by $2.4 million (the filmmaker denies this) and his case against Lonergan goes to trial in 2012. But Michael Harper, senior vice president of postproduction for International Film Guarantors, tasked with backing “Margaret” to make sure it finished on schedule and on budget, seems to sum up the core of the dispute pretty succinctly.
“Every cut on the movie was done by Ken,” Harper said. “Gilbert wanted his cut, which was well under the 2 1/2 hours. He thought it was far better.”