To refer to the Film Comment Selects screening of Kenneth Longeran‘s “Margaret” as anything less than magical would be doing the film the same disservice that Fox Searchlight initially did when it failed to market the film nearly ten years in the making. From Gavin Smith‘s impassioned introduction to the guests hidden in the front rows of Lincoln Center (Michael Cera! Former Village Voice critic J. Hoberman! Alex Karpovsky quietly filming the Q&A on a DSLR!) the message was simple: cinephiles demanded a second chance at this quiet-yet-overwhelming missive on a post-9/11 New York.
Longeran introduced the 12 cast members who also joined him at the screening including Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, J. Smith-Cameron did, Jake O’Connor, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Kevin Geer (the cops that Lisa Cohen deals with over her deposition) and Carlo Alban (Ramon’s son), who briefly appears to console Joan (Smith-Cameron) at a wake (Anna Paquin couldn’t attend due to her “True Blood” schedule). “What inspired this film was a story that happened to a girl in high school who actually went through this traumatic bus accident,” said Lonergan. “It cropped up in various things I was writing all the years. It first cropped up in the early 90s. It just seemed the idea of something that big happening to someone that young; having to deal with something that adult so young.” The idea floated around Lonergan’s head since high school, “but now I’m 49, so you do the math.”
When asked about the “journey” of taking “Margaret” from script to screen without referring to the nearly 11 year journey and three lawsuits directly, Lonergan started to dodge by asking for a more specific question (“The role of writing it to editing it to shooting it is such an expansive role”). When the topic of the various edits finally was asked, Lonergan addressed the rumors of a longer cut (albeit, a bit indirectly).
“We had a lot of cuts. We did a lot of screenings,” said Lonergan. “This is the cut we ended up with that got released. I think as far as the normal editing process you go through, you try to make it shorter or you try to make it longer. Going through that editing process, a lot’s been written about it and it’s not accurate. I don’t want to duck the question too much, but I’d rather talk about the content of the film and script and all that. It’s just more in the nature of movies and conversion. It’s just in this case the version that got released was the version completed in 2008. I think it’s wonderful and I’m very proud of it.”
In other words, the tale of the editing and the lawsuits aren’t going to be discussed in public–for now. But going back to the actors and plot is the unspoken relationship between Lisa and her mother Joan, especially as Smith pointed out they had no scenes prior to the major event of the film. “I think what you find and what interests me,” said J. Cameron Smith, “is that you gather that we’re very, very close. I think that’s the whole thing with Joan is in hindsight she doesn’t know that she’s giving bad advice.”
Lonergan came back in to further describe what the intent of making Lisa such a reactionary was: “What I was trying to do was take a look at that interesting phenomena when you’re that age and you become aware of the world and all the horrible, interesting things that you’ve never noticed before. And come up against the reason they’re still there after 25,000 years and 2,000 years. Only a teenager can have that effect on the world, which is really very true and also very sad. When you get to be like most of us, you get tired,” he said.
When asked about the “King Lear” scene between Matthew Broderick and Jake O’Connor, Longergan revealed the intention of the sequence wasn’t focused on moving along the story. “One of the things I’m pleased about is that people really like that scene, even though it doesn’t further the plot,” said Lonergan. “What I think it does do–taking it from the teacher’s point of view–we can’t convince one kid on one plan on one line from Shakespeare and the teacher won’t take another look at the line whatsoever. Meanwhile, Lisa is trying to overturn the wheels of justice and get this bus driver disposed, she’s trying to do this tremendous thing and it’s much, much more difficult. And she’s right in the middle of two frustrating moments. What she’s up against is just not good. And it’s too much for most people to overcome.”
Later, Lonergan was asked about why he choose the poem “Spring And Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, to serve as the central theme to his film. “That’s one of the three poems that I know,” said Longeran. “I don’t remember exactly why I had associated it with the script. But it is essentially what the script is about. I remember being very young–ninth or tenth grade–and there was a girl that I liked. A little sparrow flew against the window and killed itself. I remember feeling horrible this sparrow died and she goes, ‘Yeah.’ I felt terrible for the sparrow. Now? I can walk past a dozen dead sparrows without blinking an eye. It’s not that I have anything against them, I just don’t care.”
The point being that the poem takes such care with a woman who is moved by a dying tree that Longergan felt it expressed the territory he wanted to explore with “Margaret,” a film decidedly set in post 9/11 Manhattan, designed to further the idea that the character of Lisa had such overwhelming problems, within a city that itself was still grieving. And the subject has certainly resonated, with a fanbase growing around the film that resulted in a powerful grassroots campaign, spearheaded by Slant Magazine’s Jamie Christley to give the film more attention (and wider expansion in theaters) than it initially received. In fact, this Film Comment Select Series screening is a testament to just how far it has come.