Of the many interpretations of the story of its tortuous, years-long journey to the screen, for a time the favored narrative for "Margaret" ran something like this: overambitious director of indie-darling first feature, dashes sprawling, pretentious sophomore effort on rocks of own hubris — chaos, bitterness, lawsuits ensue. It’s the kind of Hollywood story that writes itself, based around some putative generalized notion of The Director as a towering Wellesian figure of limitless ego and myopia-verging-on-madness where his creations are concerned.
But, even if you haven’t met director Kenneth Lonergan and discovered him to be pleasant, self-effacing and unusually thoughtful in his responses to your questions, there is another way to read the “Margaret” story, one that doesn’t rely on those cliches. In this take, a disparate collection of smart and dedicated people identified enough greatness in the original, undoubtedly messy cut, to launch little less than a crusade to get the film out of the edit suite and into theaters. It is a story of a loosely-formed coalition of filmgoers, critics and filmmakers that united under the “Margaret” banner (or hashtag) with no agenda other than liking the film and feeling it deserved a chance. For posterity’s sake, we hope that’s the way the story will be told: as a measured triumph, albeit one that took a very long time to achieve.
And it is still unfolding. Today, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” a film we greatly admire, comes to DVD and Blu-Ray, in its theatrically-released 150 minute version, as well as a new 3-hour long cut. And we’re marking the occasion by sharing with you the first part of a marathon interview we conducted with Lonergan at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week — part 2 will run tomorrow. And both will be available as a special lengthier cut later in the year, worked on by Thelma Schoonmaker. (Kidding.)
So what is the nature of the new version out on July 10th?
“It’s not a director's cut,” says Lonergan. “We’re calling it an extended cut. It’s a different version. A director’s cut is where they take the movie away from you and chop it to pieces and send it out without your permission…This is just another version with a little bit more of everything in it.”
In fact, Lonergan isn’t certain it’s anything like his "definitive" version. “Whether it’s better or worse, I don’t know. It’s longer, but it’s a DVD so you can turn it off or fast forward,” he quips. “But no I don’t think I prefer it. It’s different, it’s nice to be able to take your time. I know 2 1/2 hours seems like I’m already taking my time but there are so many characters, there is so much that happens to her that it was nice to have another opportunity to look at it.”
One of the criticisms of the theatrical release was a certain unevenness in terms of pacing, does the new cut make a difference there?
“It’s hard for me to judge, I’m sure it does. In the theatrical release there are many things suggested, which I hope is interesting, and this version I hope draws you in in a different way…In both versions I tried to pace it more like normal life and less like a film.”
And, as though aware that he has now earned something of a reputation for a “longer is better” approach, he goes on to say “I saw the second version of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ [recently]. I love ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ I’ve seen it dozens of time (I don’t watch many films, I see a few films many times) and I’m just like, why in the world did he add 15 minutes more of horses and camels charging through the desert? Why? There’s only a few extra scenes, just many more camels and horses. There were enough camels and horses before – they were great. So maybe the extended version [of “Margaret”] will be like that but… maybe not.”
How do you feel the prolonged process of getting “Margaret” to this stage will affect your approach to future projects?
"That’s a good question. I've been thinking about that quite a lot myself… I don't know the answer. I'm at the point where nobody bothers me when I'm writing, but it's very hard to edit, because everyone gets very nervous.”
His personality, he suggests, is not best suited to that situation. “Nobody really did anything wrong, exactly, it's just everyone was very frightened and nervous. Some people can have fights and then go back to work; I have a big fight and I shake for the rest of the day. Or even if it's not a fight, it's just a conversation, and a problem comes up I think about that [constantly], so I very much need to be left alone completely and that's the one thing that's very difficult for people. Understandably. I mean, write a cheque for $12 million dollars and you wanna make sure it's going to come out all right, it's reasonable. But I need to find a way to separate the two things… Not that it was all bad, the film came out very well, I'm happy with the result and I'm happy that people seem to like it. So I don't know what more I can ask for. Except to be younger.”
In some ways, Lonergan seems to feel the perceived success of his first film, “You Can Count On Me,” fed into the difficulties of the “Margaret” process: “[Filmmaking is] the most collaborative art form in the history of the world. As a director, if you write the film, you're the only one there from the very beginning to the very end…And everybody comes in and, this is not false modesty, but I really don't know very much. To go from never having directed a film before to directing one film is a perpendicular learning curve but at the end of it you still don't know that much,“ he insists. “With the first film everyone helps you because they know you don't know anything but with the second film, I'd had a little bit of success so everyone thought that I knew something when I came back. So…I knew a little bit more the second time, but when I would say ‘You have to explain this to me,’ I got this ‘Oh, he’s being funny, he’s full of shit, his movie was at Sundance’ bullshit, so it was very hard to explain how stupid I was sometimes.”
An interesting aspect of the film’s protracted birth was the Greek chorus of opinions voiced about it, positive and negative. Do you read reviews?
“Some of them. Maybe about a dozen. I shouldn’t read any of them, but if they’re complimentary I can’t help it.” We suggest that he must have read quite a lot from us, in that case. “Yes, Indiewire has been very supportive. [And when] you read things… and you agree with them and didn’t think of them it’s fun and interesting.” Of course, the converse also holds, and Lonergan responds to some of the opinions he disagreed with definitively. “I don’t agree that [Lisa is] unsympathetic. Some people find her repellent, dislikable, horrible, awful, but I don’t find her any of those things. And I don’t find the mother self-centered. That reading I find very interesting because everyone who writes that [review] cares very much about their job and how they’re received and whether it’s going well, as in ‘I liked your article very much/I hated your article…’ But the mother, because she is concerned about her play is perceived to be self-centered… I think the mother is just a woman in her 40s trying to live her own life and trying to help her daughter but getting shut out completely. I think in the extended version that element comes out a bit more, and some of the more sympathetic side of what happens with Lisa comes out a bit more.”
Looking to the future, have you any new film projects lined up as yet?
“I have couple of different films that I'd like to do and I don't know which to do. I did a play 2 years ago called ‘The Starry Messenger’ with Matthew [Broderick] and J. [Smith-Cameron] and Catalina Sandino Moreno which I really thought was very good and I'd like to make a film of that. And I have two scripts that I'm writing and I've about 25 pages apiece and I'm stuck on both of them. And all of the plays I've written — I'd like to make movies of all of them. But I'm concerned that my wife [Lonergan is married to 'Margaret' star J. Smith Cameron] just got a job on a TV show that shoots in Georgia, a Sundance Channel show, and she's going to be away, so I'm concerned about our daughter, and making a film because it really is all-consuming. Unless I can get European work hours. Clint Eastwood work hours, Woody Allen work hours — if I could get that I'd do another film right away.”
Would you consider directing someone else script?
“No, I don't like directing. I only direct my own screenplays because there's no other way to protect them. Along the way I've become interested in directing, but I started out doing it to protect the work.”
What do you think of recent developments in filmmaking technology, like digital and 3D?
“I think it’s appalling. Except for ‘Hugo’ which is the only time I’ve seen 3D used [right]…and it’s incredible. [But] I’ve seen children’s movies in 3D and it’s horrible, only occasionally good. I mean, it’s very good that they can make dragons and dinosaurs and I like that kind of movie and I like science fiction movies very much, but I’m very much afraid that digital technology is going to destroy film completely and it just doesn’t look as good. I sat in a color timing session for the DVD and I was frightened by what you can do. Because it’s ‘Oh his face is a little dim, can you make it brighter?’ and then the light is wrong and now his shirt is wrong, and it’s like filling in a coloring book, and then the ambient light for the whole room is different, it’s gone, it’s not there… I also think this is one reason that now so many films have a stylized look, because in a computer it’s much easier to color time something if everything is blue or everything’s red, or everything’s saturated. But to capture real light, film does it still much better, and there’s a lot of people working very hard to destroy it forever so it will be a very short-lived thing. And perhaps I’m wrong and digital technology will be able to be as good as film some day, and I certainly enjoy watching the ships crashing into each other in the ocean and the fake CG, and the dragons in ‘Harry Potter,’ I love them, but I’m afraid film is like black and white – no one’s going to know how to do it in 20 years.”
Perhaps part of this fear springs from Lonergan’s own love for classical Hollywood filmmaking. “I like older movies, I prefer them generally to contemporary films. But contemporary directors – Almodovar, I think he’s wonderful, of course Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, (who’s not contemporary anymore but nearly so). I think Paul Thomas Anderson is wonderful. Werner Herzog, I’m crazy about him as well. [But really] William Wyler, Carol Reed, Howard Hawks, John Huston… William Wyler I think is my favorite director probably – there’s so many. Francois Truffaut. I always leave people out. I’ll go home and be like ‘Oh! I forgot! Joseph Mankiewicz!’”
Of course, Scorsese famously helped you with the edit of “Margaret.” What is your relationship with him like?
“He was very helpful just with advice on how to proceed and he also worked on the film with me for a few months — the spring before the release, in May/June/July. He's been wonderful to me for a long time now. I love him.
Part 2 of our interview, including a closer look at “Margaret,” will post tomorrow.