Last night at the Sunshine Cinema in New York, Indiewire hosted a special event for the home video debut of Kenneth Lonergan's troubled epic "Margaret," which included the very first screening of the new "extended cut" (it's not exactly a director's cut of the film, read our interview with Lonergan here) along with an extensive post-screening Q&A hosted by Tony Kushner that featured Lonergan and several members of the movie's sprawling cast (among them: Mark Ruffalo, J. Smith-Cameron, Matthew Broderick, Jeannie Berlin, and John Gallagher Jr.). This new cut runs a whopping 3 hours and 8 minutes and features several radical additions/alterations, and with the Q&A running nearly an hour, well, it added up to a long night. Spoilers follow.
"Margaret," as we know it, is a sprawling, occasionally frustrating drama about a feisty, hyper-intelligent young girl named Lisa (played by Anna Paquin, before she moved to Bon Temps) and the aftermath of a bus accident she is partially responsible for. "Novelistic" would be a good way to describe it, and it was unlike anything that came out last year – a deeply emotional, beautifully realized marathon of a movie.
What the longer cut does, mostly, is make every scene slightly longer – dialogue (like a post-coital interlude between Paquin and a superbly off-putting Kieran Culkin) rambles on, poetic shots of airplanes as they cruise through the New York skyline linger (yes, there are even more in this version), and the whole thing takes on a kind of "real time" feeling – that we're watching these conversations or sequences play out as they would in reality. Like "24," except with an emphasis on talking instead of thwarting terrorist attacks.
Interestingly, the major difference between this extended cut and the version that was shown (ever-so-briefly) in theaters last fall isn't so much the content but the way that it sounds. To explain: in this new version, dialogue from our principle characters is often loudly interrupted by conversations by passersby or strangers. Sometimes this works incredibly well – there's an amazing shot that pans across the windows of several of Anna Paquin's neighbors, where we hear snippets of conversations in each one. When we finally settle in on Paquin's room, where she's talking with a school chum, that conversation is occasionally interrupted by the conversations that we had just heard. Another, wholly new scene in the movie, set in a restaurant, features Paquin talking to her buddy (Gallagher Jr.) about why they shouldn't date and for much of the scene we're listening into the conversation of two elderly women at the booth right next to theirs. It's fascinating and often doesn't make total sense (in any kind of physical reality these conversations shouldn't carry like they do) and much of the time is undone by what seems to be hasty ADR (the sound mix is often unintentionally wonky – but then again we can't imagine anyone spending any extra money on the extended version).
Kushner asked Lonergan about this addition (Kushner described it in a perfectly Kushnerian way as "the intrusion of overheard dialogue"). "We did put in a lot more voices," Lonergan explained. "I had always meant to but there wasn't time or opportunity at other points. The coffee shop scene [with Gallagher Jr.] wasn't in the original version but it was always written that you'd hear the ladies and then I added in two conversations as well. The idea behind it was there was this terrible thing that had happened to her that was eating her alive and the world is going along its business and not stopping to pay attention to her writhing agony. I thought that was an important element of the story."
Kushner then said that "Margaret" could be the greatest movie he's ever seen about New York, and that the overlapping dialogue element adds to that feeling. "I think the fact that the city is so full of other people and most of the time you don't notice them and one thing she's discovering is she's not the only person in the world," Lonergan said. "I liked the idea of them [the strangers' dialogue] recurring throughout the film. And the shots of windows you're supposed to think about all the things going on behind those windows and after the main characters have left you start to wonder what's going on with them."
Another way that the movie sounds incredibly different is that Lonergan has removed much of Nico Muhly's haunting original score, replacing it with classical pieces. It gives the movie an incredibly different feel, drastically altering the mood. (Quite frankly, it doesn't do it much good; adding recurring musical cues to a movie that already feels draggy isn't exactly a great move.) About the decision, Lonergan just said, "We just used so much of it in the other version."
There are only a couple of sequences that are wholly new. One is a super-hilarious scene between Paquin and her fellow classmates who are working on a school play. It's really amazing and funny and awkward and incredibly weird and deepens your understanding of Paquin's relationship with the Gallagher Jr. character (visually, too, it's quite different – shot in harsh blue lights). The other major new scene is a sequence where Paquin discovers she's pregnant and discusses with her mother (the great J. Smith-Cameron) about what to do. We actually see Paquin in the doctor's office and on the surgical table and afterwards it greatly changes the dynamic of the sequence where she tells a teacher (played by Matt Damon) that she's had an abortion. In the theatrical version, the line just comes out of the blue and we don't know whether or not she's just fucking with Damon (who had a tryst with Paquin) or if it's actually the case. Now we know that it's real and it gives the scene another dimension. Kushner also posits that the scene brings greater weight to a later scene where Paquin is crying in a lawyer's office, outraged that the MTA won't fire the negligent bus driver, because he feels she is "seeking punishment for herself."
Overall, the new version of "Margaret" is definitely worth watching, especially if you are a passionate member of #teammargaret. We'll have more from our conversation with Lonergan tomorrow. As of today, you can pick up the extended cut of "Margaret" as part of the two-disc Blu-ray edition of the movie (available exclusively through Amazon) and be sure to check out this "8 degrees of 'Margaret' " inforgraphic below.