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Kenneth Lonergan Discusses the 'Extended Cut' of 'Margaret': 'I'm happy to have both versions.'

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 6, 2012 at 4:03PM

Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" is the ultimate little movie that could. The sophomore feature from the writer-director of "You Can Count on Me" hit theaters last September in a very limited release after years of troubled post-production that resulted in a lawsuit filed against the filmmaker and multiple cuts of the film. It has been officially reported that there were a trio of different "Margaret" cuts, including one prepared by Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and that Lonergan preferred a three-hour version to the one he prepared for theatrical release that ran 18 minutes shorter.
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Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan's 'Margaret'
Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan's 'Margaret'

Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" is the ultimate little movie that could. The sophomore feature from the writer-director of "You Can Count on Me" hit theaters last September in a very limited release after years of troubled post-production that resulted in a lawsuit filed against the filmmaker and multiple cuts of the film. It has been officially reported that there were a trio of different "Margaret" cuts, including one prepared by Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and that Lonergan preferred a three-hour version to the one he prepared for theatrical release that ran 18 minutes shorter.

"Margaret" never really found an audience upon its initial release, as Fox Searchlight dumped the film into two theaters for a run that lasted only a few weeks. Many of the critics who did get to see the movie hailed it as a masterpiece, but even naysayers couldn't deny its ambition. The story of privileged Manhattan teenager Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) coping with her role in a tragic accident while coming to grips with the larger world around her  displays a fierce commitment to Lonergan's epic, empathetic vision, blending its coming of age narrative with experimental tangents about and operatic crescendos of city life. It's a hard movie to shrug off -- but in the wake of its negligible release, few had the opportunity to decide that for themselves.

Margaret Kenneth Lonergan Matt Damon Anna Paquin

Then, a small miracle rescued "Margaret" from complete oblivion: An aggressive Twitter campaign identified by the hashtag "#teammargaret" led to a petition for more press screenings of the film and helped elevate its profile. Next week, with a DVD release of "Margaret" that includes both the theatrical version and the "extended cut," Lonergan has inched closer to a happy ending for his beleaguered project.

Indiewire will present a special free screening of the extended "Margaret" cut in New York on Monday, July 9th, followed by a Q&A with Lonergan and various castmembers moderated by playwright Tony Kushner. In anticipation of this exclusive event, the filmmaker got on the phone with Indiewire on Friday afternoon to discuss some of the changes to the movie in the new version, misreported details of behind-the-scenes drama, and what the "extended cut" means to him.

The "extended cut" has new scenes, but also a lot of small touches that make the film's emotional texture more pronounced. Are you relieved that it's finally seeing the light of day?

I'm afraid this is a tepid answer, but I'm happy to have both versions. I'm glad people are going to be able to see the theatrical release. I'm extremely glad I had the chance to do the extended cut. I actually haven't seen it myself for several months, so I'm curious to see what it looks like. It's always different when you get a little distance from it.

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Why haven't you seen it for so long?

I've been living with this movie for a long time, with the release of the film, the Twitter campaign, the different versions. There have been a lot of "Margaret"s in my life. I spent a long time working on the DVD, which was a very intensive period. It was tremendous fun but also tremendously difficult. I was putting in very long hours.

I think I was just ready to step away from it and have a fresh experience when I finally did see it. Frankly, I also don't have a copy of it yet. I could've gotten one, but unconsciously I think I'm just looking forward to seeing it on the big screen on Monday. I know what it's like, but it will be interesting to see what it's like with an audience.

The decision to call this an "extended cut" instead of a "director's cut" seems very deliberate.

"Extended cut" is actually accurate. To me, "director's cut" means that what was released before was somebody else's cut. That, to me, always implies that what was released wasn't what the director wanted. That's just not what happened. The cut that was released was the cut I delivered. They're both the director's cut; they're just different cuts. One of them was just free from the constraints of worrying about the time.

"It's unusual to have the chance to do both of your ideas for a project instead of picking just one."

By the way, I agreed and went forward with [the constraints]. It's not that I had a big problem with them. That was just one of the factors I had to work with. It's like having to work with a certain number of days of shooting. It would be nice to work in a very relaxed way for a 100-day shoot, but we don't have that luxury.  "You Can Count On Me" took 20 days to shoot and we had 15 50 days to shoot "Margaret."

It was nice to have the liberty to explore and go into depth in certain areas I felt were interesting to touch on and suggest in the theatrical release. Also, there was this wonderful composer, Nico Muhly, who let us use his music almost exclusively as the score. He wrote the music and it was terrific, but I was also very interested in using source music, like opera and certain classical music. It was hard to decide, having put a lot of Nico's music in the theatrical release, but because I was creatively free, I embraced the other idea for the extended cut, as you've seen. Which is more effective? I don't know, but it's unusual to have the chance to do both of your ideas for a project instead of picking just one.

In a way, just to draw an analogy with the theater: When you do a play over time, it's the same script but the performances change tremendously. You don't get to do that with film very often. But now with DVDs and digital editing, you can go back and if you had a new thought, you can implement it. Sometimes you were right the first or second time; sometimes you were right both times. This was a very good opportunity to do what I wanted to do the first time but you have to make a decision when you're in the editing room.

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Can you elaborate on some of the material you've added for the extended cut? There were some rather significant additions that stood out to me, like a therapeutic exchange during Lisa's theater class and another that follows her loss of virginity.

The scene in the school theater was a scene I always liked. It's kind of a pivotal scene. Lisa basically realizes she's through with high school and not going to get anywhere with the things she's been trying to do. I was very curious to see whether the movie would work without that. I think it does, but I also think it really adds something to have it. There's something so embarrassingly adolescent about that situation -- her isolation at the end of it works really well.

There's a scene after she sleeps with the Kieran Culkin character. He tries to be nice to her and she's too shaken up to accept it. She's essentially upset about what has happened. Then he gets dressed and leaves. It was nice to put that in as well. On the other hand, there's something good about just having him sitting there. This is the nice thing about not having to make up my mind.

"You live in New York and just to survive you have to cut out a little tunnel for yourself."

I liked very much just cutting to her opening the door and he's sitting there in his underwear. Then we cut to her mother on her date. I think that works really well, but it's nice to see that more sensitive side of her after she's lost her virginity in this very cut-and-dry way that she inflicts on him.

It's nice to see his character fleshed out a bit because he's not just a shit. He actually tries to be nice and she won't have it. She kicks him out. I think I'm the first filmmaker to ever show a guy getting dressed from start to finish, putting his shoes on and having to leave. It's one of the most horrible, awkward moments in life. It just goes on and on.

There are also other scenes I like that I didn't put in this because I didn't want it to be three-and-a-half hours long. I don't think, had everything gone smoothly, it would have been this long to begin with. I was never shooting for a three-hour version. I've read all over the place that I was. I wasn't. That's just repeated gossip that's made the rounds in the press. I like very much the enhanced scenes with the developed relationship between J. Smith Cameron's character and Jean Reno's character. This is the detailed version as opposed to the suggestive version. Which one is better filmmaking? I really don't feel qualified to say.

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A key aspect in both of these scenes is the challenge of communication, which is one of the movie's core themes. The climax seems to imply that opera can say more about Lisa's problems than she has the words to express.

I think so, as can theater, which is why there's so much talk about theater in the film. I didn't do that on purpose; it just came out that way. I've been asked a lot why there's all this discussion of theater in the film. I don't have an answer except that her mother works in the theater so we see her job. The theater is often seen as comical in the movies; to me, it's not comical, it's my life.

I don't mean that it can't be comical, but it's not only comical. It turns out that there's a thematic and emotional connection between the theater and what Lisa's going through and what they're all going through, this idea of real feelings mixed with a certain amount of showing off. Adolescents show off. That's another way of wanting to connect with people. It's not an aspect of human behavior that we generally consider to be very admirable, but it is, in some way, a means of connecting with someone else and not being alone.

Do you think "Margaret" could work as a stage play?

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No, I don't, because it's too involved with the environment of the city to work on the stage. Possibly, if I was very clever, I could write a play that did these same kinds of things in terms of having lots of characters with different points of view, structuring the play so that the main character was forced to confront the fullness of the experience of other human beings.

But I couldn't do it visually. The city shots aren't there just because they're cool-looking. She's being reminded that there are so many other people in the world that don't know or care what's going on with her. That's the big obstacle she's facing. There's something very touching about that sometimes. You live in New York and just to survive you have to cut out a little tunnel for yourself. If you're not open to the environment, you go insane.

This article is related to: Interviews, Kenneth Lonergan, Features, Margaret