INTERVIEW: You Can Count on Kenneth Lonergan
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/ 11.10.00) — Kenneth Lonergan has been a recognizable name in the New York theater community for some time. He’s a member of the popular company Naked Angels and turned a ton of heads with his snappy yet poignant portrait of a couple of bong-powered teenagers, “This is our Youth.” Eight years ago, Lonergan used his mastery of dialogue and dramatic structure to muscle his way into the film world with his script for “Analyze This!” starring Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro. He followed up that modern classic with “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” and with that, the talented New York playwright became a writer of mediocre blockbusters.
Last year at Sundance, however, Lonergan’s directorial debut showed the film community that Ken Lonergan could do what he does best — small, character-driven dramas. The film he both wrote and directed, “You Can Count on Me,” about a drifter who wreaks havoc on the small town existence of his sister and her young son, won the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. With those kind of credentials, it looks like Lonergan no longer has to worry about selling his soul to the movies.
Andrea Meyer recently spoke with Lonergan about his theater work, writing “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” film directing for the first time, bad movies and good scenes. “You Can Count On Me” opens this Friday.
indieWIRE: Did you have any directing experience when you made this movie?
Kenneth Lonergan: I had done some directing in the theater. Not too much, one-acts and stuff, but every time someone else directed one of my plays in the theater, I was pretty involved in the process, so I had a fair amount of experience talking to actors and trying to get ideas across, which is obviously a big part of directing.
iW: Did your experience in theater prepare you for directing a movie?
Lonergan: The way movies are made is so different from the way plays are rehearsed that in a way it wasn’t as helpful as I thought it would be. I had to learn a tremendous amount in a very short period of time. The technical side alone is staggering, “from soup to nuts,” as they say, not my favorite phrase. Everything that has to be done and how many people are involved and how the structure of a set works, the production people, the lighting people, the sound people, the AD, and the director — that dynamic alone was all news to me. And the technical aspects once the movie is made — the editing process, the sound process, and then the printing process — it just goes on and on and on, and I didn’t know anything about any of it. I tried to ask a lot of questions, but that can only help you so much.
iW: Pretty amazing then that you were given the opportunity to direct a feature.
Lonergan: Even though I did not earn it! Everybody who does independent movies is used to working with first-time directors, so it was very clear that I was in one cog of the machine. I happened to be at the apex of the structure, but it was very clear that things were going to happen anyway. It’s not like I had to know how to make a movie. Everyone else knows so much, that they have a pretty good system in place for working with inexperienced people. It wasn’t like, okay, what do we do now? It was like, “okay, we have this, this, and this idea, which do you want to do?” And I would answer. And if I was ahead of them ever, which wasn’t often, I would say I want to do this and this. The people working with me were very helpful and patient. So many people do movies with not that much experience, that I didn’t feel like I didn’t deserve it. I thought it was bizarre that anyone would let me make a movie, but I was glad they did. And I felt like at least I really knew what I wanted the movie to be like. I didn’t always have the tools or experience to make that happen, but at least I could tell people what I was looking for.
iW: You’ve written some screenplays that are so different from the work you do on stage. What’s that all about?
Lonergan: “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was an assignment I got when I was looking for a job, and I got a chance to try out for the movie and got hired to write it. It’s not something I would have written by myself — I don’t prefer broad fantasy comedy — but I do like it. It’s fun working on different kinds of things, because you don’t get bored that way. And “Analyze This!” I wrote with a view towards selling it to the movies, so I’m not sure I would have written it for purely artistic purposes either — although once you start working on something, if you don’t find something you genuinely like, it won’t turn out good. Even if you start out for mercenary motives, I have to find something I genuinely enjoy, or it feels kind of crappy. You get interested in the structure or the characters are funny. I thought the situation was funny, the idea, from the beginning. By the time the movie came out, they had fourteen writers on that. It was very different from what I wrote, although the DeNiro character is fairly similar to the one I wrote. The main premise and the main relationship is, I guess, what I provided. I was very happy with the way it turned out, and then it got rewritten to the point of being unrecognizable. But it got me started in the movies.
iW: “You Can Count on Me” seems to be more like what you write for stage.
Lonergan: When I’m left alone, I tend to write things that are of this nature. This I wrote more like I would write a play. It was the first screenplay that I wrote just because I thought it would be a good thing to write, and I always thought I would direct it. Otherwise it wouldn’t get made the way that I wanted it to. It was interesting to see it turn into a movie. Sometimes I wonder if you had the exact same script, and it was released by a big studio with a big advertising campaign, whether it would be considered a commercial movie. It’s obviously not a big action movie, but whether it would be considered a commercial drama or not. It’s not particularly unconventional. It’s character-driven, but there’s a pretty strong story-line. It’s not particularly moody or weird and it didn’t have a particularly indie slant to it. It’s a little more old-fashioned I guess.
iW: Why do you think there are so many bad movies out there?
Lonergan: Someone once said that they used to make A movies and B movies, and A movies are now B movies and B movies are now A movies. Big actiony mindless movies, which in the old days would be called a B movie are now the top of the line. And the more character-driven stuff is a second class of movies, which is sort of an interesting switch.
iW: Do you think a writer’s words are better protected in theater?
Lonergan: If [theater actors and directors] don’t like something, they have to learn to like it. They can talk about it and argue and try to convince the writer to change it, but they can’t just change it at will. [Film] directors are routinely offered jobs, you go in there and they say, “we have this project and this project and this project for you to rewrite and direct,” and that’s without you having read the script. I got a bunch of offers, all to rewrite and direct, and it occurred to me later, after I was through being flattered and thrilled to be offered anything, who knows if those scripts need a rewrite or not. They’re all disposable, and in my opinion, that’s the principle reason that big-budget movies are so often as bad as they are.
iW: How did you come up with the idea for this film?
Lonergan: The first germ of it was a one-act play, the big lunch scene they have at the beginning of the film. I thought I have a great idea. I’ll write a scene about a brother who’s a fuck-up and sister who really believes in him, even though he doesn’t really deserve it. I liked it, but as soon as I thought of it as something bigger, it was immediately a movie. I never thought of it as a full-length play. It was pretty much conceived as a movie once it finished being a one-act play. I was watching a play with a little kid in it, and I thought, what if she had a little boy and the brother made friends with the little boy and kept letting him down, and that sort of gave me the idea for the whole arc of the story. And then I immediately thought it should be a movie. There’s something about where they live and their relationship to where they live, and living in a small town in a beautiful area was something I was interested in. And I thought it would be much more natural for the movies than for a play.
iW: Will you ever adapt “This is our Youth” for screen?
Lonergan: I want to, but I haven’t figure out how to make the jump from a play to a movie. It’s three people in a room over 48 hours, and I just don’t know how to do it. I’m trying to figure it out, because I’d really like to do it. That’s a really interesting challenge. I don’t want to just water it down. I’d like it to work as well on film as it does as a play.
One of the most interesting things I found about the difference between a play and a movie was when I came to edit the movie. You write the script and it’s always too long and you’re always looking for cuts, and eventually you just don’t know what else to cut — everything seems essential. When you run a play, you see things that feel long and you’re like, okay, I guess I could lose that speech or this section.
Watching the first few cuts of the movie, it was very long and felt very slow and sluggish, even though on paper it looked fine. What I realized had happened was that every scene had a beginning, a middle and an end, so the movie was continually stopping and starting and stopping. So, what the editor and I ended up doing was making, instead of six scenes each with a nice little arc to them, one sequence with one arc composed of six scenes, so it flows, so you’re not taking a breath and relaxing and starting over again. And that was really instructive to figure out how to do that.
iW: I guess in theater you keep things moving with conversation, whereas in film you’re working with action.
Lonergan: I don’t believe in being boring. It’s not exactly that it’s conversation, it’s whether something new is happening or not. It has to happen in dialogue, ’cause you don’t have that much else to do in a play. In a movie, it’s a visual medium, so you can communicate so much so faster. But I think that leads people to write short, boring, contentless scenes in movies. They think they’re supposed to be fast, and they have a lot of meaningless visuals that don’t do anything, that have no emotional content, they don’t move the story forward. And the scenes are short and thin and not about anything. I believe the scene has to have some value of its own and also move the story forward. Otherwise it’s just exposition, and exposition is really boring.
It’s really popular now in big-budget movies to introduce a character with a scene that shows their character. And very often it never has anything to do with the rest of the story. You have ten minutes when you meet Al Pacino and find out what kind of guy he is, and then the rest of the movie starts. They never would have done that in old movies, or the good old movies. They get started and you find out what the guy’s like as it goes along. You don’t have a whole separate here’s Al, he’s really wild, but he’s got a good heart. Now let’s get started.
iW: What has this film meant in terms of your career?
Lonergan: It was very good for my career. I had been basically considered for comedies for the eight years that I was a screenwriter, because “Analyze This!” was my sample script, and the first couple of drafts of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” were also a good sample. And then my agent would send plays that were very different, but that didn’t matter, because they’re very scared in Hollywood and don’t like surprises. So, the movie really opened things up for me, and I suddenly was being offered things that I never would have been offered before. Plus the fact that it won Sundance meant it’s legitamized for them. But I also think some people really liked the movie. I think if it won at Sundance, but they thought it was crappy, I don’t think that would have helped me much.
[Andrea Meyer is the Managing Editor of ifcRANT.]