One of the stories of last year’s award season was the small, but vocal campaign to give Kenneth Lonergan‘s “Margaret” more recognition than its studio, Fox Searchlight, was willing to. Already delayed thanks to a protracted and ugly legal and creative battle, that the movie hit theaters at all was something of a minor miracle. But as most who followed the tortured production knew, the cut released in theaters was a compromised version of what Lonergan set out to achieve. Nonetheless, whether you thought the film was a masterpiece or not, there was no doubt he had created something that was special: a post 9/11 drama that used one teenage girl’s coming-of-age as a metaphor for a city dealing with the emotional fallout of a national tragedy.
Well, #teammargaret will be happy to know that an extended cut of the film lands on Blu-ray/DVD next month, coming as close to what Lonergan wanted to make when lensing got underway in 2005. While we may never know the full story of what went on behind the scenes — Lonergan is legally restricted from discussing certain matters regarding the production — a recent New York Times profile nevertheless offers up a variety of intriguing insights into the film, and some of the bitter rivalries that eventually took over, stymying some of the best efforts to get the movie out there.
1. Kenneth Lonergan penned an early draft of “Analyze This” and worked on “Gangs Of New York”
“I wrote it to sell it, I knew what that meant,” Lonergan says of writing the smash hit comedy “Analyze This.” At the time, the now Pulitizer Prize nominated playwright was a rising writer, and in order to get a foot in the door in Hollywood, he decided to toss out creative ideals and just sell something that was commercial. And well, it paid off. As things typically go in Hollywood, it was rewritten and rewrritten and rewritten, but he retained a story credit, though he dismisses the finished product. “I was aware that it was very likely that it would be rewritten to death by others, which isn’t something I’m comfortable having done to work I’ve written for love, as opposed to for money,” he said. “And while I make a living off that system, I disapprove of it, and I don’t take any pride of authorship in something that’s been rewritten by 14 other people.”
Regardless, the comedy starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal allowed him to meet Martin Scorsese, who hired him for “Gangs Of New York.” The result? A second Oscar nomination alongside co-writers Jay Cocks and Steve Zaillian.
2. There are “officially” 3 different cuts of the movie
To recount the ins and outs of the legal battles surrounding the film would take all day, but here’s the short version. Lonergan (for still unspecified reasons) wasn’t able to get a cut under the 150 minute limit he was given on his contract, and he borrowed “several hundred thousand dollars” from close friend Matthew Broderick to keep the editing bay open, and give him more time to cut. “I don’t want to say how much it was,” said. “I just wanted to help him get it done. It wasn’t a carefully thought-out thing. He’s my best friend, and if he’s really stuck, I would always try to help him.”
After much heartache and legal tangles, in 2008 — three years after the film shot — Longergan delivered his cut, which we saw in theaters running exactly 150 minutes, however there were two more versions that were in the mix. In 2007, financier and producer Gary Gilbert (“Garden State“) — frustrated by the delays — hired editor Dylan Tichenor (“Brokeback Mountain“) to deliver a two hour version known as “the Peggy cut” (named after Gilbert’s Peggy Productions). Legal entanglements held up the release of the film, but in what was hoped could be a compromise between all interested parties, Martin Scorsese was hired to do his own version (he had previously seen Lonergan’s 3 hour cut). Waiving his fee, Scorsese snipped the movie into a 160 minute version.
3. Producer Gary Gilbert killed any opportunity to use Martin Scorsese’s cut
However, as reported last fall, Gilbert refused to sign off on it, and reportedly was a factor in keeping the movie out of having a premiere at TIFF. By some accounts, it wasn’t a business decision, so much as a personal one — Gilbert wanted his “Peggy cut” to be used by Fox Searchlight, and given the rift between him and Lonergan, wasn’t about to meet anybody halfway.
“There comes a point where people cut off their nose to spite their face, and I certainly witnessed that,” Lonergan’s frequent collaborator Ruffalo said. “Whatever bad blood went down between them, I never felt like Gary ever got over it and actually tried to ensure that the movie and Kenny would be harmed.”
4. By many accounts, the 3 hour version of “Margaret” is a “masterpiece”
Mark Ruffalo has been one of the film’s strongest champions, but not just because he’s in it. Having been close to the process for so long, and seen the longer edit — which he has previously called “absolutely incredible” — he once again reiterates how good the 3 hour version is, and how chopping it down and retaining that strength was an impossible task. “And I said: ‘Kenny, you made a masterpiece. Unfortunately it’s in the wrong decade and the wrong country,’ ” Ruffalo said. “I’m pretty merciless…I’m not precious about this stuff. But it was like trying to move a house of cards a hundred yards in a windstorm. Once you pull out a single thread, the whole thing falls down.”
Meanwhile, actor Josh Hamilton, who has appeared in handful of Lonergan’s plays, attened an early reading of the script and even then saw the strength of the work. “One of the reasons it was so difficult is indicative of what his great talent is,” Hamilton shared. “I remember doing a reading of that screenplay in his living room years ago — it must have been 500 pages. I mean, it was all day. But it was one of the greatest screenplays I’d ever read in my life.”
5. Even though Scott Rudin himself was frustrated with Lonergan, he still stands behind the director
Among the five producers on the film is respected Hollywood veteran Scott Rudin, who doesn’t mince words about “Margaret,” a project that also found him clashing with Lonergan. “Kenny’s not a guy who takes distractions well or easily. He’s somebody who is highly concentrated on the work and not at all interested in the politics. So when the politics started to become noisier than the work, that was hard for him,” he says adding that during the lengthy editing sessions “it became clear that no amount of pushing was going to get it done.”
However, a legal case between Gilbert and Lonergan is still ongoing with the producer/financier accusing the director and studio of “obstructing” his efforts to finish “Margaret.” Whatever the difficulties might have been, Rudin is clear that a movie is the director’s vision and nobody else’s, and has lent a statement in support of Lonergan’s motion to dismiss the case. “The guy who pays for the movie is not supposed to be [in the editing room]. . . . He’s a guy who wrote a check,” he said in a depostion, adding, “Mr. Gilbert badly hurt the movie. Mr. Gilbert going in and working in the editorial department was a very destructive act.”
“If you’re making a movie with Kenny Lonergan and you sign off on the script, he’s the director, that’s the compact you made,” Rudin elaborated to the NY Times. “Because you decide that you’re anxious about your investment, that doesn’t give you the right to completely recalibrate your relationship.” We’re pretty sure that’s a lesson many producers in Hollywood could use.
So lost masterpiece or troubled from the start? We’ll get a close to a final answer as possible when the extended, 3 hour cut of “Margaret” arrives on July 10th.