This is part 2 of our “extended cut” of the Kenneth Lonergan interview we conducted at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week. You can read Part 1 here. “Margaret” was released on DVD and Blu-ray this week in a set that includes both the theatrical and extended cuts of the film. You can read about the differences between the two right here.
Your lead character in “Margaret” is a teenaged girl. You are not now, nor have ever been, a teenaged girl. How did you find your way in to that character, and what do you say to those who find her irritating?
“There are some characters you think of and they’re really vivid to you and they’re easy to write and it doesn’t really matter who or what they are,” replies Lonergan. “I don’t know why whatever this is fed itself into the life of a teenage girl. But I had been very interested in teenagers and that combination of sensitivity and dramatisation that they have. And very, very strong reactions to things that adults are more accustomed to, and not necessarily in a good way. They somewhat enjoy the drama which adults also don’t do because we understand it’s all very serious and nothing to enjoy. [But] the energy and wish to correct things that many teenagers have, well, I don’t find that irritating at all. She’s very belligerent and pugnacious but she didn’t just cry and go home and write in her diary, she really tried to do something about what happened, which I think is to her credit.”
Once the character occurs to him, very little changes on that level in the rewrites. “Only if they’re poorly written in the first place,” says Lonergan. “If I have a vivid idea for a character then I’m very happy and I just listen. When it’s going poorly I have to think, I have to make things up. The trick is to think of something that comes alive to me and then it’s alive…”
What inspired the story?
“I don’t know if it was the inspiration but it started with an incident that happened to this girl that I knew in high school. I was 17, I didn’t know her very well but I had lunch with her and she told me this story that had happened to her, exactly as it is in the film and I always thought it was interesting and so many years later I wrote the film.”
“She actually turned up at a screening in New York, and I said, well there’s this girl, Jill B., who told me this story about going to buy a cowboy hat on Broadway and waving at a driver… and then, sitting in the audience, this 49-year-old woman waved at me, and it was her. I hadn’t seen her since high school, and we were not very close friends either, we just had lunch once. I was embarrassed, but she loved it. She said she did, she was cheerful, she said hello. I’d always wondered if she was out there somewhere.”
Did you find personal experience informed the story in other ways?
“Yes. A lot of the material of the school comes from my experience in school as a pupil. The English classroom scenes…there was an argument about ‘King Lear,’ the exact same argument when I was in 11th grade. And the history class that I took, my American History class had two teachers and they were both very liberal progressive, one of them had worked in the labour movement and our first American History class was about what a rat Abraham Lincoln was…The girls smoking marijuana in the park that was me and my friend Matthew smoking on the exact same rock and our English teacher caught us and said ‘you can’t smoke a jay’ and we made fun of him. And Matthew Broderick [who is still Lonergan’s best friend], he went to that school too and Matthew remembered that, you remember [Broderick’s character] the teacher drinks the orange juice and eats the sandwich during the argument? Matthew remembered that our teacher was a diabetic, I’d forgotten and he said ‘Don’t you remember? He had a sandwich and a glass of orange juice in class… can I have orange juice?’ ”
Other characters too, were drawn from life, including one of this writer’s favorites, Emily, Monica’s bereaved best friend. “She was based on a friend of mine who has passed away now, one of my best friends. Emily…has one or two facets of this very multi-faceted woman who was much more positive and had an enthusiastic, brilliant side to her. Emily I think is very intelligent and a good person and moral so most of her character was taken from that friend and then transformed. When you use a real person as a model it always gets transformed a bit by the circumstances and by the act of writing it.”
Other works of art feature largely, from opera to Shakespeare to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem from which the film draws its name. How did you come across these various pieces?
“I have only ever memorized three poems…I happened to know that poem, and it appeared somewhere in the middle of my writing and as soon as it did I knew what the film should be called — it didn’t have a title for a while. And then when the poem appeared in the classroom and I saw it was very much the topic…it’s funny when you write. I had a very good time writing this script because I did this experiment where I knew what the structure was and what was going to happen, so I tried not to think at all. I tried to turn off my conscious mind and that’s why the first draft of the script, it was never meant to be shot, but it was 306 pages, because I let scenes go on. I knew where it was going and I knew where the beats were and I just kind of closed my eyes, and it’s amazing what happens when you do that. I had a wonderful time writing it and it was very easy to cut a hundred pages out of it in two weeks — you know when she goes to see the bus driver in Brooklyn, that scene is probably six pages long and it was sixteen pages long when I wrote it. And the poem just appeared and I felt it was right.”
And as for the segment used in the climactic opera scene? “I had never heard it before. I knew that the end of the film was going to be the two of them at the opera listening to something beautiful. I have a CD called ‘Great Duets from Opera‘ and I heard the piece and thought, well that’s it. And like so many things it turned out to be perfect because it’s two women singing — one goes, then the other goes, then they sing in unison and then they start to separate, which is what happens after the film is over, she’s gonna grow up and go away. I was very pleased, and that happens all the time: you pick something by accident and it turns out to go along with everything that’s been happening in your mind.”
Tell us a little about the time (2003ish) and place (New York City) setting of the film.
“One thing about if you grow up in New York City, or I suppose Prague or Paris or London, you don’t know that that’s not the whole world. If you grow up in Kansas you know you’re in a small town and there’s a big world out there. You grow up in New York City on the Upper West Side and you think that’s it, everywhere else is the country, the sticks. It’s not snobbery it’s just a different kind of provincialism. The politics are very uniform, it’s all very liberal you can’t find a Republican anywhere in the entire neighbourhood; it’s largely Jewish secular intellectual — lawyers, doctors, not very rich but in those days it was upper middle class. It’s a very particular segment of New York. The Upper East Side, for instance, is very wealthy and more snobby, the Upper West Side was more working professional. When I was there — well, we’re all very wealthy by world standards but by Manhattan standards…Also you are taught to have some sort of social awareness of other people and problems, but I don’t know if it is the most effective political background to come from. You know the phrase ‘kneejerk liberal’? It’s different now.”
And what about the difference between the New York City of 2003, when it is set, and that of today? “In 2003, every time an airplane went by you went ‘Oof,’ felt nervous. That’s not the case any more. That lasted for about 5 years… so [back then] everyone was a bit nervous and on edge. It was a bit different for a few years and unfortunately I don’t think the difference has sunk in in quite the way that I wish it had. For a moment it felt like, I felt like, the U.S. had joined the rest of the world, and then two weeks later all the TV commercials were back and it was all the same again. And I don’t think it’s very different now from how it was in 2000.“
How much did you consciously create “Margaret” in opposition to prevailing trends in mainstream filmmaking?
“I try not to work in reaction to other works of art because then I’m having a conversation with something that’s going to disappear eventually. It wasn’t a deliberate reaction to the conventions of film so much as it was an interest in trying to write and shoot the film in a particular way that seemed right for the story. Particularly the two elements of her becoming aware that she is not the only person and there are literally millions of people around…all living lives and doing things just as important to them as her life is to her. And then the other thing was the nature of an adolescent’s point of view is they tend to do things with a soundtrack behind them in their minds … I tried to make it so that there would be nothing in the film that wouldn’t really be there in real life. I wanted to try to show everything, and keep her relationship with her mother and her school and her teachers and her friends and her father amd everything going. I didn’t want to take out my part, or there’s this one scene with her girlfriend that I could have taken out but then she would have had only boys to talk to so I wanted to try to show her whole life. And that dictated a different structure.”
How did it feel to have the film take so long to come out?
“When I thought the movie would vanish from screens I was very disappointed and very upset naturally and when it came back to life I was extremely pleased. It was only a few months — September and October were bleak and then in December, I think, is when we opened in the U.K. and the Twitter campaign started (I don’t know what Twitter is, I can almost send an email). I was shocked. It was wonderful…I was very happy for the actors, especially Anna [Paquin] because she’s so wonderful and she worked so hard…She knew the script comma by comma, every sentence…Within ten, fifteen seconds of missing some little thing she would want to go back and start over again. And she shot every day, for 48 days out of 50.”
Are you bitter on her behalf that she didn’t get an Oscar nomination?
Lonergan shrugs dismissively. “That’s all show business. All that’s very nice when it happens but you have to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter. It’s especially hard to do that when it’s going your way, but I was taught it’s more important to do good work.”
Speaking of actors, here you reteam with many people you’ve cast before. Are you forming a troupe?
“Only out of cowardice. They’re all very good actors and I’m conservative, so I prefer to work with people that I know are going to do well. But it slowly grows because you can’t always find everyone. But yes, most of the people on the film I had worked with before… Actors who are that good are rare so try to find them and work with them again if you can.
Do you improvise and/or rehearse?
“We don’t do improv but we did rehearse for 4 weeks about 4 hours a day which was very valuable because there’s no time to rehearse on a movie set in any meaningful way… And then, yes, within the boundaries of the story if you don’t give [actors] freedom to do what they know how to do there’s no point, you should be a novelist…And some actors like to work alone — Matthew and J, my best friend and my wife, don’t like me to speak to them. And Anna Paquin likes to have a lot of direction.”
You yourself have taken roles in both your films. Is acting something you’d do again?
“When I lose some weight,” says Lonergan sheepishly. “I liked to act in high school, though I never wanted to be an actor — I have very limited range — but I like to do it and no one else will cast me…In fact, my three most enjoyable days on the film were the two days where we did the opera and the day when I was acting because Matthew Broderick came in and was the director for the day. I didn’t have to do anything but do my scenes so it was wonderful.
It’s been a long haul. Was it hard to let go of “Margaret” after all these years?
Lonergan smiles ruefully and shakes his head. There is definite relief in his voice. “Easy. It was easy.”