An Interview with Allison Janney

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Chad Perman

Allison Janney only has one scene in Margaret, appearing on screen for less than five minutes near the beginning of the movie. But that single scene—anchored by her haunting performance as Monica, a woman hit by a distracted bus driver while crossing the street—stays with you for every bit of the film’s remaining three hours. And, according to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, it has to: as the inciting event that sets the narrative course for the rest of the story, if Janney’s scene didn’t work, the entire film wouldn’t work either. “I knew that if that accident wasn't extremely awful—as awful as humanly possible—then there'd be no movie,” he told Terry Gross back in 2012. “You don't see any flashbacks of it. It's got to stay in your mind the way it stays in the character's mind.”

Of course, as anyone who has seen Margaret knows, the scene is impossible to forget. Monica’s final moments—covered by ever widening pools of blood in the middle of a crowded city street, cradled in Lisa’s (Anna Paquin) arms while bystanders work frantically to save her life—are as raw, realistic, and traumatic as any ever committed to film. Struggling to make sense of what has just happened to her (“You've got to be kidding me. A bus?!”), she grows increasingly confused and, in the scene’s most haunting moment, asks Lisa if her eyes are open or closed, because she can’t see anything. Moments later, she’s gone.  

“She’s one of the greatest actors on the planet,” Tony Kushner told me recently. “I mean the way she dies, it’s terrifying. I don’t know how she does it, but it’s amazing.” Janney, who is deservedly something of a national treasure at this point in her career (seriously, try to find a single person you know who doesn’t think fondly of her) spoke with us last month about what it was like to shoot such a memorable scene.

*

Allison Janney: I’ve got to forewarn you, I’ve not seen Margaret since it came out—but I will say that I think Kenny Lonergan is one of the greatest writers we have in this country.

BW/DR: We heartily agree. And actually, we were mostly hoping you could be our conduit into the accident scene.

Well I can definitely speak to that scene, I can speak to everything about that. I was out doing West Wing and Kenny asked me to be part of the movie. At the time I was just kind of getting little parts in movies, and I read it, and of course it was a brilliant script and I thought “Well at least I won’t get cut out of it. This scene will pretty much have to stay in the movie.” (laughs) So I thought, what the fuck I’m gonna go do it. One scene, how bad can it be?

So, what was the actual shoot like?

We actually had a couple rehearsals for it, and then we filmed it on 74th and Broadway on the downtown side, on the west side. I remember we did the first part, where you see me getting hit, and it was filmed in a way where I wasn’t anywhere near the bus and I was like, how are we even going to do this? But I always find some way to make a fall work in a movie. I’ve actually done a lot of falls in things over the years—Primary Colors I did a fall, in the beginning of West Wing I did a fall. And so when Kenny was like, I don’t know how we’re gonna do this, I just said, well what if I trip and that’s how it happens? He said “Oh my god, that’s perfect!” So I did a trip, and that’s how my character ends up getting hit by the bus.

Then the whole rest of that day I was just covered in blood, lying on the street. And it was very hard. They were like “Uh, we’re gonna take a while to change the setup here if you wanna go to craft services or whatever?” And I was like “I really kind of...don’t. I think I’m just gonna give into this part and this moment and lie here all day.” Which is what I did, I didn’t move. I lay on that spot all day long, covered in blood.

I remember people going by, everybody walking by and looking over to see who it was—you know, West Wing was out and people knew who I was, so it was kind of this odd thing—but I felt safer just staying on the ground. And with Kenny everything I did, I didn’t fully understand. He would say “I just want you to be angry right now. I want you to be mad for no reason.” He gave me these directions that didn’t make sense to me, but I think they came out beautifully—because this is a woman who, she’s fucking just been hit by a bus and she’s dying and she doesn’t really make any sense and she’s lashing out. He knew what he wanted and I just tried to give it to him and not disappoint him, frankly. I didn’t want to disappoint him because I knew it was such an important scene in the film. And Anna, she was very sweet with me too.

He’s said over the years that he really needed to have your scene be as intense as possible, so that it would stick with the audience over the course of the next three hours. Is that something he mentioned to you in advance?

No, I mean I kind of knew it was important but thankfully he didn’t tell me “Hey if you screw this up you’re going to ruin the movie.” I’m so glad he didn’t say that! (laughs) But I definitely knew it was important—though of course, like everything I do, I felt I could have done it better, like I do with everything. Most actors do, I think. God I could have been this, I should have done this... But that’s just the nature of what we do.

Well, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s hard to say it’s one of my “favorite” scenes, because it’s such a tough scene to watch, but I think it’s one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen in a film.

Now I want to go watch it again. But I mean I don’t know what’s worse, watching me die or watching me have sex on camera in something like Masters of Sex. (laughs) But you know, I trusted Kenny. I felt like I was in good hands with him—anyone would be, really. He’s a very smart man who knows people and knows what he’s doing. I felt as comfortable as I could be, lying there on Broadway covered in blood.

I know you’ve done several plays, did you know him from that world? Is that why he offered you the part?

Yeah, I actually knew his wife J. Smith Cameron, who is a brilliant actress. She and I met doing Craig Lucas’s play Blue Window in New York. I was friends with J before she met Kenny and started dating him. And then they got married, and I met him, and I saw This is Our Youth and his other plays—and I just think he’s a really talented writer. I actually just met their daughter last winter at Sundance where they were for Manchester by the Sea, which I can’t wait to see. I’ve heard it’s brilliant. I hope to get to be in another one of his movies, closer to where I live.

You’re in LA now, right?

Yeah, Mom shoots in Burbank so I pretty much live out here now.

So, as an actor, what is it that makes a Lonergan script so good? Is it the specificity? The realism? Something else?

It’s smart. The characters are always very smart. They’re deeply rooted in some kind of truth or reality. He is a really smart man, and he just seems to understand what characters are, and what story is. He gets the humanity.

And that comes through right from the script?

Yeah, absolutely. The writing is always the thing, as an actress, that excites me most. He’s definitely one of those writers where you read his script and you’re like “Please let me be in this.” You want to be a part of what he has to say.

So you were immediately in?

Pretty much. I mean, I was doing West Wing and the hours on West Wing were ridiculously hard. You don’t really get a break. So for me to say yes to something, I had to really want to do it. And I wanted to be a part of Kenny’s story. It was kind of like the first great post-9/11 movie.

How do you even prepare for a scene like that? A scene where you’re going to die, and it’s the only scene you’re in in the entire movie, do you prepare for something like that differently than a typical role?

Yeah, I’ve never really had to do anything like that before. But I just tried to leave myself open to being there, just physically, and being covered in blood and looking around. I just sort of used everything I was feeling in the moment and that way it wasn’t hard to connect to whatever emotion he wanted me to connect to, because I felt so vulnerable being there and just being so exposed and being so open and everybody looking at me. I mean just that alone makes me want to start crying, all these people are looking at me and I feel like “Don’t look at me, don’t look at me.” Being an extremely tall person, and also being shy, I walk into a room and I don’t want people to look at me, I sometimes just want to hide. While I’m an actress I like attention, being someone else. But as myself, I don’t like it so much.

And you’re out there all day long.

Yeah, I’m out there all day. And I was cold and all bloody. It was easy to get angry – because I was tired of it. Come on, let’s get this fucking scene done, come on. Whatever emotion he wanted me to do, fine I’m there I’ll do it, let’s do this, let’s just get this in the can.

What is it like to stay in the kind of headspace, as an actress, where you’re basically on dying all day long? How do you maintain that intensity—and how does doing that affect the rest of your day after you go home?

Well, I trained with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and they teach you how to emotionally prepare for something—whether you fantasize about something or think about something you don’t want to happen, or you just let your mind take you away somewhere. I’ve gotten better at letting it go, but something like that scene sort of stays with you for a bit. It’s hard to shake that off after the work is done. It definitely involved a really long hot shower and maybe a bath and a martini or something. And you just think “Wow, that was unbelievable.” But it’s what I do, and I’m glad I can do it. I mean I definitely have a lot of emotions in me that tend to get in the way of me leading my normal life, so it’s great to get to use them in my acting, to have an outlet for them.

Ah, now we’re getting into the therapy part of the interview.

Yeah, exactly. (laughs) I mean acting is really healthy for me; it’s the only time I feel really connected. Well, this is probably too much, this is too therapy-y. I guess it’s just what I do. I think in the beginning learning how to do these emotional preparations probably I couldn’t let go of them too much and they would affect my day. But now I’m older and I sort of get it; I can let it come in and out more easily. But doing that scene, I think I was happy to let it go once it was over – like, God I couldn’t wait to get into the bath and just let it go.

I mean you have to, right? You can’t walk around in that emotional space for too long.

Exactly. It’s too much.

 


This Mass of Conflicting Impulses: A Former Teen Narcissist Watches Margaret

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Lauren Wilford

The first time I sat down to watch writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (the extended cut, which is the cut I’ll be referring to), I thought I knew what I was in for. I had gathered that it had the look and feel of a mid-2000’s indie drama, but that it must have some kind of special depth and insight to warrant its length (and the legal battles over that length). I knew Anna Paquin’s character was somehow going to come of age while entangled in a legal battle over a bus accident. I was aware of its cult status and critical reputation. I was ready to think thoughts about the human condition; I was ready to be moved.

It turns out I wasn’t actually ready for Margaret; maybe there’s no way to be. I’ve watched my fair share of mid-budget realist dramas from the last 20 years, and I went in with the expectation that Margaret would slot in neatly alongside them. And in the first 20 minutes, it seemed as if it might—but as the film wound its way forward and sideways through this teenage girl’s year, it started to elude categorization. A plot summary of Margaret might go something like this: 17-year-old Lisa Cohen’s life is upended when she plays a role in distracting a bus driver who proceeds to hit and kill a woman. She then learns hard lessons about life’s unfairness when she mounts a campaign to try to get the bus driver fired. But the film shows us much more than this story—we also see Lisa pursue various relationships with men, and watch her participate in classroom discussions about the war in Iraq, and we follow her mother’s acting career and the tensions that arise between her and Lisa. Lisa is hard to like, and a lot of that seems to do with the fact that she’s all over the place, different from one scene to the next. Margaret was either a particularly meandering coming-of-age drama, or a quiet epic poem about life in New York in the ‘00’s, or some indeterminate third thing. Whatever it was, it left me a little frustrated. Margaret certainly was an experience, but for some reason it didn’t feel like a movie to me—I had some itch that had gone unscratched.

I had spent that first viewing waiting for Lisa (played by Anna Paquin) to hit her Screenwriting 101 marks. I wanted to be told, clearly and early on, who she was and what she wanted; I wanted to watch her go on a Journey and pursue an Objective, to follow a throughline to Climax and Catharsis. I don’t usually prioritize adherence to story structure principles when I’m watching a film, so it was strange to find myself feeling this way— and, if I were to really look at it, Margaret was in fact adhering to a kind of three act structure, albeit loosely. But there was something about the film that felt unruly and prickly and somehow against the rules.

On my second viewing, I realized what it was. It was the fact that Lisa was moving through the world, and through the film, like an honest-to-god adolescent—not like a teenager from movie-world, but like a teenager from this world. Lisa’s identity had seemed so unstable that it had registered to my brain as bad writing—as Lonergan having committed the screenwriting sin of creating an “inconsistent character.” I had been waiting for the film to sell me on its protagonist—to make me like her and root for her and identify with her—but Margaret provides the viewer with few emotional guide rails. To watch Margaret is to spend three hours in the nearly uninterrupted company of a caustic, bright, naive, and passionate 17-year-old girl as she navigates a difficult passage of her life. Lonergan’s radical gambit is to let us see Lisa shifting her persona as she moves through different social situations, the way we all do, but particularly the way that adolescents do. In violating the screenwriting principle of “character consistency,” he blows the lid off the concept of the lovable teen protagonist and shows us what an actual adolescent so often looks like—and much like what I must have looked like.

To watch Margaret is to spend three hours in the nearly uninterrupted company of a caustic, bright, naive, and passionate 17-year-old girl as she navigates a difficult passage of her life.

I recoiled from Margaret the first time because watching Anna Paquin’s performance as Lisa was like watching my past self live through a year of high school—and not the charming memory of that self that I’ve constructed, but the real, half-formed human being that I was, in all her inconsistencies, in her arrogance and insecurity and runaway emotionality. Lisa Cohen sees herself as an impassioned crusader, but the reality is that she’s also kind of a narcissist and an asshole, and watching Margaret led me to a painful confrontation with the asshole that I used to be—and in many ways still must be. After all, I’m sitting down to write a personal essay about a time that I watched a movie and had the revelation that that movie was, in fact, really about me. This seems like the kind of thing that a former teenage asshole might be warned off doing, but here we are.

So Lisa is often unlikable—but so are other protagonists in more conventional stories. We have a category for a protagonist with unlikeable qualities: the anti-hero. But the anti-hero is, for all his faults, ultimately a hero. He (it’s almost always a he) may be lazy, or have a mean streak or a drug problem or a criminal bent, but through charm, exceptional competence, or some combination of the two, he always manages to capture the admiration of audiences. Anti-hero narratives give viewers something to root for, usually in one of two directions: either that the anti-hero will succeed in his unscrupulous schemes, or that the he will overcome his demons to become a better man. Even if we don’t like everything an anti-hero does, we like him in spite of ourselves; we never lose sight of his essential magnetism.

I can picture a version of Margaret that might have been more of an anti-hero story—one in which Lisa’s razor-sharp wit and dogged pursuit of justice formed the kind of charm and exceptional competence that made us excuse her for being abrasive. But Margaret isn’t that simple. Lisa does have a lot going for her—she’s observant, articulate, thoughtful, and self-aware—but Lonergan doesn’t bless her with any exceptional genius. And her flaws are manifold and unsexy—she can be, by turns, judgmental and petulant, theatrical and manipulative. “By turns” is, perhaps, the key here. Margaret would have been a more straightforward (and perhaps more commercial) film if Lisa had been flattened and streamlined, if she had been given a core personality made up of a few sympathetic traits and a single tragic flaw.

But the frustrating, subversive, brilliant thing about Lisa is that she’s different from moment to moment.

In the first fifteen minutes of Margaret, we meet several permutations of Lisa. We first see her interact with her geometry teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon). With Mr. Aaron, she flirts, with plausible deniability. When she goes to claim a test from him, she holds eye contact a little too long, and saunters back to her desk with a little swing in her hips. When they have a post-class conference, she slouches in a chair across from him, crossing and uncrossing her legs; in the long shot, we can feel her awareness of just how short her skirt is. She speaks in a slightly higher register with him, trying to project poise. When he agrees to let her cheating slide this time, Lisa breathes, “You are so fair.” We cut immediately to Lisa swaggering down the hallway, beaming at her success. The next shot finds her smoking with a group of friends, when one asks what Mr. Aaron said to her. “Nothing,” she says, her tone flat and acerbic. “Mr. Aaron and I have an understanding.” We get a scene of Lisa in a classroom discussion on current events, where she shows off her rhetorical chops; she raises her hand confidently and speaks with conviction and complex, attorney-like sentence structure. And then we see her with her friend Darren, who clearly has feelings for her. With him, she walks with an extra spring in her step, gushing, feeding off the energy of his attraction. When it seems he might be asking her out on a date, she laughs, and then feigns shock: “Oh my god.” She then prods him with questions that don’t really mean anything, shrugging and scoffing: “What? Why do you look like that?” It’s a perfect bit of acting from Paquin, this moment of getting high on flattery and not knowing exactly what to do with it.

And all this amiable high school minutiae just serves to set up the heights from which Lisa must fall when her flirtatious waving distracts a bus driver who goes on to kill a woman. That woman bleeds to death, furious and confused, in Lisa’s arms, and from then on Lisa finds herself lost. She spends the rest of the film vacillating wildly—sometimes seized with righteous passion, and other times seducing her crushes; sometimes trying to spread kindness to the victim’s friends and family, and other times verbally assaulting her mother.

It might seem, from this description of her behavior, that Lisa’s character throughline is a kind of artifice or calculation. If we see her in so many subtly different modes, we might conclude that Lisa must be a false or manipulative person. But we only notice these differing inflections because we follow her everywhere, and we see the shifts that she makes in her carriage and her voice and her word choice based on her surroundings. We rarely get to experience characters in this way. In a typical movie, we follow our protagonist moving through a plot, a series of connected actions—we only see what’s relevant. In Margaret, we get a picture of Lisa’s whole life, not just her life as it relates to one story. When it comes to Aristotle’s “three unities,” the limitations that he believed made for effective drama (unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action), perhaps the one that we talk about least often is “unity of action.” That’s because most stories play fast and loose with time and place. We usually invoke the three unities when we want to talk about a movie that’s remarkable for using a single location or playing out in real time, because “unity of time” and “unity of place” have become novelties since the time of Greek drama. “Unity of action,” however, has not. We expect our movies to be about a character pursuing one goal, doing one central thing.

This leads me to consider whether I might look like a consistent character if someone were to follow me through one “action”—a relationship, or an issue at work or school. There are versions of the character Lauren Wilford that could read as likable or admirable or heroic if you saw them in a limited context. But it’s uncomfortable to imagine what a few random days in my life might look like if someone were to shoot them and cut the footage into a film. I’d get to see how I acted alone, and then with my husband, and then with coworkers, and family, and strangers. I don’t know exactly what total picture would emerge, but I know there would be contrasts and inconsistencies. I don’t know how viewers of that film would go on to describe the character that they saw—or if they would even feel like they could.

Lisa Cohen is a difficult character to pin down or describe in a sentence, but so many of our great characters are—they just usually happen to be in literature rather than movies. Lisa is just as difficult to describe as Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina or Leopold Bloom or Hamlet. Lisa and Hamlet actually have a good deal in common. Many people, working from faint memories of high school English class, might summarize Hamlet the character as being “melancholic” or “hesitant” or “crazy.” But if you actually go to the text, you’ll find Hamlet oscillating between different versions of himself just as freely as Lisa does. Both Hamlet and Margaret take place in the wake of a shocking death, and both are stories of a bright young person working fitfully towards justice while processing feelings about an indifferent world.

Lisa’s multiple iterations are a direct result of her youth. Much like I was, she’s painfully self-aware; you can almost see her watching herself from outside her body, horrified but helpless to stop herself. 

Many critics have argued that Hamlet is an atypical revenge story protagonist because of his circuitous route to vengeance—his “hesitancy,” his “madness.” But Hamlet is just a profoundly astute portrait of a human being trying to act while grieving. Lisa “hesitates” to pursue justice in Margaret for similar reasons: she’s trying to figure out the right thing to do, and to separate the facts from her feelings. And those feelings often cause her to hurt her own cause, just as Hamlet’s do. Hamlet doesn’t eviscerate Ophelia in the “get thee to a nunnery” scene because he’s mad, or performing madness. He tears into Ophelia because his pain has made him into his worst self in that moment, his latent mean streak and misogyny going unchecked. He’s also unfairly cruel to his mother, much like Lisa is unfairly cruel to hers. Sometimes Hamlet thinks big, beautiful thoughts about the world, and sometimes he makes cracks about sex. But he’s always passionate. He’s always, ultimately, trying to right his world’s wrongs. He’s one of the most psychologically realistic characters ever written, and for that, he evades easy characterization. Because he is more than one thing, he feels like the real thing.

I think Hamlet always makes more sense with a younger actor playing Hamlet, because youth effectively dissolves the questions about his “inconsistency.” If he’s 35, it’s harder to reconcile his introspection and seriousness with his raging and wisecracking; you almost have to make up theories about his madness or his calculating nature. It’s so much simpler, and more dramatically effective, to see him as a young person thrashing in the wake of an extreme circumstance, the way that Lisa thrashes.

Lisa’s multiple iterations are a direct result of her youth. Much like I was, she’s painfully self-aware; you can almost see her watching herself from outside her body, horrified but helpless to stop herself. She’s quick to comment on her own behavior and admit embarrassment or regret. She’s a person in search of an identity to call home, surprising herself moment to moment by the things that come out of her mouth. Adults modulate their behavior situationally, but they’ve accumulated enough experience with themselves that they have a kind of core, a center from which they can pivot. Teenagers lack this core, and the experience can lead to a nausea about their identity, a kind of seasickness.

It’s hard to get a read on Lisa because she doesn’t have a read on herself. We don’t know exactly what to root for because we don’t know exactly what she wants. Watching her story unfold is destabilizing and uncomfortable in a way that mimics the discomfort of adolescence itself. The only thing that Lisa really knows about herself is how she feels, which is hardly a stable foundation for action. Watching Margaret puts an ache in the pit of my stomach, because I remember what it was like to yearn to be a whole person, to hope against hope that I was somehow coming across as good, as making sense.

There is a scene in Margaret where a woman calls out Lisa for “dramatizing” her situation; in response Lisa essentially has a panic attack. Hot tears shoot from Anna Paquin’s face and her voice is strained and squeaking and uncontrolled. She pushes words out with all the strength of her lungs, desperate, unhinged.

“I feel so bad about what happened, and I’m trying so hard to do something about it, and I don’t understand why if I say something wrong, you can’t just give me a break.” Then she gets softer, sadder, broken: “But I’m not trying to dramatize anything, I really didn’t know about that trend and I really don’t think I’ve been doing that.” And she really, really doesn’t. Anna Paquin is astonishing here—she is absolutely lost inside herself, sorry and confused and hysterical. Lisa is free falling in that vast space between her idea of herself and the way she has actually acted. I’ve gotten lost in that gap, and I know I must look something like Lisa does here when I find myself there.

It’s hard for me to even watch Margaret because it is so sharp and so unromantic about exactly what it looks like to be passionate but not yet fully formed. When I was putting together this piece, I went flipping through old diaries to try to find a relevant quote, and I was surprised to find that I was actually repulsed by much of what I read. I have always tried to cultivate a generosity toward my younger self, an appreciation for my nascent ideals tempered by an understanding of my developmental limits. But I was shocked to see, in my own writing, how often I was self-centered and mean, and how oblivious I was about it. In the New Yorker recently, Lonergan said, “In some way, a teenager can be—at least in a play or a movie—a metaphor for a grownup, which is a half-formed person coping with the world.” In those diaries, I saw my teenage self as a metaphor for my current self—so passionate, so thoughtful, and so powerless to see her own selfishness, so worried that she’s doing it wrong because she actually is, so often, doing it wrong.

I also wrote a lot of songs in junior high and high school, most of which are equally embarrassing. The lyrics read as me genuinely trying to work some things out about myself, but also inevitably as showing off a little bit. They remind me of the way Lisa drops sentences like, “Not that I want to use this woman’s death as my own personal moral gymnasium.” Because, of course, that’s exactly what Lisa is doing, but she’s simultaneously aware and unaware of it, in a way that is almost as frustrating to her as it is to us as viewers.

One of the songs I wrote as a teenager tried to get at this cognitive dissonance. I knew that I cared about things, and that I had big ideas about the kind of life I wanted to live. But none of that was matching up with the experience I was really having in my day-to-day life, where I knew I was coming off as a bit of a melodramatic smartass.

When it’s midnight, I can write life,
and a notebook holds plan A and B
By the lamplight I can see right
But the daybreak scatters most of me
I hope I am who I am at midnight

In another song, called “Tumble,” I called myself “a cynical, capricious dramatist,” which sounds a lot like Lisa, and also sounds totally insufferable. But that song did come from a place of genuine confusion and pain:

I’m spinning in gravel
And still I can’t stop
I’m coming unraveled
and still I just babble.

At one point, Lisa describes herself as “just this mass of conflicting impulses.” When I was a teenager, I knew this about myself, and I actively longed for the day when I could feel myself moving from any kind of a center, when the waves inside me would die down. And, from the perspective of a decade later, they have, in a relative sense. I do feel a little more stable, a little more whole. But watching Margaret reminds me of how fragile and inaccurate our self-concepts have been and can be. If Lisa is seventeen in Margaret, and the story is meant to take place in 2006, then Lisa would be in her mid-twenties now, just as I am. This thought feels silly to think about a fictional character, but I can’t help but think it, if only for my own sake: I hope she’s found a little more peace. I hope she can see a little more clearly. I hope she’s not done trying to fight for a better world and a better self.

 


Lauren Wilford is a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has a degree in Aesthetics and Narrative Studies from Seattle Pacific University, and lives in Providence, RI, where she works as a barista in specialty coffee.


An Interview with Kenneth Lonergan

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Chad Perman

Kenneth Lonergan has talked a lot about Margaret since its release in 2011, but unfortunately, a whole lot of that talk has been about his years long struggle to get the film released. It was undoubtedly a painful experience for him, and one he’s loathe to endlessly revisit. As it happened, though, we had essentially no interest in talking to him about any of that; we were far more interested in the film itself, which has enough depth and layering to it to fill out a thousand conversations.

Lonergan is often painted by the press as a grumbling, reluctant, or cantankerous subject, but my experience with him couldn’t have been more the opposite. He was warm, introspective, humorous, and overly generous with his time (I was allotted 30 minutes for the interview, but we ended up talking for nearly an hour and a half). When the recorder I was using to tape the interview failed shortly after his publicist connected us, he invited me to take my time figuring it out, giving me his number so I could call him back directly, and letting me know he was mostly free all day. He asked if we had been able to secure an interview with the film’s star, Anna Paquin, and when I told him she had to pass due to her busy schedule, he let me know he would personally email her right away and try to convince her to do it. He mentioned several times throughout our conversation that he loved having the opportunity to talk about Margaret, and found the process a whole lot of fun.

“Any friend of Margaret,” he told me near the end of our conversation, “is a friend of mine.”

*

Bright Wall/Dark Room: I wanted to start by asking you about some of the psychology behind the film.

Kenneth Lonergan: Sure.

I’ve read that your parents were both Freudian psychoanalysts?

My mother and my step-father are, yeah.

Do they ever talk with you about the psychology behind your work then?

Not really, mostly they watch as parents. My step-father will occasionally have an insight or venture out onto that field, but for the most part he just talks about my work in terms of it being a movie or a play.

And how much psychological research or awareness do you consciously bring into creating something a film like Margaret? It’s easy to look back and see the psychology at work in hindsight, but is that something you’re aware of as you’re writing it?

Very little, I’d say. I mostly think of it in terms of the story and the personality while I’m writing. Psychologically—I mean I’m very interested in human psychology obviously and in people’s personalities—but it’s an interesting thing because it’s not actually that useful when you’re trying to write a story. It’s all sort of speculative why anyone does something one way or another and if it’s not you, then it’s very hard to speak with any kind of authority.

For a long time I had the idea—and this is a psychological idea—that Lisa was partly responsible for causing the bus accident because she’s been having a day where she’s had fun being a girl. She’s 17 and has just successfully discomforted a teacher who she has a crush on, her friend says he wants to go out with her, and then she’s flirting with this bus driver who’s very good looking. And unfortunately for her, this ends up causing this hideous accident and the death of this woman. And it’s just very bad luck for her, spoiling this day of fairly routine exploration and enjoyment of her sexuality, which isn’t really developed, and has these horrible consequences. So that’s there, but it’s also pretty straightforward—it’s not a particularly deep insight, and it’s pretty easy for most people to make that connection.

A thought came to me though—I had it early on in my notes, before I even started writing it—that one of the many things she does in response to this is that she tries to seek some kind of sexual punishment by throwing herself at these various men later on, until she actually gets pregnant and then has to have an abortion. But—and here’s the interesting part—all of that may or may not be true, but when thinking about the acting and the writing and how to direct an actor, that kind of thinking is useless because it’s just an opinion. It’s a psychological interpretation of her behavior, but you cannot tell an actress to punish herself psychologically. It’s impossible. You can only act actions. You can act certain actions in certain situations in certain different ways, but you cannot say “Ok Anna, now remember, you’re punishing yourself psychologically here.” (laughs) That’s the result, but not what your behavior is.

So then you start looking around for what she is doing, and what she is doing is trying to make a connection with somebody else. Now, if she’s trying to make a connection with somebody who is clearly inappropriate, who her defenses are telling her is not going to be nice to her, then you could draw the conclusion that she’s looking for trouble or some kind of retribution, but it’s not an active thing. That’s the interesting thing about the inside of your mind: if you’re trying to tell a story, or act out a story, you still have to go with what you can see and prove. It’s really interesting to think about those two different sides of things, because ultimately I had to say to myself that that was just my opinion, as an observant person, that that’s what she’s doing—but from her point of view, as far as she knows, she’s just trying to make contact with these people. And that in fact has a greater relevance to what she’s doing overall. She’s not just trying to make sexual contact, she’s trying to make any kind of contact with anybody. She feels very alone and isolated in her experience.

Her mother accidentally gives her the wrong advice, so she becomes an enemy from Lisa’s point of view and then—I didn’t make this observation but a friend of mine, Alexis, Matthew Broderick’s niece, I was asking her advice about something when I was editing it and I said, “The film is about...”and I was going to finish the sentence by saying “people having no connection to each other”, but she interrupted me saying “it’s about people trying to make connections, people making connections with strangers.” And I said what are you talking about? The whole movie is about while you’re having your life everybody else is having their own life, and there’s no correlation. And she pointed out that Lisa runs over a stranger and forms a bond with her immediately, she tries to make a connection with the bus driver, she tries to make a connection with Emily, she tries to make a connection with all her teachers. She’s desperately trying to get someone to be in the same emotional space as her—which hadn’t occurred to me for a second.

Oh really? That wasn’t a conscious design on your part?

No, no. Honestly, not to sound touchy feely about it, but you are just trying to tell the story of what happens. And you can’t get too deep into the subconscious part of it, because it doesn’t go anywhere.

Well you could, I guess, but it would likely end up being too heavy-handed or didactic. It wouldn’t be a good story.

No, exactly.

When you talk about her feeling isolated and looking everywhere for connection, how much of that do you think is a function of her simply being an adolescent and feeling lost in the way so many of us do at that age—or do you feel most of it is directly related to this traumatic experience she’s just been through?

Thinking about it after having made the film, I’d say it’s specific to the story. I don’t think she’s a particularly isolated character before the inciting incident. The few scenes we see with her and her mother before the misguided advice, they’re very close. She goes home right to her mom, she leaves her friends at the movies to go find her mother, and then goes out with her mother and her friends and feels better. And then when she goes to school again she feels like alien, and by the end of that day, when she’s really freaking out, the first person she goes to talk to is her mom. So I think she has good friendships and a good relationship with her mother—though not such a great one with her father—but I think it’s all really about the consequences of this terrible thing that has happened to her.

So in your mind that [misguided advice] was a fairly pivotal shift for their relationship, and for the movie as a whole?

I think so. Because [Joan]’s really—and I thought about this quite a bit when I was writing it—she’s just not thinking straight. Lisa interrupts her while she’s masturbating, so she’s very embarrassed. She’s a little discombobulated and she misunderstands the question. Joan is trying, but she sort of guesses the wrong answer. It’s her opinion, and it’s sort of this liberal, upper West Side-y type of advice, and it happens to be the exact opposite of what Lisa wants to hear. I thought about that a lot and we talked about it a lot. Anna, J, and I all talked about it and I said “You know, I think when you hear that, Anna, you basically feel like she’s leaving you hanging out to dry with this problem, because she’s not reading you right. And because you’re 17 and not 27, you don’t say ‘No I want to go back to the police’, you just decide that she doesn’t understand.” Which is the beginning of a pattern of very mean behavior that Lisa has towards her mom, for not giving her the advice she wants.

And then one of their next interactions is a big fight where they both say all these horrible things to each other. That was Lisa lashing out because of the previous misunderstanding?

Yeah, I think she punishes her relentlessly from that point on, until nearly the end of the movie. There are a couple of breaks from it—and this is something I tracked as best I could—I think one of the tricky parts to me was why she’s friendly to her when she’s reviewing her play. In the sequence that comes right before, I can’t remember exactly now, but I think something happens that relieves some of the pressure on Lisa about the accident. She’s met Emily [Jeannie Berlin], and feels a little less guilty, and gives her mother a little bit of a break temporarily. But it’s very short-lived. And then essentially, as soon as she hears her mother being relieved that she didn’t get bad reviews—and then hears the radio talking about Palestinians—she decides again that her mother is very superficial and shallow, and she turns on her again very quickly.

And by the way, I never found the mother to be shallow or superficial at all, just because she’s an actress that cares about whether or not she gets good reviews.

Sure, but Lisa definitely latches onto that aspect of it. There’s a scene in the published screenplay—which I don’t think actually appears in any of the versions of the film I’ve seen—where Lisa is talking to a friend about why she didn’t try out for the high school play, saying “I'm not gonna make a fuckin' ass out of myself parading around in a play so I can ask everyone how great I was for three years afterwards like my fuck-ass mother.”

That’s right. (laughs) We actually shot that scene and I really liked it. I’m not quite sure why we cut it out. I think maybe it felt a little too redundant.

I could see how it might be a bit too on the nose, but it also highlights pretty directly the aversion to this type of theatricality or shallowness she perceives in her mom—even though, at the same time, there’s really no one more dramatic throughout most of the film than Lisa, her emotions are so big and all over the place. So it’s almost like she’s projecting and rejecting that part of herself.

Yeah, definitely.

And so she’s got a lot of anger obviously, but she uses it almost as a shield against all these other emotions she’s struggling with. Especially guilt, which seems to be underneath almost everything she does, but she’s very rarely just direct about saying that. There’s no scene where she goes to someone like a priest or a therapist to talk about her guilt—

Well, in an earlier and much longer draft, I did have Joan insist that she go and see a therapist, and so she does, but nothing much comes of it. We didn’t talk so much about whether it’s guilt or not though. I think she’s just trying to make it right, whether it’s inside herself or outside of herself. She’s thrashing around quite a while before she takes action, and I think she feels horribly guilty before she tells her mother about it.

But once she does tell her about it and it doesn’t do any good, I think she essentially doesn’t know what to do with all the bad feelings that are caused by this, and once she does then she finally starts to take some action. I had an idea—and I don’t know if this is too highfalutin or not—but there’s a scene in the theater class where the teacher wraps them all up for a group therapy session, and the idea for that scene, and the whole movie in a way, is that she’s trying to apply these teenage tools to a very adult situation. And they don’t apply. They’re not going to help her. There’s something about that scene that felt really important; it’s a pivotal scene. It’s after that scene—after looking at Darren and Paul and her friend Becky and they’re all looking at her and she’s kind of reached the end of the rope with her friends and realizes that she’s not going to get anywhere through those channels—right after that she calls the police. Structurally it works out that the first half of the film is in Teenage World and the second half is in Adult World, and so that scene felt right.

Her life keeps going in high school but she’s taking action outside of that to try and find out more about the dead woman and her life, and then she goes to the funeral, then she tries to call her father for advice and that doesn’t work out and then she eventually goes to Brooklyn to try and talk with the bus driver—there’s a lot of pivots—she catches up with the bus driver and realizes that he doesn’t feel the same, and his attitude gives her a purpose because he doesn’t admit to anything. It was also important to me that she acknowledge that she was responsible fairly early on. I didn’t want people—at a certain point she tells the police what she did and then she wants the bus driver to say what he did, and when he won’t, that gives her at least something she can try to do.

Yeah, it seems like in terms of processing traumatic events, therapeutically one of the things we’re always looking to do is to give that a positive or productive direction to channel the trauma response into. It seems like you’re saying her first drive is towards connection, trying to get someone to be in the same emotional space as her, but that’s not working, so then she turns to seeking out some kind of justice, a very teenage sense of “I’m going to make this right!”. Was that what you were going for?

Well, I was trying to look at something to do with how big the world is—how much bigger it is than one girl, or any of us—and how varied people’s experiences are and how everybody going about their business is what actually gets in her way. The world is not going to yield to her just because she has strong feelings. To me it’s more a story of a terrible thing happening to her, there’s nowhere for her to put it, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. It’s the consequences out in the world that I’m more interested in than in a psychological portrait of her—which would be perfectly valid—but I hope it’s ultimately of bigger scope than just that.

But one thing I like about her is that she—you know, many people who like the film often comment on what an abrasive, unpleasant character she is. And I find her to be a bit abrasive but not unpleasant; she’s mostly just mean to her mother, who she feels very hurt by. The only teenaged thing about her sense of trying to get some justice is that she thinks it’s possible, whereas most of us give up on that after a while. She’s not just going home and writing in her journal about what’s happened to her, she’s actually trying to do something about what she did. So I rather admire her for that, even if the way she does it isn’t exactly gentle.

I was talking to Tony Kushner last week and at one point he said “It’s amazing that anybody ever survives their own childhood...”

Yeah. (laughs)

 “...It’s this terrible process of loss.” And he talked about the glories of adolescence as well, how there is wonder to it, but that there’s always loss. I don’t like to call Margaret a ‘coming of age’ film because that doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s certainly a movie that grapples with how the world actually operates. And there’s a huge loss to that, giving up the idea that you can change things in the world, or that good intentions will lead to some kind of justice or resolution.

I think so. And I think that’s one of the big things the movie is trying to be about. It’s very admirable and touching how much kids care about things. It seems naïve and so you sort of smile when they say, like, “I’m never going to rest until racism is eradicated!” But I mean who’s on the right side of the argument in that case – the jaded, tired grown-up or the kid that’s seeing something that’s wrong with fresh eyes and feels they have the energy and the will to try and do something about it? I think the most admirable people are those who can maintain that feeling into adulthood, unlike all the rest of us who tend to sit back and think “Oh well.”

Once the film ends—with that cathartic scene at the opera house—do you get the sense that Lisa is going to be crushed that she went up against the world and couldn’t get anything done, or do you feel like she’ll keep fighting?

It’s very hard for me to think past the last page. The only thing I do think is that if she hadn’t—you know my idea at the end is that she’s done her very, very best and gotten nowhere and she’s able, with the help of Renee Fleming and Susan Graham, to forgive her mother for not being perfect either. And I think that’s a big step for most people growing up, that unless their parents are unusually reprehensible people, they’re able to see their parents as human beings and reconnect with them as fellow grown-ups and people who are not perfect. So I think that’s a nice thing that happens at the end.

But I don’t know. At one point I thought it might be a good ending to have her disappearing into the crowd. In fact, in an earlier draft it doesn’t end at the opera, it ends with her leaving her mother and going off to meet some friends and Joan watching her disappear into the night and being absorbed by the rest of the city. But then I thought that was just too depressing. The movie has quite a lot of that imagery already in it, and I thought it would be better to end on the moment of connection rather than a moment of her disappearing into the world of adults and becoming just another grown-up.

I’m guessing from all the use of operatic music and themes throughout the film that you’re a big fan of the opera?

I’m not a very developed fan of the opera, but I love it. I only know a few operas very well and I don’t go as often as I should. I’m very fond of classical music, but the opera itself I only know maybe a dozen. But I do love it and think there’s something very special about it. The size of it—and all these metaphorical extensions of the story only occur to me afterwards—but there is a certain parallel between the outsized emotions of a young person and the outsized emotion of the opera. I suppose that was in the back of my head, both in how beautiful they are and how absurd they can seem. And I have this line from another play that I wrote that talks about how the importance that opera gives to these dramas in people’s lives is both absurd and very truthful. Because everyone’s life is very important.

Which is an interesting dynamic that you’re always playing around with in Margaret: how urgent and important Lisa’s life feels to her, but juxtaposed against how important everybody feels their own life is, all around her, and just how many fucking people there are in the world. And cinematically the film very much echoes that theme as well, with overlapping dialogue and these little windows into other people’s lives—and they all have something going on that feels important to them. At what point did you decide to structure it that way?

I think when I was writing the script that idea, and those kinds of images, just kept creeping in and I let it come in. I couldn’t have said what the exact relationship was between that idea and those images and the main story—but when those ideas occur to you, you put them down very quickly, because if you find them attractive there’s usually some reason. And then when we were shooting the movie, it just kept coming up over and over again. The last layer of it was putting in all the extra conversations, although that idea had been in my head for quite awhile. While we were shooting the movie I was paying much more attention than usual to overheard conversations in the street and while I was editing the film I would write down all sorts of things that I heard. I literally would go to the locations by myself, with a tape recorder, to listen to people talking. Like the Hilton, I went there because I knew the people there wouldn’t be from the city and so they’d be talking about different things, and that’s where I overheard the guy saying “Ok, Ground Zero and then I’ll meet you guys at the theater”, which is one of my favorite lines in the movie.

There’s always this sense that there is just so much life going on all around her, and I don’t think I’ve ever really seen another movie quite like that.

I haven’t either, and I was really excited to stumble upon it. And I have to say, it was there from the very beginning. Because a scene like the one in the diner with Darren was there right away, that’s a very early scene of the film and I knew the idea of the scene was that she was having this terribly upsetting conversation and he had no idea what was bothering her, she was completely alone with this terrible secret, but the conversation is dominated by all that dialogue from the two women next to them, which was written out in parallel in the script and we shot that, and then I added the conversation—that’s me on the phone, having two phone conversations—and then we added one more couple talking and then a whole bunch of Polish dialogue also, which was supposed to be the waitresses, but it became too complicated to follow so we had to strip it down a little bit. (laughs)

Everyone was mic’d separately, and in the editing room we tried all these different sound levels and oddly enough the first one we did—where you could barely hear Lisa and Darren until you get right up close to the table—was the most effective. I went back and forth because I thought it was maybe too weird, but eventually we ended up going with it and it was clearly the right choice.

It seems at times like, for lack of a better word, almost an anthropological view of things. That you take us out of the story from time to time with these camera shots to remind us that there’s another way to see all of this—that it’s important, but that it’s also just one story in a city of a million stories.

It’s exactly that, what you just said. In fact, I used the word “anthropological” to myself and to the DP quite a lot. And the music too, for the most part, serves in the same way: it widens the perspective. Nico Muhly, who composed most of the music, said when I played him Wagner's overture from "Lohengrin"—which is the music I love the most in the film, the repeated high, slow strings that come in three or four times—when I played that for him he said, “I like it because the music is not from her point of view, it’s like it’s from above.” And that’s exactly what it was meant to convey, somehow.

And so then is there any direct connection for you between that thematic idea and the King Lear scene, where they’re reading the passage about what our lives must seem like to the gods?

Actually you know, that’s very funny—in all this time I never made that connection with that line of dialogue from the play. But of course it makes sense now that you’re talking about it—though it also happens to be the actual line that prompted that actual argument when I was in my English class in 11th grade. See this is what’s so much fun, I mean since you’d wanted to talk about the psychological process that happens when you’re working on a film, basically whatever you’re interested in just keeps popping up all over the place without you meaning for it to, and then afterwards you look like this wonderful mastermind, this master of all your materials. (laughs)

That’s hilarious, because I was thinking—especially after talking to Tony Kushner, who was praising all these intricate patterns and designs in the film—that you had definitely planted all these clues for us to find. But it sounds like you’re saying it wasn’t all that conscious?

I’d say maybe it was semi-conscious. But a lot of it is just that if you’re lucky enough to hit on something that is this fully formed inside of your head and you let it sort of write itself—trusting that your mind is on to something that is trying to come out for whatever reason—all these connections do appear once you let them come to the surface. Because that scene, for instance, has no right to be in the movie because it serves no purpose whatsoever in advancing the story, but people really like that scene, and I do too. Even some of the producers and executives who objected to the film’s length, nobody ever wanted to cut that scene.

It’s a classic example of a scene where maybe an ignorant person would say it’s wonderful but it doesn’t advance the action so it should be cut. But it has so much value, even if I couldn’t say precisely what it was for others, but the value it has for me consciously was that it showed just how impossible it was to get through to anybody. Lisa’s trying to turn the wheels of justice and bring the bus driver to heel and get him fired and give some kind of positive results to this woman’s pointless death and accomplish very, very difficult things in the world—and this teacher cannot get one kid in his class to concede one stupid point about one line in one of Shakespeare’s plays. But because I was so focused on that, I’ve been able to not notice for fifteen years now that what they’re talking about in the play actually has some thematic resonances with some of the other ideas in the film. It’s very interesting how our minds work. That’s what makes talking about all of this fun.

The classroom scenes in general seem to mostly operate as a kind of insight as to where Lisa is at in the film.

Well, my first structural idea about this story was that I wanted to see her entire life continue, and not be subsumed by the plot. That seemed like a really exciting thing to try and do because I’d never seen that before. Then it escalated structurally from there to incorporate not just her life but everybody in the movie’s life as much as possible—and then everybody who is not even in the story but who just happens to be passing by or whose windows are across the street—which all turned out to have great resonance to what was happening to her. So that was why I included all those scenes in school and I think the ones that came to the surface and got themselves written and shot were scenes that had something to do with what was going on with her.

Well again, they almost mirror or magnify elements of the story.

Yeah, for sure. And Anna’s so wonderful—all those kids in those scenes are excellent, and of course Matthew [Broderick] is so great. I love all those scenes, like that shot of Anna and Olivia Thirlby sitting there listening to the poem, where Anna is clearly so bothered by what she’s hearing and that’s why she doesn’t want to talk about it. In that scene I certainly knew what was going on when I put it in there—I knew the movie was going to be named after the poem before that scene was written.

The poem wasn’t there at the very beginning, it was an idea that came to you during the writing process?

It was an idea that came in somewhat early on, but not at the beginning. I had this story on one of my backburners for several years and when I started writing it—and I almost never do this—but I wrote out the structure of the movie in my notebook, about eight pages worth of notes, and I was very excited because I usually have a much harder time thinking of the beginning, middle, and end of a story. But this came out pretty whole. I knew where it was going. I only hit a couple of stumbling blocks, and so it ended up being one of the easiest things I’ve ever written and one of the most fun. Maybe the most fun.

Oh really?

Yeah, I just literally closed my eyes and let it happen. I mean, there was that structural idea that I liked, and then I tried as an experiment to just not edit it at all, to not think of the finished product at all while I was writing the first draft. So like the original scene with the bus driver was eighteen pages long. I just let scenes play on and on and on, and by accident stumbled onto this kind of ultra-naturalistic way of telling the story that I think moves beyond the normal type of movie into something else.

You have to be willing to slow down with it. When we were cutting it together and experimenting with how it should work in the editing room, it seemed to me that there’s a natural place where your movie-watching training tells you a scene should stop, and we’d go beyond that and let it play out and you’d feel a little bored because you felt like the scene should be over. But then once you passed that point and the scene still went on, I found myself—as a would-be audience member—suddenly listening to the scenes as if they were real situations, as if they were really happening. And that was really exciting to discover and try to work with. But I think I’ve really strayed from your question.

That’s ok, I don’t even remember what the question was any more. This is much more interesting.

(Lonergan laughs)

But you’re saying that’s not normally how you approach the writing process then?

It was an exaggerated version of what I usually try to do. My goal is always to try and get the script to write itself, but I usually will have my eye on the length and the big picture and the overall rhythms of it, and this time I just wanted to see what would happen if I turned that part off. And it was actually really fun what happened.

Which is interesting when compared to something like You Can Count on Me, which has such a different feeling to it. It’s another one of my very favorite films and there are certainly some similarities—your compassion for all the characters, the subtle realism of the dialogue, the messiness of life—but it’s in a much tighter box. Watching them back to back, it can almost feel like they were made by different people, with entirely different processes.

Interesting.

Or maybe it’s just me? I don’t know. And I haven’t had a chance to see Manchester by the Sea yet—

No, no, I think Manchester is—I like it a lot but I think it’s more like a regular movie, a conventional movie, as You Can Count on Me is, and I think with Margaret I stumbled on a really different way to tell a story. I didn’t intend to, but it worked out. It takes two hours to watch a movie, and in a single day you’re awake for sixteen hours, so you can’t make a movie that’s the same length as real life or it would go on forever. But if your conceit is that you’re just going to let it play out in real time, or something like it, and your other conceit is that you’re going to include everybody who you come into contact with and give them as full a life as possible, I mean you could write that script forever—and it would be a lot of fun. But again, Margaret is about everybody else in the movie; the structure and the content are one and the same. Which was different for me, and very exciting.

It’s amazing, and makes for a really unique cinematic experience. I mean, you’ve been living with the film for over a decade now, have you come across any other movie that seemed to be trying to do anything comparable?

Well, it’s not really analogous, but I watched Nashville recently, which is such a great movie. And the thing about Altman’s movies with his multiple characters and the loose structure that he has, he still manages to hold it together and keep you interested and engaged in all these different people whose lives are intersecting. But I really didn’t have him in mind at all as I was doing Margaret.

That’s interesting, because I was thinking that some of the sound design and overlapping dialogue must have been taken from something like McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

No, not deliberately. I mean you’re always ripping people off left and right without knowing it—and occasionally you do it consciously—but I really wasn’t thinking of him at all. I’m a big admirer of his, but he’s such a master of improvisation. He would mic everyone up and tell everyone to just start talking and then later he would pick and choose what he wanted to use, and it’s just completely the opposite approach to my own, which is sitting down, writing the script, and then having the actors perform it.

I’ve heard that’s something you’re very much in control of, the pauses and stutters and cadence of the dialogue, that that’s something you have in mind even while you’re writing it.

Very much so. Some people are very good at memorizing things word for word and others tend to memorize things more loosely—and I’m actually in the latter category on the rare occasions when I act, interestingly enough. Although it sometimes feels a little bit restrictive to insist on people sticking so closely to the script, but I actually feel like it really works. I spend a lot of time working on the script and deciding what people are saying and how they’re saying it, but then the actors have to actually become these people—which is even more difficult—so I let them do that.

And I have to say that within that structure, I’m more and more attracted to the accidents that happen. Every time something went wrong or something unexpected happened, I ended up putting it in, in all three movies. And while we were shooting, we improvised—the shooting was actually on a much looser plan that we deviated from whenever we felt like it. Like all those shots of the airplanes going up the center of Broadway, I knew I wanted to shoot some airplanes at some point, but that was not planned. We were going to shoot the exterior of Lisa’s apartment building one night, on Broadway and 87th Street, and we were waiting for the sun to set. And then one of the PAs came up to me and said “There are airplanes coming up right up the center of Broadway every five minutes!” So my cameraman and I had an incredibly fun time just, like, trying to grab these airplanes and follow them all the way. We did that for about a half hour and then I told him I thought we’d probably done enough. He’s this very handsome, dashing Polish guy, Ryszard Lenczewski, and I remember he put the camera down—he’s usually a bit stoical—and he said (Lonergan adopts a thick Polish accent) “That was a lot of fun.” (laughs) Which it really was. And after a while we just kind of got in the habit of whenever we were finished with any exterior scene we would just shoot everything we could for a couple of minutes before we moved to the next location. We got a lot of our best stuff like that, on the fly.

The words that seem to be coming up most as we’re talking are “fun” and “exciting”, which is not something I was expecting at all. The movie itself is so raw and heavy at times—and I think most people, myself included, have also read so much at this point about the long, torturous battle to get the film made and released how you wanted it—that I guess I hadn’t considered how much fun you were having.

Well, yeah, it was really fun and very exciting. I mean, you know, no movie shoot is fun; it’s really grueling—but fortunately what stands out in your mind afterwards are the fun parts, and the stresses tend to recede a bit. The creative part of making the film was always a real pleasure, it was just the procedural nightmare that blossomed after the initial phase of the editing process that was so difficult. But everything else was just a creative challenge; fun to meet and fun to try and overcome.

Speaking of overcoming challenges, I’ve heard you say many times that you’re very interested in characters who can’t seem to quite overcome their own obstacles or struggles, which is something you return to a lot in your storytelling.

Yeah.

I was wondering if you have any sense of what that’s about for you, why you’re drawn to that?

I don’t really know. I guess it’s two things: I seem to be interested in people overcoming their own internal problems, but what I’m more aware of is people who are just faced with overwhelming situations and challenges from the outside world and just the spectacle of all of us sitting here in the face of this immense universe, or shrinking it down to this immense city, or even your immense family. It’s always the size of things compared to human beings that I find to be very interesting to look at artistically, and I don’t know what that’s about. I remember from a sort of a child-like point of view in a way—I’ve never felt like I’ve completely mastered what it’s like to be a grown up.

Which is another thing I heard you say recently, “Grown ups are just grown up kids.”

Yes, right!

Which is so absolutely true. As a therapist, talking with so many people over the years and hearing their stories, I’ve realized that hardly anybody seems to actually feel like an adult. Everyone seems to keep waiting for this feeling to come that never comes.

I know, and I’m not sure if that’s the most laudable quality in us. (laughs) But I am fairly sure that it’s a bit of a luxury to have that feeling. Because if you look at older movies, or other cultures or demographics, I don’t think you get that quite as often. I mean I think it may be equally true, people who are forced to take charge of their lives or encouraged to do that do, and do feel like adults. But the fact is that they’re still individuals coping with circumstances bigger than themselves, whether or not they feel adult or grown up. That particular phenomenon, or that way of looking at it, is clearly more analogous to the experience of a child than the experience of a supposed adult. It is interesting though, it’s part of the human condition I guess, so to speak.

And there were often crucibles or rites of passage in older times or different cultures—these rituals you had to pass through and then you’d get an official stamp of, you know, congratulations, you’re an adult now. But the sense that I get from your movies, and also in my therapy practice, is that most people are waiting to cross some imaginary finish line that marks them as an adult, and waiting for these more childlike things to go away. Which of course never happens.

Yeah, exactly.

And this will come up even when I’m talking with a 70 year old. Nobody ever really feels their age. Most people, when we really drill down to it, feel like they’re fairly young and are trying to act like adults. Which I think is something your movies and plays really do a great job of encapsulating, this performative aspect of trying to be an adult in the world, and this gap between what we thought it would feel like, as kids, to be an adult and then what it actually ends up being like.

Oh, thank you.

Which actually leads me to one of my last questions, about a character I’m guessing you’ve never been asked about: Curtis, the little brother.

Sure.

I was watching Margaret for the fifth or sixth time recently, and I found myself fascinated by this kid and wondering what in the world is going on in his mind. He’s practicing piano and playing his video games and going about his little life, but meanwhile all this stuff is going on around him. And then of course the one time he opens his mouth, Lisa tells him to shut up.

Yeah. (laughs)

But the whole time maybe he’s taking in all this information, like  on an anthropological level, about how adults act. I hadn’t really thought much about him the previous times I watched the film, but this time I was almost thinking maybe he was this hidden key, or like an audience surrogate of some kind. Or maybe I'm just really over-thinking it?

No, I wish...I hope that’s true. I really do. Because I mostly feel like he’s the only character in the movie that is a bit underdeveloped, on my part. So I hope he accidentally has that value, that would be wonderful.

I like when people get what I intended, but I also really like when they get something else—unless it’s completely contrary to what I intended, in which case I feel like I’ve failed in some way. But when people think of things about a film or a play I’ve done that I haven’t thought of I’m usually very happy, because to me it means that it’s really invested with some life of its own. I like the fact that some people don’t like Lisa, because that means that she’s like a real person, who different people have different opinions about, and not a projection or a description of a person, like “she’s really nice” or “she’s really annoying” or “she’s really sad”.

The very last thing I wanted to ask you about, which I’ve wondered since I first saw You Can Count on Me, is how much you’re personally involved in the music in your films. Like the opening song in Margaret, that wonderful classical guitar song from the 1800s.

Within the limits of what you can afford to buy and use in the movie, I’m very much involved. For the most part it’s me and the composer and the editor, and most of the music for Margaret was music that I found and tried against the picture—and that’s also one of the most fun parts of the process for me, is trying the music. “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” was something I heard on the radio, and I immediately thought it would be great for the opening sequence I’d already written. And then I heard the “Barcarrolle” on this CD I had of opera’s greatest duets, and it wasn’t an opera I was familiar with, and I immediately thought that that would be perfect for the end, because I knew the ending was going to be the two of them at a concert. It’s all music that I chose. You know, you try a few different things you like against the picture and one after another doesn’t work, and then you put in the one that does work and it immediately seems to attach itself to the movie and you just can’t imagine even a different performance of it.

Sure—I mean I can’t imagine You Can Count on Me without the Bach Cello Prelude that runs throughout it. It’s like another character in the film.

It’s a gorgeous piece.

Well thank you, sincerely, for taking so much time out of your day to talk through Margaret with us. It’s been a tremendous pleasure.

Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it. The film has been underrepresented and it survives only because of people who like it, so this is thrilling for me. Any chance I get to talk about it or encourage people to see it is fun. Any friend of Margaret’s is a friend of mine.

And just by the way, I should say, in terms of which version is mine, they’re all mine but...the theatrical version is a version that was turned in and locked to meet a deadline in 2008. It was ultimately released when we couldn’t get approval to release the longer version that Scorsese and I worked on—no one’s seen that one. But the extended version is me going back to what I wanted to do and was trying to do the whole time. Because I was being sued, I wasn’t allowed to say anything negative in public about the theatrical version—and I don’t like to say anything negative about it because people like it, so it belongs to them now as well as me—but the extended version is, for me, the only version that I feel represents the film. They’re both mine, but I would not have released the theatrical version on my own. Because again, I don’t like to knock it since other people are attached to it now. But if it was up to me, I’d just leave the extended version out there forever. It’s way better, and it moves much faster too. I can’t watch the theatrical version any more.


An Interview with Matt Damon

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Chad Perman

Matt Damon knows a thing or two about talent. An Oscar-nominated actor and Oscar winning screenwriter, he’s worked with many of our finest directors—Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, Terry Gilliam, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott—over the course of nearly three decades in Hollywood.

But he clearly has a special place in his heart for Kenneth Lonergan, whom he’s known personally and professionally since 2002. In fact, he regards him as both a genius and a friend. And, according to several people in a position to know, Damon actually played a crucial role in getting Lonergan back into the director’s chair recently—a seat Lonergan was no doubt leery about stepping into again, following the lengthy and excruciating legal battles over the release of Margaret. Damon and actor John Krasinski had an idea for a film and pitched Lonergan on writing the screenplay, knowing that it was his kind of story—and that he needed to work, both artistically and financially. “He needed money, but he couldn’t write—it was this horrible limbo,” Damon told The New Yorker recently. “We got Kenny paid to write a draft.” After Lonergan spent nearly two years writing and honing the script, Damon told me it was clear to him that this was “a Kenny Lonergan film through and through,” and set about convincing him to direct it. “He was in love with those characters...so at that point I think we had him.”

Damon was originally set to play the lead role in the film, but was forced to step aside due to scheduling conflicts, turning the role over to his good friend, Casey Affleck. But he stayed on board as a producer, and couldn’t be more proud of how the film turned out. Recently, on the eve of Manchester by the Sea’s release—which has already garnered nearly universal acclaim and a handful of festival awards—Damon took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us for a bit about Lonergan, Manchester, and his memories of working on (and fighting for) Margaret.

*

BW/DR: I know you’re doing a lot of current things lately, but we’re actually looking to talk with you about something you did a long time ago.

Matt Damon: Yes, a ten year old movie.

Yeah, we thought we’d try to be really timely and relevant and put out an entire issue on a movie made in 2006. (laughs)

(laughs) Well, I haven’t seen it in a couple of years, but I have pretty good recall of it. I was making The Good Shepherd at the same time, and could only do Margaret on the weekends, so I was working seven days a week while I was working with Kenny on this thing.

Had he offered you the part directly?

Yeah, Kenny gave me the script and said there’s a small part in here for you, and obviously I wanted to be in it. I knew the lead was going to be Anna Paquin, and this was before Anna Paquin was really Anna Paquin—I mean of course she’d won an Academy Award when she was 6 years old or something, but it was before all the huge successes she’s had in the last decade—and I think a lot of his friends, all of us knew that if we could fill out the rest of these parts, we could help get the financing and get the movie made, and we just all really wanted to get it made. But yeah, I remember the script being about 180 pages—a normal script is usually about 120—and I remember that I just thought it was absolutely brilliant. I mean, it was a Kenny Lonergan movie.

You’d done a West End production of his play, This is Our Youth, back around 2002 or so, right?

I did, yeah. Casey Affleck and I did it together.

Was he directly involved in that production at all?

That was where I first met him. We were a replacement cast—it’s kind of a long drawn out story—but Madonna was coming over to do a play and the guy who had directed the version of the play that we were replacing went over to direct her instead. So we suddenly had no director! Then Kenny came over, which was great, to have the playwright actually come out and be part of it. He was very involved, and so we really got to know him over there, and had always stayed in touch after that. I just really think as a writer, I don’t envy a lot of people, but I definitely envy Kenny. He’s just so brilliant.

That’s definitely the thing I’m hearing most in these interviews, from just about everybody. We talked to Tony Kushner last week, who’s one of the very best writers alive, and he said basically the exact same thing, that he envies the writing. And you know, when Tony Kushner’s saying that about you...

That means you’re pretty good!

So as a writer yourself, and an actor as well, what is it about his writing that appeals to you?

It’s just that he has such a deep understanding of his characters, and he also has a deep understanding of human behavior. The way his characters relate to each other just strikes me as completely real and relatable, in a way that I find just profound in its simplicity. I don’t know if I can quite describe it. It’s like when you read someone like Hemingway or Salinger, and you go “I know all of those words, but I never thought to put them in that order.” (laughs) You know what I mean? Or you hear a song that just really gets you in a deep way and you sort of go “All those notes have been around forever, but nobody ever put them together in that way until now.”

That’s a great way of putting it.

And I guess that’s just how I feel about Kenny’s writing.

We’re not too interested in getting into all the legal battles that surrounded the film, but just on your end, were you aware of all that was going on? Did you get involved in any of that?

Yeah, I mean I knew it was in trouble and I was talking to him a lot through all of that. And I was definitely involved in the whole thing—I mean, it was a real mess. I just remember back in 2008 spending hours and hours on the phone with Fox Searchlight and a lot of email exchanges back and forth and all that. And then the whole regime at Searchlight changed and a whole new regime came on—and this all went on for years. Eventually I tried to go around Searchlight to Tom Rothman directly, who was running Fox, because he was an old friend of mine. That was when they had the idea to have Marty come in and do an edit, and who wouldn’t want that? You know what I mean? Hey guys, Marty Scorsese has final cut—I wish I could get that deal on all my movies!

But then they didn’t even end up releasing that version—to this day nobody has seen it!

I know, I know. The whole thing was just completely nuts. But I remember Tom calling me back and saying to me “This is the second conversation I’m having about this. I’ve already spoken to Marty and now I’m talking to you, because I’m going to be deposed and I want to be very clear about what I’ve said and who I’ve said it to. I’m having precisely two conversations about this and then I’m not talking about it again.” Which all wound up being true, we all were deposed eventually and it was a big ugly lawsuit.

Oh wow, I didn’t realize it got that far – so you were actually deposed?

Oh yeah, yeah. In fact, here’s a great story: At Sundance this year, right before the screening of Manchester by the Sea, I’m sitting with my wife and I’m suddenly aware of this figure looming over me. I look up and it’s Matt Rosengart, Kenny’s lawyer, who I haven’t seen since he had to depose me for the lawsuit with Kenny. He looks at me and says “It is really good to see you here.” And I look back and I go “Man, it is really good to see you here. This is more of how we should be meeting up!” (laughs)

Well it certainly seems like Manchester by the Sea is having a much easier time of things, in terms of getting released.

Yes, definitely.

And you were originally going to direct that, right?

I was, yeah. Well at least that’s what I told Kenny! And then once I read his script it was just so clear that he had to be the one to do it. And you know, he put up a little fight, but not much. I think by that point the characters kind of had their claws in him and he was in love with those characters. Which is the mark of all his movies really, he knows his characters so well and knows exactly what they’d say or do in any situation. So at that point I think we had him, and we knew he’d direct it.

So it wasn’t too much of a battle to get him to come on board?

He put up, like, a pretend fight for a couple minutes. But I ground him down pretty quickly.

Getting back to Margaret though, you play Mr. Aaron, a high school teacher. Looking over your filmography, I think that’s the only time you’ve played a teacher, right?

Yeah, actually. I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s right.

And what was it like working with Anna Paquin? What does she give you to work with as an actor?

Oh, she was brilliant. She was just great. This was all before her big explosion, and she’s obviously done well subsequently. It was odd to have somebody that young be that centered—she would really meet you in a scene on the front foot and just be so wonderful and truthful.

It’s a very, very difficult role, particularly for a young actress. But it’s also a fantastic role, and it needed her. I remember Kenny talking about it—because he’s very meticulous in his casting—and he was just so excited about Anna, because the whole thing hinges on a young actress being able to do all that she does, and we both thought she was just brilliant.

It’s really difficult imagining another actress being able to pull it off.

Exactly, exactly.

I watched the theatrical cut and the extended version back to back again recently, and your character comes off a bit differently in the two versions. Some of your scenes get cut down in a way that ends up leaving a lot more unclear or ambiguous about your character’s motivations, even about what actually happens, like if you and Anna Paquin’s character even sleep together—

Oh really?

Yeah, it sort of cuts out of the scene as she starts to move her head toward your lap - you didn’t know that? (laughs)

No, no, I’ve only seen Kenny’s cut. I never saw the theatrical cut—I had the inside baseball. (laughs) But I didn’t know that they’d cut it down and made that unclear.

Yeah, so when she comes up to him near the end and tells him she had an abortion, the audience isn’t exactly sure if that really happened, or if she’s just trying to shock or embarrass him—since it was never made directly clear if they’d even slept together.

Wow. Jesus.

Well, my question was going to be about what you thought of the difference between the two, but I guess never mind?

Yeah, no, I didn’t know any of that.

Just to the character of Mr. Aaron though, morally, the character is obviously behaving in a way that a teacher absolutely shouldn’t. So I was wondering what your thoughts were on his journey through the film?

I mean what I love most about Kenny is that he really does love all of his characters. And there’s something that Mr. Aaron does at the end there when she confronts him with this—you know, look, it’s about this girl who’s going through that moment in life where she realizes she has this power and she’s kind of reckless with it and, you know, in that moment what he does is he says “You need to tell whoever you need to tell.” And he completely owns it.

So he tries to behave nobly after behaving ignobly. And even though she was kind of the instigator and catalyst for all of it, he does know better, because he’s the adult—so he’s carrying all this guilt. And hopefully, if the scene works, then you see that in his face when he realizes that he’s done this damage and he owns it. But then she realizes that she’s going to ruin his life and so she kind of begs off and lets him off the hook. Which I always thought was really beautiful.

 

(Editor’s Note: this interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity)

 


An Interview with J. Smith-Cameron

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Chad Perman

First things first: this entire issue wouldn't exist—or, at least, would exist in a much different, lesser fashion—if it weren't for J. Smith-Cameron. She was the first to get behind our idea of an all-Margaret issue, as well as the first to sign on for an interview. And for that, we'll be forever grateful. 

Smith-Cameron has had a long and illustrious acting career, appearing in her first film way back in 1979 at the age of 22, before making her Broadway debut in 1982 and quickly becoming an award-winning mainstay of the New York theater scene. Still, few roles have ever fit Smith-Cameron quite so perfectly as the one which her husband, Kenneth Lonergan, created her for in Margaret. Theirs appears to be a true marriage of artists, both onscreen and off, fueled primarily by what she described to us as a "supportive curiousness" about each other's work and a genuine respect for what the other does—as well as the ability, when necessary, to shut all of that out and attend to the domestic duties of daily living.

She first met Lonergan in 1996, after he had seen her onstage at a Manhattan Theater Club performance of Craig Lucas’ one-act play, Blue Window, and began asking around to see if she might be interested in doing a workshop of one of his own plays. The two eventually married in 2000 and have been together ever since. She appeared in a small role in his first film, You Can Count on Me, before stepping into a much more prominent role in Margaret a few years later, playing the mother of the film’s teenage protagonist, Lisa (Anna Paquin). It was a role, Smith-Cameron told us, that was one of the very best she’s ever had; she felt quite connected to the character of Joan, and felt she had a good deal in common with her—perhaps not surprising, when you consider she thinks the part was “maybe unconsciously written for me.”

Since her remarkable turn in Margaret a decade ago, Smith-Cameron has stayed busy doing television—she’s currently starring in the final season of Ray McKinnon’s brilliant show, Rectify—as well as theater, where's she starred in, among other things, Lonergan’s 2009 play, The Starry Messenger, alongside Lonergan's best friend, Matthew BroderickShe’s also busy raising a teenager of her own these days (the couple has a 14 year old daughter together) and finding out firsthand just how eerily accurate her husband's portrayal of the mother/daughter dynamic in Margaret actually was. She spoke to us late last month about the film.

*

BW/DR: When did you first become aware of Margaret as a project?

J. Smith-Cameron: We had just had Nellie—I think she was right around six months old—and were spending the summer in Long Island, at the beach, when Kenny started writing the script. I think he probably had actually begun before he knew me though, in the form of notes or scenes. But I remember him writing for long hours, carried away, in what seemed like a kind of effortless flow. His writing desk was on an upper level of our bedroom and I remember lying on the bed, napping with the infant Nellie, and watching Kenny in silhouette, with the sun in the window behind him, tapping away at the computer.

He would talk about it a bit, at dinner maybe, just to say he was having a unique experience—he was just letting it all pour out, in an unchecked way, and felt it was like a kind of Great Experiment, because it was coming of its own force, freely, and he was just letting it unfold.

Does he discuss things with you while he's actively writing them, or do you wait to see a working draft of the script?  

He generally likes to keep a privacy with his work, which seems like a good practice for all writers. But occasionally he'd read me a funny exchange or show me a scene. It was such a long, elaborate process—writing the script, finding financing, casting, delays, casting again, editing, editing again. Even without the eventual snags it hit, Margaret was always a big project, by the nature of it. He used to call it his "teen epic," only half joking. It did have epic proportions to it, unlike any film I've ever known before, even just in its script form.

He usually does give me a draft to read, or let me see a rough cut of something before others see it; he's curious, though wary of getting reactions too early, understandably. But I think our relationship doesn't operate within a critical back-and-forth, as much as in a kind of supportive curiousness about each other's work. If that makes sense?

Yeah, I think I know what you mean, and I really love that phrase, “a supportive curiousness.” Can you say a bit more about how that plays out, in terms of all the work you both create?

It varies. You know, if I get offered something, or say two things conflict, Kenny will read them if he can and give me his two cents. Or we just think aloud with each other and try to suss out the pros and cons of a choice. He's very thoughtful that way. He knows I'm generally happier when I am working, even if I gripe about this or that, as people do. He's just generally encouraging to me. I think it's one area in which he takes me utterly seriously, as an actor. If there's something compelling about a character or a script that he doesn't pick up on right away, he's always curious to discuss it with me. He’s also interested in my casting suggestions, because we often have very similar taste in actors.

It's a disaster running lines with him, though. Being a writer, he'll nitpick over being word-perfect, and for me that comes in stages. I try to first learn the scene in a way that seems natural and makes sense for me—so that I really follow the logic of the conversation in the scene—and then I'll work on making sure I get every word exactly right. He himself really appreciates actors not paraphrasing his own words, understandably. He says there are some instances where an actor ends up learning a line wrong by mistake and it doesn't bother him; other times it does. Some actors don't realize how painstakingly precise he is when he’s writing dialogue. But sometimes you get to a set and the director actually encourages you to put the script aside and improvise a section of it, so I think it's nice to know the intentions of a scene, so that you could say it as written, or you could try putting it into your own words if asked to.  

Do you remember your initial impressions of Joan, your character in the film?

In general, Joan always seemed like a sympathetic character to me. It didn't occur to me to judge her for being a "self-involved actress" or an "unsympathetic mom," which it could possibly look like at times from the outside. Certainly, it's one of the amusing things in the story: how one of the things Joan is insecure about, and juggling, is her production of a play that is going on simultaneously with Lisa's very real life and death revelations. But, theatre acting is this woman's livelihood—and anyone who knows anything about the realities of that knows that it’s a very unsung, underpaid kind of career. In the acting community, off-Broadway is where it is acknowledged that the truly serious actors work, and want to work...but it's stressful. Between critics and small paychecks, months of work can lead to nothing but huge disappointment. And in this case, Joan has this great opportunity and she is trying to get the most out of the moment.  

And remember, she doesn't realize that she's given Lisa the exact wrong advice and let her down; she never gets the whole explanation that Lisa gives Mr. Aaron. I always saw Joan as being very, very much on Lisa's side, but being left out of the true scenario of what was going on in her daughter's head. So of course her daughter rolls her eyes and judges her, because Joan keeps unwittingly doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and her problems seem so petty compared to the drama that Lisa is going through.  

I personally absolutely believe that if she'd gotten the point of Lisa's moral dilemma, she'd have responded more helpfully. But boy, she spends the rest of the story wondering what the hell happened to their relationship, wondering if that's just the inevitable experience of being a mother to a teenager.

You know, I've seen the film so many times at this point, and I don't think I ever actually realized until just now that Joan never got the full story from her daughter. Because we sort of pan into that conversation, as it's already in progress, and I guess I had just assumed she'd told her mom the whole thing, including her own role in it.

You know, I had to ask Kenny and look at the script after you asked this question. In the extended cut and in the published script, Lisa says "I guess I was kind of waving back to him, because I was trying to get him to stop..." To me this is a fine distinction that is very important. I don't think that's the same thing as saying "Mom, I was jumping up and down and flirting with him and he ran the light! Don't you see why I need to go back to the police?" which is more explicitly what Lisa is feeling guilty about—she does feel somewhat responsible. But it isn't patently clear to Joan the way she puts it. This was something I hung my character on, really, because to me Joan is not careless, not a bad listener. Maybe she's a bit guilty of being a knee-jerk liberal and too quickly empathizes with the working class bus driver, by policy, but only because she doesn't get the real picture. I always felt, in fact, that Joan thinks Lisa needs reassuring that it is not something to feel guilty about, but rather a horrible turn of events that wasn't her fault, or "not anyone's fault," as she says in the script.

I think Kenny felt the whole thing was clear anyway, because Joan is so distracted and embarrassed to be caught in a very private act by her teenage daughter. So, she's distracted, and doesn't happen to catch on to what advice Lisa really is hoping to get. Either way, it's an innocent and understandable misunderstanding on Joan's part, I think. But to Lisa, it's a terrible disappointment not to have that firm moral compass there for her at a terribly difficult moment in her life. It’s like in It’s a Wonderful LIfe, when young George Bailey sees the chemist putting the wrong thing in the capsules and he looks up on the wall and there's a sign saying "Ask Dad, he knows!" so he takes off for home to try and talk with his father about what the right thing to do is. But his father is in a tense business meeting and can't talk, so George has to make this scary moral decision all on his own. Lisa has to make a moral decision too, but needs guidance. She wants an adult, someone to be firm with her—and finds it eventually in Jeannie Berlin's character, Emily. Or anyway, that's the way I always understood it.

But Joan is trying, which I think is absolutely the most endearing thing a character can do, and something that is wonderful to play as an intention. Likewise, with Ramon [Jean Reno], I think Joan is really trying to understand who he is and trying to give that relationship a chance. So, Kenny did this masterful thing where the relationship between mother and daughter is one of the chief conflicts in the story, but he's made both women fallible and both women struggling to do the right thing. Joan is starring in this kind of sensational, "moral-dilemma" play that is a hit off-Broadway; Lisa is starring in a true-story teen-opera in her own private life. And neither understands what is going on with the other. It's poignant and funny and frustrating in turns.

I find Joan's behavior embarrassingly human but endearing. As a middle-aged woman who is now a mother of a teenage girl myself, I think it's a strikingly accurate character/relationship dynamic. I don’t know how Kenny can be inside all these different characters’ heads with such equal accuracy all the time, but to me that is just the nature of Kenny's genius, if I can say that without making him too mad.

Did you and Kenny talk a lot about the role beforehand, or was it something you worked out during rehearsals?

We did talk about Joan beforehand, during rehearsals and then on set, of course. But I think it was fairly obvious to both of us that Joan was maybe unconsciously written for me; there were a lot of things I myself had in common with the character.

What was that like, then, playing a character your husband had written for you that was partially based on you? As an actress, is that more or less of a challenge than, say, the role you currently play in Rectify?

It was fantastic. It was one of those rare times when you feel 100% in communion with the writer—and the director, in this case—about who the character is, and that you're absolutely on track. It was exhilarating. I felt assured about building, hopefully, a very dimensional character. But, really, I also felt a weird connection with Janet on Rectify too. Not because she was like me, but because I felt I had known that kind of woman from my youth, growing up down south, and I felt a real connection to it, even though it was not at all written for me. Ray McKinnon and I met for the first time at the screen test.

Actors are all really different, naturally. Anna [Paquin] was very facile and very willing to change on a dime to Kenny's direction; I tended to have really given a lot of thought to it and really worked things out in my head. So I imagine that's weird for a director, to figure out all the different ways to direct people.

Also, when you work with a spouse—or a best friend, as in Matthew's case—there's a certain frankness you can have with each other on set. And even if it means you get crabby with each other once in awhile, it's ultimately a boon. I mean, every actor has a different process, sometimes even a different process themselves from film to film. Sometimes you want to talk about stuff and sort it out, and other times you just long for them to roll the camera, turn off your critical thinking, and just react. So that's got to be confusing for a director, too. But we muddled through pretty well. It's funny to be working on a big project and finally get home at night and talk about Nellie, and school, and who's going to call to get the heat fixed in the apartment—and not just sit around talking about the next morning's scene. I think maybe that's lucky, to maintain a closeness but not make every moment together about the movie.

You and Anna Paquin share several fairly intense scenes—what was it like working with her?

Anna is like an acting warrior princess. And Lisa is sort of a teen crusader in the movie, you know? Plus Anna is just unusually skillful. It was great to work with someone so incredibly ready for the challenge and tireless in this monster part—and to watch her just be crushing it. As for working together, that was sort of a mixed bag, because our characters were not getting along for most of the movie. So, those scenes were not fun exactly; they were lonely, they were wrenching. They keep misunderstanding each other. Joan keeps reaching out but Lisa keeps rebuffing her. But Anna Paquin was just really impressive.

You mentioned in a previous interview that a director once told you "You can't play something if you don't have it in your own psyche..." So I'm wondering where you drew Joan from?

I think what I meant about playing something you haven't experienced is that...if you’ve been in any close relationship, like a family relationship, or a dating relationship and felt out of sync and tortured in it, then I think you can understand Joan! And I guess I meant you can't play a deep-feeling person if you yourself are not in touch with your emotions—if they're not accessible. Otherwise it's more like mimicry, not acting.

And as a mother of a teenage daughter now, do you think you'd approach it any differently today?

I saw the film recently after a long time away, and our daughter has only just started high school this year, but I was shocked at how "true" Kenny had crafted the tug of war of attachment/detachment that happens between parents and a teenager. And I think it holds up! She was, I think, about five when we were shooting the movie, so at the time I was simply going off of what was written, and not drawing from firsthand experience—empathizing with both mother and daughter—but now it screams back at me with great accuracy. Ugh!

Yeah, it must be so interesting now to have a teenage daughter, after having made a movie where you and Kenny played the parents of one more than a decade ago! So, now that you have a teenager in the house, has it changed the way you think about the character of Joan (or Lisa) at all?

Well, like I said before, mostly I'm just shocked by how dead-on it is. So maybe it's the other way around: doing Margaret made me a little bit more prepared to parent a teenager. I try not to take things too personally as she asserts her independence. So far, things haven't become that extreme, though, thank god.  

Has she seen Margaret?

No, she hasn't seen it yet. I think it would be a little weird at this point to see her mom in some of those scenes. She doesn't even like to watch me in Rectify, I think because the character is often so sad and heartbroken. Also, I think Nellie needs to think of me as a mom, not an actress. Maybe in a few years. I do think she would appreciate the story though. Maybe she should read it! It's a very good read.

We’re mostly trying to stay away from all the hassles, legal and otherwise, that your husband went through in trying to get his vision of the film released by the studio. But as his partner during that process, what was it like to watch him go through all of that?

It was naturally very, very heart wrenching and draining for me, as both a wife and a collaborator, to stand by and watch the deluge of issues that beset Kenny at various stages. It was very hard, because even though I think all his scripts are really remarkable, Margaret was a kind of "master opus;" just the scale and size and scope of it. I felt that this script, the casting, the way it was shot...it was all wondrously virtuosic, so it drove me crazy to see Kenny saddled with all these restraints, and then not have the film properly released and celebrated.

What was your favorite scene to shoot in the film?

I guess my favorite scene to shoot was the scene towards the end of the story where I come into Lisa’s bedroom to try to get a hug and connect with her, after the funeral. I also really loved breaking all those dishes in the scene where she tells me she's thinking of moving to California with her dad, and the scene in the abortion clinic, where Joan is worried about Lisa but is also taking in all the anguished people in the waiting room.

There are many, many scenes I was not involved in, too, that I think are pretty incredible. Really, truly, too many to list. I think the bus accident is a masterpiece of a scene; not just how incredible Allison and Anna are, but all the people gathered in the streets—even the non-speaking actors. I also really enjoy all of the classroom scenes; all those kids, and Matthew Broderick as the English teacher reading King Lear, or T. Scott Cunningham and the fabulous theatre rehearsal sequence! And every time I watch Jonathan Hadary as the lawyer—it's so specific and well drawn a characterization; Betsy Aidem as the cousin in those scenes with him as well. Likewise, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Kevin Geer with Anna in the police station! I just get such pleasure at how distinctly these characters are written and performed.  

And also, well I guess they're not scenes so much as shots, but: the snaking, glimmering, twinkling cabs shimmering all the way up Madison Avenue as the camera pans up and up to follow them into infinity; the 360 degree shot of Central Park, with the birds and the planes and the child singing off-camera (which was Nellie apparently, I recently learned); the incredible long tracking shot from off Ramon's balcony; the overheard dialogue, the slow-mo credits of all the zillions of New Yorkers making their way up and down Broadway...these "scenes" kill me. New York City is a major character in the movie!

I also have to ask about the imitations you do in the restaurant near the beginning of the film! Were they in the script because they're something Kenny already knew you did?

Ha! We all like to do impressions around here...even Nellie is good at mimicry. Kenny is, himself, an excellent mimic. But yes, he knew I could imitate Shirley Temple fairly well. When we were getting to know each other, I told him one of the first signs I had that I might become an actor is that I would do a very credible baby-cry for my baby-dolls when I was little and played dolls. He eventually heard it and wanted to put it in.

Do you do other impressions then?

Yes, I sort of do some other impressions, or I imagine I do. I do a pretty good Audrey Hepburn. I kind of wish that was in the film rather than that crazy baby cry. I think Kenny liked the baby cry because it is so odd—it kind of breaks everything down to some kind of friendly, goofy mood. And it's one of the very few times where you see what their relationship was like before they start not getting along.

I always said to Kenny: it's hard because we have to insinuate that they were once close—but for most of the story, for the audience, what you see is them not connecting. And he cited this scene as the scene that kind of shows the fun they normally had together. It's a very little bit, proportionately, of the story, where you see them getting along well—but I think the scene is so helpful to the story, because you get to see how cheerful the camaraderie can be between Joan and Lisa, and what the jolly side is of having a mum who's an actress. Plus, it's a little bit of relief from the horror of recent events for Lisa. 

 


An Interview with Matthew Broderick

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Chad Perman

Matthew Broderick and Kenneth Lonergan first met at The Walden School when they were 15 years old, and have remained close ever since. Broderick was just getting into acting at the time—they initially crossed paths while both were auditioning for the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and Lonergan was starting to write plays, upon the encouragement of his theater teacher. In 11th grade, Lonergan wrote his first play, a play which gave Broderick his very first leading role.

In addition, Broderick’s mother, Patricia, became a mentor of sorts to young Lonergan and continued to offer valuable feedback to him throughout his career, from his earliest high school plays all the way through Margaret, which was the last thing he sent her before she passed away in 2003. She also introduced both Broderick and Lonergan to one of her favorite poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child”—a poem which Lonergan wound up using in Margaret decades later, and from which the film’s title draws its name.

In the nearly 40 years since they first met, while both of their careers have flourished in different ways, the two have remained best friends and worked together numerous times. Broderick had a sizable role in Lonergan’s first film, You Can Count on Me, and plays a small but important role in Margaret—a high school English teacher at the fictional Ralph Waldo Emerson school, which was modeled in no small part on the now-defunct high school which he and Lonergan once attended. And, fittingly, it’s Broderick who reads the Hopkins poem aloud during the film.

Broderick spoke with us recently about Margaret, poetry, juice boxes, and what it’s like to work with your best friend.

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BW/DR: The character you play in Margaret, John, was based on a teacher the two of you had at Walden – is that accurate?

Matthew Broderick: Yeah, well at least one of the moments that happens in the classroom, the argument about King Lear that we have, is very much based on something that actually happened. I was there, I remember that.

So that was drawn directly from real life?

Pretty close, as I remember it. And the teacher’s name was John. But we didn’t really base the entire performance on John exactly, but there was a John and that argument did happen pretty much verbatim.

I’ve heard that the idea to have the character sip on a juice box and eat a sandwich was your idea?

Yeah, that’s true. (laughs) It’s based on mixing up actual people that we knew. We had a wonderful English teacher who was hypoglycemic and he used to have to stop and have a juice every now and then. So it was based on that.

And it ends up being such a memorable, defining part of your character.

Well, somebody once told me that it was the only bad part of the whole movie.

No, it was great!

I thought it was fun.

So is the high school in Margaret, in general, a lot like the one you attended?

It was quite a bit like that. The whole premise of it, I mean there was an actual girl Kenny knew who had seen somebody killed by a bus. I remember her, too. So a lot of it was based on what happened in our high school, but then of course it becomes its own thing as he writes it and as it gets performed. But all of it is familiar if you went to Walden, certainly.

Was that surreal at all for you, to be filming a scene where you’re playing a teacher that’s based on an actual moment you took in as a high school student?

It was fun. Kenny has an amazing memory for what people say, and so he often uses dialogue that’s very accurate in that way. But it’s not like you’re just doing an imitation of somebody from 30 years ago; you sort of have to create a whole new thing, too. So it’s really just about trying to make the scene good. And it’s always fun to work with Kenny, I’ve done it a lot.

Is there a version of Margaret that you prefer, between the theatrical cut and the extended version?

Well, I like both of them – but I’ve seen so many versions of it at this point that it’s hard to keep in mind what’s what sometimes. I certainly think the last one that he made is the best, and is the closest to what he always meant. The three hour version.

You saw various edits of the film as it was in development then?

Yeah, he would show friends the movie every now and then as he was working on it. It was a very long process and there were a lot of screenings. Also, I would be hanging around when he was editing it at home and watching scenes, or I’d come see him at the editing suite sometimes. He always likes to show pieces of it, so it’s hard for me to remember which cut was the actual final cut.

And does he want a lot of feedback during that process? Or is he just wanting to show it to get a sense of where he’s at and if he might be going off track?

I think he’s looking for feedback, but at the same time he very much likes to do everything his own way. He does like feedback though, even if he doesn’t agree with you. There’s a little group of us that he likes—not that he even necessarily wants us to give him advice or anything, he just wants us to be there so that he can read the feeling of it.

You’re in a handful of scenes in the movie; the King Lear scene, which everybody remembers, and then another one which is a very central scene to the whole movie, where you’re reading the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem.

Yeah, and I think Kenny knew about that poem from my mom. She always really liked that poem. And I’ve always been aware of it, but I didn’t know it very well. My mom knew it by heart. She knew a lot of poems by heart. And so we were aware of it when we were kids—I don’t remember how or where or when Kenny knew about it—but I don’t really know how to read poetry that well.

Does he tell you how he wants you to read it then, or was that up to you?

No, I mean I don’t remember him telling me how to read it. I remember we recorded it lots of times. Neither of us are really poetry experts, though. I sometimes wanted to have somebody who was a scholar of poetry to help me more with the meter, because I don’t always know how to handle all of that. But on the other hand, we both thought that the teacher I was playing might not necessarily know exactly how to do it either. So I just thought, well, I’ll just be a high school teacher trying to read a poem.

Were you surprised at all when you saw the poem in the script?

No, I knew where it was from immediately. A lot of that script, when I read it, I know those scenes because a lot of them happened. Like a lot of the things in This Is Our Youth or The Waverly Gallery—which was across the street from where I grew up—I know a lot of the characters in his scripts. Every time I read one there’s a lot that we don’t even have to discuss, I just know what it is. I think he wanted that particular scene done simply, so we never really talked much about it.

Is it odd at all being directed by your best friend?

No, not really. Maybe at first, but we’ve done it lots of times now. We’ve been basically best friends since we were 15, so there’s nothing really new that happens. I just do what he says. But I’m sarcastic and nasty about it and he enjoys that. (laughs)

Well, given what you said about his memory and how he often uses things he remembers in his writing, is there ever any hesitancy to say certain things around it? Or any kind of “hey don’t use this thing I just told you in one of your scripts”?

Yeah, I know what you mean! I never think of that though actually. Luckily he’s a really decent person, so he’s pretty careful to never really do that. I don’t think he’s ever been in a situation where he’s hurt anybody by using their stuff. He’ll use a sentence here or there, but out of context. I don’t think he’d ever write a tell-all or anything about me, but he might, like, use something that happened to me and just not say it was me. I could easily see that happening. I’m pretty comfortable that he’d always protect me though.

And as his friend, what was it like watching him go through all the legal battles to get the film released?

All his friends just tried to keep him going, and also to let him know when to stop and not fight. I mean it was a difficult and long road, so it wasn’t as simple as “just keep going.” It was very difficult. But I’m amazed at how well he got through it. And I guess I’ll always wonder, had they just said make it whatever length you want early on, the whole problem might have never happened. It’s a shame. I can see why the other side thought it was important to stick to their guns for a little while there, but really, at some point, if somebody had had the sense to say we’re going to lose, I think maybe everything would have been different.

It also would have been interesting to have the film come out closer to 9/11, closer to when the film actually took place. By the time it came out it was almost a nostalgia thing, which was obviously not what he intended while he was making it.

Yeah, I know. It’s not the same at all. There were all sorts of problems.

But I imagine there’s a good deal of happiness among his friends now, since it seems like he’s about to have a pretty big moment with Manchester by the Sea?

Yes, it’s amazing! It’s great. It’s the opposite kind of experience, which he also had with You Can Count on Me. And I’m very proud that he finally got the full-length cut of Margaret into a few theaters recently. I think it’s a movie to really be proud of, no matter how difficult it was to make. I’m glad that he’s survived it, really, and that everyone will gradually come to watch Margaret eventually. I think it’s something that will last.

 


An Interview with Tony Kushner

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Chad Perman

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Tony Kushner is one of our greatest living writers, as well as one of America’s most important artistic and intellectual voices. Having written perhaps the greatest play of the past 30 years, Angels in America, in 1993, Kushner has spent the ensuing years writing several more plays, trying his hand at screenwriting (Munich, Lincoln), engaging in progressive political discourse, and receiving a National Medal of Arts from President Obama.

By his own admission, he also “gets very enthusiastic about the things I get enthusiastic about”. And, after seeing Margaret several years ago, he became very enthusiastic about it. Which, if you’re Tony Kushner, means getting involved. He publicly and privately declared it a masterpiece, moderated a Q & A with the cast following a screening in 2012, and, when Kenneth Lonergan approached him to write an introduction to the film’s published screenplay, he quickly said yes.

His introductory essay, which any Margaret fan would do well to go out and read immediately, is to my mind the single best thing that has ever been written about the film. Kushner hits the nail on the head right from the start—describing the film as “one of those works of art possessed of a force that can’t be accounted for by inventorying its many virtues, a force the unruly energy of which threatens the work’s perfection”—and then proceeds to elucidate and examine the film’s themes, designs, and patterns. Like the film itself, Kushner’s essay is one of astounding depth, curiosity, and compassion—and does what any good introduction should set out to do: it makes you want to read (or watch, or re-watch) Lonergan’s masterpiece immediately.

Thus, when we set out to create an entire issue devoted to Margaret, we knew we had to try and speak with Kushner. Thankfully, he was more than willing to talk some more about the film, going on well past the allotted time we were initially given with him. And, as I quickly found, he thinks out loud—tangentially, in fits and starts—every bit as intelligently, passionately, and insightfully as he writes.

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BW/DR: I was wondering if you could tell us about the first time you saw Margaret?

Tony Kushner: I first saw it in a screening room. I’d heard about it, of course, it was sort of legendary already. Kenny emailed me to say he was doing a screening of it, and asked me if I’d like to see it. I said I’d love to, and then he quickly sent me a follow-up email saying “Great. But it’s horrible and this is a terrible version of it” and he just went on and on about how bad he thought it was going to be.

And then I went and I was completely blown away by it. So I wrote him back and said—and this is a word I don’t use very often—I said, you know, this is a masterpiece. Then I got another email from him saying “Well ok, but it’s terrible compared to the original...” and so on. I wrote back and said “Hey, take a compliment.” (laughs)

So the first version you saw was the theatrical one?

Yes, the version with some stuff removed. Once the DVD came out, I watched the one I had already seen again and then went on and watched the longer version with the restored footage.

And you thought the original theatrical version was already a masterpiece?

I did. I think there’s some stuff in the longer version that absolutely shouldn’t have been removed—like the scene in the drama class, which I think is a great loss because of the sheer brilliance of the writing, but also in terms of the scene itself—but I also think there are some things in the first version that I really loved, especially the scoring of it, the music that Nico Muhly had written. So now I just tell people to get the DVD and watch both versions of it.

You don’t necessarily have a favorite between the two?

Well you know, I really don’t. I mean if someone is thinking they’re not ever going to watch two versions of the same film, I would say just watch the second one, because I think there is stuff that was cut out of the first one that is of real value to the arc of the story. But in the final analysis, I think they both deliver you to a fairly similar emotional place. Though Kenny might murder me for saying that. (laughs)

But I don’t think that’s necessarily a vindication of the people who insisted the film had to be a certain length—and I don’t mean to say that the producers who tortured him for eight years were right! To say that that vindicates the type of rough treatment he received only works if you believe that the whole point of a work of art is to get you to a certain place, and that the route you take is not of any significance. But of course, anyone who really knows what they’re talking about knows that the route, in almost all instances, is of equal importance to the destination.

How did you come to write the introduction to his published screenplay—was that something he approached you directly about?

The first time I met him was at some kind of benefit—at SoHo Rep maybe? He was sitting at a table and I walked up and said “Hi, I’m Tony Kushner, and I think you’re a really wonderful writer.” And he looked very startled and shocked, like “You do?!” I guess he assumed I wouldn’t have liked his work, but I don’t know why, because I do, and I told him that he’s really quite extraordinary. We were in touch a bit from that point on, we ran into each other at certain places, and we sort of became friendly. And then after I’d seen the film, I think he was moved by how much I adored it, and it kind of went from there. I get very enthusiastic about the things I get enthusiastic about, and if people want to use that, that’s fine.

Do you remember some of your initial thoughts about the film?

Well, I don’t know if Kenny agrees with me on this but I went on about it to some degree in my introduction—and then I interviewed the whole cast at a screening, and I’m not a very good interviewer and there were nine people and I didn’t know what the fuck I was supposed to be doing—but I led with one of the things that really struck me very forcefully, which was this issue of infantilizing; all these sort of slightly infantile adults in the film. They almost seem as childlike as the children: Joan’s baby imitation, Matt Damon with his bike, Matthew Broderick with his silly little briefcase.

And the orange juice he drinks during class, too.

Exactly, the juice box. And I thought that was a really legitimate thing, so I stupidly asked the cast about it. I remember Jeannie Berlin looking at me—and you know, Jeannie Berlin always looks at you like “I’m gonna be nice here, but you’re full of shit”—and Mark Ruffalo just staring at me. They all just basically looked at me like, we don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.

So that question didn’t land.

No, that one didn’t land. (laughs) Though I still think it’s true. I think there’s a judgment being rendered in a way, though Kenny is too large-spirited and talented to make it into some kind of Rebel Without a Cause, “These kids are rotten because of their parents” thing. But I think there is absolutely a way in which the rootlessness and deep moral confusion in which these teenagers are adrift—some of which is ascribable simply to the condition of being a teenager—has to do with the parents. Though the glory of the film is more in the direction of larger, ahistorical themes, to the extent that you can say anything is ahistorical, rather than an indictment of modern child-raising practices. But to the extent that there is a sense that there’s a modern quality of being sort of overwhelmed and adrift, I think that Kenny traces a path back from the kids to the parents. And he does it without being obvious or clunky about it, or without ever abandoning the empathic imagination he extends to everyone he writes about.

There’s this incredible specificity to what he does. He’s very subtle and never beats you over the head with anything, even though there’s always so much going on.

Yeah, definitely.

Not just in Margaret, but throughout all his films and plays.

All of them, yeah.

And there’s always this very real interest in the messiness of life, and rarely a strong, firm moral center to things. It’s always complicated.

I wouldn’t necessarily agree that there’s no moral center. There’s certainly no apparent design or didacticism. I hate to say this, because it sounds so corny, but it’s a little like Chekov in that regard. You feel like you’re looking at life actually happening. I mean on some level it’s a glimpse into a place, a room, a conversation that you feel like you’re not actually supposed to be listening in on, that it’s just life happening right in front of you. But then you start to realize that there are all these designs and patterns and themes that are being developed throughout the course of it. I mean it’s not like Chekov just laid out a slab of turn-of-the-century Russian life for people either; they’re actually these incredibly intricate works of art.

So, what I wanted to do in the introduction was to write about Margaret as a shaped literary work, because I think that’s part of what’s so magical about his writing: it takes the experience of the entirety, and sometimes a couple of viewings, to begin to really read it as something with a thesis that’s being developed, a statement or an argument that’s being made, a dialectic that’s being shaped. The nice thing about reading the screenplay is it’s all right there on the page and you can read it and it’s not being overwhelmed by all these astonishing performances—any number of which should have been nominated for every award on the planet, and should have won. Like Allison Janney, I mean she’s one of the greatest actors on the planet. That moment where they tell her she’s been in an accident and she goes “You’re fucking kidding me!” And that death, I mean the way she dies, it’s terrifying. I don’t know how she does it, but she’s amazing. And Jeannie Berlin, who is to die for. I live on the Upper West Side and I live in the middle of all these kinds of women, and you just never see them onscreen, and then suddenly there she is. I thought she was just phenomenal. And J. Smith-Cameron is a great actress and I loved her in this, Anna Paquin was amazing, Mark Ruffalo was brilliant, and Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick. It’s an amazing cast.

Absolutely. But it’s also incredible that you can strip all that away, and there’s still such a pull to it, just in the dialogue itself. I started reading the screenplay on a whim a few months ago—having already seen the film several times—and even knowing the story, I just couldn’t put it down. I ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting.

Right. And Kenny’s writing also has these places in it, like Chekov again, where in spite of the incredible naturalism of it all, it will just lift you up somewhere. You think about This is Our Youth and that amazing monologue at the end. You can feel all sorts of things while watching that play—including “Why am I spending all this time in the company of these slackers?”—and then at the very end the whole thing is launched into the stratosphere by this absolute poem of a monologue that is still completely within the syntax and the rhetoric of everyday speech, and it’s dazzling. It’s very familiar and very intimate.

I think the cinematic correlate to this—and one of the things I remember just adoring the first time I saw Margaret, even though I didn’t know what the fuck it meant—are all those shots of Manhattan at night that it keeps going off into. Where the camera just kind of lifts up and is sort of saying to you “There is another perspective from which life can be viewed.”  And from that perspective it has a kind of meaning that it may not have in the welter of doing things to other people and having things done to you by other people, but if we could lift up and see the world the way that God sees it, or the way a great artist sees it, that there’s something else at work here. I mean you go back to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, or the ecstatic thing that happens at the end, at the opera.

Well, you say in your introduction “There’s a theological discussion to be had about Margaret but to wander into it would be to overstay my welcome.” Could we maybe wander into it a bit here?

(laughs) You actually picked up exactly on something that I removed. I think if I remember correctly, and I’m not sure, but I think it got into a theological thing that Kenny was not comfortable with, and so I removed it because I wasn’t writing a review, I was writing an intro to his script, and I wanted him to be comfortable with it.

Ah, ok. Because I know he’s said in the past that he’s an atheist, but there are certainly a few religious things that sort of peek through the framework of the film.

Yeah, I think I actually had a whole section—if I can find it I’ll send it over—but in the end I removed it. But you know, when you use a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem for the title of your film you’re certainly inviting people to assume that there’s a religious...something going on there, because every Hopkins poem was so profoundly based on his faith. But yeah, I had a whole thing on that.

I wanted to talk a bit about the ending too. You write about it in your introduction, but I wanted to unpack it a little more with you.

Sure.

Well, I guess I'm wondering if you feel like that last scene is one of genuine catharsis for Lisa and her mom? Or do you feel like there might be some play-acting going on—since these are two fairly dramatic people—and that they're sort of borrowing some emotion from the heightened power of the opera to enhance the moment—that they’ll wake up the next day and everything will be back to normal?

Well it won’t go back to normal. Because as we were just saying, there is no going back. You can’t stick your finger into the same river twice. They will be different. Joan will get older, and Lisa is going to eventually become a full-grown woman. And what her role in Monica’s death was is going to be something that she’s going to have to work on for the rest of her life.

But I don’t know, I think it’s complicated for the audience watching it. I think you’re meant to have a double experience of it, I don’t think there ever is any pure catharsis. I mean, you go to the opera and your heart is sort of torn out by something really astonishing, but at the same time you’re also aware of the craft and the skill and the artificiality of all of it. So I think it’s both. I think you’re meant to feel, and you do feel, that it’s a very important moment for both characters—because artifice doesn’t obscure that. Everything we do is artificial on many levels.

You talk about how, in that moment, "scene-painting and counterfeit work their magic," but then you end the whole thing with that question, which the Hopkins’ poem gets at as well: Who, or what, is she mourning for?

Yeah, you don’t know. You’re left with the clearest visual correlate for catharsis that we have, which is applause, and you feel that something has broken there, that a shift is happening in front of you. As you knew had to happen, because the pressure just keeps building and building up on this kid, and she’s kind of impossible but also nobody is being particularly careful with her.

It’s basically a coming of age story, but it appeals to me enormously because Kenny manages to both embrace the wonderfulness and beauty of adolescence and the shaping of an adult—how glorious it is, and what a great triumph it is for all of us that anybody survives their childhood or their adolescence. Because for the vast majority of human history, most kids didn’t. And even today, when you see an intact 21-year-old, you’re almost like “Wow, good for us. We managed to at least not destroy all hope for the future.” (laughs)

But at the same time, the thing that’s so stunning in the Hopkins’ poem is that it’s a terrible process of loss, and a terrible experience: that every human being, as they pass through these stages of development is, in every stage, sort of miraculous and full of promise but also dangerous and full of all sorts of powers they themselves don’t understand yet—or don’t have the internal emotional constructs to wield safely in the world—and that they pass out of each of these phases and into the next one and each time it’s like a little death, a little whiff of mortality, and leaves you grieving things. It’s both a great triumph and a great, aching loss. And I think Margaret just gets at that so fantastically.

As you’re saying that I’m reminded of that great old Judith Viorst book, Necessary Losses, have you read that by any chance?

No, I remember Judith Viorst but I don’t think I’ve read that.

The subtitle of the book is “The loves, illusions, dependencies, and impossible expectations that all of us have to give up in order to grow.”

Oh wow.

And she basically takes you through the life cycle, from birth to old age, going through all the various losses inherent in each stage of our development—which seems to get at exactly what you were just saying.

Right, and how it happens for everyone. And in a way it’s true of New York City itself, and I guess of the world really, that moving through time means leaving behind a great deal that was cherished—as well as stuff that was really horrible—so that one is always in a state, on this earth, of grief and mourning. And I think the film really speaks to that powerfully.
 

(Editor’s Note: this interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity)