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.
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.
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...”
“...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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.