Life Keeps Going: Kenneth Lonergan on Margaret

The writer and the director of the best 2011 film you've never seen talks about the film's famously long post-production cycle.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

 

After the enormous critical success that was You Can Count on Me, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan set about his follow-up Margaret, about a young woman named Lisa (Anna Paquin) who playfully distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who, as a consequence, runs a red light and accidentally kills somebody. The rest of the film is an impeccably dramatized account of Lisa's life after the event, as she balances everyday teenaged foibles and her ongoing attempt to seek justice for the victim in the face of bureaucracy and ambivalence. The film hit a famous legal snarl when post-production ran long, and a shortened version of the film finally hit select theaters in late 2011, years after principle production wrapped, but you can finally see Lonergan's director's cut in the Blu-ray edition of Margaret, available in stores today.

Kenneth Lonergan was kind enough to join me over the phone to discuss the film's intriguing issues and post-production difficulties, although be warned, we do discuss SPOILERS about the film's emotional ending.

 

CraveOnline: My first question, and it is a serious question, did anyone complain that none of the characters are named “Margaret?”

Kenneth Lonergan: Nobody complained. Um, the only person I know who complained was an actress who auditioned for one of the roles, and came very close, and I heard – she didn’t say this to me directly, but she’s a New York actress and part of the community that I belong to – and she said, “I read the script twice, and I still couldn’t find Margaret in it.” But that was the only real complaint.

 

I actually had an alternate title for the film, which I’d like to run by you, see what you thought.

[Laughs]

 

It’s, “Teenagers! Am I Right?!”

[Laughs] Well, that’s one element of it, I suppose.

 

I feel like a lot of movies treat teenagers like know-it-alls with a lot of growing up to do, but Lisa is so tragically convinced of her own infallibility, and that’s what I really latched onto as I watched it.

Yes, she is, which is what’s frightening about them and also impressive about them. I do think that by the end, she’s convinced very thoroughly that she’s not infallible, and in being so convinced in a very sad way, she’s able to break that wall that she’s built up between her mother, whom she condemns in the rest of the movie for being fallible. And I think that easily marks the moment when teenaged adolescence ends and whatever is to follow begins. When you see your parents as human beings and not as false idols.

 

Anna Paquin’s performance was really stunning, and it helped that she had so many different roles to play… At times I respected her, at times I hated her, at times I felt very paternal towards her. Could you talk about guiding her through that performance?

Well, I can take credit for part of it in the writing and I give her most of the credit for the performance, for understanding the character so well and for bringing out everything that was in there and adding to it. She really understood this girl profoundly, and was not afraid, far from being afraid of the, let’s say less sympathetic elements of her personality. She embraced them wholeheartedly. And she also, which I very much appreciated, saw what was funny about it too. She didn’t shrink away from the humor and she didn’t need the girl to be sympathetic at every moment. She really understood her very well, and it helped me to understand her. We both entered into the psyche of that character for 50 days, which is what you hope for when you collaborate with someone. To get someone with that kind of depth and understanding, and that emotional depth, is very rare.

 

There’s a moment later in the film where Lisa has a sort of Freudian slip on the phone, and it goes kind of unnoticed by the rest of the cast. I was startled by how dramatic that was.

You’ll have to remind me.

 

She’s on the phone, and the family of Allison Janney’s character, and sort of fine with the fact that Mark Ruffalo’s character is not going to get fired, and she’s yelling that they don’t understand, and instead of saying “He killed her,” she says, “I killed her.”

Oh, I don’t think that’s a Freudian slip. I think that’s a very conscious statement, that she means to say, “I killed her.” The question that’s asked of her… In fact, she says it twice, on purpose. There’s a possibly interesting story connected with that. That wasn’t meant to be a Freudian slip. She’s objecting to the solution, and the cousin says, “What is your interest in this?” And she says, “Because I’m the one who killed her.” It’s a very cogent statement, she says it twice, she says, “I’m the one who killed her, I’m the one who killed her, but at least I know I did it. That guy is running around blaming everybody else, and all I want is for somebody to let him know that what he did was wrong. At which point she starts to cry, which makes me cry. It’s my favorite moment of hers in the film, when she does that. It’s so touching, and it’s so young, and it’s so right, that she’s willing to acknowledge that she’s responsible and the grown up is not. All she wants is a little justice, even if it’s just an acknowledgement. I don’t even think she needs him to be punished, particularly, I think she just doesn’t want him to get away with doing what she knows he did.

Anna mentioned to me – long story – a year after we had finished filming we were talking about the movie, and I hadn’t remembered this, and she said, “Do you remember the direction you gave me for that scene?” And I said, “No, not really.” She said, “You only gave me one direction, the night before we shot it.” I said, “What was it?” She said, “You said to me, ‘She says it twice. ‘I’m the one who killed her.’ She says it two times. She doesn’t just say it once, she says it two times.’ Go home and think about that while you prepare the scene.’” Now, I don’t remember making that very quiet, simple direction, but I don’t think the character’s been in denial about it. There’s scenes where, when she goes to speak to Ruffalo, she says it’s both our fault. When she goes to the police, she’s trying to get their attention. So I don’t feel that she’s shrugging off responsibility, or trying to pin it on him or excise her guilt on the bus driver, as has come across to some people that way. I didn’t mean that, and that’s perhaps a fault of mine, but ultimately, that’s what this is all about. She knows what she did, and she’s been trying to do something about it, and the grown ups won’t help her. They’re all standing in her way, with her mother taking the sort of sympathetic liberal, middle class view of the working class bus driver, telling her he could lose his job. Or the police that the law won’t back you up. Or the lawyers, in a very complicated world, ending up giving $300,000 to some people in Arizona who really had nothing to do with it. That’s the best she can do. In any case, if it came across as a Freudian slip, that’s my mistake not Anna’s.

 

I feel like the moment came across, that by the end of that scene she had realized, but she spends so much time kind of fighting, without really… I guess she tries to talk to Mark about how she’s feeling about it, but she gets stonewalled. She doesn’t get a chance to talk about it.

Yes, exactly. She goes out there and she tries to talk to him, and she’s very frightened and nervous, and he’s even more frightened. And he gaslights her. He pretends he doesn’t remember her, pretends he wasn’t waving at her, and then she realizes that he’s not going to help she starts to, she starts to become very angry. And then he basically terrorizes her and slams the door in her face. I sympathize with him too, but that’s not really… He was driving the bus, she is a kid, and he’s a grownup, and that’s not really… He’s just too frightened about what will happen to him if this comes out. But the fact that he was waving at a cute girl, and his head turned and he went through a red light… She shouldn’t have been waving at him, but he was driving the bus, and the way he treats her when she shows up is, I think, shocking to her. I don’t think she goes out there to crucify him. I think she goes out there to connect with him, and in fact she says, I think the line is, “I just want to, like, acknowledge with you that that’s what happened.”

 

This might actually be a large question, but I wanted to know. There was some legal wrangling about finishing the film, and I’m not interested in the legal battle. But I am interested in, creatively, what was going on in the editing room that was taking some time to complete the film. What were you so concerned about getting right?

The creative challenge of writing the script and shooting and then cobbling it together in the editing room, I think, was to keep everything going at once, while keeping it moving forward. One of the things I initially set out to, when I set out to write the script, I wanted to try to… I had not seen a film, and there may be many films, I just haven’t seen them, but I had not seen a film where the character’s life keeps going while the main plot surfaces. The story surfaces and that’s all you see, you see everything in relation to the main story, but you don’t see them all day at work, you don’t see them when they come home. If it’s a spy thriller you don’t see them go shopping for groceries, you don’t see them late for work, you know what I mean?

 

Yes, definitely.

I wanted to keep her entire life alive while this was going on, and see if I could do that. And what it led to was this, by accident or by unconscious design, I don’t know which, possibly the same thing, but the extension of that was to keep everybody’s else’s life going as well. And in fact that’s what she’s up against, and that’s what she’s discovering, that the completeness with which other people are living their lives while she’s living hers. She’s going through a crisis, but that doesn’t mean the world stops and helps her out with it. Nor does it mean the world stops and gets in her way. It goes about its business, nine million other people go about their business as she’s going about hers, and that’s the obstacle that she has to overcome, and that’s the obstacle that all idealists have to overcome. It’s the obstacle that all passionate, committed, devoted young people finally run up against as they get older, year after year, until 90% become tired and just end up going about our business and we stop trying to change the world and save the world, as young people think they’re going to do or like to do.

The other ten percent go on to continue changing the world and helping the world, and those are the people that I admire the most. But I think the common experience is thinking you can really do something all wrongs, you can right all the wrongs in the world when you’re seventeen, and it’s not the presence of evil, it’s the presence of grownups and legal detail and somebody doesn’t have time and somebody who’s late for their appointment and someone’s not interested and someone’s brother works for the bus company is not going help find the guy and somebody in Arizona doesn’t care about the bus driver and someone else is the best friend of the woman and only wants to crucify the bus driver and doesn’t really care about getting getting him fired, she just wants him punished in some way, and her mother, who loves her, is trying really hard to help her, doesn’t know the right thing to say, so she can’t help. And the size of the world became an extension of my attempt to include the size of her life during the story, and putting all that together in a structure that works and resembles real life and is sort of also entertaining is extremely difficult, extremely challenging creatively.

And also a lot of fun to work on, kind of keeping all those balls in the air at once. I would say that was a big challenge, and writing the script and editing and shooting it as well, because we tried to shoot as if she wasn’t the main character even though she’s in most of the scenes. We tried to shoot as though all the other characters were just as important. Because that’s what happens when you grow up, well, not to every one… some people narcissistically remain the center of the universe. But the rest of us bump into the world and notice that it’s there and modify our goals accordingly.