Playwright embraces director’s reins

Lonergan welcomes controlling role in 'Count'

HOLLYWOOD – New York-based playwright-turned-motion picture director Kenneth Lonergan is, by his own wistful admission, “always rushing, always late.” The day of our meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills is no exception. Lonergan is in Los Angeles ostensibly to oversee the transfer to homevideo of his new movie, “You Can Count on Me,” currently released by Paramount Classics.

But the Four Seasons seemingly has served as awards-junket central during the month of December, with everybody from Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein to “Before Night Falls” director Julian Schnabel being paraded before members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and anybody else who ultimately could influence Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters.

If it is possible to give off an aura of laconic freneticism, then that’s what Lonergan is doing: With a Gothamite’s world-weariness, he kvetches about the logistical snafus involved in his visit to oversee the transfer of his film to video. But then he talks about the details of the procedure in a way comparable to a heart patient’s interest in the words of his cardiologist, as if by being intimately part of the process he might spare his film any unnecessary risk or trauma on the operating table.

Earlier in the morning, Dec. 21, Lonergan’s screenplay for “You Can Count on Me” was nominated for a Golden Globe, and so everyone wants to talk to the man whose much acclaimed Off Broadway play “This is Our Youth” would seem to be worlds apart from the klieg lights of his newfound Hollywood fame. In fact, there’s another meeting with a producer pushed right up against our own — one for which he will be late.

“My younger brother,” Lonergan jokingly laments to a producer’s assistant on a borrowed cell phone, “he’s always early. …”

This mad rush is becoming a defining theme for Lonergan, and not just because he is the writer of the moment in Hollywood. It’s also the essence of what directing is all about, at least in his opinion.

Given the recent ground swell of theater directors who have preceded him to the canvas chair, it’s curious that Lonergan is one of the first American directors to come from the world of theater in a good long while. In so doing, he’s making a name for himself amidst a gaggle of Brits; all of whom know each other well and often rely upon one another for advice. Sam Mendes, Oscar-winning director of 1999’s “American Beauty,” serves as artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, and is perhaps the most visible of a foreign legit tribe that includes notables like Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”), Nicholas Hytner (“Center Stage”), Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) and Danny Boyle (“The Beach”).

“It’s quite nice to be able to call one another and ask, ‘Which end of the camera do I point at the actors?’ and the like,” explains Michell, reached on the set of Paramount’s “Changing Lanes” in New York. “We all link up in strange ways. (Daldry) often calls me. I would call (Boyle) for advice when I started out, since he started in TV and films ahead of me. I’d often ring him up late at night.”

Michell, like most of his fellow British theater transplants, had never worked in film prior to directing one.

Not exactly a Hollywood neophyte

That there isn’t a similar batch of well-known American theater crossovers doesn’t mean that Lonergan is going at it alone, or even that he’s as inexperienced in film as the British crowd. While he is a first-time feature director, Lonergan is hardly a neophyte when it comes to Hollywood, having penned “Analyze This” and “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” Not long ago, he was in Rome working on the production rewrite of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”

“My whole life, I’ve been resisting the idea that I actually do want to control what happens to my writing when it gets brought to life,” explains Lonergan. “And now I am willing to live up to it, and not be a very annoyed back-seat driver all the time.”

When confronted with a recent quote indicating that he’d likely not direct again after the experience of “You Can Count On Me,” Lonergan demurs: “I may have said something like that. But when my sister had her first baby, she said, ‘I’ll never do this again, Until I forget what it was like.’ And now I’ve forgotten, so I’m ready to go again.”

Lonergan is loathe to talk about what might come next, but does hint that he’d like to adapt his plays “The Waverly Gallery” and “The Lobby” for the screen. The long-range plans reflect a growing comfort in a new medium.

Making the transition

“In the theater, actually, you have a great deal of control as a playwright,” he says. “The entire stated purpose of everyone in the production is to serve the play. But that is not the case with most screenwriting situations: You’re the hired hand, and you work your best to serve someone else’s project. And that’s OK, but that’s not the same.

“So actually, writing and directing a movie was more like being a playwright than being a screenwriter, but it was even better, because I did get to shape everything the way I wanted to, and whatever screw-ups are in the movie are mine, not somebody else’s, which is much less frustrating.”

It would seem that if Lonergan’s weaknesses as a director are inexperience and a disinclination to manage the army of people involved in making any movie, then his strength is brutal honesty about one’s limitations. In the end, he says it’s what saved him.

“If I was to be pleased with myself about anything, it’s that’s I wasn’t embarrassed to be ignorant,” Lonergan says, “I went to every single meeting saying, ‘I don’t know anything, and I’m not ashamed, so just tell me everything I need to know, and don’t think you’re going to insult me by assuming I don’t know anything.’ And I think that was very helpful, because then I got a lot of information that I wouldn’t necessarily gotten if they’d worried about hurting my feelings or insulting me.”

Prior to this soul baring, Lonergan also sought out advice from a core group of writer and actor friends culled primarily from the New York theater. Lonergan credits playwright Frank Pugliese, actor Matthew Broderick and scribe Pippin Parker as chief among those who offered advice both before and during production on “You Can Count on Me.” He also sought counsel from Tony-winning “Side Man” playwright Warren Leight and various writer friends who are part of the Gotham-based experimental theater group Naked Angels.

Lacking a close-knit circle of first-time helmers from the theater like Mendes and company seems not to bother Lonergan.

“I work alone a lot,” he says. “And then I bring in my friends to look at what I’ve done when I can no longer think for myself. I don’t like to solicit a lot of opinions because it confuses me; it’s not that the opinions are bad, it’s just that everybody has an opinion.”

He even downplays the theatrical genesis of “You Can Count on Me.”

“I think they put in the press packet you know, ‘It started as a one-act play …,’ but I really never think of it as a play — ever,” says Lonergan. “I always think of it as a film. It had started out as a sketch that I performed a couple of times in the theater, but it was always, as soon as any kind of a larger story suggested itself, a film.”

Point of origin

Many times, Lonergan admits, he’ll write something that starts with a single scene. In “You Can Count on Me,” the scene in question takes place in a restaurant, where the siblings reunite and the itinerant brother is confronted by his recent past.

Lonergan admits that there’s a certain theatrical sensibility that does run through the picture, and for that matter, even its personnel. Topliners Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo both cut their teeth on New York stages; Linney, who Lonergan has known through theater friends for years, was on Broadway two seasons ago in “Honor.” Ruffalo starred in Lonergan’s Off Broadway play “This Is Our Youth.”

“These people memorize 120 pages of dialogue, sometimes by themselves,” he notes.

That he was willing to include the 11 pages of dialogue in the restaurant scene speaks volumes about Lonergan’s roots as a playwright. It also reveals what he has embraced about film.

“I really like when you can see both actors in a shot, and can see them interacting with each other, so I knew I wanted to use a lot of two-shots,” he says. “That’s the kind of film language that I’m just really, really excited to learn more about, because there’s nothing else in the world that does that.”

When asked what was hardest about directing the movie, he leans forward: “The timing,” he says, without hesitation. “The watching the clock the whole time, trying to play beat-the-clock every goddamn minute. The entire experience, you have so little time to do so much, so you’re rushing everything. And you’re tense about it all the time, and everybody’s tense about it: ‘Go, Go! Go!’ It changes the entire complexion of the experience.”

One particularly revealing scene in the movie involves Linney driving home after a romantic interlude with her priggish boss. “The Other Woman” is playing on the radio, and her face discloses a litany of conflicting emotions: disbelief, giddiness, and depression. Lonergan says it reminds him of himself. “That’s how I usually feel, three or four thoughts per action.”

The sum of the directing experience has changed his opinion of the process of filmmaking as much as it seems to have changed him. As his role morphed from a passive, if powerless, observer, his perspective on the methodology changed, too.

“I think I’ll be half as frightened next time, and then hopefully, half again the time after that,” he says. “Initially, I was embarrassed to be the boss. I used to say, ‘I’m the writer, and I guess I’m the director, too,'” he pauses, “I don’t say that any more.”

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