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Q&A with Kenneth Lonergan

Difficult birth for 'Margaret'

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” was filmed several years ago, released quietly in 2011, but was championed for kudos by some critics and a Twitter campaign. Ongoing litigation keeps the writer-director from discussing the cut he worked on with Martin Scorsese, but he remains enthusiastic about the version that played. He spoke to Variety’s Christy Grosz from New York — with his lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, monitoring.

Grosz: Did you write the script intending to direct it?

Lonergan: In the theater, you don’t have to direct your own material to have creative control over it. But for film, if you want to write something, your best chance of having it turn out the way you want is to direct it. I had done a lot of backseat driving as a playwright, (but) I had never imagined directing for film before. I used to just write film scripts to make a living. (As a screenwriter), if you get lucky, you are very nicely treated and the script is respected, but most of the time the script is something disposable and you certainly don’t have any creative control with the powers that be. I wouldn’t have written either movie if I couldn’t direct it. It meant too much for me to sell them and give them up and see them turned into something else by somebody else for better or for worse.

CG: Rather than a character, the title of the film refers to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall.” What did you connect with in the poem?

KL: It’s a poem about a child who is crying because the leaves are falling off the trees. It’s very beautiful to have that much feeling for life, and it’s not the greatest when you become hardened to it. You get to be 30, and you’re like, “OK, I’m tired.” You go about your own business, and you worry about your own problems. I think teenagers suddenly wake up with a shock that that’s what they are bound for. That’s part of what the movie is about as well.

CG: How long did it take you to write the script?

KL: I had the whole idea for it about 10 years before I started working on it, but I had other things lined up that I wanted to do first. Once I started writing it, I think it was about two years and it was the most fun I have ever had writing anything. The first draft was 375 pages long and it read like a dream, and then it got cut down to 155 eventually. It was sort of an experiment. I just turned my mind off and once I knew what was going to happen I just didn’t worry about it. For a while, I considered doing it as a miniseries, but then I realized I really did want it to be a movie and that’s why I trimmed it down. I should have it bound in leather so I can show people and get a laugh.

CG: Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult to shoot from a production standpoint?

KL: There is a very gruesome bus accident that takes place on Sixth and Broadway or thereabout, and that was very difficult. That was four days in the cold with Anna Paquin and Allison Janney soaked in blood. It was so harrowing to watch them, and I think it sunk into everybody’s mind what was going on in the movie. But Anna, I have never seen anyone just give everything she had every single day. At the end of the fourth day, she is standing there wrapped in a blanket covered in blood and the sun is going down, and she said to me in a very small voice, “Do you think we can go home now?” That was it. That was her single request.

CG: I know you’re not on Twitter, but you’ve certainly heard a lot about the Team Margaret campaign that has sprung up. Why do you think the film has connected so strongly with critics?

KL: The fact that people I don’t know, that I have never met, are interested enough in the film to do all this for it is astonishing and wonderful. I know why I like (the film), but everybody has their own reasons for liking films or plays or books. Sometimes critics like things I like. Sometimes they like things I don’t like. (Deadpans) I would like to think it’s the quality of my performance as the father. It is a very solid supporting part. I feel that I look great in it. I worked really hard on my hair and my costume. I’m standing at a beach house with the wind blowing through my hair, and I don’t understand why nobody has really focused on me.

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