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Kenneth Lonergan on Margaret | Film interview

Kenneth Lonergan opens up about his masterpiece Margaret as it returns to Chicago.

J. Smith-Cameron, left, and Anna Paquin in Margaret

The weary voice is familiar, but the attitude is not: On the phone, Kenneth Lonergan sounds a lot like the California dad he plays in Margaret. Unlike the father character, however, he’s completely absorbed in our conversation. He’s ready to discuss every decision he made, from the locations (which he sought to keep geographically consistent) to the costume design (how the heroine’s clothing choice after a violent incident suggests another shade to her guilt).

For those new to Team Margaret, some background is in order. Lonergan’s masterful sophomore feature—for me, the best film of 2011—was shot in fall 2005 but became mired in post-production and litigation hell. It finally, briefly surfaced in September of last year with little-to-no advertising. In Chicago, it closed after just one week.

Then, in late November, an online petition, coupled with rave reviews in London, sparked a surge of interest. Riding a wave of fresh praise from critics, the movie received second-chance bookings in New York and L.A. It begins an encore run at the Siskel on Friday 17, and there’s a DVD on the way.

Lonergan, calling from New York, expressed amazement at the outpouring of support. “I never in my wildest dreams would have expected such a wonderful thing to happen,” he says. “I don’t mean to sound like a baseball player or a politician, but that’s how I feel.” The director is still being sued by producer Gary Gilbert over the fallout. When Lonergan gave recent interviews to Time and Variety, his lawyer monitored. There’s no counsel on the line when we talk, but the filmmaker (You Can Count on Me) and playwright (This Is Our Youth, Lobby Hero) is understandably more eager to comment on the movie than the project’s history.

Margaret centers on Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), an Upper West Side teen who inadvertently causes a fatal bus accident by distracting the driver (Mark Ruffalo). This trauma sets off just one of several dovetailing dramas. Lisa finds her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s wife) preoccupied with a new play and a new boyfriend (Jean Reno). Feeling responsible for the death, Paquin’s character worms her way into the life of the victim’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin). She becomes close with a not-unreceptive teacher (Matt Damon). And this is on top of schoolwork and the more ordinary trials of adolescence. “She is in the middle of all this stuff,” Lonergan says, “but she still has to do her homework and she still has to deal with her social life and her crazy father and all of her relationships.”

It may sound unwieldy, but Lonergan had always planned for an outsize canvas. “I wanted it not to feel like a movie,” he explains. “I always used to describe it as a ‘documentary opera’ or a ‘teen epic.’ Teenagers all think their life is a movie. If you break up with someone or you have a fight, you walk around with movie scores playing in your head. You sort of see yourself suffering as you’re suffering. There’s a lot of melodrama attached to the real events of your life. When you get into adult problems, that fun element of upsetting things disappears, and things are just upsetting.”

On one level, Margaret, which takes its title from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about a loss of youthful ideals, is Lisa’s education story. On another, it’s a movie about city life, reflecting the post-9/11 anxiety pervasive when Lonergan was writing. “Don’t you remember how everybody was slightly more awake or more attuned? You’d hear a car backfire and you’d jump?” Lonergan asks. “I remember it took several years before I stopped noticing airplanes. It was sort of like the city was still shaking from it, but also didn’t quite know how to be about it. I feel like it just suddenly supercharged everybody with an awareness that they didn’t have before, but without much more information.”

That sentiment also applies to Lisa’s uncertainty over how to respond to the bus accident. When the driver gets off scot-free—because she’s lied to the cops about what she saw—she sets out to get him fired, or at least to get him to admit that he’s responsible. Pushing the 9/11 parallel further, Lonergan looked for compositions involving buildings and low-flying planes, and also sought to convey a palpable sense of city bustle. “The whole movie is peppered with shots of people who have nothing to do with the story,” he notes. He told his cinematographer he wanted to shoot the movie “as if Lisa is no more important than anyone else who happens to be onscreen at the time.”

The heated classroom political discussions are another pitch-perfect touch, but despite the references to George W. Bush, much of the high-school material is autobiographical—taken from Lonergan and longtime friend Matthew Broderick’s own experiences in a New York private school. A scene of Lisa and her best friend (Sarah Steele) smoking a joint in Central Park was filmed at the rock where Lonergan and Broderick were caught doing the same. A showstopping debate on King Lear—a kid refuses to drop his point, and the teacher (played by Broderick) shuts him down—uses an observation one of Lonergan’s classmates once made (a “very stupid” observation, Lonergan adds).

That scene, Lonergan says, is the movie in miniature—a mirror of what happens to Lisa. “There are some people you just can’t get anywhere with, and that’s kind of what she's up against,” he says. “More so than she is against the intricacies of the law or this or that, she’s up against the fact that people have their own thoughts, agendas, lives. It’s not that they’re better or worse than you; it’s just that their center is themselves and your center is yourself, even if you’re all generous, well-meaning people.”

The movie’s expansive narrative began with a whopping 375-page draft, which Lonergan trimmed by more than 200 pages before shooting. “There’s no element in [the 375-page version] that’s not in the movie,” Lonergan says. “For instance, the scene where she meets Mark Ruffalo in Brooklyn is 25 pages long instead of eight pages long. I’ve been thinking about publishing it as its own thing. It reads perfectly well.”

While he agrees that the deferred release gives the film different resonances than it would have had in 2006, he doesn’t think that matters much. “It’ll become a deep period piece in 20 years,” he says. “I try just not to worry about stuff like that. I try to keep the material as specific and alive as possible, and hope that it’ll seem that way at whatever point in its life.”

Margaret opens at the Siskel Friday 17.

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