“I Became This Girl for 50 Days”: Kenneth Lonergan on Margaret

04/09/2012 10:20 AM |

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Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is based on a true story. The incident that sets the film’s story in motion—the distraction of a bus driver about a cowboy hat that ends in an accident—happened to a high-school classmate of the writer-director. She told him the story during a lunch date in the 11th grade, and the whole time all he could think about was how he wanted to sleep with her.

Lonergan tells this story often, as he did during a Q&A following a screening on Saturday night at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, but now it has a new twist: he was telling it again at a recent Q&A when he saw a hand waving from the audience. And there was Jill Breslauer, the girl herself, whom he hadn’t seen in 30 years, at the movies with her husband—and wearing a cowboy hat!

It’s not the only bit of the film drawn from the director’s life: he sees much of himself in the main character Lisa, played by Anna Paquin. “Anna and I met on a mutual plane of understanding,” he said. “We both became this girl for 50 days.” Like Lisa, Lonergan also grew up on the Upper West Side, and had to go through a similar realization that the neighborhood isn’t actually the center of the universe—that process of breaking out of the insular world of the place where we’re raised—childhood itself.

Despite Lonergan’s identification with the girl, he cast himself as her father. “That’s the main reason I made the film,” he cracked, “so I could play the father.” The character, he said, was based in part on his own father—at least his habit of reciting the minute details of his day on the phone “before you can say, ‘hey, I just ran somebody over with a bus.'” Lonergan said that, as far as family, he considers himself lucky—growing up, they were very supportive of him trying to make a career of the arts. Only his stepfather suggested it might be a good idea to have a back-up plan. “I need one now,” he said, “but I didn’t for a long time.”

The Q&A was his third on consecutive Saturdays. “I don’t go out anymore,” he joked, adding, “I’m running out of jokes.” Margaret was famously dumped by its distributor in theaters briefly last September, before becoming a year-end cause célèbre among New York critics, whose attention got the movie returned to city theaters, where it has been playing off and on ever since. (It continues at Lincoln Center through Thursday.) The following are miscellaneous insights and anecdotes Lonergan offered at his last—for now—Film Society Q&A.

Original Length
Margaret was much longer at various points. The original screenplay was 375 (!) pages. (“I prefer writing to directing,” he said. “I vastly prefer it.”) He briefly considered it as a miniseries, but ended up cutting 100 pages, and then another after a reading in his apartment. An audience member asked him about the infamous studio-enforced edits—the original cut is rumored to have been four hours—but he declined to get into it, saying he’d explain it over a drink at the bar, but that in this context it’d be a long and dull story. He summed it up: “the studio always wants it to be longer, you want it to be shorter.”

9/11
Lonergan decided the movie is set in 2003—any later, and Lisa would have been too young for September 11th to have had such a strong impact on her. He almost decided to have a title card in the beginning—”New York City, September 2003″—but “some friends” talked him out of it. (Maybe Scorsese?!? He’s said to have offered editing advice.) It’d be unnecessary; the aftermath of the terrorist attacks hangs over the film’s New York, from “those pathetic, inadequate barricades” in front of Lincoln Center, which dominate one image, to the shots of planes in the sky, which should mean to something to anyone who was alive at the time, when “every airplane was more than an airplane.”

Teenagers
Someone complimented Lonergan on the realism of his dialogue for teenagers, and asked if he spent a lot of time with them. “I’m not so masochistic as to spend time with teenagers,” he said. But he enjoys writing about them. “I find teenagers to be a fairly accurate metaphor for adults,” he said—but rawer—like the way they’re half-equipped to handle what life offers.

Truth in Art
Lonergan is known for complicated characters who possess major flaws and failings. Lisa, for example, is an obnoxious pain in the ass, he said, but she’s also trying very hard to do what’s right, embodying the intense idealism of adolescence. (She only forgives her mother her imperfections after realizing the imperfections, the injustice, of society at large.) “I think you’re better off being truthful in art,” he said. “I have trouble writing villains. I think I’m more judgmental in my personal life than in my work.”

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