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Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2012: Kenneth Lonergan interview

Posted on Friday July 6, 2012, 17:32 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2012: Kenneth Lonergan interview

Kenneth Lonergan's extraordinary film Margaret premiered in London on December 2 last year in a single screen at arguably one of London's most unremarkable cinemas. This was three months after it bowed in the US, where it fared little better. But, miraculously, there was a lot of goodwill surrounding the second film from the director of 2000's Oscar-nominated Sundance hit You Can Count On Me. Telling the story of Margaret (Anna Paquin), a somewhat dramatic, privileged New York teenager whose life is changed when she accidentally causes the death of a pedestrian by distracting a bus driver, the film was a long 11 years in gestation and nearly three hours in running time when it reached screens here and in the US.

I caught up with Lonergan this week in the Czech Republic at the 47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where the release cut of the film was playing to packed houses. Because of a potentially ruinous lawsuit, which could, say sources, bankrupt him, Lonergan is not at liberty to discuss any of the reasons why the film took so long to be released, and cannot comment at all on any aspect of the film's post-production life – hence, it is still difficult to ascertain whether the extended cut of the film that was released in the UK on Monday counts in any way as the definitive “director's cut” (although Lonergan does discuss this version in the interview below). However, he was very willing to talk frankly about this ambitious, dazzling and sometimes frustrating film, which survived a very difficult birthing process to feature in many US and UK critics' year-end Top Tens…

Your film became a bit of a cause célèbre in London!
Yes, I know. I'm very grateful.

When did you begin work on Margaret?
I had the idea for the film somewhere in the early ’90s. I was vacationing with my parents in Maine and the whole came to me all at once. Which never happens to me. I had the whole outline, about six handwritten pages long. I was very excited. Anyway, it was one of several things I was working on, and I started writing it in around 2000 or so, and it took about two years to write. Then it took a year to find someone to produce it, then we had to cast it, so we started filming in 2005, 2006.

So how does it feel to be talking about it now? Did you expect it to take this long?
No! No. But it feels good. It's had a very… (Pause) A very... (Pause) I'm very proud of it, I'm very proud of the actors, and I'm very happy it's gotten the attention it's gotten, because I wasn't sure it would. It's a bit odd, but it's not quite as odd for me as for everyone else, because I've been involved with it one way or another for all this time. For everyone else it appeared their radar in 2006, 2007, then went away. But I've been dealing with it all the time.

Why did you make your lead character a teenage girl?
Well, as they say, you don't choose your subjects, your subjects choose you. This particular incident was related to me by a girl I went to high school with. I was having lunch with her, I was 16, and she was very upset. She pointed out that her boots had blood on them, and she told me that at the weekend she was looking for a cowboy hat and had waved at a bus driver who was wearing one. He waved at her back, hit a woman, her leg was cut off and she bled to death in [this girl's] arms. So she was very upset. It was a very striking conversation and I remember that I wrote it down as a short scene, verbatim, seven pages long. It always stayed with me and I've always wanted to write about it. And then years and years later a larger story occurred to me and sort of came to me all at once.

But why a teenage girl?
I think because someone that age witnessing something that dreadful is interesting because, I don't like to think metaphorically on purpose, I always feel that teenagers are a bit of metaphor for adults. They're half-formed, full of confidence about things they ought not to be confident about and full of ignorance about things they ought to know they're ignorant about. That particular time of life is when you have very strong reactions to things, and you live your life with a certain theatricality that you lose later on. Which is both annoying teenagers and also admirable in some ways – they really think they're gonna grab the world by the horns and make it behave itself. And that's not such a terrible thing to think. On the other hand, they often tend to do it as if they're acting in a grand opera, which is what drives adults crazy. And the combination is very interesting, I think. I've always been interested in it. And for this particular story, that's where it started.

How did you come to cast Anna Paquin? It's a very tough role for a young actor.
That was fairly easy. I had written a play called This Is Our Youth in 1996, which was being done in London in 2000, I think, and we had to cast it. And Anna Paquin was someone who was being considered for one of the three characters. So I went to see Anna in a play. She'd just done her first play, it was called The Glory Of Living, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I thought she was wonderful. So we offered her the role, and when I saw her in This Is Our Youth she was very different from everyone else who had played that role. Much more young and vibrating, nervous and full of teenage energy, when that character had been usually played with more cynicism and a little more of a patina of sophistication. But Anna just played it like a livewire. I was into the writing of this script and she seemed to me to be perfect for the role at 19. But we didn't end up casting her until she was 22 and shooting until she was 23.

So she was your first choice?
I aways had her in mind. She was always the one to beat, in a way. I auditioned lots of people, though – I was concerned when she was 23 that I should have a real 17-year-old in the role. But as it turns out I was right, wise not to do. Because the part requires so much that Anna's long experience as a film actress at that young age very much came in very handy. Long, demanding days with incredible emotional scenes. There's a scene at the opera at the end, the bus accident, and there's many, many scenes where she has to do a lot. And she didn't just do them for the duration of the scene, she did them all day long and she'd do them on her takes and everyone else's takes. She wouldn't go home. If she was shot out for the day, she always stayed and was off camera for the actor. She'd play the scene full out. There might have been some brilliant, unknown, inexperienced actress who would've done a great job. But I didn't find her. And Anna, as a type, was perfect for the part, I think. And her emotional depths are astonishing, I think.

She pitches it perfectly; it would be easy for to become self-conscious and go over the top, but she doesn't.
No. Well, she is a bit like the character. She's very… (Laughs) Well, she was! She's 30 now, a stepmother and about to be a mother, so I know her better as a 23-year-old. We're still in touch, but it's funny. But she had this quality in her acting, and in her personality as well, which is just to sort of leap into things. A friend of mine – Matthew Broderick's mother, Patricia Broderick, who was my mentor – read the script and said, “It doesn't matter who you cast, she just has to jump in wherever she is. Because that's what the girl does, so if the actress can do that, then that's who you want.” And that's what Anna did – with a lot of thought behind it – but this girl is thrashing round, looking for something to so with all this energy that's been generated by this terrible thing that's happened to her, and Anna understood that very well. And also understood the humour of it, which was nice, and wasn't afraid to play the unappealing side of the character, the more belligerent side of the character. Which I appreciated, because some actors shy away from not being saintly or perfect.

It's interesting that we see every aspect of Margaret's world. How long was the original script?
Well, the script... (Laughs) it depends which script you're talking about. The shooting script was a modest 162 pages. I've read, more times than I could possibly have imagined, that the original shooting script was 186 pages. I think that's because the online version is paginated to be 186 pages. The shooting script itself was 162 pages, and that was as short as I wanted to cut before getting into the editing room. The first draft was 378 pages long, and I never intended to shot that but I had a wonderful time writing. I wanted the film to cover – to continue to cover – all of the elements of her life while this one drama was going on. I hadn't seen that before. Usually they pare away everything. You see the person's life in the first section, then the story starts, then they emerge from the bank where they've worked all day long to go chase the criminal or be chased by the criminal. And I always wondered what they did at the bank all day long! So I really wanted to see Margaret continue in her life while all this was going on. And that really yielded – I thought – a rich harvest.

In what way?
I didn't do this on purpose, but it seemed to fit in with the themes of the story, which involved the existence of other people as not merely a function of oneself, and all the different walks of life that we're surrounded by – particularly in a city like New York, where everything is crammed together – but then when everyone goes home, they all go to their separate places, their separate neighbourhoods and their separate demographics. And so this girl who grew up in a very particular area – which is where I grew up – is sent off into these different directions where she's never been before. So it was very easy to cut the first 200 pages. And then when it came to the last ten pages, I really felt like I had cut enough. I wanted to see how... Once the actors get involved and once it becomes a live thing instead a script, you want to see what's going to work and what isn't, and then that informs what else you're going to pare away.

So nothing was improvised?
There was one improvisation. There's a scene where Margaret calls the police station and she's talking to the policeman. In the background another policeman is telling a story, a very loud story, to his friend. That, what he's saying, was improvised. Everything else was written down.

Do you like like improvisation?
Not so much. I actually just did a play in New York where there was a great deal of improvisation, in certain sections of the play, and I really enjoyed it because the actors were so clever. But I usually have shied away from it. I have nothing against it, it's just not my style. (Laughs) I improvise, then I write it down and make the actors say what I wrote down! But to me the acting is the most important part of any play or film, and so I try to write actor-friendly scripts. I really like not just to feel free within the hopefully broad boundaries of the story, I don't like to micro-manage them as a director. I don't think that ever works. At least, unless you're very good at it. Which I'm not.

Is there going to be a director's cut?
There's not a director's cut. What there is now, now that the DVD is gonna be released, is an extended cut. What was released last September [in the US] was my cut, but there's now gonna be a DVD in which I put in... It's just a different version, it's not the definitive version. There's more of it, and things that I'm happy to be able to put in. It's funny, because, the older I get, the more difficulty I have deciding what to keep and what to keep and what to get rid of, and it was sort of a very relaxing epiphany to realise I didn't have to choose.

Did Fox encourage you to do this other release?
Yes, they've been great. They asked me if I wanted to do an extended cut for the DVD, and they've paid for it and they've been promoting. They're doing a whole bunch of press on it – there's an event in New York and an event in LA. They worked on it, very hard, from December to March, with extremely dedicated editorial technicians. And it was all so... (Sighs) I don't know how to explain it. There's this wonderful composer, Nico Muhly, who wrote this wonderful score, and then there was all this opera music that I wanted to use, and I drove myself berserk trying to decide which ti do. So the theatrical release has a lot of Nico's music. Which made it easier to say, “OK, so I put Nico's music in this scene for this time, and this other – which I like and works equally well in a different way – I'll put in the other version.” Not to make the comparison by any means but Bach and Handel wrote the same pieces over and over again in very different variations over their lifetimes – the same themes in several different ways. It's nice to be able to do that without having to decide that this is it, forever. In a film you sort of do. Well, you used to. But now you don't have to.

There are lot of questions raised by the original cut, especially the scene in which Margaret tells her teacher (Matt Damon) – who she's recently slept with – that she's had an abortion. It's the first we've heard of it! Did she make it up?
You will find the answer to that question in the extended version! But it's interesting. I don't know what I've learned exactly, but it feels like something that should have taught me something! The point of that scene is that she didn't get anywhere with her crusade, so she's come just shy of destroying his life after having seduced him. He shouldn't have gone to bed with her, but on the other hand she made it rather difficult for him not to, I feel. Of course, we very much don't approve of that sort of thing these days, but the idea was that the characters were close enough in age and temperament, that it became difficult for him to refuse. And then once it was over, of course, he felt like a criminal. So the point of that scene, where she tells him she had an abortion is the same whether she had one or not.

So why does she do it?
Her object is to lash out at him – someone, a man. So whether she had actually one or not is not pertinent to that scene. It's pertinent to other things. Which is interesting. Some people prefer it without the actual abortion, some people prefer it with. (Laughs) Not to give anything away, but if she were to have an abortion it would have more to do with the storyline… There's a continual attempt on her part, of which she's unaware, to punish herself somehow sexual crime – flirting with this bus driver and enjoying the attractiveness of her new 17-year-old body that men seem to like and just having the terrible luck for her stupidity to have killed someone, whereas anybody else might have done the same thin with no consequences. Nothing might have happened. So she has this horrible psychological burden, which I think she's trying to find some retribution for. I also think she thinks she's trying to find some sort of connection with someone. Someone – anyone. So she goes around trying to connect with all these strangers. So in the version where she might have the abortion, it's do with that, and to do with her relationship with her mother. And not so much to do with the Matt Damon relationship, which is the same whether she had one or not. I like it both ways. It was certainly in the script tat she has one.

What was the most gruelling part of this experience? Was it painful, or are you zen about it?
I'm not zen about anything – I'm either anxious or tired! (Laughs) The shooting schedule itself is just gruelling, and unnecessarily so. European filmmakers, and some American filmmakers, insist on an eight-hour, at the same budget. And there's this crazy, irrational tradition [in the US] of shooting these 14-hour days that just doesn't make sense to him. So I find that gruelling. I don't like to get up in the morning, I'm a night person. It's difficult when you've done a full day's work, you're tired and you feel good about, and then you have another full day's work to do. And there's no real reason for it except tradition. I remember one we went, at a reasonable hour, to the Upper West Side where I grew up, and shot Anna walking down the street in slow motion, in a purple shirt. And we shot a scene that got cut from the movie. It was supposed to be the beginning of the movie but it didn't really work, so I got rid of it. It was just a little girl standing in the middle of Broadway, on a little island in the middle of it, with the traffic going back and forth. So... we shot Anna walking to school from a few different angles with this wonderful super-slow motion camera that we had. And it was two o'clock. One of my high-school friends walked by and said hello. And I think my sister-in-law walked by and said hello. It was lunchtime. And I thought, “If I could stop now, go home, do a couple of hours of writing, have dinner, have some friends over and go to bed, this would be a wonderful way to make a living.” (Laughs) But the fact is, we did that, and then we did more and more and more, and I got home at ten o'clock at night, completely burned out. That happened a number of times. So I find the shooting part very gruelling. Everyone does. Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen stop shooting at three o'clock. I' like to get that deal.

Was the editing difficult for you?
It was challenging because of the nature of the film. It's a mosaic, it's... I don't know how to describe it. Mark Ruffalo recently described it as a house of cards – if you remove the wrong card the whole thing falls down. Well, he actually described it as a house of cards in a wind storm! So it's like writing. You sort of have the whole thing in your mind – somehow the whole film's sitting in your mind – and then you have to work in individual sections and you're constantly stepping forward and stepping back, stepping forward and stepping back. Editing was the only part of filmmaking that I felt comfortable with, first time around, because I had no experience of making films at all with the first film that I did. And when I got into the editing room I was like, “Oh this is like writing.” You have to figure out the scene and figure out how it fits in the whole. Now, Margaret was more challenging because it was more complex. And also because I was trying to do something I had never done before. Which is to depict reality through non-traditional filmmaking rhythms. And that meant changing the focus of the story at times, completely over to other characters and away from the main character. And if the film didn't do that, to the degree that it does work, I think it wouldn't work if it didn't do that.

What do you mean by that?
The whole idea of the film is that, like everyone, Margaret thinks the world revolves around her, and like many people she discovers that it doesn't. And the film has to discover that too. So, for instance, the scene where she she argues with her mother before she goes to the opera is shot, from the beginning anyway, is edited in a way that focuses more on her mother. Her mother becomes the main character in that scene, and she has to, because that's what she's coming up against. It's the fullness of other human beings. It's not so much the legal system, or the fact that there's no justice, or that this person's mean and that person's nice. No. What she's coming up against is the size of the world and the fact that everyone else has their own life to lead. And that's what's in her way. So it was fun and interesting and different to prove that through the structure and the editing. It's unprovable if you just stick to her point of view, because all teenagers think that their life is a movie! (Laughs) And another thing I tried to do was let the scenes linger longer than normal. There's nothing wrong with it, but we all know that [in most films] the door slams and you cut, or the joke comes and you cut. But I wanted – and I don't know how successful I was or not – but I tried to get the film to draw you in by staying longer than we're used to in a scene. Sometimes it was very effective ans sometimes it wasn't – it had the problem of making other scenes that were more normal movie length seem a little awkward sometimes. But I really didn't mind that. And I liked the arrhythmia of it.

When did you first realise there were going to be problems with it?
I can't address that because I'm in the middle of a lawsuit, and I just can't talk about any of that stuff. I'd love to.

How come your first film, You Can Count On Me, doesn't seem to be available on DVD?
I don't know! You can get it online, I think. You can download it on NetFlix... I don't know. I was in one of the biggest DVD stores in New York City and they had every movie you've ever heard of, and I was very disappointed that they don't have that. But I don't know why! I don't see why it should disappear and.. all these other movies were there! (Laughs) I don't wanna be paranoid...! It was distributed by a division of Paramount that no longer exists, so that may have something to do with it. One of the two producing entities went into bankruptcy shortly after it was produced, so the proceeds all go to the legal entity that controls it. So maybe that has something to do with it. But I know there were other editions of the DVD, editions with pictures on it that I hadn't seen before. You used to only get it from Amazon. But in America you can download it from NetFlix.

How do you feel about the future?
I have a new play I'm going to be doing, hopefully on Broadway in the spring, and I would like to make another film sometime next year. But I'm not sure what. I have two plays that I'd like to make into films – well, I'd like to make all my plays into films at some point – and I'm not quite sure what to do next. I just finished a play recently, and I have a little bit of a problem launching into another film. I have a ten-year-old daughter, and I feel like it just takes so much time away. Part of me feels that if I was a good person I would wait until she was 16 or so and didn't wanna talk to me anyway – and then make films. But I don't wanna wait another six years to make a film, so I'll try to make a film on an easier schedule. I have this play called The Starry Messenger, that I liked very much, which had a very nice production with Matthew Broderick, Catalina Sandino Moreno and J Smith-Cameron, who I'm married to, and I really liked that. I think that would make a very nice movie and I'd like to do that. And I have two screenplays I'm working on. So it's a question of what gets finished first and what I can get financing for.

Is it fair to say Martin Scorsese has been a big help to you?
He's been an incredible help. He's been an incredible help to me for years, and my gratitude to him is unbounded. With his advice and his time and his creative help and advice on how to deal with practical problems, he's been great. I love him.

So you're prepared to go back into the fray? It hasn't stopped you?
No, I'm prepared to go back into the fray. I'm more concerned about the time that gets used up of my time. At best, unless I can find someone who will do a European-style movie schedule, I feel very bad about taking that much time away from my family at this point. (Laughs) That sounds like a politician who's been driven out of office, and I don't feel I have been exactly. It's more a logistical question rather than a creative question. There's a number of things I'd like to do. And think I can do.  

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