Fans of You Can Count On Me were forced to wait 11 years for director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film. Filmed way back in 2005, Margaret is the harrowing story of a manipulative New York City teenager (Anna Paquin) whose involvement in a fatal bus accident thrusts her into an adult world she’s unprepared to navigate. The movie, which features an all-star cast that also includes Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, and Matthew Broderick, seemed doomed to eternal limbo when the director, his producers, and Fox Searchlight could not agree on a final cut. Lonergan had been promised total control, as long as his finished film was less than 150 minutes long. Unfortunately, the cut he originally submitted ran longer than three hours. Lawsuits were exchanged. For years, neither side blinked, and the film nearly passed into oblivion as its stars moved on to bigger things. (Paquin found True Blood, Damon went back to the Bourne franchise, Ruffalo earned an Oscar nomination and was cast as a raging superhero.)
When Margaret was finally released last September — with a running time of 149 minutes and 49 seconds — many would have to buy plane tickets to see it, as it never played in more than 14 theaters. Though it didn’t even gross $50,000 and was neglected by the Oscars, some critics championed the film as one of the year’s best. Tomorrow, fans of Lonergan’s work who don’t live in New York and Los Angeles can finally see it for themselves. Or more precisely, they can view two versions of the film that are included in a Blu-ray combo pack: the theatrical release and Lonergan’s extended three-hour cut.
Before the extended version of Margaret is screened tonight in New York — to be followed by a Q&A panel with Lonergan, Ruffalo, Broderick, and moderator Tony Kushner — the director checked in with Entertainment Weekly.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Margaret is a film that is difficult to shake, and there are so many themes woven throughout. As a storyteller, what was the seed of the story that everything else grew out of?
KENNETH LONERGAN: There was a girl in my high school who told me that this [bus accident] had happened to her — and that was the literal seed. I was just 16 but it always stayed with me. But I think the impetus was the idea of this girl trying to cope with all these adult problems and issues with only the equipment of a teenager to help her. It seemed compelling to me: that a very very young person confronted with death and injustice and the force of other people’s lives getting in the way of her finding what she thinks she’s going to find, which is justice and some sort of way to atone for what she’s done — which she’s unable to do.
The film had a way of making me view Anna Paquin’s character similarly to the way she judged Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver. I felt extremely judgmental of her, yet I’m also terrified of her. How did you see that character?
I don’t have that reaction to her. I find her to be a kid, trying very hard in an overwhelming situation, trying very very hard to do something about it, and not doing it well. But with a teenager’s cruelty towards her parents, a teenager’s disappointment in grown-ups, a teenager’s black-and-white view of things, which is very slowly beaten out of her by the realities of the grown-up world. That particular kind of person is frightening in a way, but she may have just as easily written in her diary and cried and told her friends about this terrible thing that happened to her. And this girl tries to do something about it. Some people feel she’s just trying to work out her guilty feelings at the expense of someone else, but I don’t think she ducks responsibility for it. She wants him to take responsibility as well and he does duck the responsibility for it completely. And he may have his reasons. That’s part of what she’s up against, the fact that other people have their reasons.
Your wife — J. Smith-Cameron — and Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick, who both appeared in You Can Count on Me, seem like people you may have had in mind when you wrote the script, but tell me about the casting of Anna and Jeannie Berlin, who hadn’t been in a film in 15 years.
Anna had starred in This Is Our Youth in London when she was 19. I had just started writing the script for Margaret and when I saw her in the play, I thought, “Oh my gosh, there she is. The girl I’m writing about.” So when we were casting it three years later, she was the prominent person in my mind to play the part. She’s so well suited to it. I had no idea she was going to be that remarkable and I had no idea she was going to have that kind of depth of emotional transparency. And Jeannie Berlin had just done a play with my wife, and we had just made friends with her when we were casting Emily. I admired her work tremendously in The Heartbreak Kid and the other early movies that she did, and I’ve seen her on the stage many times. She actually was the last person to come in and audition for the part, and I hadn’t for some reason even thought of her at all. And J. suggested that I let her audition and she came in. Emily was a very difficult role to cast because of the specificity of the character: well-to-do but tough Upper West Side New Yorker. Doug Aibel, the casting director, and I, after her audition, were like “Well, there she is.”
You and J. have a daughter who was really just born when this idea began to take form. She’s now 10. Does the idea of having a teenage daughter frighten you?
No, because I’m going to send her to a military academy. When she comes out she’ll be a captain or something, so I won’t have to deal with her at all. Yes, it’s terrifying. I don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s difficult enough dealing with a 10-year-old who you love; I don’t know what you do with a 16-year-old in New York City. I have no way to prepare whatsoever, and just hope she and we survive her teen years, which is, I think, all you can do.
There’s a classroom scene in the film where a student is arguing why teens should rule the world. In our business — movies, music, television — it sometimes feels like they already do. Is that something that weighs on you?
I think what’s ruling the world is the Hollywood pandering to teens and what they think teens want. And it’s having an unfortunate reaction. My daughter watches these teenage shows which are completely artificial — I mean, these teens with perfect hair and makeup, perfect bodies. And they’re harmless shows in a way, most of them, they’re just comedies. But there’s something about how hip and in control the kids are that’s so false that bothers me a bit. So I don’t know that it’s the teenagers that are doing it; it’s the ruthless marketing to the teenage group that I find frightening and that is completely the responsibility of the adults.
The extended cut that is being released tomorrow is 36 minutes longer than the version that played in theaters. Is this the version you would have preferred in the first place?
No, not really. This is just the movie, if I had another crack at it afterwards with no time constraints and no concerns about trying to make it commercially viable and all that kind of thing that you worry about while you’re editing. But it’s not a director’s cut. It’s a different approach to it, I think. There are things in the release cut that are suggested that are delved into in the extended cut. Which approach is more effective will be up for others to decide.
You started writing it about 10 years ago, filmed it in 2005, and went through everything you had to go through to get some version of it into a handful of theaters. Now a decade later, we’re chatting about the Blu-ray. Does this feel like a victory lap or are you ready to talk about something else?
I’m truly happy about the way things turned out. I’m happy people like the film, and I’m also happy that Fox gave me the opportunity to do the extended cut and play around with the film a second time. So it all turned out for the best, I think.