Kenneth Lonergan is the playwright behind This is Our Youth, The Waverley Gallery and Lobby Hero; the script-fixer that lent a hand to Gangs of New York and – incredibly – Rocky and Bullwinkle; and the writer-director of You Can Count on Me and Margaret. Not to put too fine a point on it, Lonergan is a very accomplished writer and, as displayed by You Can Count on Me, a fine director.
What, then, has happened to Margaret? Filmed in late 2005, Lonergan’s second film was to star Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon. The shoot seemed to go very well, and early signs were fantastic. Then, Lonergan stepped into the editing room and things started to wobble somewhat. Thanks to a series of legal documents that have come into the possession of The LA Times, the horror stories of what seems to be one of the most absurdly protracted post production nightmares, can finally come to light.
Essentially, the film hasn’t been released because Lonergan isn’t happy with it. Given a contractual right to final cut, he’s spent three years and, allegedly, a $1 million loan from Matthew Broderick, to make assembly upon assembly.
At various times Lonergan was joined in the edit bay by producer Scott Rudin, the late Sidney Pollack and even Thelma Schoonmaker, each of them offering a fresh perspective and advice designed to help him cut his way through the thicket. According to legal papers, however, Pollack aborted one edit session due to ” Lonergan’s unprofessional and irrational behavior” and that the director “did not listen to, or implement” the editing suggestions put forth by Schoonmaker. Not implementing Schoonmaker’s suggestions is fair enough, but not listening? And “irrational behaviour” hints at a director in trauma.
It isn’t hard to sympathise with Lonergan, but there is some suggestion here that he’s spiralled off into a very unfortunate, very cold and lonely place. One might suspect that he simply can’t make the compromises necessary to realise the film, that he somehow wants to make every note of his subtext ring clearly and perfectly, that he wants to transcend via the edit any shortcomings – ie. realities – of the footage he collected during the shoot. This sad possibility is that the film is a casualty in a struggle that Lonergan is having not so much with the rushes, but with himself.
Having read the screenplay for Margaret I can vouch for how truly splendid it is, and knowing the other performances of the key cast members I have no doubt that they will have brought it to life wonderfully. According to Anne McCabe, the editor of You Can Count on Me, none other than Martin Scorsese claimed that the edit of the film he saw was “brilliant” and “a masterpiece” – while essentially meaningless in the big picture that recommendation is at least one heck of a poster quote.
Olivia Thirlby, who should appear in the film, seems to be one of the few to speak of it with any edge of pessimism or negativity. She told Collider that she feels “Kenny Lonergan is brilliant but I think that sometimes he’s still more of a playwright than a filmmaker”, though her complaints seem to be only that the film would be rather long.
The length of the film is only an issue in that Lonergan’s “final cut” agreement rests on a maximum run time of 150 minutes. Perhaps this is the key issue here? And if so, can it not be resolved by issuing a film longer than 150 minutes? Surely Fox Searchlight would benefit from a film on release that can only fit in, say, two or three screenings a day, rather than one on the shelf that, obviously, can’t generate a single cent, reach a single audience, speak to a single viewer?
There’s not really any doubt that the film will see the light of day, somehow, sometime – even if that’s only decades from now and after Lonergan’s death. Even if Margaret is wildly acclaimed and a hit at the box office, I can’t see Lonergan securing a ‘final cut’ contract ever again.
I hope he can let go of Margaret soon and just let it be, let it breathe, let it go off and be whatever it is… and then start thinking about his follow up.