Your lead character in “Margaret” is a teenaged girl. You are not now, nor have ever been, a teenaged girl. How did you find your way in to that character, and what do you say to those who find her irritating?
“There are some characters you think of and they’re really vivid to you and they’re easy to write and it doesn’t really matter who or what they are," replies Lonergan. "I don’t know why whatever this is fed itself into the life of a teenage girl. But I had been very interested in teenagers and that combination of sensitivity and dramatisation that they have. And very, very strong reactions to things that adults are more accustomed to, and not necessarily in a good way. They somewhat enjoy the drama which adults also don’t do because we understand it’s all very serious and nothing to enjoy. [But] the energy and wish to correct things that many teenagers have, well, I don’t find that irritating at all. She’s very belligerent and pugnacious but she didn’t just cry and go home and write in her diary, she really tried to do something about what happened, which I think is to her credit.”
Once the character occurs to him, very little changes on that level in the rewrites. “Only if they’re poorly written in the first place,” says Lonergan. “If I have a vivid idea for a character then I’m very happy and I just listen. When it’s going poorly I have to think, I have to make things up. The trick is to think of something that comes alive to me and then it’s alive…”
“I don’t know if it was the inspiration but it started with an incident that happened to this girl that I knew in high school. I was 17, I didn’t know her very well but I had lunch with her and she told me this story that had happened to her, exactly as it is in the film and I always thought it was interesting and so many years later I wrote the film.”
“She actually turned up at a screening in New York, and I said, well there’s this girl, Jill B., who told me this story about going to buy a cowboy hat on Broadway and waving at a driver... and then, sitting in the audience, this 49-year-old woman waved at me, and it was her. I hadn’t seen her since high school, and we were not very close friends either, we just had lunch once. I was embarrassed, but she loved it. She said she did, she was cheerful, she said hello. I’d always wondered if she was out there somewhere.”
“Yes. A lot of the material of the school comes from my experience in school as a pupil. The English classroom scenes…there was an argument about 'King Lear,' the exact same argument when I was in 11th grade. And the history class that I took, my American History class had two teachers and they were both very liberal progressive, one of them had worked in the labour movement and our first American History class was about what a rat Abraham Lincoln was...The girls smoking marijuana in the park that was me and my friend Matthew smoking on the exact same rock and our English teacher caught us and said ‘you can’t smoke a jay’ and we made fun of him. And Matthew Broderick [who is still Lonergan’s best friend], he went to that school too and Matthew remembered that, you remember [Broderick's character] the teacher drinks the orange juice and eats the sandwich during the argument? Matthew remembered that our teacher was a diabetic, I’d forgotten and he said ‘Don’t you remember? He had a sandwich and a glass of orange juice in class… can I have orange juice?’ ”
Other characters too, were drawn from life, including one of this writer’s favorites, Emily, Monica’s bereaved best friend. “She was based on a friend of mine who has passed away now, one of my best friends. Emily…has one or two facets of this very multi-faceted woman who was much more positive and had an enthusiastic, brilliant side to her. Emily I think is very intelligent and a good person and moral so most of her character was taken from that friend and then transformed. When you use a real person as a model it always gets transformed a bit by the circumstances and by the act of writing it.”