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Kenneth Lonergan On The Inspirations, Performances, Resonances & Structure Of 'Margaret'

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by Jessica Kiang
July 11, 2012 11:56 AM
3 Comments
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Other works of art feature largely, from opera to Shakespeare to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem from which the film draws its name. How did you come across these various pieces?
“I have only ever memorized three poems...I happened to know that poem, and it appeared somewhere in the middle of my writing and as soon as it did I knew what the film should be called -- it didn’t have a title for a while. And then when the poem appeared in the classroom and I saw it was very much the topic...it’s funny when you write. I had a very good time writing this script because I did this experiment where I knew what the structure was and what was going to happen, so I tried not to think at all. I tried to turn off my conscious mind and that’s why the first draft of the script, it was never meant to be shot, but it was 306 pages, because I let scenes go on. I knew where it was going and I knew where the beats were and I just kind of closed my eyes, and it’s amazing what happens when you do that. I had a wonderful time writing it and it was very easy to cut a hundred pages out of it in two weeks -- you know when she goes to see the bus driver in Brooklyn, that scene is probably six pages long and it was sixteen pages long when I wrote it. And the poem just appeared and I felt it was right.”

And as for the segment used in the climactic opera scene? “I had never heard it before. I knew that the end of the film was going to be the two of them at the opera listening to something beautiful. I have a CD called 'Great Duets from Opera' and I heard the piece and thought, well that’s it. And like so many things it turned out to be perfect because it’s two women singing -- one goes, then the other goes, then they sing in unison and then they start to separate, which is what happens after the film is over, she’s gonna grow up and go away. I was very pleased, and that happens all the time: you pick something by accident and it turns out to go along with everything that’s been happening in your mind.”

Tell us a little about the time (2003ish) and place (New York City) setting of the film.
“One thing about if you grow up in New York City, or I suppose Prague or Paris or London, you don’t know that that’s not the whole world. If you grow up in Kansas you know you’re in a small town and there’s a big world out there. You grow up in New York City on the Upper West Side and you think that’s it, everywhere else is the country, the sticks. It’s not snobbery it’s just a different kind of provincialism. The politics are very uniform, it’s all very liberal you can’t find a Republican anywhere in the entire neighbourhood; it’s largely Jewish secular intellectual -- lawyers, doctors, not very rich but in those days it was upper middle class. It’s a very particular segment of New York. The Upper East Side, for instance, is very wealthy and more snobby, the Upper West Side was more working professional. When I was there -- well, we’re all very wealthy by world standards but by Manhattan standards…Also you are taught to have some sort of social awareness of other people and problems, but I don’t know if it is the most effective political background to come from. You know the phrase ‘kneejerk liberal’? It’s different now.”

And what about the difference between the New York City of 2003, when it is set, and that of today? “In 2003, every time an airplane went by you went ‘Oof,’ felt nervous. That’s not the case any more. That lasted for about 5 years… so [back then] everyone was a bit nervous and on edge. It was a bit different for a few years and unfortunately I don’t think the difference has sunk in in quite the way that I wish it had. For a moment it felt like, I felt like, the U.S. had joined the rest of the world, and then two weeks later all the TV commercials were back and it was all the same again. And I don’t think it’s very different now from how it was in 2000."

How much did you consciously create “Margaret” in opposition to prevailing trends in mainstream filmmaking?
“I try not to work in reaction to other works of art because then I’m having a conversation with something that’s going to disappear eventually. It wasn’t a deliberate reaction to the conventions of film so much as it was an interest in trying to write and shoot the film in a particular way that seemed right for the story. Particularly the two elements of her becoming aware that she is not the only person and there are literally millions of people around...all living lives and doing things just as important to them as her life is to her. And then the other thing was the nature of an adolescent’s point of view is they tend to do things with a soundtrack behind them in their minds … I tried to make it so that there would be nothing in the film that wouldn’t really be there in real life. I wanted to try to show everything, and keep her relationship with her mother and her school and her teachers and her friends and her father amd everything going. I didn’t want to take out my part, or there’s this one scene with her girlfriend that I could have taken out but then she would have had only boys to talk to so I wanted to try to show her whole life. And that dictated a different structure.”

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3 Comments

  • yer | July 11, 2012 1:19 PMReply

    How much is The Playlist being paid to talk about Margaret?

  • Tom_B | September 4, 2012 2:42 PM

    Yer, you said the story was over in your 7/10 post. Now sign off, for heaven's sake.

  • Taylor | July 11, 2012 12:50 PMReply

    THANK YOU for interviewing and transcribing; these are all questions I've had fluttering around in my head since I watched the film in theaters early this year and then the extended cut last night. I love this movie, and Lonergan proves through this interview how much of an artist he really is.

    PS -- I'm still bummed Paquin didn't get an Oscar nom. She deserved it more than any of the 2012 nominees.

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