Great American Films Still Get Made, They’re Just Hard To Find: Lonergan’s 3-Hr MARGARET


“Kenny, you made a masterpiece. Unfortunately it’s in the wrong decade and the wrong country.”

These were actor Mark Ruffalo’s words to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan upon seeing the 3-hour cut of Lonergan’s film MARGARET.

For those who don’t know, playwright Lonergan’s second film (his first was the incredibly well-received YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, also starring Ruffalo), underwent a tremendous journey from script to screen. The epic urban tale was filmed in 2005 by Lonergan and lingered in an interminably long editing limbo. Lonergan had a difficult time finding the cut that worked for him; an artist struggling to find his vision while financiers and a studio breathed down his neck. Not that Lonergan was a victim here. His needs (to be left alone to do the work) are a lot to ask when so much time and money is on the line. Something Lonergan is well-aware of. And he seems to carry little resentment over how things went down. He seems to understand all-too-well the role he played in the film’s history.

“Nobody really did anything wrong, exactly, it’s just everyone was very frightened and nervous. Some people can have fights and then go back to work; I have a big fight and I shake for the rest of the day. Or even if it’s not a fight, it’s just a conversation, and a problem comes up I think about that [constantly], so I very much need to be left alone completely and that’s the one thing that’s very difficult for people. Understandably. I mean, write a cheque for $12 million dollars and you wanna make sure it’s going to come out all right, it’s reasonable. But I need to find a way to separate the two things… Not that it was all bad, the film came out very well, I’m happy with the result and I’m happy that people seem to like it. So I don’t know what more I can ask for. Except to be younger.”

Producer Scott Rudin pushed Lonergan to complete his cut until he finally realized what was happening:

“Kenny’s not a guy who takes distractions well or easily. He’s somebody who is highly concentrated on the work and not at all interested in the politics. So when the politics started to become noisier than the work, that was hard for him.”

Lonergan was contracted to deliver a two and a half hour film. Financier/producer Gary Gilbert stepped in when this seemed like an impossibility and commissioned a 2-hr cut from a different editor. This satisfied no one but the financier himself. Finally, in the fall of 2008, Lonergan delievered a 2-1/2 hr cut that everyone but Gilbert signed off on. Many say Gilbert didn’t sign off out of bitterness and a vindictive nature due to the negative response to his handling of Lonergan and his insistence of his own 2-hour cut as the preferred version of the film. Gilbert refused to pay his half of the $12.5 million budget. Lawsuits ensued.

According to Rudin:

“The guy who pays for the movie is not supposed to be [in the editing room]. . . . He’s a guy who wrote a check. Mr. Gilbert badly hurt the movie. Mr. Gilbert going in and working in the editorial department was a very destructive act… If you’re making a movie with Kenny Lonergan and you sign off on the script, he’s the director, that’s the contract you made. Because you decide that you’re anxious about your investment, that doesn’t give you the right to completely recalibrate your relationship.”

Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (both friends and supporters of Lonergan’s) were brought in to the editing room to heal wounds and delivered a 160 minute cut that everyone signed off on, including Lonergan, but again Gilbert refused. Mark Ruffalo:

“There comes a point where people cut off their nose to spite their face, and I certainly witnessed that. Whatever bad blood went down between them, I never felt like Gary ever got over it and actually tried to ensure that the movie and Kenny would be harmed.”

So with three cuts now in limbo and still no version really satisfying Lonergan’s vision, the film ended up in cinema purgatory for a total 6 years, unseen by a curious public confused by the many behind-the-scenes tales.

Eventually, in the fall of 2011, Lonergan’s own 2-1/2 hour cut of the film was released with almost no marketing. It disappeared almost immediately. A twitter campaign fueled by fans and critics resurrected the film for another theatrical release in October of that same year. But it was too-little too-late and the film was barely recognized by the public at large.

Lonergan

Now, the 2-1/2 hour cut has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. But Lonergan’s 3 hr cut has also been released, though you will not find it streaming or for rental. It is available ONLY on DVD and ONLY on the DVD/Blu-ray Combo pack sold on Amazon. And while this is not being marketed as a Director’s Cut but as an Extended Cut, it is widely considered the cut to see as it seems to be the version that comes closest to capturing Lonergan’s vision.

In the writer/director’s own words:

“It’s not a director’s cut. We’re calling it an extended cut. It’s a different version. A director’s cut is where they take the movie away from you and chop it to pieces and send it out without your permission…This is just another version with a little bit more of everything in it.”

Matt Damon, who is one of the film’s many notable stars, explains:

“One of the reasons this took so long is because [Lonergan] didn’t want to give up and he’s put his whole soul into this thing to the exclusion of any other work he could have been doing. And it wasn’t a triumph at the end because they weren’t able to release his version.”

Well, now that version is available. But sadly, that availability is limited and will still only be seen by a select few “in the know.” So, while it’s great that we finally get to see the film, there is still a battle to find a way to put this cut of the film out there for others to access, to discover, to be potentially moved by (not to mention to see it in Hi-def on Blu-ray). In a country where surface mediocrity is lauded as deep and introspective (THE DESCENDANTS, UP IN THE AIR), it’s a shame that one of the greatest contemporary American films has gotten so lost, so mismanaged, so belittled. Academy voters were either unaware or indifferent. Not that an award is the be-all and end-all of any work of art, but it does offer an opportunity to raise awareness of a film’s existence. But then the question comes into play as to whether the average American movie-goer would even get that they were in the presence of one of the greatest American films to come along in years. Very few contemporary films suggest that Americans as filmmakers and filmwatchers are capable of any level of depth or insight. More than not, most American films showcase our unwillingness to dig beneath the surface, to understand anything but the most literal, the most blatant. This was not always the case, but it appears we have somehow managed to devolve into such a state. It’s not that there aren’t daring writers and filmmakers out there, it’s just that the battle to get those films made, no less released, is near-impossible. The corporatization of the industry combined with a slow infantalization and anti-intellectualization of the populace has culminated in a rather hostile creative landscape. To quote Ruffalo again, “it’s in the wrong decade and the wrong country.”

Of the three best contemporary films I’ve seen recently, only MARGARET is American-made. The other two, CERTIFIED COPY and NORWEGIAN WOOD, are both foreign-made, foreign-language films. Only the 3-hour cut of MARGARET represents the artistic potential and expressive sensibility present in our country and, as stated already, most Americans are completely unaware of its existence and will have a hard time seeing it even if they are. And, by any contemporary standard, the film’s an anomaly; films like MARGARET rarely, if ever, get made here. And when they do, birthing them is usually an extraordinarily painful process and these babies are reviled as bastard children or stillbirths by the masses (certainly by the corporate powers-that-be). But thankfully, there are those who recognize their beauty and their innate humanity and fight vigorously and tirelessly to see these children find their proper place in the world. And that’s where our hope for the future lies. But it’s a staggering uphill battle.

Then there are those who recognized something extraordinary in Lonergan’s theatrical cut who have not been able to make the leap to the three hour cut. I’ve read online a number of self-proclaimed reviewers mourning the longer cut as “ruining” a masterpiece. They complain about “unnecessary” imagery of people walking the streets of N.Y., of the soundscape of the film having been changed to no longer focus exclusively on the main characters, but on the people in the world around them. I have heard complaints of too many shots of planes and buildings and of the 3-hour cut’s use of opera music. We have become so unaccustomed to anything but the most patent and transparent that we have lost sight of subtext, of metaphor, of cinematic language. I cannot imagine MARGARET without the scenes of our main character Lisa walking among the throngs of New Yorkers, her voice, her story, no more important than the voices and stories taking place all around her. This is a film about a teenager slowly coming to the realization that she is not the center of the universe. That her life is no more or less important than the lives of those around her. She is literally becoming aware of the world she lives in.

As for the opera music and scenes, the entire film centers around how teenagers often see their experiences as taking place in a melodramatic world; they hear the histrionic scores of their lives as they stumble their way through a rather self-centered world on the brink of shattering with no real understanding or perception of the consequences of their actions. This isn’t a judgement, but an observation. Without this, the film loses one of its most powerful threads thus weakening the final moments of this beautiful, touching and emotionally poignant film. After all, the movie is titled MARGARET, who is not a character in the film, but taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem titled “Spring and Fall: To a young child:”

   Margaret, are you grieving 
   Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
   Leaves, like the things of man, you 
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
   Ah! as the heart grows older 
   It will come to such sights colder 
   By and by, nor spare a sigh 
   Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
   And yet you will weep and know why. 
   Now no matter, child, the name: 
   Sorrow’s springs are the same. 
   Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
   What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed: 
   It is the blight man was born for, 
   It is Margaret you mourn for.

THIS is what the film’s about at its heart, in its soul, and all the pieces Lonergan has placed back into his Extended Cut and all the changes he’s made from the shorter version work toward enhancing this theme, both emotionally, practically and aesthetically. The shorter version is, while still extraordinary, more “conventional” than the longer cut. Certainly less poetic. And, as a result, it lacks the nuances of its sibling.

For example: Planes and buildings… The film takes place in a world still reeling from the aftermath of 9/11: the violence and suffering, the trauma, the fear, pain, longing and need for retribution that so many felt in the years following that tragic event. And how we eventually lost some of what we gained through our shared experience. Lonergan:

“Don’t you remember how everybody was slightly more awake or more attuned? You’d hear a car backfire and you’d jump? I remember it took several years before I stopped noticing airplanes. It was sort of like the city was still shaking from it, but also didn’t quite know how to be about it. I feel like it just suddenly supercharged everybody with an awareness that they didn’t have before, but without much more information… 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.” 

For anyone who has read any of my other posts either on writing or on film, it should come as no surprise that Lonergan’s MARGARET is my kind of film. My personal journey as a writer has taken me down a path where I have started not only to trust my subconscious throughout the storytelling process, but to consider it my most valued and faithful partner:

“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.”

The growth Kenneth Lonergan has shown from his first feature to his second is monumental. Where YOU CAN COUNT ON ME had a terrific script with terrific performances, it was most certainly directed by someone whose hand had not yet steadied to the cinematic craft, though Lonergan himself is a lover of cinema, particularly classic. With MARGARET, Lonergen has made one of the most profound, insightful and emotionally gripping pieces of cinema to come out of the heart and mind of an American filmmaker in years. It is the greatest reflection of who and what we are, of how we see and experience the world. This is a film that showcases what American filmmakers are capable of beyond our technological prowess. I urge you to find a way to see it.

In its full 180 minute Extended Cut version, of course.

Sources:

Kenneth Lonergan on Margaret | Film interview, TimeOut Chicago

Kenneth Lonergan Discusses The Changes In The New Cut Of ‘Margaret,’ Digital Vs. Film, 3D & More, IndieWire

Kenneth Lonergan On The Inspirations, Performances, Resonances & Structure Of ‘Margaret’, IndieWire

Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece, NY Times

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Great American Films Still Get Made, They’re Just Hard To Find: Lonergan’s 3-Hr MARGARET

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