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'Margaret:' Inside The 'Fall' Of A Teenager

In Margaret, Lisa (Anna Paquin) distracts a bus driver, which leads to an accident in which a pedestrian is run over and dies. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Kenneth Lonergan's critically acclaimed film Margaret was completed in 2006, but because of several lawsuits, it wasn't released until last year.

Called "nothing short of a masterwork" by The New Yorker, the film stars Anna Paquin as Lisa, a Manhattan teenager who tries to make sense of a bus accident she may have caused — one that resulted in a woman's death. Lonergan tells Terry Gross that he wrote the film because he was interested in how teenagers transition into an adult world.

"I've wanted to do a story about someone whose door opens to a much larger, more frightening, more difficult world — and how she deals with it, especially someone with a great lack of experience in worldly things," he says. "It's basically someone who's well trained in high school, dealing with something and a whole slew of consequences of things that happen in the adult world."

Margaret is Lonergan's second film after You Can Count On Me, which starred Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo and was nominated for two Academy Awards. Ruffalo also appears in Margaret, along with Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Rosemarie DeWitt and Lonergan himself, playing Lisa's father.

The title of the film comes from a poem, "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," which Lonergan's mentor Patricia Broderick gave him a long time ago. (She happens to be the mother of Matthew Broderick, who plays Lisa's teacher in the film, and reads the poem aloud to Lisa's class; Margaret is referred to within the poem.)

"It's one of the poems I know by heart," says Lonergan. "And the idea of putting the poem in struck me as right. And as soon as I did that, I knew it should be called Margaret, because the poem is so appropriate to the situation that the girl finds herself in, and that we all find ourselves in — which is this shocking realization and sensitivity to death and things changing, and then, as the poem says, 'As the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder by and by.' And it seemed so [right] for what was going on with Anna Paquin's character internally."

Lonergan's other writing credits include Analyze This, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Gangs of New York and The Starry Messenger.


Interview Highlights

On the car accident in the film

"It's so ugly. That single incident drives the entire film and drives the entire journey of Anna Paquin's character, and it's a long film. And I knew that if that accident wasn't extremely awful — as awful as humanly possible — then there'd be no movie. You don't see any flashbacks of it. It's got to stay in your mind the way it stays in the character's mind."

On his own experiences in high school

"I was very frustrated. I was very shy. I didn't have a girlfriend in high school. I actually felt envious of [popular teenage girls] in a way, because people were very attracted to them, and they did have this power in that arena. I went to a school exactly like the school in the film, which was an upper-middle-class school, not a superwealthy school. But there was one kid who was extremely wealthy, whose father had bought him a Porsche at 17. And I remember driving around with him, and we would all pack into his Porsche. And when the car would go by, everyone would turn to look at the car, and I thought, 'Oh gee, this is what it must feel like to be a pretty girl.' "

On teenagers

"You discover two things when you're a teenager. One, that your parents are not the idols that you thought they were when you were growing up, if you had nice parents. And two, that you have power over them, and you can upset them and confront them and attack them. And there's this combination of judgment and disappointment which teenagers generally have, which can be extremely savage to the parent."

On Hollywood

"I live off of this wasteful system, but I don't believe in it or agree with it. It gives me a living, and that's good, but I think hundreds of thousands of pages of writing is thrown in a trash can for no good reason. ... I think it's a terribly wasteful system, and some part of me just doesn't want to claim authorship for something that's been rewritten by 12 people. I did write [Analyze This] to sell it, so I was aware of what might happen to it."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You know sometimes you read about a great movie, but it's never going to come to your neighborhood? Well, this is the story of a terrific film - described in the New Yorker as "nothing short of a masterwork" - that not only didn't make it into many theaters, it almost didn't get released at all.

The movie is called "Margaret." It was completed in 2006, but because of lawsuits regarding the length of the final edit and other complications, it wasn't released until last year. Few people got to see it, but now it's been released on DVD in two versions - the theatrical release and an extended cut.

My guest is the film's director and writer, Kenneth Lonergan, who also directed and wrote the film "You Can Count On Me," and is the author of several plays. The lawsuits surrounding "Margaret" have not yet been resolved, so that's one thing we cannot talk about.

"Margaret" is set in post-9/11 New York, and it's about a teenager, Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin. She's a bright, passionate but argumentative student in an Upper West Side private school. She's going through the adolescent struggles of fighting with her mother, and experimenting with her newfound sexuality. Near the beginning of the movie, Lisa's flirtatiousness with a bus driver leads to an accident in which the driver runs a red light, and the bus hits a woman. The accident changes the course of Lisa's life.

In this scene, Lisa is horrified to see the woman lying in the street, one severed leg under the bus. Guilt-stricken, Lisa kneels over the woman - played by Allison Janney - to comfort her. A shocked crowd surrounds them, trying to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MARGARET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Call an ambulance. Everybody just step back.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm calling one right now.

ANNA PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Can you hear me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Get an ambulance!

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Someone's calling one.

PAQUIN: (as Lisa Cohen) Ma'am, can you hear me? Can you hear me?

ALLISON JANNEY: (As Monica Patterson) I don't know. Where am I?

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) You're on Broadway and 75th Street...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Broadway between 75th and 74th Street...

PAQUIN: (as Lisa) ...you've had a bad accident.

JANNEY: (As Monica) Who are you?

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) My name is Lisa.

JANNEY: (As Monica) Well, what do you mean - am I dead?

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) No, you're not dead. You were in a traffic accident, but you're going to be OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't have a direct address. She's out in the street.

JANNEY: (As Monica) What do you mean? What happened?

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) You were run over by a bus.

JANNEY: (As Monica) You've got to be kidding me. A bus?

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Is there - is there a doctor?

JANNEY: (As Monica) So where am I now?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) An ambulance is on its way.

JANNEY: (As Monica) Is it still happening?

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) No, no, I mean, that - the accident is over. I think you're a little confused.

JANNEY: (As Monica) I'll say I'm confused.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Here, let me try to see if I can...

JANNEY: (As Monica) (SCREAMS) No! Don't let go of me.

GROSS: That's a scene from Kenneth Lonergan's film "Margaret." Kenneth Lonergan, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you here. I love your movie. You know, this is an amazing scene to me because it's so horrifying, and at the same time, the Allison Janney character, the woman hit by the bus, is so New York. It's like she is dying, and she's being such the consummate New Yorker, like you've got to be kidding me, a bus?

I think the writing in this scene is really amazing. Would you just talk about that a little bit, about keeping her in that really kind of like aggressive New York character even when she's totally disoriented and dying?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Well, my sister-in-law is a doctor. After having written the script and the scene, I asked her whether it was credible. I said: Would the person be in shock? Would they be unconscious? Would they be awake? Would they be in terrible pain? And she said: It could be anything in those circumstances. There was no limit to the variety of reactions that a human being can have when they've been subjected to that violent a trauma.

And as far as Allison's character, she's just - she's an extraordinary actress. I've known her for a long time, and she played the scene beautifully, and with that kind of verve and anguish without needing much direction. I mean, she just lay there all day on the cement and then dying and complaining and...

(LAUGHTER)

LONERGAN: And then we would cut, and she'd just smile and look up at me and say: How was that? And I have photographs of her drenched in blood, smiling up at me, while I'm bending over her with my headphones on. And it was kind of an extraordinary day because Anna and Allison were so intense, and the wall of extras around them were so affected by their performances that it drew them in beautifully.

GROSS: So I have to say that this scene, so early in the movie, completely drew me into your film, in part because it's such a gripping scene. It's almost like a horror movie. Like, her bloody hand keeps coming into the frame, and it's just - it's so frightening.

LONERGAN: That single incident drives the entire film and drives the entire journey of Anna Paquin's character. And it's a long film in both versions, and I knew that if that accident wasn't extremely awful, I mean, just as awful as humanly possible, then there would be no movie because it's never - you don't see any flashbacks of it. It's got to stay in your mind the way it stays in the character's mind.

GROSS: So the main character, Anna Paquin, who's, you know, a high school student, she's there by the dying woman's side, but she's also kind of responsible for the accident because she's very flirtatious, she's very beautiful and kind of knows that she is and dresses, you know, like a little provocatively, the way a lot of teenage girls do.

And, you know, just to set this up a little bit, you know, she wants a cowboy hat because she's going on a trip with her father to, I don't know if it's a dude ranch, but they're going to be horseback riding. So she wants, like, the right look.

And the bus driver is - she can't find a hat like that in Manhattan. The bus driver is wearing one. So she kind of knocks on the door and runs after the bus waving at him, trying to get his attention, and he's waving at her, and he just, like, sails through that red light.

And she knows that this death is partly her fault, but she can't deal with it. So she wants him to take responsibility for it, but he denies that he went through a red light. He just says he didn't do anything wrong. So I guess I'm interested in hearing why you wanted to write a film about how the consequences of this flirtatious action is going to totally change her life.

LONERGAN: I wanted to do a story about someone who - a door opens to a much larger, more frightening, more difficult world and how they - how she deals with it, especially someone with a great lack of experience in worldly things. It's basically a story of someone who is well-trained in the life of high school and of teenagers, and dealing with something, dealing with a whole slew of consequences of things that happen in the adult world, like death and the legal system and people, the great class differences that exist side by side in a city like New York.

And as far as the flirtatiousness goes, that was - that's an interesting part of the story to me because she's just at that age where she finds that she has this power to interest men, and she's having a very good day. She successfully flirted with her teacher, her friend asked her out, who she wasn't interested - she's not particularly interested in him as a boyfriend, but it's all - so she's sort of feeling he oats as a young, sexual being.

She's still a virgin, and she is dressing very provocatively, and she is flirting with this handsome bus driver, and she just has the bad luck that it ends in this hideous catastrophe.

GROSS: It made me wonder, and you might not want to go there, but since you went to a school similar to the upper-middle-class private school in Manhattan that part of the movie is set in, it made me wonder about how you felt about the teenage girls in your school who were beautiful and, you know, flirtatious and often inappropriate in how they used their sexual power. Do you know?

LONERGAN: Frustrated.

(LAUGHTER)

LONERGAN: I was very frustrated. I was very shy. I didn't have a girlfriend in high school. I felt sort of - I actually felt, I felt envious of them in a way because people were very attracted to them, and they did have this power, and I felt sort of powerless in that arena.

I went to a school exactly like the school in the film, which was an upper-middle-class school, not a super-wealthy school, but there was one kid whose father was extremely wealthy who had bought him a Porsche at 17. And I remember driving around with him in this - we would all pack into his Porsche.

And when the car would go by, all these guys, everyone's head would turn to look at the car because it was so beautiful. And I thought oh, gee, this must be what it's like to be a pretty girl.

(LAUGHTER)

LONERGAN: So I think that's kind of a person that's remained interesting to me not just from the normal male point of view but just in terms of what it's like to be that person.

GROSS: So those teenage feelings figured into your writing of the screenplay for "Margaret"?

LONERGAN: Yes, I think so. I'm very - I find that to be a fascinating age because they seem half-formed, and their opinions seem borrowed, and the basic structure of the movie is the first half is teenage-land, and the second half is grown-up-land. And it just - they're just very different. You don't form and break up incredibly close friendships within days in grown-up-land, and things are just not as - they're not as passionate nor as easy as they are in - when you're a teenager, and things happen at a slower pace.

And so there's a wall of reality that slows everyone down after they get out of their teens and slows most people down to the point where they stop thinking they can have an effect on the world.

GROSS: My guest is Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the film "Margaret," which was just been released on DVD at last. We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Kenneth Lonergan, he wrote and directed the film "You Can Count On Me," and he wrote and directed the film "Margret," which he made in 2006, but it wasn't released until last year. And now finally it's out on DVD. So anyone can see it.

There's two versions. There's the theatrical release and then a longer version that he edited. So that's out now. The film is called "Margaret." I want to play another scene from the film. Lisa Cohen, the main character in the film, played by Anna Paquin, her parents are divorced. Her father lives in L.A., he's played by you.

LONERGAN: Yes.

GROSS: And her mother is played by your wife, J. Smith-Cameron. And there's a scene I want to play. You know, the Anna Paquin character is at that age where she's constantly sarcastic with her mother and not in a funny way, just in a kind of mean-spirited way, and...

LONERGAN: Yes, she's very angry.

GROSS: And her mother can't understand like, why aren't they close anymore. Like, why can't she say anything without getting these, like, barbed retorts from her teenage daughter. So in this scene, the mother's about to go on a date with a man she's recently met. She hasn't dated in a really long time.

She's dressed up, and she's asked her daughter if the dress makes her look fat because she's actually very insecure about all this. And her daughter says just a little, which is only going to add to the insecurity. She does not look fat, by the way.

And so they're about to have this conversation about the date the mother's going on, and there's a lot of tension between them. So Anna Paquin speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MARGARET")

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Where are you going?

J. SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) The opera.

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Why are you going to the opera?

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) It turns out he's a really big opera fan. Anyway, don't you think it sounds kind of fun? We should all go sometime.

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Uh, no thanks.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) Why not? I bet you'd like it.

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) I don't like that kind of singing.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) But you like classical music.

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Yes, that's true, but I don't like opera singing. It's like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be. I don't really find that all that interesting.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) Yeah, I know what you mean, but it's not all like that. You like "The Magic Flute."

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) OK, I guess I'm wrong. I guess I do like opera singing. I just didn't realize it.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) What is the matter with you?

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Nothing at all. Why are you pushing this? I don't want to go to the opera.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) Yes, OK. It's called an invitation. I'm not pushing anything. All you have to say is no thanks.

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) I did, and then you were like why not. So then I told you, and then you started, like, debating me. Like you assume that I've never thought this through for myself, which I have many times.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) OK, well that was a really contemptuous assumption on my part. I don't actually like the opera that much myself, but I'm trying to expand my mind. Maybe that's wrong. I'm sorry, I guess I'm a little nervous about you guys meeting Ramon.

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Why? What's the big deal? Why are you so influenced by what Curtis and me, what Curtis and I think?

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) Hey, why does everything I say annoy you?

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Jesus Christ, I'm just sitting here.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) Here, you be me and say anything, and I'll respond to you the way you've been responding to me this whole conversation.

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) No.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) Go ahead. You say something to me, and I'll say something to you...

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) No, I'm not going to do that.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) Why not?

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Because it's dumb. I'm horrible. I get your point.

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) Uh, OK, whatever.

PAQUIN: (As Lisa) Was that supposed to be an imitation of me?

SMITH-CAMERON: (As Joan) OK, withdrawn.

GROSS: That's Anna Paquin as the daughter and J. Smith-Cameron as the mother in a scene from "Margaret," a film written and directed by my guest Kenneth Lonergan.

I love that scene because one of things it just shows is how a very bright teenager can use their intelligence in a really annoying way, just, you know, really kind show-offy, irritating, weapon-like way. And I'm sure you had a lot of friends who were like that when you were growing up and going to this, you know, elite private school.

LONERGAN: Yeah, and I'm sure I was like that myself. You discover two things when you're a teenager. One is that your parents are not the idols that you thought they were when you were growing up, if you had nice parents, that is. If you didn't, you discover that much earlier.

But and two that you have power over them, that you can upset them and confront them and attack them. And there's this sort of combination of sort of disappointment and judgment that teenagers frequently have, which can be extremely savage to the parent. And it's part of splitting off and getting away from the parent and becoming a parent, but in this case, it's - one thing we talked about during the scene when we were rehearsing and shooting it is the girl is carrying this terrible secret about this accident that's she's caused and is all alone with it.

And I said to Anna, I said, you know, Anna, I think she's waiting and hoping her mother will guess what's wrong and ask her about it so she can talk about it. But she doesn't. And the mother misunderstands and thinks she's angry at her for having a new boyfriend.

And that helplessness of how you talk to someone who's just being snotty to you, who you care about, and you're trying to reach out to them, and also that frustration of being a teenager and being trapped in a situation and having this new negative view of your mother and using, as you say, the power of your brains and the position of closeness to actually attack - to constantly attack and make these idiotic fights that you have between teenagers and their parents.

My daughter is not a teenager yet, but I have a large extended family and have seen a lot of these arguments, and they're awful because they're merciless.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the film "You Can Count on Me." In 1006, he completed the film "Margaret," but it wasn't released in theaters until 2011 and to very few theaters, in fact. It was only released in a few theaters. There were several lawsuits surrounding the movie that had to do with the long time it took to be released and why it was released to so few theaters. But now you can actually see it. It's been released on DVD, Blu-Ray. There's the theatrical release, and then there's a longer edit, as well, in one package.

The title of the film isn't the name of the main character. You know, the main character's name is Lisa, it's not Margaret. And it's not even the title of the poem that inspired the name of the title "Margaret."

LONERGAN: No.

GROSS: There's a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins published in 1918, posthumously, he died in 1889, and the poem is called "Spring and Fall to a Young Child." And Margaret is referred to within that poem. And this is a poem that Matthew Broderick, the English teacher in the Anna Paquin character's high school is reading to the students.

What does this poem mean to you? Is this a poem that you discovered on your own that always meant a lot to you?

LONERGAN: It's a poem that Matthew's mother, Patricia Broderick, who is a very close friend of mine and was my mentor, essentially, for many years...

GROSS: His mother was your mentor?

LONERGAN: Yeah, well...

GROSS: Was she a teacher?

LONERGAN: No, she was many things. She was a brilliant painter and a very brilliant playwright and a director, as well. And she was the smartest person I've ever met, and I've met a lot of very smart people. And she always - I always showed her everything I - from the first play that I happened to show her when I was in high school that I wrote to this movie, I think, is the last thing of mine that she read before she passed away.

I showed her everything to make sure, because I knew she would help me, and she would be very - if there was something wrong with it, she would tell me, and she would be very accurate.

Anyway, among many other things that she introduced me to, she introduced me to some poetry. And this is one of the poems that she really liked and that she - it meant a lot to her. And it's one of the three poems that I know by heart.

So I was writing one of the scenes in English class, and the idea of putting the poem in struck me as right. And then as soon as I did that, I found that the film had not - I hadn't titled the film yet. It was called "Bus Film" in my computer for many years or for many months.

And then I knew it should be called "Margaret" because the poem is so appropriate to the situation that the girl finds herself in and that we all find ourselves in, which is this first, shocking realization and sensitivity to death and things changing, which then, as the poem says, as the heart grows older, it will come to such sites colder by and by.

And it just seemed so - it seemed so on the money for what was going on with Anna Paquin's character internally that it didn't seem like it was too much hammering it over the head to then title the film "Margaret."

GROSS: Read the last two lines that has the name Margaret in it.

LONERGAN: Sure. Well, the first line is: Margaret, are you grieving over golden grove unleaving? Which is just wonderful because when you're little, and you see a dead bird, or you see a lost dog, it eats you alive. And then when you're 30, and you see a dead bird or a lost dog, you just drive right by it, and you don't care. And there's something about the sensitivity to death that a child has or an adolescent has that I think is ultimately more correct than the getting used to it all of an adult.

GROSS: Kenneth Lonergan will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote and directed the film "Margaret," which has just been released on DVD. You can find the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem we talked about that gave the movie its title on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the film "Margaret," about a teenage girl named Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin, whose flirtatiousness with a bus driver leads to a bus accident that kills a woman. Lonergan also wrote and directed the film "You Can Count On Me." The release of "Margaret" was held up for several years as a result of lawsuits surrounding the length of the final cut and other complications. It opened last year, but in few theaters. Now, it's finally been released on DVD in two versions, the theatrical release and an extended cut.

I just should say here, it's kind of fascinating to watch them back-to-back because you can see the choices that you made, you know, where to use the music. In one version there's more music, in another version there's less, the music's changed. There's more overlapping dialogue in the longer version and less in the shorter one. It just made me think about the thousands of decisions that you have to make when you're editing a movie and how many options there are.

LONERGAN: Yes. It's really daunting and you can really do it if you don't have an internal track that you are following. And when you lose that track - I mean, my feeling, my definition of technique, whatever that means, is to use your conscious mind to slowly and stupidly find its way back to your unconscious mind where all the really intelligent, interesting and meaningful thoughts and feelings come from. So, you know, but you can't, you can't edit or write line by line.

I was listening to a Beethoven symphony at the time I was editing and at one point where I was very frustrated and I was how the - how does he decide? There's so many notes in this symphony.

(LAUGHTER)

LONERGAN: How does he decide every single note And then I thought, well, you dummy, of course, he doesn't decide every single note. He hears it in his head and he writes it down. And that's, that's where you try to get, so that you don't have to make every - you can't edit a movie, you can't write a script, you can't act an act, you can't perform a part that way...

GROSS: OK, if you feel that way it must be very difficult when somebody else intervenes or somebody else tries to logically tell you why you made the wrong decision if you're working from your gut. But then you have to like defend it rationally as opposed to intuitively. It can get difficult, right?

LONERGAN: Yes. And if you're not, and if you haven't found it yourself yet, and that happens, it sometimes can prevent you from finding it for months, whether it's a positive comment or a negative comment. So I'm in the middle of trying to decide whether to include a scene or not and someone tells me they love it, then next time I go back to it, instead of having a private relationship with it, I keep thinking, oh my god, Josh said he loved that scene. It must be very good. I must keep it in. And the scene maybe should be cut.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LONERGAN: And, of course, the opposite happens. It's even stronger, if someone, you put in a piece of music and you're not sure about it and someone walks in and says boy, that music isn't doing any favors. Suddenly, that's what you hear in your head. So it's very hard to - I'm particularly - I don't like to use the word defensive because I don't think it's accurate or fair, but protective of the material as best I can be because you have your own - you have enough of your own bad ideas to wade through without...

(LAUGHTER)

LONERGAN: ...other people coming in and joining in. I mean...

GROSS: Yeah.

LONERGAN: ...if you had six people interrupting your interview every time you interviewed someone to make suggestions as to what questions to ask you, it would throw you off quite badly, I would imagine.

GROSS: It would. Yeah. Definitely. So let's talk about you. You cast yourself as the father in "Margaret." And in "You Can Count On Me," you were a minister. Did you ever want to be an actor?

LONERGAN: No.

GROSS: I mean, you do act but I mean you're primarily a playwright, screenwriter, director.

LONERGAN: No, I have - yeah, I enjoy acting. I acted in high school. I was in all the plays in high school and once I left high school I knew I wanted to be a writer and not an actor. And I kind of missed it, 'cause I really do enjoy. I have a very limited range but within my range I think I'm OK.

GROSS: So your grandmother owned a gallery in Greenwich Village and...

LONERGAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and you wrote a play about her and the gallery and your relationship with her. Did she have that throughout your childhood and did you spend a lot of time growing up in Greenwich Village?

LONERGAN: Yeah. I grew up in the Upper West Side. My mother grew up in Greenwich Village in the building where I still live and in the building where my grandmother lived. I would go visit her and I would sleep over and we would go, she would take me to Lamstons, which was around the corner and buy me a toy. And the gallery was one block away and we'd walk to the gallery and I'd spend weekends with her. And then later on when I lived in the same building and she was becoming increase - had severe dementia, which got worse and worse the last two years that she lived there, I was there for that and I wrote my play "Waverly Gallery," is about those two years.

GROSS: Can I ask what your parents did for a living?

LONERGAN: Sure. My mother and stepfather are psychoanalysts, Freudian psychoanalysts, and my father is a doctor of many disciplines. He's a geriatrician, hospital administrator, teacher and he's semi-retired now, but - and researcher.

GROSS: Do you think having a mother who was a Freudian analyst helped you to create characters and understand their motivations?

LONERGAN: I don't know. I've been asked that before. I think all I can say is there is a - I think that I was interested in people's personalities and in getting inside of their personalities. But I have several brothers and sisters and they're not, they're all doctors and computer technicians and teachers, so I don't know if, I don't know what makes a person turn to the arts and...

GROSS: What about having a grandmother who owned a gallery? Did that make you interested in the arts, and even just like the environment that she lived in? I mean, Greenwich Village when growing up was...

LONERGAN: No.

GROSS: Yeah.

LONERGAN: Not particularly. I mean, her gallery was sort of - it was a very little gallery and it was something she did for fun and she never made a lot of money doing it. But my interest in the arts I think came from my parents who very much enjoyed going to - still do - enjoyed going to concerts and I grew up listening to classical music every morning. There'd be a Bach cantata on on the record player and my father would take me and my brother to the movies every Sunday and we'd see when New York had these old movie houses. And I think my interest in the theater developed in high school because we had this wonderful theater teacher and a terrific theater program in my school. And I already wanted to be a writer but I was writing science fiction novels when I was a teenager and I switched to theater in 10th grade, I think. And since then I wanted to be a playwright, ever since then.

GROSS: My guest is Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the film "Margaret," which has just been released on DVD. He also wrote and directed "You Can Count On Me."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the film "Margaret," which has just been released on DVD. He also wrote and directed "You Can Count On Me."

I want to play a scene from "You Can Count On Me," which was released, was in 2001 or 2000?

LONERGAN: I think 2000.

GROSS: OK. So this is a scene that stars Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as siblings who were orphaned when they were young. And she's become, you know, like a very responsible single mother who has a job at a bank, a job she doesn't like. She has a very kind of circumscribed, difficult life. He, on the other hand, has become a drifter. His girlfriend is pregnant. He needs money. He's hitting up his sister for money. She doesn't want to give him more money. I mean, she needs the money. And so because he's so troubled she calls in her minister to talk with her brother. It's almost like an intervention...

LONERGAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and he's totally unprepared for this. So you play the minister. So here's the scene and you speak first. And you're speaking to Mark Ruffalo. His name is Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOU CAN COUNT ON ME")

LONERGAN: (as Ron) Can I ask you Terry, do you think your life is important?

MARK RUFFALO: (as Terry) Do mean like me personally, like my individual life?

LONERGAN: (as Ron) Yeah.

RUFFALO: (as Terry) Mm. I'm not really sure. What do you mean? I mean, it's important to me, I guess. And, like, to my, you know, other people who care about me.

LONERGAN: (as Ron) But do you think it important?

RUFFALO: (as Terry) I...

(LAUGHTER)

LONERGAN: (as Ron) Do you think the important in the scheme of things, not just because it's yours or because you're somebody's brother? Because I really don't get the impression that you do.

RUFFALO: (as Terry) I don't particularly think that anybody's life has any particular importance besides whatever, you know, like, whatever we arbitrarily give it. Which is fine. I mean, you know, we might as well. I mean, I think my life is as important as anybody else's. I don't know, Ron. A lot of what you're saying has real appeal to me. You know, the stuff they tell us when we were kids. But, you know, I don't want to believe in something or not believe in it because I might feel bad. I want to believe in it or not believe in it because I think it's true or not. Yeah. I mean, I want to think that my life is important, that it's connected to something important.

LONERGAN: (as Ron) Wasn't there any way for you to believe that without calling it God or religion or whatever term is that you object to?

RUFFALO: (as Terry) Yeah, I believe that.

GROSS: That's Mark Ruffalo and my guest Kenneth Lonergan in a scene from the film that Lonergan wrote and directed, "You Can Count On Me." Did you go through this kind of searching yourself, like what is it that you believe in if you're not going to believe in God?

LONERGAN: No, I never believed in God. I was brought up as an atheist. I'm still an atheist. I'm a very committed atheist and I...

GROSS: But you're part Catholic atheist and part Jewish atheist, right?

LONERGAN: Not quite. My grandmother rejected - my grandmother's father started a business called the Hebrew Publishing Company and she was raised in a religious Jewish home in Brooklyn and she rejected it entirely and utterly. And my father's mother was raised Catholic and she was a violent anti-Catholic. And so neither of my parents were raised with any religious feeling whatsoever. My stepfather's parents were sort of secular Jews and they celebrated Hanukkah but none, no one I grew up with believed in God and I've never believed in God of any kind. So it's not so much the searching element that resonates with me in that scene. It's the - first of all, everything - just listening to that just reminds me just how wonderful Mark Ruffalo was and is. After we shot that scene, the whole crew was just very quiet because he's so, he's so angry that the minister is there but his answer, he really actually tries to answer the question and with such an open heart, and that's - Mark is like that and I like that character because he doesn't just, he's not just snotty to the minister, he actually answers him in the most truthful way he can.

I suppose that I - it's not so much a struggle for me but I'm a bit envious of the solace and comfort that religious people seem to have sometimes from believing in the superstructure in the universe that cares about them, whereas those of us who are not religious have to find some meaning in what seems to be a, not a meaningless universe, but one that doesn't necessarily care more about us than it does about minerals, rocks, trees, birds, supernovas.

I don't, I don't - it's all part of something wonderful, but I think - well, let me put it another way. I went to a Catholic wedding once and I understood for the first time that the whole idea that God actually cares that these two people are getting married that God is in, that the creator of the universe is actually there in the room and cares that these two people are getting married gives it a solidity and a size that you don't get in a secular marriage. But on the other hand, I feel that personally that religion is a way of shrinking the world to a human scale. Even though it doesn't say it's doing that, I really think that's what it is. The literal universe is impossible to imagine, but it is possible to imagine the God of the Bible or the God of the Quran or the Greek gods, they're all very easy to imagine and the mystery part is included. There's a point at which you're not supposed to know, you're not able to know more. And I don't believe in that. I believe that there can't or mustn't be a limit to what can be discovered, even if we never discover all of it. So it's more of an attempt on my part to understand a different way of thinking and also to see how it supports and helps people. And secular as I am, I, you know, when friends have gotten sick or terrible things seem to be on the horizon, you quickly find yourself talking to a God that you don't believe in and saying things like I don't believe in you but please don't let this happen.

So it's a very natural turn for the human mind to take. And I think it's a false one, but I think it can provide comfort that nothing else can in some circumstances.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about something, actually the thing that you're most famous for or most people don't really know you had anything to do with it and that's the movie "Analyze This," which was a big hit with Robert DeNiro as a mobster who seeks psychiatric help - who gets that psychiatric counseling from Billy Crystal.

LONERGAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so as, you know, big hit, sequel and the whole bit, and you wrote the original screenplay. And you've said that you, like, wrote this for commercial reasons. It was a big payday. A lot of people contributed to the writing after you wrote the initial script, so there were other people who altered it. And you've never seen it.

LONERGAN: Right.

GROSS: And I'm thinking, like, come on. I turn on the TV - I've never seen it either, but I turn on the TV and occasionally it's on and I'm in a hotel and I see five minutes. You have to have seen some of it, right? It's hard to have never seen any of it.

LONERGAN: I've seen very short clips of it. I saw one very short funny scene that I didn't write, and I think that's really about it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's really funny. And you're not curious? I mean, really.

LONERGAN: I read the script because you have to read the script to decide if...

GROSS: The final one?

LONERGAN: I read the final draft, the shooting script, which you have to read if - unless the accreditation process - they propose credits and if you want to contest it you have to read the script and prove why you want to contest it. And I had been given story credit only and not screenplay credit and I felt that there was enough of me in the screenplay that I should have both.

And I won the arbitration, so that was good. But it's just not - part of it is just - I like being able to say I've never seen it, because...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: A point of pride.

LONERGAN: Yeah. I live off of this system, this wasteful system, but I don't believe in it or agree with it. I mean, it gives me a living and that's good, but I think that the hundreds of thousands of pages of writing that is thrown in the trashcan for no good reason and the quality of the scripts that emerge - I don't know about "Analyze This," because I haven't seen it so I don't say it's a bad movie or a good movie.

I don't know. People seem to like it. I think it's a terribly wasteful system and it's - I just - some part of me just doesn't want to - I can't claim authorship for something that's been rewritten by 12 people. And I also did write it to sell it, aware of what might happen to it.

GROSS: Right. OK. So you have deniability. So that's good. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

LONERGAN: Yeah. I have plausible deniability.

GROSS: Yeah. So you described yourself in one interview I read with you as constitutionally ill-equipped to enjoy yourself.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I'm wondering if that contributes to your ability to work, because if you've kind of eliminated the possibility of having a great time then you might as well work.

LONERGAN: I think that was probably an overstatement on my part.

GROSS: OK.

LONERGAN: I am able to enjoy myself and I actually think the happier I am, the better I work. I think - I don't know what was going on when I said that. I can certainly relate to it but I don't think it's true, overall, although I think some of my friends would disagree with that and say that I am constitutionally unable to enjoy myself.

But the truth is there's many things that I love to do and many things that I take great pleasure in. And so I think I was probably being humorously self-deprecating whenever I said that.

GROSS: Kenneth Lonergan, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

LONERGAN: Oh, it's been a real pleasure for me too. I love your show and this is a great honor to be on it.

GROSS: Kenneth Lonergan's film "Margaret" has just been released on DVD in two versions: the theatrical release and an extended cut. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new memoir by swimmer and short story writer David McGlynn. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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