Monday, July 20, 2009

Whatever Happened to Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret"?

When Kenneth Lonergan, already a successful playwright (This Is Our Youth) and screenwriter (Analyze This) made his directing debut with You Can Count on Me (2000), an acclaimed small film that did big things for the careers of its stars, Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, it seemed like the beginning of a promising career. Since then, Lonergan has had a script credit on Gangs of New York (directed by Martin Scorsese, who had an executive producer credit on You Can Count on Me); meanwhile, the years have gone by while his second film asa a director, Margaret has remained unreleased and possibly, depending on who you ask, unfinished. As John Horn reports, the movie, which was funded by Fox Searchlight Pictures and producer Gary Gilbert, was shot in 2005, and has now inspired a pair of lawsuits, one of which alleges that the movie remains unreleased because Lonergan, who has the power of final cut, has never been able to shape the material into a finished state that's to his satisfaction.

Margaret was never going to be an easy sell commercially. Based on a shooting script that ran more than 160 pages--a length that's liable to result in a two and a half hour movie--it was intended as a timely, post-9/11 parable about the nature of guilt and responsibility. Set in New York City, it stars Anna Paquin as a seventeen-year-old girl who witnesses a bus accident and becomes involved in a subsequent legal action against the driver, played by Mark Ruffalo. The cast also includes Matt Damon, as a teacher towards whom Paquin's character makes advances, and J. Smith-Cameron, who is married to Lonergan, as the girl's mother. (As if all this weren't involved enough, "Margaret" isn't the name of the Paquin character or anyone else in the movie: the title refers to a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child”, which comes up in the course of one of the classroom scenes. The list of high-powered prestige talents who worked on the movie include not one but two already-deceased producers, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, as well as cast members Alison Janney, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin, Rosemarie DeWitt, Olivia Thirlby, and Matthew Broderick; Broderick, who also appeared in You Can Count on Me, is said to have loaned Lonergan a million dollars to help him complete the editing. (According to John Horn, "A Broderick spokesman said the loan was a private matter and disputed the dollar amount but did not provide another figure.") For his part, Scorsese is said to have sent in his "legendary editor" Thelma Schoonmaker to pitch in, but to no avail.

The lawsuits started flying last summer when Fox Seacrhlight "sued Gilbert and his production company, claiming he failed to pay the studio half of the film's production costs. Two months later, Gilbert's Camelot Pictures sued Fox Searchlight and Lonergan, alleging that the studio and Lonergan thwarted Gilbert's many attempts to finish the movie, forcing Camelot to pay for 'a clearly inferior and unmarketable film' that Lonergan, several people say, will not support." The $12 million that got spent on Margaret doesn't exactly make for a Heaven's Gate-style fiasco, but the situation is a source of embarrassment for all involved, not least the studio if it's true that they gave Lonergan carte blanche to make a movie that he couldn't make work--at least, not within the framework of certain conditions to which he'd agreed. (Lonergan's final-cut guarantee was contingent on his delivering a movie that was no longer than 150 minutes.) Whether Lonergan could only deliver an ambitious, sometimes brilliant failure, or if he simply turned obsessive perfectionist and couldn't let go of his baby, the studio seemed to have come to the conclusion that it was better for them to forget the movie existed rather than take it away from him and finish it for him, which would have been them look like crude buttinskys and alienated other "prestige" filmmakers they might have wanted to court in the future. Martin Scorsese reportedly declared that one version of Margaret that he saw back in 2006 was "brilliant, a materpiece." I hope he took notes.

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