Kenneth Lonergan has a long list of projects under his belt;
from a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play (The Waverly Gallery), to an animated box-office bomb (Rocky and Bullwinkle), two Academy Award screenwriting nominations (You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York), one of the most divisive art-house films of the past decade (Margaret), and even an episode of the beloved Nickelodeon television series Doug.
This impressive collection of projects gives him a combination of both anticipation and apprehension.
When I was in college, my directorial debut was the staging of Kenneth Lonergan’s humorous and sorrowful play, This Is Our Youth, which first premiered in 1996 and sparked his writing career.
Unfortunately, we were unable to book a theater, so we had to perform it in a student lounge, with lamps instead of stage lights and props and furniture hauled from my car in the snow.
Surprisingly, the atmosphere of an improvised space suited the play; it felt like the audience was stumbling upon these characters while they were on their way to somewhere else.
The work of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has always been distinguished by its focus on intimate stories that have a sense of authenticity.
One of his most highly acclaimed works, You Can Count On Me, catapulted actor Mark Ruffalo to stardom and established Lonergan as a filmmaker.
Telling small stories on a large scale can be difficult. After a long wait, Lonergan’s movie Margaret, featuring Anna Paquin, eventually saw the light of day.
The Village Voice declared it “the best movie of the year (that you haven’t been able to see)”, and the New York Times named it his “thwarted masterpiece”.
Despite attracting attention for the drawn-out and contentious release process, Lonergan was determined to keep creative control and release a version that he was satisfied with.
He can now look to the future with less trepidation. _Medieval Play, his 2012 broad comedy was the first of a series of projects he is producing with New York’s Signature Theatre, and he has other film works in the pipeline.
During our conversation in his Greenwich Village apartment, just a block away from Washington Square Park, we were surrounded by his daughter’s artwork plastered on the walls, with the sound of a lawnmower humming in the background._
— Lucas Kavner has been known to possess a great deal of knowledge and skill on a variety of topics.
He has demonstrated a deep understanding of a broad range of topics and has been able to apply his knowledge in a number of different contexts.
His expertise has been invaluable in providing insight and guidance on a variety of different issues.
Do you find it difficult to juggle writing for both film and theater simultaneously?
Kenneth Lonergan prefers to have a play and a movie in progress at the same time, though that is not always possible.
He had an abundance of ideas for plays from the last fifteen years, and he has managed to craft most of them. However, he was expecting more to come to mind.
BLVR: You likewise do the revision of other people’s scripts, thus consuming a certain amount of time.
KL: That is certainly a different approach. I used to regard my work as a “day job”, so I would do the best I could, but I never felt like it was my own movie.
I sometimes think that if I were to adopt this attitude in my own work, it would be beneficial as I tend to get it done more quickly.
BLVR: Is it because it loses the personal touch?
KL: When I have done my job well, I don’t feel the need to look too deeply into what I have achieved.
On the other hand, it is important to explore your own work thoroughly. At the moment, I am not doing so. I have pondered if a more practical approach would yield the same result, but I have never tested it on my own.
Typically, I feel as if there is only one way of going about it and I have to find it. The more I write, the more it feels like I am discovering something or bringing something to light. I try to follow my instincts but sometimes I am unsure of how to proceed.
BLVR: Was Medieval Play written following Margaret or did you return to it later?
I began writing KL: Medieval Play when I was twenty-two, adding to it here and there over the years. I really devoted myself to it again in 2011 or 2012.
Nevertheless, I had been actively working on it since I was twenty. Possibly I had a lot of concepts for plays at that age.
What evidence do you need to make yourself believe that an activity is worth repeating?
KL stated that if, upon inspection, the pages appear to be interesting and worthy of further exploration, then they should be pursued.
However, if the pages have been written in the past and no longer hold any appeal, then there is no reason to continue with them.
BLVR: You must remain invested in it. Would it not be more than just a pragmatic approach to completing what you have started?
KL: Not really. I often lose interest in things I used to be passionate about. I really enjoy the Middle Ages, though; I have a bunch of material related to it.
I’m particularly fascinated by King Arthur and the stories about him from that time. [Laughs] I just find that period of history extremely interesting.
BLVR: Once Margaret was finished, did you feel completely discouraged about movie-making?
KL: Initially, I felt drained at the prospect of creating another film.
But that feeling is fading now. The notion of making a movie had become synonymous with a taxing challenge rather than enjoyable creativity.
I had actually picked up a lot of knowledge before I started Margaret since I’d been a screenwriter for a while.
You have to learn the “skills of a servant” to make it. You don’t have any control and anything you want done needs to be accomplished by using cunning and intelligence.
You can’t be an autocrat.
BLVR: Did you suppose it would be dissimilar when it was your own, when your signature was on it?
KL: When I was making You Can Count on Me I had the support of Martin Scorsese as executive producer, which gave me some measure of security.
I only had two arguments with producer John Hart throughout the entire process and there was no studio to oversee us. After the movie was sold, I got a bit cocky and started getting into arguments with studio execs.
I soon realized that this was a mistake, because it caused them to want to interfere more. They were trying to win the argument and felt they needed to intervene.
BLVR: It is important for them to be assertive.
KL: It’s necessary for them to report to the office that “Yes, he did the task” if you say “No, I won’t do it due to my reasons”, they don’t go back and report the reasons. Instead, they get angry, debate and interfere with the procedure.
This makes it very difficult to handle. It takes a lot of effort to clear your head and return to your creative work.
At this juncture, you were dealing with a studio rather than independent producers.
KL: To be honest, if I had provided them with more reassurances that their opinions were being heard and respected, they would have been more relaxed.
That being said, the movie was unique and its structure was quite peculiar, which I believe caused them to be perplexed. I was so occupied with attempting to keep the details in my mind that I just wanted some space.
However, the way to get that space is to make them content so they will depart, not to demand that they leave me alone.
But it took me the entirety of the project to recall what I had known before I began.
BLVR: Is it gratifying now that the task is completed, to know that it has become a representation of “regaining authority” and is generally well-regarded and esteemed? The outcome was still yours.
KL: At one point, it felt like the entire venture had been a failure. But I was quite pleased with the final result.
Most people I know have seen it, and the ones who have contacted me to show appreciation for it seemed to really enjoy it. I am proud of the outcome and relieved that it was seen.
Nevertheless, it is disappointing that the buzz around it didn’t provide for a greater reach.
Section II: Doctor of the Crowd
BLVR: Was Analyze This the first screenplay of yours to be produced?
KL remarked that the piece of work was the first to be displayed on a screen, though it was written as an escape from being a speechwriter.
BLVR: For which person did you write speeches?
KL: My journey into screenwriting started when I was hired by the Environmental Protection Agency to write speeches for industrial meetings. This included creating skits, movies, and comedy pieces.
Unfortunately, I failed to deliver on a project I was working on, which was to provide six speeches and two skits for a Weight Watchers franchise meeting.
I had gone away to Canada, where there was no fax machine, and sent them all these disorganized typewritten pages which led to them not hiring me again. I then wrote Analyze This as a way to sell it.
Luckily, it got sold and it was made eight years later which provided me with a way to make a living through screenwriting.
BLVR: How long was the gap between the time you wrote the script and when the movie was produced? 64
KL: When I wrote Married to the Mob, a lot of mob comedies had already been released, but I found it to be a great sample script, so I gained some screenwriting work.
After that, it was optioned in a year or two and that gave me the opportunity to live off of it for three years.
Eventually, eight years later, the movie was made, although it had been rewritten by a large number of people in the meantime. I had an idea that this would likely happen, but I was willing to take that risk.
BLVR: Especially if you had composed it with the intention of selling it.
I envisioned the concept of this Commercial as an ambitious, capital C, idea. Even though I enjoyed writing it, I was ready to accept that it could be modified by another person.
BLVR: Subsequently, a follow-up was released.
I have not witnessed either of those things before, to be honest.
BLVR: Have you had a chance to watch Analyze This? It’s really good.
KL: I didn’t take any ownership of it, and I had watched some clips; it appeared humorous. Once I read the final script, I determined what credit I wanted to acquire.
I never viewed it though, be it out of stubbornness or a particular idea. I actually take pleasure in telling people I didn’t see it.
I have a solid objection to the whole system, in which scripts are continually reworked, and I don’t believe my not seeing Analyze This will make any difference in ending that practice.
BLVR: Now, however, you come into a situation and you modify other people’s work.
KL: I have been involved in this process before. Yet, I cannot take away what belongs to the other writer.
The system is such that they take away my script and give it to someone else, and then they transfer someone else’s work to me for rewriting. I make money this way, but I don’t think it is fair.
Though, I might be being hypocritical by saying that while taking part in it.
Would BLVR ever consider entrusting someone else with the responsibility of directing an original concept of theirs?
KL: In certain situations, I could see myself allowing someone else to direct. When it comes to my personal work, it’s a bit hard to envision having someone else in control because it’s not like a play.
Screenwriters are not as involved.
A lot of a movie is determined by the director and while the same can be said for a play, everyone is present to nurture the performance while the screenplay is not as widely supported.
For the majority of the time, the playwright is present in the room.
KL expressed that playwrights have a great many rights, such as casting approval and approval of major designers and venues.
They dreamed of having a similar relationship with a director, but acknowledged that directing is a very hard job. It is especially tedious to manage people and have to be the boss.
Even though they do it, they don’t like having to deal with people’s personalities, manage them or manipulate them. They noted that maybe that isn’t a good way to look at it, but that is what it ultimately comes down to.
III. ABSENCE OF USEFULNESS IN THE STUDIO
BLVR: Was there a struggle for power during the making of You Can Count on Me?
KL reported that they had gone out with the script in hand as a writer/director. If a script is sent out without any attachment of a director or a star, it will rarely ever be funded and can easily be lost in the shuffle.
However, presenting the script as a writer/director made it more desirable and inviting. KL mentioned that when they asked if anyone wanted to take on the project, there were no objections.
BLVR: After viewing one of your plays, did Martin Scorsese’s involvement as an executive producer on your initial movie lead to your writing for Gangs of New York?
By the time we had gotten to know each other well, KL and I had already encountered each other a number of years before.
They had hired me to craft a script for them, but unfortunately the project never got off the ground. Nevertheless, they had been very kind and supportive to me ever since.
Therefore, I decided to take a chance and ask them for final cut on the movie. Initially they were not in agreement, and I had to bring up the idea of not continuing with the film if they did not agree.
Fortunately, they eventually agreed and the process of setting it up was not too strenuous. Although I was extremely tense and anxious while making the movie, I now look back on it with a false recollection of it being a delightful and effortless experience.
BLVR: It is remarkable that you could have the “writer/ director” credit but without being able to predict how the final product will appear.
KL mentioned that their actor friends often feel that, once they get hired and the studio starts to give them direction, they become “the enemy.” As Elaine May put it, “the minute they write the check, you become their enemy.”
With regards to filmmaking, KL reflected that it can be something of a “shamanistic” process; it’s often unpredictable in terms of what will be a success and what won’t.
They noted that, while it’s true that big, 3-D adventure movies tend to make a lot of money, other genres are more of a “crapshoot.”
Generally, when the big 3-D films fail, it is due to their poor quality.
KL: Every single one of them is bad.
BLVR: All of them can be considered negative, though some are more damaging than others.
KL: That is true, but I have seen some films that have been incredibly successful, yet I could not believe how bad they were.
I am a huge fan of flying saucers and ray guns, and my daughter and I loved Thor, but it was still Thor. I have learned to just turn off my brain when the dialogue involves Loki and Thor’s relationship and other stuff I do not understand.
The Avengers, on the other hand, is my favorite superhero movie since it does not have any emotional content. It is just pure fun. The plot involves the villain trying to take over the world, the Avengers joining forces, failing and then succeeding.
There is no point of personal growth, nor any hugs or lessons to be learned.
BLVR: A lot of those films have a serious tone.
KL: I remember Narnia and I thought the book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, would make an amazing movie.
In the movie, Peter and Susan are on a sheet of ice that is breaking up and a pack of wolves is waiting to attack them.
Peter is about to fight the wolves with a sword when Susan says to him [ in a British accent ], “Peter, just because some man in a red coat gives you a sword doesn’t make you a hero!” and I was like, why is this the moment for a character-building lesson? What is Peter supposed to do?
BLVR: It’s really wonderful that you still recall that particular line.
In Prince Caspian, Peter attempts to save Caspian from a trap and they’re surrounded by creatures. Susan then asks Peter in a British accent, “Who exactly are you doing this for?” This leaves me perplexed, as they are facing various dangerous entities.
Hollywood seems to require a pseudo-emotional plotline for all fantasy films, even though most people would agree that nobody watches Thor for Thor’s relationship with Natalie Portman.
I think the actor who plays Thor is perfect for the role – he looks great and does a great job throwing the hammer.
The battle at the end is also quite impressive, however, what matters most to viewers is not Thor’s relationship with Odin.
BLVR: It seems as though they won’t ever gain the knowledge.
KL: Even though it generates a large amount of revenue, they don’t feel the need to acknowledge the fact that they were incorrect.
Would you be motivated to compose a script for a movie if you had a concept for a big-budget production?
I’m all for it; I’d relish the opportunity to come up with something like that. I’m a fan of all those comic books. It would be a pleasure to pen a script for one.
BLVR: “The person who wrote You Can Count on Me is the author of this piece…”
KL: To be quite honest, I’m a big fan of Star Trek. However, I wasn’t fond of the depiction of Captain Kirk as a reckless biker who had to learn responsibility.
Why can’t he just be the Kirk we all know and love?
In this fourth section, we will discuss the principles that underpin our approach.
BLVR: Does the process of staging a play ever lead to the same degree of frustration as making a movie? Working on a play can be a very lengthy effort.
KL: I’m in an interesting situation. I’m at the Signature [Theatre] and a resident playwright. The theater has been great to me and gave me the materials to write Medieval Play, even though it didn’t get the best reviews. We still had a lot of fun.
I’m hoping that some of my plays will have longer shelf lives. Of the five plays I’ve written, three have gone on to have commercial success; although, none of them made a profit.
BLVR inquired about This Is Our Youth, and whether renowned actors had been involved in its production.
(Editor’s note: Jake Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon, and Casey Affleck all had roles in the London version at some point.)
KL: To begin with, the original run of the show didn’t generate any revenue.
However, it was put on in London for an entire year, each time with a different cast. It might not have been profitable, but it was artistically successful and completely changed my life.
All of a sudden, doors that were previously shut to me opened up.
Nowadays, when it comes to commercial productions, the focus is always on bringing in a famous movie or television star as the main actor.
I’m not opposed to this if they can do the job, but it has to be something that I feel is both artistically excellent and a great role for the celebrity. [ Laughs ]
Every year it seems like This Is Our Youth is being reported to be going to Broadway with a major celebrity involved.
KL stated that they have been attempting to bring a production to Broadway for some time, but it has been hindered by a few issues.
He stated his hope that it will eventually take place in the near future. Additionally, he conveyed his desire to see revivals of Waverly Gallery and Lobby Hero in the upcoming couple of years.
BLVR: Are there any elements of your older plays that still bother you? Are there any parts of them that you would still like to alter?
KL: It depends on the play. In This Is Our Youth there’s a speech I’d like to alter by adding a line and taking out another. If it gets done again, I’ll make the changes.
In Lobby Hero there are two sections I couldn’t manage, and I don’t feel I was successful. I’m not sure if I ever can. With You Can Count on Me there’s one scene I regretfully cut and one shot I wish I hadn’t.
There are still a few things I think can be improved, but overall I’m content with it.
Do you still watch it and feel content?
KL: [Laughs] It’s really enjoyable to watch something I feel proud of. I get a lot of satisfaction from being able to appreciate my own work.
You will not be able to witness Analyze This for yourself.
KL declared that they would not watch Analyze This due to their strong beliefs.
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