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An Interview with Kenneth Lonergan

[Playwright/Screenwriter]
“You have to be Figaro. You can’t be Napoleon.”
Reasons The Avengers is Kenneth Lonergan’s favorite superhero movie:
There’s no emotional content
There’s no moment of personal growth
There’s no hugging
by Lucas Kavner
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Kenneth Lonergan

[Playwright/Screenwriter]
“You have to be Figaro. You can’t be Napoleon.”
Reasons The Avengers is Kenneth Lonergan’s favorite superhero movie:
There’s no emotional content
There’s no moment of personal growth
There’s no hugging
by Lucas Kavner
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Kenneth Lonergan

Lucas Kavner
9 Snaps

Kenneth Lonergan can claim responsibility for a Pulitzer Prize­­–nominated play (The Waverly Gallery), an animated box-office bomb (Rocky and Bullwinkle), two Academy Award screenwriting nominations (for You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York), one of the most divisive art-house films of the past decade (Margaret), and an episode of the beloved Nickelodeon television series Doug: a wide variety of projects, all of which seem to produce in him a mix of equal parts excitement and anxiety.

In college, I directed a production of This Is Our Youth, Lonergan’s hilarious and heartbreaking play about wealthy and lost New York City teenagers, which premiered in 1996 and subsequently launched his playwriting career. At the last minute we weren’t able to reserve an actual theater so we had to do the show in a student lounge, using lamps instead of stage lights, dragging props and furniture from the back of my car in the snow. But it turned out that a Lonergan play works well in an extemporaneous space like this, as if the audience just happened upon these people while they were on their way somewhere else.

Lonergan’s always been drawn to smaller, character-driven tales that feel effortless in their calculated naturalism. One of the most successful of these, You Can Count On Me, launched actor Mark Ruffalo’s career and Lonergan’s own as a filmmaker.

But small stories can be tough to mine on a larger scale. Recently, Lonergan was finally able to see the release of Margaret, his long-gestating film starring Anna Paquin that attracted as much attention for its lengthy and controversial rollout as for its subsequent critical praise. He began shooting the film in 2005, though it wasn’t until 2011 that it finally reached an audience. The Village Voice called it “the best movie of the year (that you haven’t been able to see),” and the New York Times referred to it as his “thwarted masterpiece.” Lonergan found himself embroiled in lawsuits and very public rifts with producers in an effort to maintain creative control and release a version he felt comfortable calling his own.

Now, years removed from that experience, he’s able to look ahead to future projects with a bit more ease. Medieval Play, his 2012 broad comedy set in the fourteenth century, was the first in a series of pieces he is producing with New York’s Signature Theatre in the coming years, and he has other film projects on his docket. We spoke in his Greenwich Village apartment, just a block from Washington Square Park, surrounded by his daughter’s drawings taped to the walls, a lawnmower growling in the background.

—Lucas Kavner

I. MEDIEVAL MATERIAL

THE BELIEVER: Is it hard for you balance film and theater writing at the same time?

KENNETH LONERGAN: I generally go back and forth, I like to be working on a play and a movie at once. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I had four or five plays I wanted to write, backed up from about fifteen years ago, and I’ve written most of them now, but I was hoping more would occur to me.

BLVR: You also “doctor” other people’s scripts, so that takes time.

KL: That’s different. I had always tried to keep that as a “day job” mentality. Do as good a job as I could, but it’s not my movie. It’s for someone else. So it’s a different approach. And in a way, I sometimes think it would be good to apply that to my own work, because I tend to get it done a little faster.

BLVR: Because it’s not as personal?

KL: If I’ve come up with something good, then I’ve done my job, and I don’t have to plumb the absolute depths of what it is. On the other hand, you’re supposed to plumb the absolute depths of what you’re doing, for yourself. But anyway, I’m not plumbing any absolute depths at the moment. I sometimes wonder if going at something with a more practical attitude, you might get the same result anyway. I’m not sure; I’ve never tried it with my own work. Usually I feel like there’s only one solution, there’s only one way to go, and I have to find it. The more material I’ve written, the more I feel like I’m unearthing something or excavating something. It’s just whether it feels interesting or feels boring that I try to follow. And I don’t always know how to follow it.

BLVR: Did you write Medieval Play after Margaret, or is that something you came back to?

KL: Medieval Play I started when I was twenty-two, and I wrote bits and pieces over the years, and then I really went at it again in 2012 or 2011. But I’d been working on it all along. Maybe I just had a bunch of ideas for plays when I was twenty.

BLVR: How do you convince yourself that something’s worth returning to?

KL: I have the pages. So if I look at them and they seem worthy and interesting, if I still have a spark of interest in them, then I want to pursue it. And if I wrote the pages twenty years ago or ten years ago and they don’t interest me anymore, then they don’t interest me anymore.

BLVR: You have to still be interested in it. It can’t just be the practical thing of wanting to finish what you start?

KL: No. There’s a lot of things I lose interest in. I’ve had lots of ideas I thought were great ideas, and I go back and look at them and they leave me cold. I love the Middle Ages. I’ve got lots of stuff I’d like to do with that. I’ve got loads of medieval material. [Laughs] I’m very interested in King Arthur and that whole thing; I just really love that period.

BLVR: After Margaret was done, were you completely disheartened by filmmaking?

KL: I became very exhausted at the thought of making another movie. That’s wearing off now, but the idea of doing a movie became associated with “exhausting struggle” as supposed to “fun creativity.” I had actually learned a lot before I started Margaret, because I’d been a screenwriter for so long, and you have 63 to learn the “tricks of a slave” to get by. Because you have no power at all and anything you want done you have to… you have to be Figaro. You can’t be Napoleon.

BLVR: You thought it’d be different when it was yours, when your name was on it?

KL: I knew I was in even more peril since it was mine. When I started You Can Count on Me I made sure I had adequate protection by getting Scorsese to be the executive producer. I basically had a protector, but it was also a much smaller scale, and the producers and I—I think I had two arguments with [producer] John Hart the entire time. There was no studio overseeing it. We made the movie and then sold it. And I was very careful not to get into arguments. And then after that I guess I got a little pleased with myself, so instead of remembering not to argue [with studio executives], I would argue. And when you argue you’re fucked, because then they have to win the argument. You’re talking about the material and they’re trying to win an argument. So if you’re stupid enough to argue like I was, it becomes that much more difficult. It also stimulates them to interfere more, because producers feel they need to—

BLVR: They need to assert themselves.

KL: They need to go back to the office and say, “Yes, he did what we asked.” But if you say, “No, I won’t do as you asked for the following reasons,” they don’t go back to the office and say, “Well, Kenny has the following reasons for not doing what we asked.” They get mad and they argue and they intrude themselves on the process and I find that very hard to cope with. So to get that out of your head and get back to what you want to do creatively is time-consuming.

BLVR: You were also dealing with a studio as supposed to independent producers at this point.

KL: And to be fair, if I’d given them more assurances that their input was being listened to and respected, I think they would have been calmer, but it was also an unusual kind of a movie, and the structure was so unusual that I think they were confused by it. I was also trying so hard to keep it all in my head that I just wanted to be left alone. And the way to be left alone is to make them happy so they’ll go away, not to tell them to leave you alone. But it took me the whole experience to remember what I’d known before I started.

BLVR: Now that it’s done, is it satisfying that it became a sort of symbol for “taking back control” and the end product ended up being generally praised and respected? It was still yours, in the end.

KL: There was a point there when I felt the whole thing had gone down the tubes. But no, I was very happy with the way it ended up. In my world everyone’s seen it, and the people who call me to say they liked it seem to really like it. I’m proud of it. I’m glad it got seen. But it’s also frustrating because without all the mishegoss there might have been a wider distribution.

II. MOB DOCTOR

BLVR: Analyze This was the first screenplay of yours that got made, right?

KL: I think it was the first material of mine that made it onto a screen. But I wrote that as a way to stop working as a speechwriter.

BLVR: Who were you a speechwriter for?

KL: First for the Environmental Protection Agency, and then I got work doing industrial speechwriting. You write for corporate meetings, help them write their speeches. Sometimes they do skits or movies or comedy stuff. I did that for a while and then I fucked that up completely. I had a big Weight Watchers franchise meeting I was supposed to write six speeches for and two skits, and I went away to Canada, where there was no fax or anything. I just sent them all these messy, typewritten pages and they never hired me again. Anyway, I wrote Analyze This to sell it. I was lucky enough it got sold, and it got made eight years later. That got me into screenwriting as a way to make a living.

BLVR: You had eight years between writing it and the film being made? 64

KL: When I wrote it, Married to the Mob had come out, a bunch of mob comedies, but it was a good sample script so I started getting screenwriting work. And then I think it was optioned a year or two after I wrote it, and I was able to live off of that for three years. And then it finally got made eight years later but it had been rewritten by dozens of people by then. I knew going in that was likely to happen, but it was kind of a sacrifice fly.

BLVR: Especially if you’d written it to sell it.

KL: I thought it was a Commercial idea with a capital C. I liked writing it, but I was fully prepared for it to be turned into something else by someone else.

BLVR: And then there was a sequel.

KL: Which I’ve never seen. I’ve never seen either one, actually.

BLVR: You’ve never seen Analyze This? It’s pretty good.

KL: I didn’t feel any ownership of it, and I sort of… I’ve seen clips; it seems funny. And I read the final script to see what kind of credit I wanted to fight for or ask for. But I never saw it, and I don’t know if it was out of peevishness or principle or something. I sort of enjoy telling people I never saw it. I actually have a principled objection to that whole process, whereby these scripts are churned over and over again, and I don’t think my not seeing Analyze This will have the slightest contribution to ending that process.

BLVR: But now you come in and you change other people’s scripts.

KL: I did that then, too. It’s a process I take part in. But I’m not taking it away from the other writer. They take my script away from me and give it to other people and then they take other people’s scripts from them and give them to me to rewrite. I make a living off of it but I don’t think it’s a good system. But maybe that’s hypocritical of me to say that while participating in it.

BLVR: At this point, would you ever give an original idea to someone else to direct?

KL: I would, under certain circumstances. I mean, in a personal way, it’s a little hard to imagine having someone else direct it, because it’s not like it is with a play. Screenwriters are really not in the loop. So much of a movie is what the director does with it. You could say the same for a play, but everyone’s there to serve the play and you cannot say everyone is there to serve the screenplay.

BLVR: The playwright’s in the room, for the most part.

KL: Yeah, the playwright has many more rights. You can’t change a word without his or her permission. You’ve got casting approval, approval of major designers, approval of the venue. I suppose if I could get the same relationship with a director in real life or on paper, I could imagine it. Directing is a lot of work. It’s exhausting. I like the creative part of it, but I don’t like anything else about it. I don’t like the managerial part of it at all; I don’t like being the boss, but you have to be. It’s sort of embarrassing for me to be the boss. I’ll do it, but I don’t like having to deal with people’s personalities; I don’t like managing people; I don’t like manipulating people, but you have to. Maybe that’s not a good way to look at it, but that’s what it ends up being.

III. STUDIO FUTILITY

BLVR: Did you have to fight for control on You Can Count on Me?

KL: No, oddly enough I just went out with that script as writer/director. If you just send a script around, you can kiss the script goodbye. If they get a director, they get a star, they get funding, and those three entities turn it into something else, unless you’re very fortunate. But you’re better off going out as a writer/director because that is attractive and sexy, for some reason—a first-time writer/director also. I said, “Here’s a script; I’m going to direct; do you want to produce it?” And nobody had a problem with it at all.

BLVR: Martin Scorsese was an executive producer on your first film and you ended up writing on Gangs of New York. Did he come to you after seeing a play of yours?

KL: We’d known each other for a while by then. We had met years ago and I had written a script for him. He’d hired me to write for something that never got made. But he’s always been very good to me and very avuncular and supportive. So I just asked him. I wouldn’t make the movie without final cut, because I knew what that meant. So I thought of asking Marty to come in and ask everyone to give him final cut. At first they said no way, and then I said, “Well, let’s not do the movie, then.” And then they said OK. It was pretty easy to do and fairly easy to set up. I was, at the time, so tense and anxious making the movie that I never wanted to make one again, but now I have this false memory of it being a wonderful and easy experience.

BLVR: It’s so interesting that you could have this “writer/ director” credit and then not be able to say what the final product looks like.

KL: Yeah, I know. It’s also—I have actor friends who get hired and then they get so much direction that they say, “Why did they hire me? If they didn’t like what I do, why hire me?” Elaine May said to me, “The minute they write the check, you become their enemy.” They become anxious and you’re their enemy. Maybe that’s comic hyperbole but it does sort of feel that way. Studios put a lot of advertising behind certain things and then usually that works, but not always, and they don’t really know why, and then something small will be a big success and they don’t know why either, so its very shamanistic, the way they approach things. I always say it’s all four things that happen: people like things that are lousy, people like things that are good, people don’t like things that are good, they don’t like things that are lousy. It’s clear now that these big, spectacular 3-D adventure movies make lots and lots of money. They don’t all, but most do, and the ones you expect to pretty much do. But everything else—it’s kind of a crapshoot.

BLVR: But usually when the big 3-D movies bomb it’s because they were bad.

KL: But they’re all bad.

BLVR: They’re all bad in a way, usually, but some are even worse than the bad ones.

KL: That’s true, but I’ve seen some that are huge hits and I couldn’t believe how bad they were. And I like flying saucers and ray guns as much as anyone. I saw Thor with my daughter, and we loved it, but it’s Thor. I’ve learned to just turn my brain off when they start talking about, you know, the relationship with Loki and Thor and some other—I don’t know why they have that stuff. I like The Avengers: it’s my favorite superhero movie because there’s no emotional content. It’s just fun. They invade, they—you know, he takes over the world, the Avengers get together, they fuck up, they regroup, and win. That’s the whole thing. There’s no moment of personal growth, there’s no hugging, there’s no learning.

BLVR: So many of those movies are so serious.

KL: Oh my god, and all the learning and growing and “I found my courage and you’re not a hero because you’ve got a sword.” I remember Narnia, I couldn’t believe this. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is a great book, and if you just made the book into a movie you’d have a great movie. But I remember in the movie, Peter and Susan are on an ice floe breaking up and there are wolves waiting to eat them and tear them to pieces and they’re on this piece of ice and Peter’s about to fight the wolves with a sword and 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, What the fuck’s he supposed to do? And why is that the time for a character-improving moment?

BLVR: I love that you remember that line, specifically.

KL: Prince Caspian was the same thing. He goes in to try and rescue Caspian out of the castle and it’s a trap and they’re being swarmed by these creatures, and Peter says something about “the plan” and Susan says [in a British accent], “Who exactly are you doing this for, Peter?” And I’m like, What the fuck are you talking about? There are demons and wolves and goblins and all this stuff coming at them, and she’s asking about his personal motivation? The powers that be, the zeitgeist in Hollywood, have to have this pseudo-emotional thread through every fantasy story there is, even though anyone with any sense would tell you that nobody’s going to see Thor, because of Thor’s relationship with Natalie Portman. I think they’re both very good. I love Thor, the guy who plays Thor; I think he’s a perfect Thor. He looks great, throws the hammer great. The fight at the end is very dazzling, but who cares about Thor’s relationship with Odin? Nobody.

BLVR: They’ll never learn.

KL: They don’t need to. Because it makes so much money they can’t tell themselves they were wrong.

BLVR: If you had an idea for a big-budget movie, would you feel inclined to write it?

KL: Absolutely. I’d love to have an idea like that. I like all those comics. I wouldn’t mind writing one of those scripts.

BLVR: “From the writer of You Can Count on Me…”

KL: Yeah, but seriously, I love it. I love Star Trek, but I didn’t like that Captain Kirk was this motorcycle guy who learned responsibility. I mean, who gives a shit? Why can’t he just be Captain Kirk?

IV. PRINCIPLES

BLVR: Have you been frustrated with plays in the same way as films? The process of putting a play up can also take forever.

KL: I’m sort of in a funny spot. I’m at the Signature [Theatre], and I’m one of the resident writers. They’re great to work with and they gave me all these wonderful resources for the Medieval Play, and even though it wasn’t reviewed very well I really liked it. We all had fun with it. I’d like some of my plays to have longer lives. Three out of the five plays I’ve done have moved commercially and were considered successes. None of them ever made money.

BLVR: What about This Is Our Youth? Weren’t there well-known actors doing that for a while? (Editor’s note: Jake Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon, and Casey Affleck all performed in the London version at one point.)

KL: Actually, what I mean is the initial commercial run didn’t make money. But then they did it in London for a year with four different casts. It wasn’t [initially] a commercial success, but it was a creative success; it changed my whole career. I couldn’t get anything done anywhere and then suddenly all these doors were opened. But now in the commercial world it’s always what movie star or TV star can we get in the play. And I have nothing against movie stars or TV stars, if they’re good. But it has to line up for me. I have to write something intrinsically artistic and beautiful that also has to be a great vehicle for some huge star. [Laughs]

BLVR: I feel like I read every year that This Is Our Youth is heading to Broadway with a star attached.

KL: We are trying to do it on Broadway. That’s been in the works for a while, though it’s been stalled for various reasons. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future we’ll do it. And I’d be very happy to see revivals of Waverly Gallery and Lobby Hero. So hopefully that’ll all happen sometime in the next couple years.

BLVR: Do things still grate on you about older plays of yours? Are there scenes you still want to change?

KL: Yes. It depends on the play. In This Is Our Youth there’s a speech I want to fix. I want to add a line and I want to take out a line. If it gets done again I’ll do it. In Lobby Hero there are two sections I couldn’t figure out, and I don’t think I solved them successfully, and I don’t know if I ever can. In You Can Count on Me there’s one scene I cut that I wish I hadn’t, and one shot I cut that I wish I hadn’t. And there are a couple things I think could be better, but I’m pleased with it.

BLVR: Is that something you still watch and feel good about?

KL: Oh yeah, I love watching my own work. [Laughs] If I’m happy with it, I love to watch it or read it and admire myself.

BLVR: But you’ll never see Analyze This.

KL: I won’t see Analyze This. I’m a very principled person.

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