Few films are able to live up to their inciting incident, as the bigger the event, the longer the odds of success. Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret pivots on a grotesque bus accident that would seem farfetched, an artifact of the loosely regulated civic transit of the 19th century, if such mishaps didn’t recur every few months, even in New York City, even in 2012. What follows is a contemporary epic in every positive sense, a controlled shotgun blast from the vantage point of the accident, and what happens to a mostly well-meaning high school girl when her fickle, flip attitude leads directly to an awful tragedy. I was honored to play a role in bringing Lonergan’s film to the attention of critics and cinephiles, after it had been effectively orphaned by its own distributor. Following that, I really wanted to talk to Lonergan about the Margaret-ness of Margaret, the specific formal and structural qualities that make the film special, and an uncommon cinematic experience. Lonergan, weary of treading the ground that concerns his legal and creative struggles, was more than happy to comply. We planned to chat for 20 to 30 minutes, but our talk went for well over an hour.
It was several months after I saw the film that I made the connection that my mother’s name is Margaret.
You just this moment reminded me that my mother’s name is Peggy. It’s a derivative of Margaret, but that never occurred to me before.
It’s a film that gives audiences a little misdirection—in a good way. Theatrical misdirection. Starting with its title, which some still believe is the name of the Anna Paquin character.
I read a couple of reviews which referred to her repeatedly as Margaret, which I figured had been an editorial mistake that they just decided to go with.
We have this expectation that she’s the protagonist—and we’re not exactly wrong, but you construct a lot of the shots to deemphasize her presence, so that one of the things the film has going on is that we’re constantly passing in and out of this “Lisa sphere,” so that if she has any kind of journey in the film it’s between “me and my self, my own space,” and beyond it.
Normally, scripts go along this track of having a character who was like A in the beginning and they progress toward B, but with Lisa, she has this continual oscillation, which I think is very provocative, because it defies the expectation that she’s going to come away from the film a definitively better person.
I’m very glad that comes through, because one of the most important elements of the script, and of the shooting process, and of the editing process was to make the structure, and also the visual story of the film—the emotional story of the film—is that of a girl discovering that the world is 100,000 times bigger, deeper, and more complex than she imagined it to be. Which is something we all discover at some point, at some age, or most of us do. So I very much wanted to prove it by having it happen to her, and to the audience as well—and it became obvious, whenever we stuck just with her, when we were editing it, that the structure collapses completely. Because then, it starts with her, remains with her, and ends with her. And if the movie doesn’t go over to the side of the other characters, as completely as possible, and embrace the size and scope of the city, and the size and scope of the problem she’s trying to solve, then there’s not enough story to sustain our interest.
Yeah, it has to be a lot of not-her, and then back to her, and then not-her, and so forth.
Yeah, and I like the way it creates an interesting feeling, and an interesting dynamic, because hopefully you’re both going through what she’s going through, and you’re also seeing her, not from her point of view. And the fact that the world doesn’t operate from her point of view, or from any of our points of view, is an undeniable mountain in the way of all of our ambitions and wishes. I tried to have the music reflect that as well—not to have the music be “Lisa music,” but coming from somewhere else. I wanted to have a kind of anthropological look into her in this situation, and I think it’s possible to do that without losing the emotional impact, or losing sympathy with what’s going on with her. Hopefully the film was able to do that.
If there’s a drama there that helps us get a foothold, it’s that she’s been tasked with dealing with something that’s incredibly overwhelming, and subsequent to that, she can’t understand why nobody else is experiencing, even remotely, the same responses. You have scene after scene where she’s looking at characters in disbelief—the cop, her mother, the driver, and so forth—because they aren’t in sync with her. Either because they seem a little bit harder, or because they’re operating on a different register.
I’ve read articles where the mother is described as really self-centered because she’s worried about her play, which I can understand why people would think that, but on the other hand, the mother has every right to be worried about her play, similar to the way whoever wrote that about the movie was probably worried about how their article was going to turn out, and how it’s going to be received. We’re all worried about our jobs. Lisa’s mother is also worried about Lisa, but Lisa is completely shutting her out. The father, on the other hand, I think is genuinely self-centered and narcissistic, and it’s hard for him to listen, and it’s hard for him to really do anything other than pick up and go from whatever point in the conversation he thinks is best. So he’s not so helpful, but everybody else is, more or less, trying to live their own lives. I’ve always found that when you really want something, or when something’s troubling you and you’re trying to solve it, the obstacle of other people not having the same feelings about it as you is always a bit of a shock, and a tremendous frustration. Because it’s dramatic in life, I don’t see why it can’t be dramatic in film.