Director Kenneth Lonergan Emerges to Tell Us He’s on Team Margaret

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Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection

Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan's 'Margaret'

A Twitter movement was born this week: #TeamMargaret. The hashtag is a passion plea for You Can Count On Me writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film Margaret, a film that grossed $47,185 in miniature release in late September. The outcry was started by fans of the movie, including Slantmagazine.com critic Jaime Christley (who started an online petition), with the intent of prodding Fox Searchlight, which released the film, to hold screenings for critics who are currently making their end of the year award choices.

Full disclosure, I was on Team Margaret about 30 seconds after I learned of its existence, because Margaret, while imperfect, contains not just some of the year’s best acting – including a startlingly intense star performance by Anna Paquin as a headstrong teenage girl whose carelessness has terrible consequences – but also serves as an incredible statement on the way our world works today. Here’s my original review. The $14 million dollar film has been so plagued by legal issues that it is a surprise Margaret ever had a chance to bloom in the dark of any commercial theater. The Twitter movement is a reminder of just how much people like to root for the underdog: @Nictate wrote “Reading through the host of #teammargaret tweets was like hearing the flood of prayers on behalf of George Bailey.”

I spent most of Thursday trying to track down Lonergan, who didn’t do press for the film’s September 30 release. Finally, late in the evening, I spoke to him on a conference call with his lawyer, Matt Rosengart. I hope Rosengart will represent me in any and all future lawsuits, despite the fact that I dearly wanted to bop him on the head for interrupting our conversation every 10 seconds. After years of tortured litigation (the film was shot in 2005 and a version finished in 2008) the movie was finally seen, so you’d think its woes would be over. But no, a lawsuit is still pending against Lonergan by one of the film’s producers, Gary Gilbert (whose other producing credits include Garden State and The Kids Are All Right), hence the presence of Rosengart.

Lonergan had heard about the petition, although he’s not hashtagging TeamMargaret himself. It wouldn’t be appropriate. Plus he’s not on Twitter.

“My Twitter experience is limited to listening to other people talk about their Twitter experience,” Lonergan told me.

He couldn’t be more touched by the outpouring of support, which Paquin and the other cast members do know about.

“I love this movie,” he wrote to me in a statement sent over before the monitored phone call. “I love the actors. I have never worked harder or longer on anything in my professional life. It would mean everything to me if the film could at least have a fair chance at a life of its own.”

What constitutes a fair chance? A shot in awards season could make all the difference. The trendsetting New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review have already voted on their awards, and Margaret won nothing. A critic’s group that tends to the contrarian, say the one I used to belong to in San Francisco, could still declare Paquin’s performance the best of the year — at this point, I think it is, but I have Tilda, Meryl and Charlize still waiting in the wings, unseen — but not unless a majority of them had seen and loved the film. It’s not available on DVD yet and Fox Searchlight has yet to commit to making screeners. Getting screeners into the hands of the approximately 1,400 critics who might care in a timely fashion – critic’s award season will be all but over by mid-December – could cost more than half of the film’s paltry $47,185 gross. @FoxSearchlight didn’t leap into the Twitter fray, but amid charges it isn’t helping Margaret enough, the studio did issue this statement.

Critics were sent invitations to pre-release screenings when ‘Margaret’ was released in September, and many reviews of the film have run. Since the film is no longer in theaters, we have set screenings for any critics’ group members who still need to see the film within any applicable deadlines.

A Fox Searchlight spokesperson also said the studio is adding screenings in Boston and Chicago for critics, and will show it in New York and Los Angeles as requested.

The strange little bump of interest in Margaret this week might have something to do with a glowing review of the film from London’s Telegraph this week (it just came out there) which described it as “a phoenix of a film, risen from the ashes of what looked alarmingly like failure.” A sampling of American reviews has The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris finding it an “occasional marvel” and The New Yorker’s Richard Brody calling it a “city symphony, romantic yet scathing, lyrical with street life and vaulting skylines, reckless with first adventure, and awed by the abstractions, both intellectual and poetic, on which the great machine runs.”

Not long into the burst of #TeamMargaret tweeting came a second, grumpier wave of requests for an actual director’s cut of Margaret. This wicket is so sticky that the film I saw and reviewed, with admiration, love and a few frustrations, wasn’t even Lonergan’s but rather, the only cut that the true powerbrokers could agree to. Somewhere there is a cut put together by Lonergan with the help of his friend Martin Scorsese (Lonergan script doctored Gangs of New York for him). Martin Scorsese. That’s not to say Lonergan disdains the version that was released:

“I support this Cut wholeheartedly and want people to see and like it, because the actors deserve to be seen and appreciated for their amazing work,” he wrote in his statement. “But while I fully support the released Cut, it’s also no secret that I tried to get a subsequent version released, which Marty Scorsese very graciously helped with, which even more fully executes my complete intentions — a cut that I still hope will someday, somehow see the light of day.”

He goes on to say that he can’t really talk at all about why the cut wasn’t released, because of the pending lawsuit, but that he hopes Fox Searchlight will consider a relaunch. Rather wonderfully, he doesn’t pretend the film is perfect.

“Film-making like any other art can a profound means of human communication; beyond the professional pleasure of succeeding or the pain of failing, you do want your film to be seen — to communicate itself to other people,” he wrote to me. “They don’t have to like it, but connecting your inner life, your view of life, to the inner life and views of others is really and truly what it’s all about; and I desperately want Margaret to have that chance to reach people, regardless of its ultimate merits.

In conversation, he doesn’t sound bitter, though some anguish comes through in his soft voice. This is a filmmaker who has spent more time fighting over his movie than he did making it. Writing plays must seem like a cakewalk compared to the Margaret debacle (in May 2012 he’ll premiere a new play at New York’s Signature Theatre). Did it kill his desire to make films?

“I’d like to do another movie,” he told me. “I’m just trying to get through this experience. I’ve got three or four things I could do but I’m not sure what I want to do next.”

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