Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret Lost in Legal Quagmire
One time during an interview, I asked Anna Paquin what was happening with Margaret, the star-studded Kenneth Lonergan film in which she plays the lead. Her voice hitched to a pause before responding. "I guess when Kenny is ready to share it with people, that's his call," she said. "He's a brilliant artist, and when he's finished with it, that's when everybody will see it. Until then, honestly, he's one of those people I just trust so implicitly creatively that whatever his process is is just his process."
That was two years ago. And according to John Horn, whose riveting Margaret progress report appeared in Sunday's LAT, the "process" since then has moved from the editing room to the courtroom.
The film started shooting in late 2005, featuring Paquin as a New York City teenager agonizing over a fatal traffic accident she may (or may not) have caused. Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Alison Janney, and Matthew Broderick co-star. By late 2006, a few months before Paquin's defense of Lonergan, another well-placed Margaret insider had told me that the playwright/filmmaker had locked himself in an editing suite and refused to budge from his three-hour cut. He had that privilege, I was told, with final cut assured -- but only up to 120 minutes.
Flash forward to 2009, with Horn having reviewed the legal paperwork flinging between Lonergan and his financiers. The contracted final cut is apparently up to 150 minutes, but even so, an editor roundelay including Thelma Schoonmaker, Dylan Tichenor and Anne McCabe (to whom Martin Scorsese reportedly praised the '06 cut as "a masterpiece") wasn't able to lock down the prickly director's vision. Stuck with an unreleasable film and a $12 million tab, distributor Fox Searchlight slapped its financing partner Camelot Pictures with a lawsuit to recoup its half of the production costs. Camelot countersued, meanwhile, alleging that Searchlight and Lonergan haven't upheld their pledge to produce a commercially accessible film. Those cases, Horn writes, will be heard in June and September.
Even more intriguing are the other enemies Lonergan has made throughout the process, including his late co-producer Sydney Pollack (who Camelot says had "become disgusted by, and frustrated with, Lonergan's unprofessional and irrational behavior") and the three-time Oscar-winner Schoonmaker herself, whose suggestions to the filmmaker supposedly went largely ignored. (No word yet on where Lonergan stands with old friend Broderick, who lent $1 million to help editing continue after Searchlight pulled the plug.) Add the implied tension between Searchlight's development and acquisitions apparatuses, the latter of whose awards-season successes have outshone the studios more inconsistent in-house productions for years.
"Brilliant artist" or not, the idea of granting Lonergan a 150-minute final cut seems insane -- but not totally out of sync with the high-rolling, filmmaker-friendly ethos that dominated the mini-majors until the cash ran out in 2007. In today's conditions such control -- or "process," in Paquin's words -- seems almost quaint, and a luxury at best. As such, I can't afford to wager that Margaret never sees the light of day, but if you're a betting man (or woman), you could find much worse gambles.