There’s Always Two Lawyers: Kenneth Lonergan on screenwriting

by Paul Duane

Poster for Margaret

Kenneth Lonergan, a big, disorganised-looking, mop-haired, slightly put-upon-looking man, sits at the front of the auditorium. He’s looking at the audience, they’re looking at him, and nobody speaks. The guy who’s doing this Q&A with Lonergan, director Damien O’Donnell, is nowhere to be seen – it transpires he’s looking for a small bell that he’s brought as a prop, for some reason that never really becomes clear. There’s a long, uncomfortable pause as the audience and Kenneth Lonergan try to figure out the etiquette to deal with this mild bit of social discomfort.

It’s a very ‘Kenneth Lonergan’ type of moment, right out of Margaret, Lonergan’s second film in his two-film career as a writer/director.

Margaret’s a baggy, shapeless, engrossing story that can’t really be described except to say that you need to see it in order to talk about it. If you do see it you’ll definitely want to talk about it, the way you talk about people you know and the odd, compulsive decisions they make, and why the fuck did they do this and not that? It’s that kind of film.

Lonergan was visiting the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival to talk about screenwriting. Here’s some of the things he had to say on the subject.

I’ve never written a screenplay that I cared about in my heart for someone else to direct. As a screenwriter you’re a disposable commodity, which is one reason why movies are so often so poorly written. Nobody gives the cameraman as many notes as they give the writer. The script is treated as a – anyone can rewrite it, anyone can change it at any time and you generally expect to get fired off of any script you’re working on.”

(DO’D) “But the system works.”

In what sense?

(DO’D) “In a commercial sense.”

I think it’s been a catastrophe. I feel the quality of films in the last twenty, thirty years is the worst in the history of cinema. With many, many exceptions, but overall, there’s no Hollywood film that’s not ultimately about learning to believe in yourself, believing in yourself because of what’s in your heart and not your head, and, um, that’s really it. I’d like to see, just once, a film that says it’s the head and not the heart. They did a HBO film about Queen Elizabeth and the logline was ‘There’s nothing harder to govern than the human heart.’ At that time the US was occupying Iraq, rather badly, and I thought, ‘Gee, Iraq is probably harder to govern, y’know.’

Young writers tend to be too ready to show their work to people and get suggestions. Everybody you meet wants to rewrite your script or tell you what they think about it. I find I’m critical enough and supportive enough of myself to wade my way through. I tried as hard as I could to frighten the producers from discussing the scripts (of both films) with me, I made it clear I wasn’t interested in that. Because they’ll never stop. And you’ll get confused. You’ll go home and you’ll look at the script and this voice will reverberate in your head, ‘This scene is really weak, doesn’t work for me at all, the character seems feeble and cowardly.’

Now you’re having an imaginary discussion with somebody who’s not even there. And it’s the same with compliments – I’ve been delayed for months because someone says ‘She’s my favourite character, she’s great’. And she had to be cut but I delayed for months because my friend liked her.

Lonergan on the set of You Can Count on Me
Lonergan on set during wash day.

You Can Count On Me was originally a twelve-page scene, essentially the scene in the restaurant (where the Ruffalo character has just arrived in town) and ended with the bench scene (the film’s penultimate scene).

It started with the character, this young woman, she’s very excited to see her brother again, he’s been travelling, he’s coming to see her and he means everything to her. But he’s sort of a mess, and she has to recognise that, but at the same time the fact that she thinks so much of him helps him to become the better person that she thinks he is. I liked the characters immensely and wondered if I could do anything with them.

Then I went to see a play that had a young boy in it and it wasn’t very good and my mind started to wander and I thought, what if she has a little boy, and the brother becomes involved with the boy and becomes a harmful influence, and to let the kid down and hurt him, and she doesn’t know what to do. And I immediately saw the whole thing. And I knew I could write it.

The first cut of YCCOM, every scene was edited with no deletions. I watched it and it was quite boring – everything as written. I realised it wasn’t working because every scene had a beginning, middle and end as in a play. In a film if there are 270 scenes, and 270 endings, there’s an accumulation of weariness. This isn’t news to experienced screenwriters but it’s how I learned to chop the beginnings and ends from scenes. It’s about sequences, not scenes. I feel a bit foolish talking about it, it’s a very deep art that I’m new to.

Margaret was just… when I was in high school I had lunch with this girl and she told me that over the weekend she’d been shopping for a cowboy hat and she saw a bus driver and tried to attract his attention to ask him about his hat and while she was doing that he ran over a woman and killed her.

And that stayed with me for obvious reasons and I felt for a long time I had to write something about that.

Usually I have an idea for something, a beginning, and if I can think of an ending I know I’ll be able to write a whole story. Generally I just write ideas for scenes, maybe a bit of dialogue if it comes to me. For Margaret, I decided as an experiment – because I’ve been writing for a long time – would it be interesting to put away the critical, editorial side, the practical side, and just see what happened if I just wrote. All sorts of interesting things came out of that.

Anna Paquin on-set for Margaret
Just another face in a crowd...

(DO’D) It’s a film that couldn’t have been made by any conventional development process.

When you’re editing, trying to shorten something, removing different elements – we found that to cut Margaret down to the basic plot is to murder it. The way the story changes focus to the other characters – that’s what it’s about. What I’m proud of is that it proves in the way that it’s made, the way it plays out, what she’s finding out. She finds out quite a lot about life during the film, and what she finds out is demonstrated in the way the film’s structured.

The idea of her being one person with thousands of people around her having equally powerful experiences, just having their own lives – that’s what she’s finding out, it’s also what she’s up against. If you’re in a hospital or a legal situation or just trying to get your car towed and nobody gives a shit because they’re busy with their own lives.

In most films – this is not done to create a counter-type of film, it’s just an idea I had – if the camera stays on the other characters long enough, then they become fuller human beings, and more of an obstacle for her. So when we tried to edit it just focusing on her character more, the whole film died. The focus on other characters is deliberate.

The line that Jeannie Berlin says to her – ‘We’re not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life’ – there’s too many movies now where, if I was an actor, there’s almost no roles I’d want to play except for the lead, perhaps, because they don’t make them full characters. If you look at an Ernst Lubitsch film they don’t throw people in as functions of someone else, they give them something to do, and that’s very important.

A friend of mine saw Margaret and said, ‘It’s terrible to watch someone learn there’s no justice in the world.’ That’s what happens when you get involved in the grown-up world when you’re a kid, its clear to you what needs to be done, you have this idea that you can talk people into something because it’s right and you’re suddenly faced with this – wall, of problems. Movies don’t get into that, they tend to skip the details and I find the minute details of everyday life to be more riddled with tension and drama than most films or plays give them credit for.

In real life, you go to the doctor, they do not say ‘I’m terribly sorry, your uncle has cancer, six months to live.’ ‘Are you sure, Doctor?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ ‘Can anything be done?’ ‘I’m afraid not.’ Everyone cries. That’s not what happens. What happens is they go into great detail about what’s going on and they give you options you don’t understand, and you’re sitting there in a situation that’s desperately important to you and you’re facing a mass of details and you have to decide what to do.

And the same thing goes for the legal situation (in Margaret). I was begged, practically, to cut one of the lawyers. ‘Why do you need two lawyers?’ ‘Because there’s always two lawyers, there’s always somebody who’s great and he recommends somebody who turns out to be no good.’ There’s two cops as well. It makes a nice cut to go right to the senior policeman but the fact is, when you’re going thru a situation like this you have to have great persistence and drive to penetrate layer after layer after layer, and when you’re doing it it takes a toll on you so I couldn’t see why it shouldn’t take a toll dramatically.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York
'Hold my coat, cipher.'

When I was working on Gangs of New York I had a four hour meeting with Harvey Weinstein to cut ten pages of script and it was fascinating – it wasn’t my responsibility, it was a lot of fun for me because Harvey’s very aggressive and belligerent, (Weinstein impersonation) ‘Don’t you think you should cut this? We only care about the main characters!’ Well, I don’t think so, Harvey, but if Marty tells me to, I will. We have our star and a cipher in the scene. Is that interesting? I don’t think so.

The other thing he said that I strongly disagreed with was, ‘The minute the audience doesn’t understand what’s going on, you lose ’em! And you gotta get ’em back!’ It’s insanity. That’s why you’ll find so much nauseating and unnecessary emotional exposition in American movies. ‘I think the problem was that I always let you take care of me when I needed to take care of myself and I finally found that out when I had to save my little boy from drowning. And I had no-one to rely on and I suddenly found that I could swim.’ It’s enough to make you wanna – I don’t know. Be an accountant.

Audience Member: “What was the best advice you ever got about screenwriting?”

I think you should write what you think would happen, not what ought to happen. People write bad dialogue because they’re trying to make it interesting – unless you have a particular skill for writing non-naturalistic dialogue I’d recommend you just write the way people talk. That’s the same advice you give actors – what would really happen if you were really in this situation?

If I get stuck I’ll do anything to get unstuck. Always, the answer is to talk myself through the story in the most prosaic possible terms – not, ‘She felt this way or that way’, but ‘This happened, this happened then this happened.’ If I’m telling the story verbally to someone and in a certain spot I start to stutter, that’s a clue – I don’t know what’s going on in that area, I’ve skipped something or I’ve missed something that would’ve happened.

Audience Member: “Lisa – the character played by Anna Paquin in Margaret – has a very particular way of speaking, it feels terribly teenage, it’s a very accurate capture – how did you come to that?”

When I was eleven I wrote a science fiction novel, which was mostly explosions and killing, and I showed it to my father and he said, ‘Your dialogue is very good.’ And so, I started thinking my dialogue was very good, and I don’t know that it was or not. Then he told me, some time later, that the great master of dialogue is James Joyce, the only writer whose characters really all sound different – the rhythm, syntax, vocabulary. So from that time on I tried really hard to make all the characters have an individual speaking voice. It’s more fun that way.

The way different people speak is exactly reflective of their personalities. I find all my friends, I can really describe their personalities by the way they speak. My natural speaking voice is a little too low and it’s mumbly, and it’s a bit private and there’s something cowardly about it, and also something a bit ‘I don’t care if you hear me.’

In New York, you tend to hear one full phrase of a conversation as somebody walks by. I heard a guy say, in a restaurant, ‘Tell him to be polite, tell him to answer all their questions and I’ll arrange his bail in the morning.’ So I put that in the film. I went around town and wrote down all these interesting things that made it into the movie. In the scene where the cousin arrives into the hotel, and I think we should have made it louder, in the background you hear a fellow saying ‘OK, so, Ground Zero, then we’ll meet you guys at the theater.’

I was walking down the street very late in Greenwich Village and I heard this guy talking on his cellphone in a very loud, clear voice and he was, like, ‘Look. You’re gonna die. She’s gonna die. I’m gonna die. We’re all gonna die, so you know what? Fuck it.’ That’s going in a movie when I can find a place for it.

Leaving the auditorium, we’ve run later than our time slot allows. There’s a cluster of faintly peevish elderly people sitting around on the bright red modernist furniture, most or all of them having been to Mass and gotten a smudge of ashes on their forehead for Ash Wednesday. It seems a very Kenneth Lonergan scene to go out on.

Paul Duane works for www.screenworks.ie, in Dublin, turning ideas into deferred income. He tweets as @punkyscudmonkey.

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3 thoughts on “There’s Always Two Lawyers: Kenneth Lonergan on screenwriting

  1. Thanks for the kind words. I took the most practical bits of business from two hours of chat, because I always find purely practical stuff most interesting when it comes to screenwriting “help” or “advice” or whatever. I’ve put my recording of the session, or most of it, on Soundcloud if anybody wants to hear it – email me for the link.

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