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Kenneth Lonergan's critically acclaimed film Margaret was completed in 2006, but because of several lawsuits, it wasn't released until last year.
Called "nothing short of a masterwork" by The New Yorker, the film stars Anna Paquin as Lisa, a Manhattan teenager who tries to make sense of a bus accident she may have caused — one that resulted in a woman's death. Lonergan tells Terry Gross that he wrote the film because he was interested in how teenagers transition into an adult world.
"I've wanted to do a story about someone whose door opens to a much larger, more frightening, more difficult world — and how she deals with it, especially someone with a great lack of experience in worldly things," he says. "It's basically someone who's well trained in high school, dealing with something and a whole slew of consequences of things that happen in the adult world."
Margaret is Lonergan's second film after You Can Count On Me, which starred Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo and was nominated for two Academy Awards. Ruffalo also appears in Margaret, along with Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Rosemarie DeWitt and Lonergan himself, playing Lisa's father.
The title of the film comes from a poem, "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," which Lonergan's mentor Patricia Broderick gave him a long time ago. (She happens to be the mother of Matthew Broderick, who plays Lisa's teacher in the film, and reads the poem aloud to Lisa's class; Margaret is referred to within the poem.)
"It's one of the poems I know by heart," says Lonergan. "And the idea of putting the poem in struck me as right. And as soon as I did that, I knew it should be called Margaret, because the poem is so appropriate to the situation that the girl finds herself in, and that we all find ourselves in — which is this shocking realization and sensitivity to death and things changing, and then, as the poem says, 'As the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder by and by.' And it seemed so [right] for what was going on with Anna Paquin's character internally."
Lonergan's other writing credits include Analyze This, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Gangs of New York and The Starry Messenger.
On the car accident in the film
"It's so ugly. That single incident drives the entire film and drives the entire journey of Anna Paquin's character, and it's a long film. And I knew that if that accident wasn't extremely awful — as awful as humanly possible — then there'd be no movie. You don't see any flashbacks of it. It's got to stay in your mind the way it stays in the character's mind."
On his own experiences in high school
"I was very frustrated. I was very shy. I didn't have a girlfriend in high school. I actually felt envious of [popular teenage girls] in a way, because people were very attracted to them, and they did have this power in that arena. I went to a school exactly like the school in the film, which was an upper-middle-class school, not a superwealthy school. But there was one kid who was extremely wealthy, whose father had bought him a Porsche at 17. And I remember driving around with him, and we would all pack into his Porsche. And when the car would go by, everyone would turn to look at the car, and I thought, 'Oh gee, this is what it must feel like to be a pretty girl.' "
"You discover two things when you're a teenager. One, that your parents are not the idols that you thought they were when you were growing up, if you had nice parents. And two, that you have power over them, and you can upset them and confront them and attack them. And there's this combination of judgment and disappointment which teenagers generally have, which can be extremely savage to the parent."
"I live off of this wasteful system, but I don't believe in it or agree with it. It gives me a living, and that's good, but I think hundreds of thousands of pages of writing is thrown in a trash can for no good reason. ... I think it's a terribly wasteful system, and some part of me just doesn't want to claim authorship for something that's been rewritten by 12 people. I did write [Analyze This] to sell it, so I was aware of what might happen to it."