Kenneth Lonergan’s new drama Margaret finally gets a showing this year after being one of the most delayed (and so anticipated) films of recent times. A complex, thought provoking drama which examines the nature of responsibility, guilt and consequences when a young woman (Anna Pacquin) witnessing a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) crashing. Her version of events afterwards will change the lives of all involved forever. The film attracted a high profile cast including Matt Damon, Kieran Culkin and Jean Reno so a great mystery remains. Why has it taken so long to release and why is it opening on one screen?
This is Lonergan’s second film after he directed the indie drama You Can Count On Me, which starred Laura Linney and was nominated for two Academy Awards in 200o. A big art house hit, by 2005 he had gained backing from Fox Searchlight (financier of indie gems such as Juno) to make Margaret. This promising beginning would swiftly turn bad, degenerating into a nightmarish standoff between Lonergan and the studios, which reached it’s low point in an acrimonious lawsuit between them.
How did a film produced by Oscar winners Scott Rudin (No Country For Old Men) and the late, great Sydney Pollack fall so low? The answer is as simple as it is surprising. Lonergan has been unable to finish the film. From what industry insiders say he has a three and a half hour cut of the movie with some fantastic performances (called a “masterpiece” by Martin Scorsese, who’d previously hired Lonergan as a co-writer on Gangs Of New York) finished, but is unwilling or unable to come up with a shorter cut that was more commercial. Fox Searchlight were then in a bind as contractually Lonergan had final cut and to fire him and release the film would greatly damage their standing with other up and coming director’s attracted by the possibility of limited studio interference. They then refused to give him any more access to funding in order to continue post production on the film. Undettered, he approached his long time friend Matthew Broderick (who had a small part in the film) to help fund him so he could continue editing the film. Searchlight then sued the financier Gary Gilbert for his non payment of the post production costs. Gilbert responded by counter suing Searchlight and Lonergan, saying they refused his help to try and finish the film earlier in the editing process, leaving him with an “inferior and unmarketable” film.
By 2009 the film remained on the shelf and was branded all but unreleasable due to it’s lawsuits and difficult history. This timely and contemporary drama sadly seemed destined to become anachronistic and just yet another movie final cut urban legend (as was the “Donner” cut of Superman II for decades) Thankfully the whole sorry saga would be brought to an end when Lonergan approved Martin Scorsese and his venerated editor, Thelma Schoonmaker’s 2 and a half hour cut of the film, which is now on a limited cinema release. Thankfully this release pattern appears to be geared towards trying to rustle up Oscar buzz for the film, which has Lonergan’s previous form behind it to help. But no matter how successful the film finds itself critically the whole enterprise is sourly tainted by the fact that this cut is still not it’s director’s preferred cut of the film. Hopefully one day the three hour cut will be released and then we can finally see, once and for all, exactly who Margaret is.