Anna Paquin on the unlikely resurrection of ‘Margaret’
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When Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’ was quietly released last September, it seemed the end of a very, very long journey for a film caught up for years in post-production problems and various legal disputes. Although very few people saw the movie during its brief theatrical run, a vocal group of critics began to lobby on its behalf -- the unusual groundswell of support prompted in part by the year-end awards season crush and in part by a desire to simply be able to see a movie that had not played in their towns.
‘Margaret’ has since been inching its way toward reassessment and in some sense resurrection, to the point where there is now an undercurrent of backlash from those who feel its movie-you-can’t-see mystique is too much a part of its appeal.
In the film, Anna Paquin plays an Upper East Side teenager named Lisa Cohen -- in one of the movie’s signature quirks, ‘Margaret’ has no character named Margaret -- who feels in part responsible for a bus accident that claimed a woman’s life. This leads to a portrait, at once nuanced and raw, of dealing with grief and moving forward with life. The film features a deep bench of supporting performances from Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, J. Smith-Cameron, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin and Jeannie Berlin.
‘Margaret’ is going to be playing for one week at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles starting Jan. 27, giving local audience another chance to see for themselves whether this most singular film lives up to its legend. Paquin, an Oscar winner and now the star of HBO’s ‘True Blood,’ rather suddenly made herself available to a few press outlets just this week to talk about the film.
How weird is it to be talking about a film you shot in 2005?
I could not possibly have loved that script or loved doing that movie any more. It was one of the most incredible professional experiences I’ve ever had, and, you know, movies all have their own path to being seen by people and some of them are long journeys and some are really quick. And this one’s just been a bit longer. I’m just pleased that people are watching it now.
When you were shooting the film did you have any idea it would become the problem child it turned into?
No, actually. The shoot was extraordinarily smooth. Everything kind of ran perfectly. It was a sort of long script, so obviously if you shoot all of a very long script there’s just going to be a lot more material to play around with when you’re trying to put the movie together. Which ultimately, as an actor, is not something that I really worry myself about. That’s kind of, thankfully, somebody else’s department. I’m just like sweet, I will shoot all one-hundred and sixty, seventy, whatever-it-was pages of incredibly well-written, beautiful scenes with incredible character work.
Did you ever reach a point where you thought the movie would just never come out?
Honestly, my life moved on. I’m doing other things in my career, I’m doing other things in my personal life, a lot’s happened in the last six years in my life. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, to be honest. It moved from, I think about this every month, to I think about this occasionally. How many different versions of the film have you seen? How many times do you think you’ve seen it?
In its entirety? Well, I saw bits and pieces sort of way back when, when post-production first started. I’d come into the edit suite and watch cut scenes and stuff. I’ve seen various versions at various points. I’m not great about watching myself, so really the only time I really sat down and actually watch-watched was right before the film was going to be releasing over the summer. I hadn’t seen the entire thing put together before that.
Look, sometimes the work that’s the most gratifying to do as an actor is stuff that’s kind of uncomfortable to watch because it’s very personal and it’s very raw and it’s very unselfconscious. And we really kind of went for it. I only end up watching stuff when it’s about to open or air or whatever because ultimately I want to know what other people are going to be seeing.
There’s a moment early in the film where you switch the word you’re saying partway through. It’s a real trigger that this movie is going to be different, in that either that’s a flub that was left in or the texture of the dialogue is going to be really specific.
Let’s put it this way, there is no dialogue in the film that wasn’t written the way it is. If there’s stuff that sounds like stutters and half-thoughts, that’s the way Kenny writes. And he does that in a way that’s pretty damn genius, if you ask me. It’s the way people speak. You get in the middle of something and your brain sort of switches paths. And if you read his plays it’s all that way as well. Every single piece of dialogue corresponds to what the other person is saying, even if it’s going too fast to really hear what everyone is saying. He writes like a playwright, the words and punctuation, every comma, is specific.
There are scenes in the film, the classroom discussions about literature or politics or the scenes with Jean Reno as a man Lisa’s mother is dating, that to some people feel like unnecessary digressions. For you, what’s the purpose of those scenes?
I feel like it’s real. I feel like it’s a real portrait of a 17-year-old. And you know what’s important to 17-year-olds? Their friends and school and the ideas that are just sort of occurring to them for the first time and these incredibly fully held, brand new beliefs that teenagers have about stuff. I think everyone has gone through that. It felt real to me. I think that what is interesting and what I love about that character is she’s not really likable all the time. She’s going through such trauma and she is kind of buried under this whole pile of guilt and confusion as to why when she tried to make it right there is all this resistance. She’s sort of kicking her way to the surface and taking on everyone who stands in her way. She’s hitting the self-destruct button but doing it in a really outwardly aggressive way.
I really like how her biggest emotional breakthrough happens in the film while she’s screaming at a speakerphone in a lawyer’s office. It’s a little ridiculous.
Kenny and I have this sort of ongoing joke talking about the bone-crushing reality of our film. But it’s not a joke. That is kind of what we were going for -- these moments that to be cinematic are routinely staged differently or choreographed differently, but in real life sometimes you have the most massively emotional, traumatizing, poignant moment screaming into your cell phone at the shopping mall or somewhere inappropriate. Life is not staged for the camera, and that’s what he’s trying to do with this film.
(People who have not yet seen the film might want to stop reading here. The following question reveals something specific that happens near the conclusion of the movie.)
One scene most anyone who sees the film ends up talking about is when she tells another character late in the film that she had an abortion. Viewers don’t know if it’s true or not. In your mind, do you think she did?
Yes, she did. We shot the scene. That was in the script. But look, either way, either she’s gotten herself into a situation she doesn’t see a way out of and she feels the need to get an abortion, in which case that’s kind of a pretty big deal, or she’s so messed up she’s making stuff up and lying to people. And truthfully, either way it doesn’t really matter. I think the point is she is just in such a desperate place that she’s just kicking as hard as she can to get somebody to pay attention in the way that she wants. Except she’s behaving in a way that is not getting the reception she wants. So ultimately I don’t think it really matters as far as the final cut of the film whether or not people know for sure whether she’s just being confrontational or she actually did. But in reality we shot the scene in a doctor’s office. So I know that she did.
When you watched the film was there anything you really felt was missing or truncated in the release version? Since you were there, you know as well as anyone how the film could be different.
I think it’s ultimately still, it’s our movie. In any movie things get cut, things get shifted around once any director gets in the editing room. That’s just how it works. There’s always going to be moments where you’re like ‘I wish that was there.’ But that’s any film. I also read the like four-hundred-and-eighty-page version of the original screenplay, so if you really want to talk about stuff that’s missing, there’s a good 300 extra pages it could have used. But that was more like the HBO miniseries version of ‘Margaret.’ But I will always be incredibly proud of this movie, and I’m just glad it’s coming out in whatever version or length because it was something that everyone who worked on it was incredibly passionate about.
-- Mark Olsen
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