"You Can Count on Me" was the kind of Hollywood arrival that every aspiring filmmaker dreams about.
Kenneth Lonergan's 2000 directorial debut about two siblings' splintered relationship was a solid art-house hit, the film helped launch the career of costar Mark Ruffalo and was nominated for two Academy Awards -- lead actress for Laura Linney and original screenplay for Lonergan.
It was hardly surprising, then, that in early 2005 Fox Searchlight and financier Gary Gilbert ("Garden State") were eager to back Lonergan's second turn behind the camera, deciding to co-finance his complex account of a young girl's grappling with guilt and adolescence, "Margaret."
But although "You Can Count on Me" seemed blessed at almost every turn, "Margaret" has turned into a nightmarish production that has devolved into a bitter court fight. Despite "Margaret's" initial promise, it is now uncertain when Lonergan's movie, which was filmed more than three years ago, will ever make it to theaters.
Movie studio shelves are filled with troubled projects that have been put on hold for any number of reasons, but rarely do they involve someone of Lonergan's standing working with such quality actors ("Margaret's" cast includes Ruffalo, Matt Damon and Anna Paquin) and an all-star producing team of Oscar winners -- Scott Rudin ("No Country for Old Men") and the late Sydney Pollack ("Out of Africa").
More unusual still is why, according to one of the film's two lawsuits, "Margaret" hasn't come out: Lonergan can't finish the film.
Because of the litigation and a confidentiality agreement among the lawyers, all of the principals central to the film declined to be interviewed for this story. But conversations with a dozen people close to or familiar with the production, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, painted a picture of an endless post-production cycle that left Lonergan and Gilbert clashing and Fox Searchlight sitting on what might be an unreleasable movie.
A number of producers and editors -- including Rudin, Pollack and Martin Scorsese's legendary editor, Thelma Schoonmaker -- have tried but failed to help Lonergan complete his movie, court documents and interviews show. With his financing from Gilbert and Fox Searchlight cut off, Lonergan borrowed more than $1 million from actor and close friend Matthew Broderick (who has a small part in "Margaret") in an attempt to complete the editing of the movie, according to a person close to the production. (A Broderick spokesman said the loan was a private matter and disputed the dollar amount but did not provide another figure.)
The film's lengthy post-production sparked two lawsuits, which are scheduled to be tried in June and September. Last July, Fox Searchlight sued Gilbert and his production company, claiming he failed to pay the studio half of the film's production costs. Two months later, Gilbert's Camelot Pictures sued Fox Searchlight and Lonergan, alleging that the studio and Lonergan thwarted Gilbert's many attempts to finish the movie, forcing Camelot to pay for "a clearly inferior and unmarketable film" that Lonergan, several people say, will not support.
The quandary surrounding the $12.6-million "Margaret" comes at an awkward time for Fox Searchlight. The studio is riding high from the success of the global smash "Slumdog Millionaire," a best picture Oscar winner that the studio acquired as a largely completed film from the defunct Warner Independent Pictures. But Fox Searchlight, whose president, Peter Rice, just left to run Fox's television network, has a spottier record when it comes to movies it develops and finances, such as "Margaret."
Several people who have seen versions of "Margaret" say that, while the lengthy movie is not necessarily commercial, it does contain several great performances. Anne McCabe, who cut "You Can Count on Me" and was one of "Margaret's" editors, said Scorsese told her a 2006 version of the film was "brilliant, a masterpiece."
Fox Searchlight hopes the legal fighting can be resolved soon, so that it can submit the movie to film festivals. But one Fox executive says that, given all the problems with the film, the studio likes to pretend "Margaret" never happened.
By some comparisons, the making -- and unmaking -- of a creative endeavor like "Margaret" has been told before. Filmmaker Elaine May and a small squadron of editors spent a year cutting 1976's "Mikey and Nicky." May's Peter Falk-John Cassavetes film came out surrounded by lawsuits, more than a year late and more than double its budget.
"Mikey and Nicky" was eventually released. "Margaret," on the other hand, remains in legal limbo, and even if the lawsuits are settled or tried, Lonergan still hasn't finished the movie to his liking, according to several people close to the production. If more time passes, what was once a contemporary drama could soon become a period piece.
The script by Lonergan, a playwright who has screenwriting credits on "Analyze This" and Scorsese's Oscar-nominated "Gangs of New York," is dramatically ambitious and clearly would yield an R-rated movie. Running a sizable 168 pages, Lonergan's "Margaret" script reaches in many directions -- including the political and cultural mood of post- 9/11 New York.
The story revolves around 17-year-old Lisa (Paquin), who may have contributed to a bus accident in Manhattan's Upper West Side. Lisa's mother, Joan (played by Lonergan's wife, J. Smith-Cameron), is a single mom grappling with parenting and her acting career. A sexually active teen, Lisa inappropriately flirts with one of her teachers (Damon) while arguing with her classmates about the Middle East. Lisa ultimately becomes involved in a legal action against the bus operator(Ruffalo). The film's title comes from the Margaret in the poem "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" by 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, briefly alluded to in one of Lisa's classrooms.
Gilbert, who made his fortune in the mortgage business and is part-owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, had financed 2004's "Garden State," which Searchlight and Miramax Films acquired at the Sundance Film Festival and released to commercial and critical acclaim. Fox Searchlight and Camelot Pictures, Gilbert's production company, agreed to split "Margaret's" costs.
"Margaret" started filming in New York in September 2005 and wrapped photography about three months later, court documents show. It was in the editing room, interviews and court records show, that "Margaret" fell apart.
Even though he had made only one movie, Lonergan enjoyed "final cut" status as a director, a level of creative autonomy typically enjoyed by A-listers such as Steven Spielberg. That status meant that as long as certain conditions were met (including a running time not to exceed 150 minutes, court records show), Lonergan could personally dictate the film's final form -- neither the studio nor Gilbert could take it away from him.
Why Lonergan couldn't finish a version of the film he liked is central to the dispute. Even Lonergan's supporters say he is an exacting perfectionist who struggled to find the movie within the footage he had shot. Gilbert's advocates say (and his lawsuit alleges) that the producer gave Lonergan countless chances to finish the movie but that Lonergan failed to take anyone's counsel.
"Previews and screenings were scheduled throughout 2006, yet they had to be canceled time and again due to Lonergan's refusal or inability to produce a cut of the picture," Gilbert argued in his suit against Lonergan and Fox Searchlight.
Gilbert in his legal papers also says that Lonergan "failed to keep regular hours," that producer Pollack cut short an editing session "having become disgusted by, and frustrated with, Lonergan's unprofessional and irrational behavior" and that Lonergan "did not listen to, or implement" editor Schoonmaker's suggestions. Gilbert said that when Fox Searchlight refused to pay for additional post-production costs, he footed the bill. At some point around that time, Lonergan turned to Broderick for a loan, according to a person close to the film.
Film work has stopped
After a year and a half of editing, the situation imploded in the summer of 2007. Gilbert brought back the film's original editors, McCabe and Mike Fay, to recut the film while Lonergan was on vacation, but when Lonergan returned he "forbade" them to work on the film, Gilbert's lawsuit says.
Gilbert also hired editor Dylan Tichenor ("Brokeback Mountain") to recut the film, but Gilbert says that Fox Searchlight "refused even to screen it" in part because it didn't want to "damage . . . its reputation among the 'director community,' " his lawsuit says.
The financier argues his hands were tied: Lonergan wouldn't finish the movie to his or Gilbert's satisfaction, and no one -- including Fox Searchlight or producer Rudin (Pollack, who died in 2008, was in declining health) -- was willing to show a final-cut director the door.
Not long after, "Margaret's" completion bond company, International Film Guarantors, which insures that the film will be finished and delivered in a timely manner, stepped in. Lonergan gave IFG an earlier cut of the film (which Gilbert says was "randomly selected" and "incoherent"), which was then delivered to Fox Searchlight last June. With the film in hand, Fox Searchlight demanded that Gilbert and Camelot pay its contractually obligated share of the film's budget, $6.2 million, which they haven't paid.
Fox Searchlight said in its lawsuit that Gilbert and Camelot "invented a number of flimsy excuses." The studio believes Gilbert and Camelot's lawsuit against Lonergan and Fox Searchlight is essentially an attempt by Gilbert to delay payment and exercise creative rights he doesn't possess.
Gilbert's lawyer, Michael Plonsker, said that suggestion is "absurd. Without Camelot's financial support, Mr. Lonergan would not have been given the luxury to continue working on the film for over 2 1/2 years, which still was not enough time for him to complete his cut."
Lonergan's lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, said in a statement: "Mr. Lonergan has complied with and will continue to comply with his agreements."
Until the litigation is resolved, work on "Margaret" has stopped. Fox Searchlight probably won't have any problem putting the film behind it, but the same might not be true for Gilbert and Lonergan. For them, the film's dilemma mirrors a line from Hopkins' poem: "It is Margaret you mourn for."