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Building Stories: An Interview with Director, Screenwriter and Playwright Kenneth Lonergan

(Photo Credit: Claire Folger / Amazon Studios)

Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t have a daily routine for getting his writing done. At least, that’s what the American playwright, director and screenwriter told me during our conversation a couple of months ago at the Geneva International Film Festival (GIFF). 

I must confess that, usually, in the presence of an artist such as Lonergan, I try to ask questions that could help me understand how a mind like his relates with the art of storytelling. Even if that sometimes means asking simple questions that try to grasp a little bit of the magic behind the process, such as “What’s your favourite font for writing?” (In Lonergan’s case, Times New Roman works just fine).

Maybe that’s why I was surprised by his laid-back attitude while answering matters regarding creativity and inspiration. Not only does Lonergan talk in a relaxed manner about his craft, but also about the current moment of his professional career. The director is still riding the wave of his success with Manchester by the Sea, his last feature film starring Casey Affleck which gained him worldwide acclaim and also led to an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Lonergan attended GIFF, however, not to talk specifically about his work in film, but to present the pilot for one of his latest stories: the miniseries Howards End. The British-American co-production, of which aired on the BBC and Starz networks, is based on a book by the English novelist E.M. Forster. The historical drama, led by Hayley Atwell, shows the complex relationships between three distinctive families at the beginning of the 20th century and marks the first time Lonergan has adapted someone else’s work. 

The past year has also seen a resurgence of Lonergan’s theatre oeuvre. His play Lobby Hero, which first premiered Off-Broadway in 2001, returned last March with a revival at the Helen Hayes Theatre, and with a cast composed of Chris Evans, Michael Cera, Brian Tyree Henry and Bel Powley.

More recently, another of Lonergan’s plays made the leap from Off-Broadway to Broadway. The Waverly Gallery, a semi-biographical work from 1999 that deals with the history behind the author’s family as well as his grandmother dementia, opened at the John Golden Theatre on September and is still currently playing. The cast is led by Elaine May and also stars Joan Allen, Cera and Manchester by the Sea’s breakthrough star, Lucas Hedges. 

With the director and playwright going through one of the busiest times in his career, and also preparing his next works in both theatre and film (though he is still very secretive about it), Lonergan manages to look at ease with the pressure. Maybe that’s one of the simple keys behind his talent, of which has made him one of the most recognized laureates of his generation. 

(Photo Credit: Claire Folger / Amazon Studios)

How did 2018 treat you?

It treated me ok, I don’t know about the rest of the world. I have a play [The Waverly Gallery] on New York right now. It’s a revival. Things are fine, except for the political situation which is very troubling. 

You are here at the Geneva International Film Festival promoting your work as a writer for the miniseries Howards End. When did you work on the script? 

A while ago. It was written between 2015 and 2016. It was released in the U.K. last year and also in the U.S., so this is a bit late on the schedule, but I was available, so I thought I’d come over.

How did you get involved in the project?

They just asked me. I know the producer Colin Callender slightly, and he called me and asked me if I would be interested, so it was pretty easy. It’s a small community, so you kind of get to know everybody. If you don’t know them, you know someone who knows them.

What was it about the book by E.M. Forster that got your attention? Why did you decide to work on an adaptation instead of focusing on your original work?

Well, I’ve never adapted anything before. I tried to adapt a couple of things years ago, but it didn’t work out too well. I’ve never been asked to and never worked on a miniseries format before, always film or the theatre, and I was interested in seeing what that would be like. There’s also other books I’m interested in adapting, and I thought I would practice on this book, which is wonderful. It just seemed that it had everything that I like and seemed very relevant to what’s happening today. I’m very interested in history and in the Edwardian period which is very interesting. I’m a big fan of English novels, films, television and always have been, so — for me — it was a very natural thing to do. 

How would you describe the process of using another author’s voice while putting your own input into it?

I just use their voice. I have a lot of opinions about adaptations. I think most of them fail because they are trying to do something different with the material when it’s not necessary. They don’t trust the material. They have this really fine, deep, thoughtful material,, and the first thing they do is run away from it, or try to make it contemporary and think audiences won’t relate to it. You wouldn’t want to go to a foreign country if everyone walks and talks like everyone does at home. Nor do you want to go to a historical period and have everyone not combing their hair, sitting up straight. I was very interested to try to do something faithful to the novel, and E.M. Forster doesn’t need my help. He’s full of ideas, and there’s a couple of places where I wrote more than he’d written.  

Coming from such a big project as Manchester by the Sea, was it a relief for you to just work on the the first step of a project and see how it evolved after your job was done?

Yes, definitely. It’s a lot of work directing, and much less writing [laughs]. And I really like this director, Hettie MacDonald, and I trusted her. I wish I could’ve gotten to visit when they were shooting ’cause it would’ve been fun, but I wasn’t able to. So, I did like letting it go and letting them handle the production and development.

While working on a period piece, is it possible to view the past without losing all perspective in the present? 

No, it’s not possible. But it’s possible to take a more serious view on what things were like back then that are not the same because things were very different in every respect. I actually think you can’t help look at the past through the lens of the present, but if you have some awareness that that’s what you are doing, I think that’s at least helpful. The main thing about the past is that it was the present when it was happening, so it’s kind of good to approach it from that perspective.

Since we are talking about the past and you mentioned Broadway — where your play The Waverly Gallery is currently playing  — how do you approach memories and the use of them when you try to reconstruct a story but also create something new?

I approach it by trying to be as accurate as I can be. Things that I remember. The Waverly Gallery is a little different from other work I’ve done because it’s so much about my family, and it was written soon after all those events happened, so I remember them very vividly. I tried to remember and put it down as well as I could. You make a structure, but you make a little bit of a dramatic structure. The idea of that project was to be as accurate as possible because it’s about the decline, the dementia and the death of my grandmother. She had a very good life and a terrible death. Many people have that. I was very young, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I’m not religious, so it just seemed bad, and I didn’t know what to do with it, and I wrote the play partly to understand what happened and, at the end, I couldn’t do anything but remember it well. Everything I do, I try to do as much about real life as I can, which I find more interesting.

You’ve gone from theatre to film and now television. But, in comparison, plays do more often than not come back from new runs. So, I was wondering, how do you relate with your artistic work once you have moved on from it?

It has a life of its own. I still feel attached to it. I’m not the same person who wrote the material then, and I wouldn’t be able to write it now. If I did a good job, I still think it’s good after 20 years, and The Waverly Gallery seems to hold up very well. If something really bothers me or has bothered me the whole time, I — for example — can cut three or four lines that I always wondered about. If I thought it was finished then, I don’t want to mess with it now. You have to let go at some point. You have to, and you want to. You could keep working on something forever. It doesn’t necessarily get better, and after a while, you have to realize that you are going to make it worse, and it’s just time to let go because you can’t improve it anymore. Working on it doesn’t make it better after a certain point. 

Do you feel the same way about film?

In a film, it’s so expensive. Everyday, your work on it costs a lot of money. You cannot work on it forever, and even if it was free, you would have to stop at some point. With Manchester… if I could go back, there’s probably 10 minutes I would take out. But you try your best, and you get to a point where you can’t think of how else to improve it, and you have to leave it alone. 

With Manchester by the Sea being your most popular project to date, how do you feel about the movie today?

I like it. I was very happy with it, and I think it’s a good movie. I’m pleased and proud of the cast, and I think the performances are good. You know, it was popular because it was promoted properly. I’ve never had distribution like that before. You Can Count On Me, my first film, had very small distribution. The company only spent a small amount of money, they only wanted to make a certain amount of money and they didn’t wanna do a wide release. Then, Margaret had a terrible distribution because of all the fighting. They tried to kill it, so that was a disappointment. As it happened, Manchester had Amazon behind it, and they wanted to become a movie studio, so I was the beneficiary of that. I don’t think the movie is any better, it just happened that it was a nice confluence. I got very lucky that way, and it was nice for me and nice for the film because everyone got to see it.

At the beginning of the year, it was reported you signed a first-look deal with Amazon. What does it entail?

It means that everything I do, they have a first chance to look at it. If they don’t like it, then I can take it somewhere else. They are great, and they’ve been great to me, so I got nothing to complain about. They didn’t mess with the film [Manchester by the Sea], they promoted beautifully, and they are smart, professional and not full of shit. 

There’s this kind of predominant narrative in the U.S. media and social media that people are not feeling good with the current political landscape. Why do you think people, creators and audiences turn to fiction when their reality seems pretty fractured?

You have to ask yourself if you prefer the world without all this fiction. You do feel you can’t get your mind in your imaginary world because the real world is so intrusive, but you have to keep working. You can’t stop living because you don’t like the president because he’s destroying the country and possibly the world. I think it all kind of feeds into your imagination anyway, so you never know how it’s gonna affect what you are doing. Sometimes, it feels a bit selfish to be writing a movie or imaginary story when all this stuff is going on, but other people have to go on with their jobs. And some people, when they are tired of politics, maybe need to go to a movie. Anyway, I think there’s room for all kinds of movies and theatre. If you only have political theatre, you’ll get crazy or bored to death. If you only have light entertainment, the same thing. So, I think the variety is very important.

How different is the experience of having a play on Broadway and one Off-Broadway?

Three of my plays were Off-Broadway and have been revived recently on Broadway: This Is Our Youth, The Waverly Gallery and Lobby Hero. I would say, leaving aside my plays for a minute, that Broadway is like a big show, and often times the acting is over the top. Any of those big regular musicals, I don’t like them very much. They don’t have to be bad, but they are very bad, very broad. It’s all about spectacle and nothing else. Off-broadway, it’s not always good, but it doesn’t do that. In Off-Broadway, the audience and the theatre are smaller. It’s very expensive, which is a shame because it used to be much cheaper. But they can take more chances, and it’s a very nice community. Broadway is a big commercial business, and it’s very difficult to do anything that’s not stupid.

Do you feel comfortable with your work being in both worlds?

My stuff is kind of small, and it’s intimate, and I didn’t know if it would work on a big stage. But so far, I think it has. An audience can like Hello, Dolly! and my play, and that’s nice for me.

What are you working on right now?

I can never talk on what I’m working on until it’s done. I wanna write a play, a film and a TV show, but they are all in early stages, so I’m superstitious about that. It’s bad for me. I don’t like to talk about it until I’ve written it. I don’t even like to talk about it after I’ve written it.

Do you have any routine for your writing?

I don’t really have a routine. I never have. If I’m working on something, I just work on it every chance I get. I use to write at night, when I was younger, and now I have a family, so I try to write in the daytime. It depends. If it’s going well, or if there is a big deadline, then I write all the time. If it’s not going well, and there’s no deadline, then I read, watch TV, go for a walk and just do nothing [laughs].

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.

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