Kenneth Lonergan

By
Photography Richard Burbridge

Published October 31, 2016

Experiencing a film by Kenneth Lonergan is like nothing else; for one thing, because his films are an experience, rather than just pleasant diversions or even particularly moving stories. Of course, Lonergan’s films do have story (plenty, thank you) and they are often pleasant, and not without laughs (the guy was a writer on Analyze This [1999]), but their structure feels less like an Aristotelian narrative dome holding your gaze than a mess of fine-grade sand working its way into your skin. They groove into you in lasting, painful, and maybe even therapeutic ways. Film geeks of my generation probably all remember the revelation that was Lonergan’s directorial debut, 2000’s You Can Count on Me, can still feel the warming tenderness of the relationship between the film’s two siblings, played by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, can still marvel at Ruffalo’s wriggly, raw-nerve brilliance in playing one of Lonergan’s staple scraggly male fuck-ups, and certainly can still cringe and gawk and the uncanny realism of Lonergan’s language. I do, and still I can’t really explain the elasticity and depth of the moments Lonergan made feel both messy and precise, of the behavior he elicited in Linney’s and Ruffalo’s performances, or that thing, that intense recognition of reality so excruciating you cannot imagine sitting through it again, until you do, and then you cannot stop watching it (call it Cassavetesness?).

Sadly, a criminally small few outside of some diehard film fans and critics ever got to see or experience Lonergan’s follow-up, 2011’s Margaret, which, because of a series of lawsuits, was released only spottily in theaters (a DVD version with both the theatrical cut and an extended cut exists). Those who did see the film, about a teenage New Yorker (another staple of the native New York director’s work, in this case played by the god Anna Paquin) whose life unravels after an accidental death she witnesses and may be slightly accountable for, will tell you that it is a grand, shambolic masterpiece like nothing else. All true. Margaret has a structure like a pane of glass dropped from height, and two or three of the most devastating scenes in any film I can think of, despite, and definitely because of, their resounding Cassavetes-ish chime—that visceral harmony that tickles and tortures you because, though you’ve never seen anything like it before, it feels absolutely truthful. I’ve only seen Margaret once.

And I am yet to see Lonergan’s newest, Manchester by the Sea, which opens in (we hope, at least a few dozen) theaters this month. The film stars Casey Affleck as a janitor given custody of his teenage nephew after his brother’s death and looks to be as sensationally Lonerganian as his previous efforts. I both cannot wait and am terrified to get all emotionally exfoliated again—though I am ecstatic that the buzz around the film (not least because of a big deal with Amazon Studios at Sundance) makes it look like a very happy number of people will get to properly experience good old Lonerganness this year.

One who already has is Tavi Gevinson, the writer, actress, and founder of Rookie magazine, who starred in the 2014 Broadway revival of Lonergan’s great three-hander This Is Our Youth. After catching a screening of Manchester in September, Gevinson, who was then in previews for her latest Broadway turn, in The Cherry Orchard with Diane Lane, met with Lonergan downtown to talk about memory, shame, and the kids these days. —Chris Wallace

TAVI GEVINSON: Ugh! I’m not going to listen to you googling something.

KENNETH LONERGAN: I’m just checking one thing because of that vicious remark you made in the e-mail.

GEVINSON: [laughs] But isn’t it funny to imagine you heckling your own movie for being made?

LONERGAN: Yes. Okay, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was 1982. It’s so good. Look at the poster.

GEVINSON: I love the kids arguing about Star Trek in Manchester. My friend and I were texting about the movie, and she was like, “I like how much of it is about just how hard it is to get anything done, ever.”

LONERGAN: [laughs] That’s something I grapple with every day. I can’t get anything done.

GEVINSON: And there are so many scenes where people just, like, literally cannot hear each other, over the phone or in a big room.

LONERGAN: I know, but that happens all the time.

GEVINSON: There are so many of those little moments where my friend and I were just like, “How can you know that that’s going to work and be as impactful as it is?” Because there are things that feel so small but are such a big part of life.

LONERGAN: Well, do you remember the first time someone close to you died, and you went to the house, and you thought everyone would be sobbing? Half of the people are talking about other stuff and laughing. I thought [the post-funeral scene in Manchester by the Sea] was a bit like that. Because they’re teenagers and they don’t know what to do exactly. They get on kind of comfortable ground by talking about something else—because they’re really good friends, and they really like him.

GEVINSON: And then that other girl is like, “We shouldn’t talk about this.”

LONERGAN: She’s trying to make a big scene out of it. But his friends are like him, and knew his father. And she’s very self-conscious; she just puts her foot in it whenever she says anything.

GEVINSON: I was laughing so hard. Very Jessica [the character Gevinson played in This Is Our Youth].

LONERGAN: Jessica might say that, but Jessica is way more sensitive than that character, I think. My friend Claude, who Warren is based on—about half of Warren is based on him, not the whole thing, the other half is made up—he came to see the play in 1998. Afterward, we went out to eat with some other people we had gone to school with, and someone said, “Which one are you, Kenny?” And Claude was like, “I think you’re Jessica!” [laughs]

GEVINSON: Whoa.

LONERGAN: I was like, “What do you mean?” He was like, “Because she’s the one observing things and making comments and thinking about what’s going on, where they’re all going to be later.” I was like, “Oh, well, I never thought of that.” But she’s the only one that’s invented. Not totally. There are people I met in high school who she’s based on a little bit.

GEVINSON: Do you have any clue as to why you’re so good at writing young people?

LONERGAN: Well, no. But I remember that time in my life really clearly. And subsequent times in my life, I couldn’t quite tell you what was going on.

GEVINSON: Is that, like, a trick of memory?

LONERGAN: I think when you’re embarrassed four years straight, it really sticks with you. [both laugh]

GEVINSON: I’m always struck by how many moments there are [in your films and plays] of people being stupid or putting their foot in it or just not expressing themselves clearly.

LONERGAN: I know I write about that a lot, people misunderstanding each other, but I don’t do it on purpose. I don’t know what that is. But I do remember high school really vividly, and college, too, in some ways. After that, it all becomes a murky, semi-grown-up blur until this moment. Which will then be absorbed into the blur later. But I remember the grown-ups from then, too. I remember people’s parents. I remember watching other people’s parents and my parents trying to cope with us and feeling bad for them, while also going off privately and making fun of them in a snotty teenage way. It’s clearly a bad situation for everybody. [both laugh] I also remember being a little kid really vividly. But I couldn’t write scenes about that because I wouldn’t know how to write what a little kid says. But when you’re a teenager, you’re so self-conscious and so self-aware for some reason. And I remember what people talked like very well. And then you get older, and you see teenagers, you hear them in the streets, half showing off and half nervous. And you just watch them, their physicality, like, three boys in the street, and you can tell which one’s the leader, which one’s nervous, if they all are really comfortable with each other … Their body language is so clear. Or, if it’s girls, you’re like, “Okay, which one’s the cute one? Which one’s the popular one? Which one’s the kooky friend who’s hanging around?” [Gevinson laughs] And these hideous things they have to be. They seem very much like everybody else, but times ten.

GEVINSON: Yeah, like giant, shiny cartoon versions.

LONERGAN: I also think teenagers are often trying things on for size. Like, they’re not sure who they can get away with being or who they want to be. Or, if it’s not going well, they try being some other way completely. And grown-ups don’t do that. Like, grown-ups don’t decide to have purple hair because it’s not going well at work that week. [both laugh]

GEVINSON: No, grown-ups spend, like, four months contemplating buying a new shower curtain.

LONERGAN: That seems a little tame compared to the convolutions of being a teenager.

GEVINSON: Right. You’re like, “Ah, I hate it today at school so I’m giving myself a tattoo!” [laughs] I mean, I have friends with the stupidest stick and poke tattoos just for being—

LONERGAN: What’s a stick and poke?

GEVINSON: You do it to yourself.

LONERGAN: Oh. Does it work?

GEVINSON: I mean, they still have them.

LONERGAN: Is it different than just sticking pins in your body?

GEVINSON: Probably not, technically.

LONERGAN: “It’s art, Dad!” [laughs] Bless their hearts. I don’t mean to be condescending about it.

GEVINSON: Did you write down what people said when you were a teenager? Or you just remember?

LONERGAN: I remember very little, but what I do remember, I remember very well. Little pockets or phrases I heard or little scenes—things that people did or that I was a part of—that I remember extremely vividly and can write down verbatim. Like, I can remember when I was 24, and I broke up with my first serious girlfriend for the first time. She was a very nice person, but she had a little bit of a tendency toward melodrama … Her response was to take the key to my apartment off of her key chain and hand it back to me. [laughs] Which was terrible! It was so corny. I was just like, “Don’t do that! That’s too corny.”

GEVINSON: No!

LONERGAN: But I knew she was really upset. And I was really upset.

GEVINSON: I have a friend who is much older than me—and this was a long time ago, so it’s not like she texted a picture; she would have to take it with a camera and get it developed.

LONERGAN: Wow. Back in the 20th century! [laughs] I think Eisenhower was president and stuff.

GEVINSON: Yeah. But I only say that to explain that this guy broke up with her, and she sent him a picture—a developed film photo, in the mail—of herself crying! And on the back of it, she wrote, “It’s your fault.” [both laugh]

LONERGAN: That’s so great. I mean, it’s horrible …

GEVINSON: I certainly have that in me. Or, periodically, to feel extreme shame over melodrama that I’ve indulged.

LONERGAN: It’s amazing how it stays with you.

GEVINSON: The shame?

LONERGAN: The embarrassment, yeah.

GEVINSON: What are you really embarrassed by from when you were younger?

LONERGAN: When I was in eighth grade, we were all staying late after school for some reason. Maybe there was a play rehearsal going on. There was a huge, one-night melodrama involving a girl named Lily, who was in love with a boy named Bobby. And everybody was whipped up into a dramatic frenzy over this tragedy that she was in love with Bobby. I only remember a couple things from it, which was Lily saying, “I just want to tell him that I love him!” And then people getting on the phone and getting Bobby to come to school so Lily could talk to him. And then Bobby coming over. He was wearing a woolen hat, and he had a cigar stub. We were in eighth grade, and he was in seventh grade. He was chewing on a cigar stub in seventh grade. And I was like, “You asshole! This is really serious!” But I said it to myself. And I remember this girl Helena, after it was all over, or mostly all over, saying to me, “You were really good tonight, Kenny.” And me being like, “Thanks.” [Gevinson laughs] I’m so horribly embarrassed by this. I think about it all the time. Not all the time, but often. Like, why were there 20 people involved in this romantic problem? I think we were all just having fun and being dramatic. It was complete idiot nonsense from beginning to end.

GEVINSON: [laughs] But I also think that I feel intense shame over times that I said or did something that was received poorly. And I’m like, “Oh my God, that person has that memory of me.” But you were all in on it together.

LONERGAN: Oh, I have plenty of those, too, mostly just sexual failures. [laughs] Or romantic failures. Like, “Oh, God. Why did I do that?”

GEVINSON: Oh, yeah, that’s awful.

LONERGAN: But there are not that many things where I was embarrassed at the time, but, later, I was really embarrassed by having gone there. I remember yelling at my mother one time, horribly. I was in tenth grade or something like that, and I hadn’t done something, and she misunderstood because my stepfather told her something that was wrong that I hadn’t done. And she screamed at me, and I really had a great time: “I didn’t do that! You’re totally wrong! Something, something, something, so fuck you!” And then she burst into tears and ran into the kitchen and screamed at my stepfather for giving her misinformation. And even at the time, I was like, “I went too far. I was having too good of a time yelling at my mom.” And then he came in and said, “Listen, whatever you did or didn’t do, that’s not how you talk to your mother.” And I feel bad about that now. But that was different. That’s not embarrassment. I was just ashamed of myself.

GEVINSON: Well, I think that when you’re really good at talking, and you’re on a roll, you end up saying stuff. You’re like, “No, I don’t actually feel that way. It just sounded really good.”

LONERGAN: Yeah, that’s true.

GEVINSON: Like, over a year ago when you said to me—

LONERGAN: Oh, I was mean about your boyfriend. Sorry.

GEVINSON: But I remember just being, like, “You’re just so good with the words that it can become—”

LONERGAN: I don’t think that’s what was happening. I think I was being flip and know-it-all about something you were actually suffering over. I almost lost your friendship.

GEVINSON: Yes, I was very upset.

LONERGAN: I know. I’m sorry.

GEVINSON: But you regained it by making a fantastic film. [both laugh]

LONERGAN: Really? It’s been touch and go between then?

GEVINSON: [laughs] Yeah, I wasn’t sure for a while there.

LONERGAN: I tried so hard to get you back right away.

GEVINSON: Leaving the Park Avenue screening room this morning, I was like, “Now, he’s atoned.” [both laugh]

LONERGAN: Oh, well, gee. I didn’t know that. I was really sorry.

GEVINSON: I know you were.

LONERGAN: But I would never be reductive with you. I don’t know what I was doing …

GEVINSON: But I’ve said things like that. I mean, I don’t know if this is what happened with you, but I have found myself, like, “Yeah, life’s this way, and that person’s that way. And I’m putting it so concisely that I just must be right.”

LONERGAN: That’s very perceptive. But I actually was probably right. [Gevinson laughs] But one thing that does happen, often in a bad way, but occasionally in a good way—I did notice this when I was in my thirties—is that you could recognize situations by how familiar they were. For instance, if you have a friend who’s younger, and they say, “This guy’s behavior is so mysterious. We went out and had a great time. We spent the night together, and then he didn’t call me for three weeks. And then he called me on Saturday at, like, 11 o’clock at night and wanted to get together. And then we spent the night together, and it’s incredibly intense. And the sex was great. And we just had this amazing connection. And then he was just like, ‘I don’t know if we should do this anymore. I actually have a girlfriend in California.’ And I’m like, what’s up?” So, to me, it’s not a big mystery. I’m like, “He’s an asshole. He doesn’t care about you. He couldn’t get another date. And he might like you when he’s with you, but he doesn’t care. He’s not interested in the way you are.” That’s not a big puzzle to me. So you kind of skip a lot of the intermediate, a lot of the in-between stuff where you’re like, “How can we have this connection, and then she doesn’t call me?” Because she doesn’t give a fuck if you live or die is the answer. Here’s another one: “He said he’d call me tomorrow. And I hung around …” This is before texting when people had to wait by the phone.

GEVINSON: And they had to develop photos and mail them. [both laugh]

LONERGAN: Waiting by the phone, a traditional, masochistic, abused pattern of behavior for women and men. “So he says, ‘Maybe we’ll get together tomorrow. I’ll call you at five.’ And I didn’t go out because I was waiting for him to call. And he didn’t call. And then he called me on Sunday instead of Friday and said, ‘Oh yeah, sorry, I got caught up with some stuff. Let’s do something next week maybe.'” I say to the person who is telling me this story, “This person doesn’t give a shit if you live or die.” So I say this to people occasionally who are younger than I am because I can just skip to that because it doesn’t add up any other way. So whatever mean, vicious, insensitive, reductive thing I said to you was, hopefully, trying to be along those lines even if it was wrong. Sometimes you say something like that, and it turns out you were missing something. Then you’re just being a know-it-all.

GEVINSON: [laughs] It makes a lot of sense that you would be Jessica. But what you said only upset me because it was true. I mean, it was put in a flip way, but it was something that at the time I was already suspecting was true. And then when someone else is like, “Well, it’s because you’re this way.” You’re like, “Fuck!” [makes crying sounds]

LONERGAN: Well, Matthew’s mom [Broderick, Lonergan’s best friend with whom he went to school beginning in the 10th grade] once said to me … Because I was starting to go out with this girl. I had a date with her, and then I went over to Matthew’s mom’s house for dinner and she said, “How’s that girl?” And I was like, “Great. But she said that she wasn’t sure if we should move on or just be friends.” And she said, “That’s not great! That’s terrible.” I was like, “No, no. She’s really concerned about blah, blah, blah.” And she was like, “No, it’s not good. It’s terrible. And you’re upset.” And at first I was like, “No, I’m not!” But of course I was. And occasionally, it’s nice to have someone just—

GEVINSON: To call it?

LONERGAN: Yeah, to identify what is happening.

GEVINSON: Well, that’s why I’m going to therapy in about six hours. [laughs]

LONERGAN: Really? I’m going in, wait, eight hours.

GEVINSON: Mine’s at 10.

LONERGAN: Mine’s 11 to 12:30.

GEVINSON: It makes a lot of sense that you would be Jessica. [both laugh] I just get so uncomfortable talking about the specifics of someone’s work because I feel like they’re going to be, “That’s not what I was doing at all. Fuck you for misunderstanding.”

LONERGAN: No, you know I’m not like that.

GEVINSON: But there’s so much bar fighting.

LONERGAN: Two!

GEVINSON: I was moved even by the image of the teen boys in all of their hockey padding hugging each other. But I was like, “There are these certain very masculine archetypes in Kenny’s work, none of whom resemble him.” [both laugh] Dennis [in This Is Our Youth] or Terry [Ruffalo’s character in You Can Count on Me]. And I was like, “Huh, none of these.”

LONERGAN: None of these attractive men resemble Kenny in any way! [both laugh] I don’t know, maybe there’s a really powerful and attractive man buried somewhere deep inside me.

GEVINSON: No, here’s what it is. It’s not about masculinity per say, but being very verbal versus being like …

LONERGAN: Well, if you’re a New York City, Upper West Side, upper-middle-class, intellectually raised kid, you’re a little envious of people who aren’t afraid to get into fights. And you kind of wish you were more physically brave. You’re not encouraged to fight. You’re like, “That boy hit you? What’s the matter with him?” Instead of, “Now you go around the corner, you wait for him, and you come out swinging! And don’t go home until you’ve beaten him to a pulp.” [both laugh] You don’t have that kind of upbringing, so you feel a little bit like a pussy. Excuse the expression. But if you get as angry as easily as I do, you often … There’s something about this idea of somebody who’s just not scared, and who gets into fights. Even though usually if you see it really happen, it’s actually quite frightening and unpleasant. But I don’t think the character is laudable, this character especially, for picking fights in bars and punching people. But it’s a nice thing to not be afraid of. And when you’re a man, you’re often in situations where you have to decide how far you’re going to go in an argument. How big is the other guy? All this stuff that girls don’t have to worry about as much, because that’s not part of the equation. But you have to negotiate aggressiveness in a totally different way. I’m very brave with someone else. Like, when I’m with my daughter, I’ll do anything. Not that it’s come up very often, but I find I’m much braver when someone’s watching me. When I’m by myself, I’ll back down and take any indignity rather than get into danger. My personal pride is not strong enough to make me brave. But I don’t know why I equate being brave with fighting. I guess it’s just, there’s a whole other way of living and being that I’m very interested in that I’m not a part of.

GEVINSON: You have that cameo in Manchester, based on real life.

LONERGAN: That’s true. Should I tell this story?

GEVINSON: If you want.

LONERGAN: Okay, well, I was walking my daughter to school. She was not 16; she was 8. And she can be really difficult occasionally. [laughs] And I used to have a much worse temper than I have now, I hope. I did something that made her mad, and she was torturing me the whole walk. So we got two-thirds of the way there, and I was desperate for her to forgive me for whatever it was that I’d done and for us to be friends again, and she absolutely refused. I was trying to make up with her, and she said something snotty to me. She’s 8, and I’m whatever, 48. [laughs] We get to Christopher Street, west of Seventh Avenue, and she says something snotty to me again. And I knew that when she got to school, she’d go into the building with us still fighting. And then I’d be stewing all day until 3 o’clock, and then I’d be like, “I’m sorry!” And she’d be like, “Oh, I forgot we even had a fight.” So I was desperate to make up with her before we got to school. And then she said something mean to me. And I said, “Nellie, cut it out or I’m going to knock your fucking block off.” [Gevinson laughs] Which is not how you talk to an 8-year-old. And this guy across the street said to me, “Great parenting!” And I went completely insane. So I was Casey. I said, “Mind your fucking business! Fuck you!” It was one of those stupid fights across the street. And then when he walked on, and Nellie said, “You shouldn’t have cursed at him. He was wrong, but you shouldn’t have cursed at him.” And I said, “Well, actually, Nellie, he was right because he doesn’t know that I would never knock your block off, and even so, I shouldn’t talk that way to you. He was just trying to defend you, which I think was brave of him and good. So I was wrong and he was right.”

GEVINSON: I wonder where he is today.

LONERGAN: I don’t know. Is he at the Sundance Film Festival? I don’t think so. [both laugh]

GEVINSON: It’d be great, though, if he saw that.

LONERGAN: Maybe he did. Maybe he runs the festival.

GEVINSON: I wanted to ask you about loss and grief and the frequency of parents dying in your work.

LONERGAN: Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about. Well, parents don’t always die, do they? About half of the time. There’s frequently loss and grief, or somebody who died offstage or off-camera. I don’t know what that’s about, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I sometimes think that’s just an entry point for me to what I’m interested in because I think the stories are similar in a lot of ways. But I don’t think Margaret and Manchester are very related, for instance. I think Manchester is really about grieving and trying to get on after something terrible has happened to an adult, and a whole life being destroyed, and then, what are the forces that keep him involved with the people he loves? They love him, and they won’t let him go. And then he feels obliged. He starts out feeling an obligation to his nephew, and then ends up feeling a real loving connection to him even though he can’t do what his nephew wants. I think that’s completely different than what happens in Margaret, even though the inciting incident is a catastrophe, the accident in Margaret. There’s a certain amount of survivor guilt in every single thing I’ve ever written. I don’t know what it’s about. It’s more of a psychological question. But you hope your own psychology will lead you to things that are of general interest. Because nobody’s interested in my psychology much except for me. I imagine. [laughs

TAVI GEVINSON IS A NEW YORK-BASED ACTRESS AND THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF AND FOUNDER OF ROOKIE. SHE PLAYS ANYA IN STEPHEN KARAM’S ADAPTATION OF THE CHERRY ORCHARD ON BROADWAY.