Margaret is one of the greatest films of the last decade that no one has heard of, and not because it was produced in some far-flung corner of the world with a cast of unknowns about a subject that is hard to grasp. The film was made by a major Hollywood studio featuring a stellar cast of A-list bankable talent. So what went wrong? The story of the film has become a movie industry legend of our time and says as much about the country that produced it as the powerful and gripping narrative. The central character is an American teenager who causes and witnesses a horrific accident in New York. Soon, her youthful ideals are set to be challenged by all around her. Her immature ill-considered, and knee jerk response is revealed to be solipsistic and narcissistic in equal measures by masterful film maker, Kenneth Lonergan, whose original screenplay and directorial debut You Can Count On Me received two Academy nominations in 2000.
Margaret can be taken as a metaphor for America's response to the 9/11 atrocity. It isn't the first time America has been portrayed as a "grumpy shouty, act before she thinks" teenager but it is certainly the most pertinent. And for several reasons, the studio has tried to bury it. Yet thanks to the internet, it is quickly becoming touted as a must-see, and potentially, the film of the decade. The production team include Hollywood legend Sydney Pollack, No Country For Old Men producer Scott Rudkin and the masterful Martin Scorsese has edited one of three existing versions. Yet the film has received no post-production support from the studio and was released to just one screen in the UK.
Two years in the making and with a 300-page script, filming in New York began in autumn 2005 and wrapped within three months. Studio Fox Searchlight and financier to Garden State, Gary Gilbert believed nothing could go wrong, particularly after the success of Lonergan's 2002 screenplays for Analyse This and the Academy award nominated Gangs Of New York.
Problems started post-production when Fox Searchlight demanded a running time not exceeding two hours. Lonergan clawed back with a request of three and a compromise was met at 150 minutes but with the studio allowing Lonergan complete creative control - something usually reserved for only the top Hollywood directors. Legal battles then began, with the studio suing the financier for lack of payment for edit time, and counter-sues commenced against the director for not meeting deadlines in the cutting process. Unsurprisingly, everyone remained tight-lipped about the affair until several out of court settlements were reached.
Legal documents show that Gilbert accused Lonergan of not being able to finish the film despite several reschedules in order to meet test screenings, and that his work was "erratic and unprofessional". When Fox Searchlight refused to continue paying Lonergan, Gilbert claims he stepped in and footed the bill to keep the edit suite open. Lonergan supposedly even had to borrow a further million dollars from school friend and colleague Matthew Broderick, just to keep the project afloat.
After months of deteriorating health, Pollack died in June 2009, causing yet another post-production setback. In the same month, the completion bond company, International Film Guarantors, demanded a finished product. Lonergan made a final edit, which Gilbert claimed was purposefully "incoherent and randomly selected". Lonergran's lawyer denied these accusations, stating he has complied with all agreements throughout the process.
A series of new editors were drafted in to try and help after Rudkin and Scorsese couldn't get through to Lonergan. Scorsese's legendary colleague, Thelma Schoonmaker was hired, but left quickly due to creative differences. Next was Dylan Tichenor (Brokeback Mountain), yet still a final cut could not be agreed upon and he too, quickly exited from the project. After six years and numerous finished products, Fox Searchlight eventually agreed to accept a theatrical cut by Lonergan, with it coming in just under the 150-minute mark. An extended three-hour directors cut will also be released in late 2012.
In September 2011, Margaret opened at just two cinemas - in New York and LA - with no marketing, resulting in sparse public attention. Despite its $14 million budget and premium cast including Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Broderick, the worldwide box office gross was just $46,000. Within one weekend, eight years of Lonergan's work seemed to have evaporated. That would have been the end of the story but for Twitter. Enter #teammargaret.
Slant magazine's film critic, Jamie Christley spearheaded a grassroots twitter campaign for wider release. This developed into an online petition, which came to be fronted by a lead cast member, Mark Ruffalo. Fox Searchlight agreed and several months after it was re-released to a dozen American theatres. The combination of the film's troubled history and the studio's attempts at silencing the project only caused the cyber-whispers to gain momentum. This profound commentary on the status quo of post-9/11 America is finally gaining the recognition it deserves. §
UK distribution through Twentieth Century Fox.
Kenneth Lonergan is represented by Creative Artists Agency, LA