Hearing What’s In Your Head: Kenneth Lonergan On His Process of Writing As a Director

Kenneth Lonergan is a playwright, screenwriter, and director best-known for his searing Oscar-winning original screenplay for Manchester by the Sea. He was also nominated for the Best Director Oscar for the film, and previously nominated for his screenplays for Gangs of New York and You Can Count on Me.

Last spring, his four-part adaptation of the period novel Howard’s End premiered on Starz and was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Mini-Series. His 2001 play Lobby Hero had a revival on Broadway in March, staring Chris Evans and Michael Cera, and earned three Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Play. His play The Waverly Gallery (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001) started its Broadway revival in September, co-staring the legendary comedian Elaine May (86), in her first Broadway appearance since 1960. In March, as the Hollywood Reporter noted, Lonergan signed an exclusive two-year writing and directing deal with Amazon Studios.

MovieMaker managed to speak with him at the Austin Film Festival Writer’s Conference, where he was honored as the Distinguished Screenwriter for 2017.


Lauri Donahue, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How is your work influenced by your being raised by a mother and stepfather who were psychiatrists?

Kenneth Lonergan (KL): My parents were very interested in people. There was a lot of talk around the dinner table. It was an environment of intellectual curiosity. I grew up in the 60s in New York City, so there was a lot of politics—a lot of liberal politics. 

MM: Did your father get you interested in movies?

KL: He used to take me and my brother to the movies every week. We grew up learning how to love old movies. I also grew up in a great period of the 70s when the movies were just spectacularly good. 

New York had a lot of revival houses in those days. In one day you could go see One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then your class would go see Modern Times on a big screen. My eighth grade class went to see Modern Times at the Trans-Lux East. But I’d already seen it three times with my father.

I wouldn’t watch an old movie on television for many years because I felt it was demeaning. It was diminishing to the experience. Today, of course, it’s the only way to see them.

MM: How did you get interested in theater?

KL: My love of theater came from school, as my high school had a great theater department. I got interested, not so much as a spectator, but because of a very talented theater teacher. I was in a lot of school plays, started writing novels in fifth grade and began to write plays in high school.

The first things I wrote were science fiction stories, because that was what I was most interested in. I wrote hundreds of pages of these science fiction novels and they were very hard to correct over time. If you start a novel at the beginning of seventh grade, and by the time you finish it you’re in eighth grade, your writing has improved so much that you have to rewrite the entire beginning half.

My grandmother first showed me an ad for a high school one-act play contest from the Thacher School in Ojai, California. My grandmother took a great interest in everybody and everything, and was just the kind of person who would show you that you could submit something to a one-act play festival. I wrote and submitted a one-act play to this festival and I won the third prize and $100 dollars when I was in ninth grade. I was really excited.

MM: Early in your career, you wrote industrial shows for clients like Fuji Film and Weight Watchers. How did you get those gigs?

KL: My second job out of college was writing speeches for the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in New York City, and I did that for two years. That was a nine to five job, which doesn’t give you much time to do anything else. A former teacher of mine from college worked in industrial writing for a company called Cortez/Seidner and introduced me to them as a potential writer of industrials. They paid a lot better than the government did. So I moved into industrials. I got to see what life inside a corporation was like. It was intimidating but interesting.

Writing speeches for the EPA, and the industrials, teaches you that no matter what you’re writing you have to give a shape to it of some kind. One of the EPA administrators was a very pedantic bureaucrat who didn’t want his speeches to be too colorful or interesting. These were not speeches about the need for environmental protection. They were just speeches addressing very particular issues like radon in New Jersey—which was a big issue at the time—or levels of toxicity in water. So to try to find any kind of narrative structure for the speeches was a bit of a challenge.

Going in the car with my boss to Fujifilm corporate headquarters in New Jersey was really scary. It seemed very grown-up. I was 24, which is not a baby. But New York City Manhattan Upper West Side kids are not exactly thrown into the sea of life at a young age. It’s a pretty coddled environment. There was just something about the corporate world that I found to be somewhat intimidating. Compared to that, going to script meetings wasn’t quite so scary—but that was scary, too, at first. Any new situation is scary for me.

Kenny Lonergan holds Academy Award for Manchester by the Sea. Image Courtesy of Frederic J. Brown.

MM: How did you get the job of writing Gangs of New York?

KL: I tried out for the job a year or two before I got it, but Steve Zaillian got it instead.

I had met Martin Scorsese through a circuitous route. He’d been involved in a film that I actually wrote a script for that never got produced. I met him marginally when the Rocky and Bullwinkle film I was assigned to write was waiting for money. I’d gotten to know him and he had been very kindly to me. We had a good time working on this script that never got done. When I heard he was doing a movie about the gangs of New York, I read through some of the books. I loved the period, so I asked if I could do it. And he said, “We just hired Steve Zaillian.” But he wasn’t sorry. I was. [Laughs.]

Then Steve had to move on to another job. Hossein Amini was brought in to rewrite Steve’s script, and they were having some problems because Hossein could only work on it for so long. He’s a wonderful writer but he couldn’t continue. I was on my honeymoon when they called and said, “They really need you to work on Gangs of New York—but you have to leave right away.” Marty always thought it was really imposing on me—which I let him think.  But my wife and I had been sitting around Long Island swimming for two or three weeks, so I was fine going to Rome to work on such a great project.

So within a couple of weeks my wife and I came over. She’d been working as an actress since she was 22, without ever getting a vacation, so she took two or three months off and became an expert on Roman churches and Renaissance painting. I went to Cinecittà every day and worked on this incredible movie and then came back and we had great dinners together. It was a wonderful time—one of my best memories. 

MM: What did you learn from working with Martin Scorsese that carried over into your own work as a director?

KL: So much. He’s just such a master, and I love him so much. He’s really inspiring. 

I learned to be that creative about everything all the time. His mind is always moving. He knows everything about every movie you’ve ever heard of. Listening to him talk about movies, or watching a film with him, is like being inside of an encyclopedia. He starts out by showing you a shot that he likes that he’s going to borrow or steal for this film he’s working on. Then he starts talking about the costume designer—and the actor who’s not good in this scene but who appeared in another film 10 years earlier where he was the lead. And then he talks about the lighting designer for that film.

It’s very inspiring listening to him, and he loves movies.  He’s in love with movies. I said to him once, “You’re like Françoise Truffaut. If it’s in a movie, you think it’s good.” And he laughed, and he basically said, “Yes.” He’s very good at seeing something you didn’t see in almost every movie. He doesn’t like every movie as a whole, but he might say, “That one has three of the greatest shots you’ve ever seen.” Or, “There’s one great scene.” Or, “There’s an incredible choice of sound design.” He really sees the whole thing. So that’s obviously inspiring in many ways.

MM: Is it helpful to you as a director?

KL: It shows you the riches that are available to you as a director. When you’re a director, you have the whole technology of film available. You have the whole mechanics of making a film under your purported control—at least at your disposal to some degree, depending on the budget. 

I was just watching Raging Bull the other day. The sound design is as brilliant as the rest of the movie. I’d never noticed sound design in film before. The music out the window of Jake LaMotta’s apartment house…. It’s all designed. To see someone who sees that much opportunity in every element of the film is extremely useful later. Instead of just saying, “Put some rustling in there” you think, “What does that ranch really sound like? What does that road really sound like? What does that boat really sound like? How does this sound help tell the story?”

And if you multiply that by every other element in the film, you’ve gotten a tremendous opportunity not just to build up the world of the film but to really have fun doing it. His use of music is unparalleled in my opinion. I just watched Casino the other night. And this soundtrack—the tapestry of songs in that film, like in so many of his films that don’t use scores—is just unbelievable.  I’m not even talking about the camera work and the acting and the stories. It’s not two or three things—it’s 100 things you can use. 

That’s very much an inspiration and a guide when you’re trying to make a movie.

MM: A while ago you were asked what lessons you’d learned from Margaret, and you said you hadn’t figured it out. Have you now? And what are those lessons? (Lonergan had a famously horrible experience with his 2011 film Margaret. As The Hollywood Reporter reported, a six-year legal battle over the final cut finally ended in 2014.)

KL: It was too attenuated an experience to have drawn only one lesson from.

It’s really important to hold your ground about what you want. But you have to learn to be diplomatic. I had already learned about how to be diplomatic, and I forgot it a little bit because I thought I’d had some success and I was puffed up.

I’m not difficult to work with, I don’t think. I’m not an unpleasant person, but people are very anxious when you’re making a movie. They want to be reassured that it’s going well. And sometimes you need to do that. I learned that telling people, “Leave me alone and everything’s going to be okay” doesn’t really do it. Unfortunately, most of the things I learned were procedural or political and not so much artistic. Artistically, I never felt the film had any troubles except for the normal challenges. 

It was a difficult and challenging movie to make because it was so large and because it had so many elements in it. But that was fun. I never had a creative problem with it from start to finish. It was very hard to get anyone to see what I was trying to do when we were editing. And I think my instinct—which was to shut people out—obviously just made them angry. I think you have to include people in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with your concentration. And that’s a really hard thing to learn. I’m sure I haven’t learned it completely yet. 

You have to shut out all the chaos without having people feel shut out. And that’s kind of tricky.

Matt Damon, Anna Paquin and Lonergan on the set of Margaret. Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

MM: When you’re writing a script, what’s your process? 

KL:  I’ve written outlines and I found them very useful, but I usually just have notes and not a formal outline. I often write an outline in the middle of the process because it helps me if I’m stuck to just say what happened and what might happen next. 

I do a lot of rewriting. I also try to not rewrite too much because there’s a tipping point where even though you can’t solve all the problems your capacity to improve the material starts to diminish and the rewrite becomes fussy.  You start moving things around that shouldn’t be moved around and it’s a way to lose touch with your instinct. And being in touch with your instinct is where all of whatever technique I have is oriented. 

My wife (J. Smith-Cameron) is usually my first reader. She’s an actress and she’s really smart and she’s also very supportive. She’s not terribly critical. My first reader used to be [playwright] Patricia Broderick, who was my friend Matthew’s mother. She was the person who helped me learn how to do anything as a creator from when I was in high school until she passed away in 2003. 

I used to show her everything I ever did. And she was really smart and not coddling at all, and not mean but just very utilitarian. I don’t usually show scripts around too much anymore. Manchester I showed to Casey [Affleck] who was very helpful with it. He had one comment about something I was concerned about. I was worried the script was too grim. And the draft I showed him was, in fact, too grim.  And he said, “Well, usually when I read something of yours it makes me cry. But this time I felt like you were sitting on my chest and you wouldn’t get off.” And I said that’s exactly how I felt about it. So it was great to have that confirmed. And I did feel it had a naturally suffocating feel to it. Having someone you trust to confirm that for you is enormously helpful.

MM: What wisdom do you have now as a filmmaker that you didn’t have when you were starting out?  What words of advice would you give to your younger self?

KL: Just going through the process three times, you know more each time. You think of the film more in terms of the film and less in terms of the script.

I don’t know if this is good or bad, but when you write scenes you’re not thinking about “how is this going to get done?” In a way, you can be thinking less freely [when you’re also directing] because you’re thinking, “My God — this will cost a fortune.” There’s a helicopter shot. Or, “They shouldn’t be in the car this long. It’s boring.” Those are really not things you should worry about when you’re writing the script.

I definitely think a lot more visually than I did the first time I wrote a script. The first script I wrote had a few shots in it.  Margaret had dozens and dozens and Manchester had probably even more. It’s like writing for actors. The first time a playwright hears a play read aloud, no matter how good the actors are it’s horrifying because it’s not what you’re hearing in your head. 

You get used to that really quickly and it stops being an upsetting thing at all. There’s a lot of variety in how a scene can go, and it stops being something upsetting and starts being a plus. So I hope that learning more about production and editing and cinematography and sound design becomes a plus in the screenwriting department.

MM: You’ve had four Oscar nominations and one win. Does winning change how people relate to you, and how?

KL: I don’t think it makes a difference in how people treat you, exactly. 

In the moment, it’s always nicer to win than to not win. Actually, I thought I was going to win for You Can Count on Me. Everyone told me so. So I was disappointed for about 12 hours. But I was very happy to have been there at all. It was very exciting. I sort of thought I might win for Manchester because I won a lot of other awards for the film — because the campaign was so well-financed and well-executed. I myself find zero correlation between the quality of a film and how many Oscars it wins.

There are many films overlooked that are just as good as the winners. There are many films that win awards that are not very good. There are many films that win awards that are wonderful. And there are many films that are overlooked that aren’t very good. 

So you have all four categories. To me, that means not much correlation. For the most part, the Oscars are a way to promote the movie. And it’s a nice pat on the back for the people who win. But it’s silly to be too pleased with yourself for this kind of thing and it’s silly to be too bummed-out if you don’t get this kind of recognition. MM

Lauri Donahue is an award-winning screenwriter and script consultant (lauridonahue.com). Featured Image Courtesy of Calire Folger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

[i]
[i]