Premise: A 17 year old New York girl witnesses a bus crash that kills a woman and battles with the secret that she may have been indirectly responsible.
About: This has got to be one of the craziest stories to ever come out of Hollywood. “Margaret” had a great cast: Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, and Olivia Thirlby. They shot and finished the movie all the way back in 2005. But guess what? It’s never been released! Why? Well, it appears that Lonergan (who wrote and directed the film) can’t finish the edit! Apparently, he and the producer can’t agree on a cut of the movie. Numerous other producers have tried to come in and help, but no matter what anybody does, a consensual cut of the film has not emerged. This has, of course, resulted in tons of lawsuits. Making this even more mind-boggling is that Martin Scorsese watched a 2006 cut of the film and dubbed it a masterpiece (it should be noted that Scorsese directed Lonergan’s “Gangs of New York.”) – The Los Angeles Times did a nice lengthy article on the troubled film here. Fascinating stuff.
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Details: 185 pages – July 15, 2003 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
I have never read a script like this one in my life. To give you an idea of what you’re in for, the script is titled “Margaret,” yet there’s nobody named Margaret in the script. It’s also 185 pages long. Back up, read that again. It’s not a misprint. The script is 185 pages long. Here’s the thing though. Numerous people have told me the script is awesome. Someone even went so far as to call it “brilliant.” All of this just adds to the mystique of the project. And Lonergan, for those who don’t know, wrote and directed the great “You Can Count On Me,” one of my favorite indie films of all time. He also wrote the respectable “Analyze This” and “Gangs Of New York.” But this script is in an entirely separate class. It’s an epic tale about…a girl who witnesses a bus crash?? What the hell is going on?
Lisa Cohen is a 17 year old New York girl butting heads with her emerging adolescence. Emotions converge with confusion and create this dark uncertain path which Lisa’s been walking down, blind as a bat. She lives in New York, goes to a private school on scholarship, has a commercial director father who lives in L.A. and a struggling theatre actress mother who lives with her and her brother in their small New York apartment.
In anticipation of a horse-riding vacation she's been planning with her dad, Lisa goes out to find a cowboy hat. The search yields a big fat donut hole but just as she’s on the verge of giving up, she spots a bus driver wearing a cowboy hat worthy of a John Wayne film. She tries to flag him down but he’s already on the move. Eventually he spots her and engages in flirty back and forth wave. As a result, he misses the red light, and plows into a woman crossing the street, who dies soonafter.
Feeling partly responsible for the accident, Lisa doesn’t reveal the blown red light to the police, which gets the bus driver off the hook. But as time goes by, Lisa begins to feel more and more uncomfortable about what she’s done, and decides to change her statement. She gets in touch with the woman’s best friend, the bus driver himself, and a team of lawyers, and brings a lawsuit against the MTA to try and get the bus driver fired.
But this is not all Margaret is about. Oh no no no. There are tons of secondary storylines going on here. These include her mom dating a semi-creepy foreign guy , Lisa’s crush on her teacher, Lisa’s friend’s crush on her, Lisa losing her virginity (to yet a third character), Lisa’s phone relationship with her father, countless private school classroom debates about racism and terrorism (keep in mind – this was written 2 years after 9/11), Lisa’s friendship with the bus victim’s best friend, a school play, and probably a few others I’m forgetting. In other words, there’s a lot going on in Margaret.
If I’m being honest, I don’t know how you *couldn’t* have problems in the editing room with this script. Let’s call a spade a spade. A story about a girl who witnesses a bus crash and tries to get the driver fired is not worthy of 180 pages of script. It just isn’t.
I mean yeah, all these additional story threads tell us more about Lisa, but there’s so many sides to her, and these sides are so disconnected and random that it’s nearly impossible to grasp what she or the movie is about. For example, we have these long drawn out debates in the classroom about Israel and Palestine, or terrorism and the middle east. Yet what does any of that have to do with a girl who wants the truth to be known about a bus accident? If there was some connection – any connection – between the two worlds, then I could buy it, but there isn’t. For example, if the bus driver were Middle Eastern, there’d be a physical link between the 30 minutes of terrorism debates they have at school and the personal problems she's having outside of school. But each storyline is so compartmentalized, it feels like it could be its own movie.
Her mom’s relationship with the strange admirer is another example. I couldn’t find any connection between that relationship and Lisa’s situation. The long calls with her father and this phantom horse-riding trip also perplexed me. I honestly believe that had you taken these storylines out of the script, absolutely nothing would be lost. The core of the story here is Lisa’s desire to release the truth. Anything that doesn’t have to do with that isn’t necessary.
There are other things that bothered me too. Lisa acts completely retarded at times. She keeps saying she doesn’t want to get anybody in trouble, yet she’s filling out police reports accusing a man of killing someone. In what dimension does she think nobody gets hurt here? Also, her motivation is constantly changing. One moment, all she cares about is taking down the bus driver, and the next she’s hellbent on losing her virginity. These segues are so jagged I felt like we were cutting between different dimensions.
Strangely, despite all this, I found myself compelled to keep reading. I wanted to find out what happened. I wanted to see the bus driver fall. I wanted to know how all these threads were going to come together. The fact that they didn’t was upsetting, but you can’t discount the fact that you just read a 185 page script in one sitting. From a pure writing standpoint, that's really hard to do. So I give Lonergan some dap for that.
It’s just…I guess I’m shocked that this script was even made in the first place. These problems they’re rumored to be having in the editing room – well of course they’re having problems. How do you edit a movie where you can make the argument that 9 of the 12 subplots aren’t necessary to making the story work?? Editing a film is about serving the story. You're supposed to get rid of anything that doesn’t push the story forward. The issue here is that Lonergan had no intention of making the kind of movie that lived by those rules. This is one of those “trust me, I know what I’m doing” deals and it looks like they didn’t trust him.
If this were my story, I’d chop it down to a reasonable 2-3 subplots and allow the bus crash plot to drive the film. Cause do we really need to spend 25 minutes watching a man court Lisa’s mom? Does that add enough to the story to warrant its existence? I’m assuming they’ve already asked these questions a thousand times. So I’ll take my opinion train to the next stop.
A fascinating screenplay but man was it all over the place.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: While long screenplays are risky as hell, they’re okay IF the subject matter warrants the length. A biopic that spans 30 years? I can buy that as a 3 hour movie. A fantasy film with dozens of characters sprawled over a huge geographical landscape. You can make an argument for needing 200 pages to tell that story. You can’t convince me that a movie about a girl seeking justice after a bus accident warrants a 3 hour running time. You just can’t.