Thursday, August 24, 2017

Kenneth Lonergan on "You Can Count on Me"


What was going with life and your career before You Can Count on Me?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Before that I had been making a living as a screenwriters probably for about five years. I was making a living writing screenplays, doing pretty well, but my main interest was playwriting, which I was doing mostly with the Naked Angels theater company. I had just had my first big break in playwriting, with my play This Is Our Youth. It was very well received and it bumped me several levels up instantly, which is very unusual. So I had just become a sort of off-Broadway playwright with some cache, and I was already basically a Hollywood screenwriter of comedies.

Where did the idea for You Can Count on Me come from?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It came from an assignment that my theater company had given. We were doing an evening of short plays based on the subject of faith and I was poking around for something to write on that topic and I had the idea of this brother and sister. I wrote a ten-minute scene with these characters, which basically was the first step in writing the screenplay. But whenever I say that, I then read that "He adapted it from his own his play." But it was, honestly twelve pages long and it was never meant to be a full-length play. As soon as I thought of it as a larger piece it was immediately a screenplay.

And that scene is still pretty much in tact, right, as the first scene where Terry and Sammy meet in the restaurant?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It's that plus the scene at the end. Literally. Minus the note of hope that he expresses when he tries to tell her that he's not going back into the toilet, he actually liked being in Alaska and maybe there's something there for him. Although some people have interpreted the movie as him going back into the depths, and other people have noticed that he actually was a tiny bit of a step up from where he started.

What was it about those twelve pages that made you think you had the beginnings of a feature script?

KENNETH LONERGAN: I loved the characters, a lot, and I thought the scene was really very good. And when it was performed it was performed really nicely and I just thought there was something very moving about the situation. I guess I liked the idea of how crazy she was about him, and the whole dynamic of her having more faith in him than he had in himself. Even though she's a little misguided about him, just liking him that much brought him up a little bit.

And I liked the idea that they were at such cross-purposes, but also that they liked each other so much. And also the idea that they had had this shared tragedy and her reaction was a sort of blind faith and his reaction was more closer to mine, which is that it has no meaning but you have to piece together your own feelings about things like that, because none of the available systems really did if for him. He feels that is less deluded and less involved in fantasy.

Just the kind of double-sidedness of her having faith in this bum, just because she liked him, and then him kind of living up to it a little bit more than he might have if she didn't have that faith. I just liked that whole dynamic. I liked her taking care of him and him disappointing her -- all the dynamics between them. I just liked the people a lot.

Once you had the story, how did you proceed? Do you write an outline?

KENNETH LONERGAN: I almost never do an outline. I've done outlines for assignments, and even then I think I've only done them twice. I have nothing against them, I just don't usually work that way.

For You Can Count on Me, I split the lunch scene up, because I knew that the last part of the scene would be the last part of the movie.

I had, at one point, a whole different ending. Originally the last scene was going to be the scene with her and the little boy at the kitchen table. But then, once it was all written, I realized that it really should really end with the brother and the sister. So I made that adjustment.

Their affection for each other is the main thing that creates the tension, because if he's not her favorite person in the world, there's no conflict when he starts to endanger her kid, because that's a pretty clear choice.

So I realized that there has to be a series of disappointments that he creates that involve the kid. I didn't really bother to think what they were at first, I just knew that there should be about three of them and that they escalate. So I didn't know that he was going to take the kid to see his rat-bastard father at the end; but as it developed, she had a husband who was gone and that turned into another element. It all sort of folded into itself in a way.

Were you always planning on directing this script?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Yes, I wouldn't have written it if I wasn't planning to direct it.

Did that change the way you wrote it?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Completely. I had been aware of what professional screenwriting was like in Hollywood many years before I got into it. I got into only to make money, because I knew there was no creative protection.

This was the first screenplay that I ever wrote the way I would have written a play, meaning putting my heart and soul into it. Every other job I'd done, including the spec script for Analyze This, I definitely did as good a job as I could, but I wrote knowing that the script would be destroyed. And I wouldn't have written You Can Count On Me if I'd known it would be destroyed; I wouldn't have written it if I wasn't planning to direct it, and I knew the only way to protect it was to direct it.

The only reason it occurred to me to direct it was that I have two friends -- one at my professional caste level and one much fancier than me -- and they both had very little trouble directing their first movie. I realized that it probably wouldn't be that hard for me to do it, either. So that's what I set out to do.

I knew that if it was an independent movie that I would have a fairly good chance of controlling the material and I also knew that I wouldn't do it if I couldn't control the material.

Did you think about budget concerns at all while you were writing?

KENNETH LONERGAN: No, I didn't. There's no call for anything expensive in the story anyway. I might have thought about it a little bit, in the periphery of my mind, but not really. I knew it would be cheap.

Did you tweak the script after it was cast?

KENNETH LONERGAN: The only thing I changed in production was I did a little bit of cutting and re-wrote the last scene a little bit, because I felt it wasn't clear what his feeling was about going away.

How do you know when a script is done?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It feels right. I always feel that the ending must be at least as good as the rest of the movie. If the ending isn't great I feel like it's not a successful endeavor. I feel that if I have the right ending than that's a big help. And then I feel that if there's nothing else that I can work on and improve, then I basically leave it alone. You can always futz around with it, but unfortunately there's a certain point when I start rewriting it that I start making it worse. Thankfully, I think I've learned to identify that point and then I leave it alone.

When you get out of the groove of it, I really think it's dangerous to mess around with it too much. I tend to rewrite myself a lot as I'm going, but not endlessly. I find that a lot of writers are either too ready to rewrite stuff, which is dangerous because they just get lost instantly. I know I do. New writers are way too eager to take other people's comments and show it to everyone and get all the feedback they can get.

The feeding frenzy in the movie culture now to have everyone dive and anyone can give a note, I just find it repellant and very bad for the scripts and for the audience, ultimately.

The other thing that writers can do is not be self-critical enough. I think you have to be very much on your own side but be very unflinching about noticing when something's no good. You have to be able to step away and step back, but basically trusting your own opinion and hoping that if you like it somebody else will.

I think the rewrite frenzy is just appalling. It's shocking; I'm still shocked at 43 at how cavalierly people think it's okay to just chatter away about something someone's worked on for two years and the assumptions behind it. Personally, if I'm writing a screenplay for somebody else, I would get it to where I think it's good, but I wouldn't go one step beyond that, because I know it's going to be ripped to pieces no matter what.

Basically, you sell it, you get hired, and they first try to get you to destroy it. Then you don't destroy it enough and then they fire you and get someone else to do it. That's never not happened to me, except when I was the last destroyer on Gangs of New York. But that was a little different, because even though there were script changes that I would not have done if I was making the decisions, in the end I feel there was an artist making the movie and making the decisions and getting other people to help him shape what he wanted. It's a little different when it's a rotating committee of people who don't know how to do anything, which is what it usually is.

Did you learn anything writing You Can Count on Me that you still use today?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Yes, but I didn't learn it enough. In the editing, the first cut, I thought every scene was very good but the whole thing dragged. The problem was that every scene had a beginning, a middle and an end. So I chopped the beginnings and, more particularly, the endings of every scene, and suddenly the story propelled itself from one scene to next much better. That's because it didn't have 200 little soft resolves. So I've been trying to think about writing in sequences instead of scenes, but the truth is I haven't really applied that, because it's very hard for me to judge that on the page. It's something I know can be dealt with in the editing, so I can't say I actually have the faith to write a really short scene.









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