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Kenneth Lonergan by Rachel Kushner

I wish I could say of the integrity in Kenneth Lonergan’s dramas that all the separate works are like blocks of marble from the same quarry, showing the same veins and faults as the mother rock, but Malcolm Cowley already said it about William Faulkner. Lonergan—playwright and first-time feature film director and a man in that rare situation in which Hollywood suddenly, capriciously, chooses to stand behind quality and emotional resonance; and offered such sustenance, moviegoers respond in kind—is on the verge of greatness. But then again, Kenneth Lonergan, now 38, has already had two enormously successful productions, This Is Our Youth and The Waverly Gallery, and now a third, Lobby Hero, is being performed at the John Houseman Theatre. Not to mention the film he wrote and directed, You Can Count on Me, which garnered the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay, and was one of the best films made last year.

Lonergan’s character-driven stories betray enormous sensitivity to and appreciation for ambiguities, imperfections, humor, loneliness, warmth and rage—just a few strata of human behavior he’s capable of evoking. Despite his exactitude in rendering emotion, Lonergan is not afraid of plot, of showing us what happens when people are pressured from without as well as from within, and when the levee—as it sometimes will—breaks. Lonergan, whose mother and stepfather are both psychiatrists, denies that close proximity to analysts has had any specific effect on his work but says his whole family is “interested in peoples’ personalities.” I sat down with him just as spring was burgeoning in New York City. As I expected, he was extremely articulate, but for all the adulation I’ve just provided of his talents and intellect, he was in equal measures gentle, unassuming and sweet.

Rachel Kushner Your new play, Lobby Hero, delves headlong into the sociology, sexual politics, moral ambiguities and cultish behavior of the New York City police force. I’m curious, what made you interested in weaving in a drama about cops?

Kenneth Lonergan It’s not that I wanted to write about the police, which I know nothing about firsthand. I was interested in writing about a situation where the deck is stacked against somebody—in this case the female police officer, Dawn, who is attempting to fit into a male-dominated world, and she’s being judged by what I consider to be unfair standards, both professionally and personally. It’s inconvenient to consider that she just might have sexual feelings. Let me rephrase that: I was interested in somebody who’s just trying to do their joband be a human being at the same time in an environment that makes it very difficult to be both. Other characters in the play struggle with that. William tries to do what he considers to be the right thing, which goes against his familial inclination. His brother is under arrest for murder, and William’s family expects him to provide a fictitious alibi. Ideologically, William feels that he shouldn’t lie to the police; on the other hand, he can’t just sit back and watch his brother go to jail for something he might not have done. And Dawn tries hard to be a good policewoman but falls in love with her partner, which is fine for him as long as it’s working out. But as soon as it stops working out he turns it against her in the most horrible way. So I was more interested in people dealing with an unfairly stacked deck than I was in specifically talking about New York City cops. Also it’s about the difficulty and complexity of dealing with serious real-life issues, which police have to do all the time while the rest of us sit back and either think ill or highly of them and wonder what we would do if we were in their situation. That made it an attractive dramatic subject. It’s a colorful, violent, interesting, and to the rest of us, exotic world.

RK It reminded me, in its realism, of a Richard Price drama. I read that he used to hang out at the precinct house and ride around in the squad car for research. Did you do anything like that?

KL No, I’d be too scared. (laughter) I don’t often do that kind of research if I think I can get away with it. I did talk to an assistant district attorney friend of mine at great length to make sure that everything that happens in the play could happen. He knows a lot of cops, that flavor of life in the New York force. A little research goes a long way as long as the human element seems to correlate with real life.

RK Lobby Hero embodies the naturalistic tone and conversational style of your other projects, yet it also seems to have melodrama. The murder, for instance, that you’ve built into the plot makes the play more outlandish than your other projects. I’m curious—what brought about this shift?

KL I have to agree with that, and I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I didn’t deliberately decide to write something more melodramatic, or more heightened. It just naturally went that way, the plot elements suggested themselves as I was working on it. I did want it to be about people in dire circumstances. There’s something about the condensation of playwriting: put four characters in one room for over two hours, and if there’s murder and sex, then it’s probably going to get melodramatic—although I hope not too much. It’s a bit like a fable, a tangled morality play. And that suggests something more theatrical than an ultranaturalistic play like my earlier ones, The Waverly Gallery or This Is Our Youth, which are built around small moments in life. There are crises in those plays, but this play is, as you say, a bit more heightened.

What I like about the play is the day-to-day details that I layered into it. While they’re discussing these terribly unusual things, Dawn, the rookie, segues into talking about how her mother treats her father, and Jeff, the doorman, talks about his father, and being in the navy, and blame. In the little details, you learn about the characters and that helps create the illusion of real life, anyway.

RK Such as when Jeff proffers the line about his father behaving in an “ossified” manner. That rang true to me. It was a very pithy explanation of what his father was like, and what the emotional repercussions of that are. Jeff, the “lobby hero,” is a type, he reminds people of someone they’ve known. Watching the play, I thought immediately of this kid we called Guitar Boy. A bus driver had caught him smoking out the window, kicked him off the bus with his guitar and yelled that after him. Like Jeff, he joined the navy and then tried to get discharged for being insane. He jumped off a ship into the East River, and instead of getting discharged got 130 vaccinations and a reprimand. And he complained about what had happened to him in the same mystified tone that Jeff uses in the play when he complains about getting kicked out of the navy for smoking pot. These sorts of people have a hold on the imagination. What do you think is so compelling about the so-called self-possessed or noble loser?

KL They’re interesting, people who have a great deal of resources but somehow keep ending up in dead ends with self-defeated plans. I seem to have, without meaning to, written several characters like that. I don’t like the word loser myself, it’s been applied to this character but I feel it’s a lousy curse to put on somebody: “That’s it for them, they’re doomed.” I never think of them that way—it’s not dramatic to have a character who’s simply a loser because you know what’s going to happen to them.

RK I prefaced loser with so-called because it’s not a term I would use, but one that’s been invoked in reaction to some of your characters. The compelling tension within Jeff and your other troubled characters seem to be their graces—qualities that make you care whether or not they can pull through.

KL Unless you’re in a hopeless situation, personality has a lot to do with what happens to you, with what you’re able to do with the world and with your self. I don’t know anybody who’s totally successful at it, and people who seem to be very successful in a worldly way are often not people you’d want to spend a lot of time with, anyway. Jeff is smart and he’s got a good sense of humor and there’s something very appealing about him. He’s sincere and yet he’s not quite capable of seeing how he’s shooting himself in the foot. People can relate to that. He’s not mean-spirited or destructive or completely out of it; I think that makes you want him to do better.

RK Your dialogue is naturalistic, and although that term implies that it’s closer to actual spoken language, I suspect that it’s also worked on enormously. Your placements of “ums” and “you knows” are very deliberate in their effect. Could you talk about this process and how you arrived at this style of dialogue?

KL I really like writing dialogue, that’s the most fun part for me, and when it’s going well, I don’t really have to work very hard at it at all, it flows out pretty easily. I try to be scrupulous about not letting people say things I don’t think people say; if a line is too beautiful or poetic—or I should say, pseudobeautiful or pseudopoetic—I’ll get rid of it. On the other hand, a lot of things come up that are pithy or funny or have some nice image in them and if it sounds like it falls within the parameters of normal speech, I’ll allow it and be glad of it. I think it’s like music in a way, you’re not reconstructing it intellectually, you’re tuned in and trying to write down what you hear in your head.

RK Cadence, it seems to me, is a fundamental underpinning of dialogue.

KL Right, the rhythm of it. I can see places where I fall into patterns—people tend not to speak quite as distinctly from each other as they do in real life. Perhaps there’s too much uniformity. But it depends; a lot of the characters in Waverly Gallery were based on real people and I had the way they talked clearly in my mind. James Joyce is the great master of real dialogue. His people don’t sound like each other at all. It’s amazing.

RK All those distinct voices in Dubliners . . .

KL And Ulysses — all those differences in the cadences are unparalleled as far as I know.

RK I wanted to ask about how your narratives are constructed; at the risk of sounding reductive, I’ll venture to say that there does seem to be an arc in each of your pieces, in which characters deal with a certain emotional tension imposed on them by something very plot-driven; we see their shortcomings, their coping mechanisms and the situation that pressures them, but the story ends with all this knowledge and no real resolution. As if to say, That’s so and so, he was dealt this hand, he was put in this situation, and so life continues. WatchingYou Can Count on Me, I felt relieved by that arc. At the end I thought, Well of course Terry has to leave. And in Lobby Hero, the drama is unresolved. We don’t know what will become of Dawn, who’s gotten herself enormous heat in the police department. Jeff is still working in the lobby, with no real motivation or future to speak of, a fact that he illustrates with the last line, “I wouldn’t know, I’ve never tried to do anything.” Neither the play nor your film seems particularly depressing in terms of endnote, but you seem very comfortable with ambiguity. Dramatically, it’s effective, but also subtle. I’m curious what your thoughts are on this.

KL It’s an interesting observation. I want the narrative to come to a conclusion in terms of the events that have been raised and are the focus of the story, but it doesn’t seem right to conclude the characters’ entire lives by the end because that doesn’t feel real to me. I write about people grappling with situations that are bigger than they are, and by their nature not situations the characters can resolve. At some point, Dawn’s career will be determined, and at some point, Jeff will either stay or go and at some point William’s brother will either go to jail or go free, but the main issues of the play have been resolved—not in a way that’s satisfying for anybody in the play, but they’ve come to a conclusion. The story has come to an end but leaves you at the beginning of the next story—which is kind of like life. Maybe that’s why the end of You Can Count on Me has whatever resonance it has. From the brother Terry’s point of view, it’s a story about whether he’s going to self-destruct or set his feet on a path away from being a completely wasted person. And from Sammy, the sister’s point of view, it’s a story about whether she’s going to be able to strike a balance between trying to save her brother—who she’s desperately attached to—and protecting her little boy. And, in a bigger sense, whether she’s going to be able to break out of the prison of her life and draw some boundaries for herself in terms of sacrificing her life for the people she cares about. That question is answered in both cases, but it leaves them both personally in uncertain places. Terry is, I think, not going to self-destruct. At the end of the story he has a healthier attitude toward his life, his sister and his hometown. And she has drawn a line in the sand for her brother: she’s willing to let him go off and ruin himself if he wants to, and not feel responsible. But she’s still left with a job she doesn’t love and a limited choice of partners in life. Their lives have not been solved, but the immediate problems have been dealt with as thoroughly as I could go through them. It’s richer if you leave them in the middle of life. Chekhov’s characters are constantly having these epiphanies on page 12 that come to absolutely nothing. Which reminds me more of life than other fictions where you come upon these epiphanies and that’s it, now everything is okay.

RK I do recognize the resonant, albeit complicated Chekhov sort of resolve in your work; the end of You Can Count on Me reminded me of Three Sisters in the sense of, Is something going to happen? Is he going to do what our hearts are hoping he’s going to do and stay with her? And then you realize, Well, of course not . . . and of course the sisters are not going to Moscow, either.

KL Yeah, but on the other hand, I think he will come back at Christmas, and without dreading it quite so much. At the end of The Cherry Orchard the brother and sister leave completely devastated and heartbroken because their home’s been taken away, but the young daughter jumps up and down with excitement at the prospect of going off to a new life. You have the fears left in the house and locked up to die. You have all these people reacting in different open-ended ways to the same event. The older brother and sister weeping and the daughter offstage shouting, “Come on, come on . . .” That’s no more ambiguous than life is.

RK When you’re writing, are you visualizing the finished production, do you know the precise tone of delivery and emotional tenor you want to create, or does some of that occur more in rehearsal? Playwriting mystifies me in the sense that not only are you creating narrative, but it’s got to be filtered through the actors’ voices, which brings in another element that has to be considered and worked out. I’m curious—how much flexibility is there between what you write, the register you’re after, and an actor’s interpretation of the character?

KL Well, that is one of the great questions of the theater. Actually, the idea that your work is being filtered through the actors is the opposite of what you’re trying to do in the theater, which is to get everybody involved in the same fantasy. Yes, it’s a combination of trying to get them to hit the notes that you imagine in your mind, but there’s some meeting point between your mind, and the actors’ and the director’s minds, where you hope that by feeding all these imaginations into the same situation and character, you’ll get to something that has a three-dimensionality that you can’t get in other art forms. I tend to have a pretty specific idea of what the characters are like and what the basic dynamics of the situation are. I also try to be very flexible within those borders because otherwise, you’re not going to get the most out of your actors. Good actors have so much to offer and you want to give them enough wiggle room to find things you never would have thought of. At the same time, you don’t want them to go off and act in a different play while saying your dialogue. Sanford Meisner, the great acting teacher, would reply to the question of variety in interpretation with, “There is a lot, but can you imagine a cheerful Hamlet?” Certain things have to be, and I communicate that to the actors and then let them find a way of doing the role that’s best for them and doesn’t rub me the wrong way. But good actors will have trouble in the same area that you’ve had trouble. If you’re vague about something, they will find it, and they’ll be asking you questions that you won’t be able to answer, because you haven’t written well enough.

RK Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me emoted these subtle shifts in mood. He would have a placid expression, and then you could literally see this swell of anger rising underneath the surface of his face and then become supplanted by, say, humor or pity.

KL He’s got this great gift: you can see what’s going on with him emotionally all the time. Glenn [Fitzgerald] has it too, the veneer is like gauze, and you can almost read their thoughts. It’s very, very exciting, that their emotions are so accessible.

RK Theater seems more challenging than film in the sense that you’re working with such a pared-down set of tools with which to convey the story. The dialogue has to account for so much, whereas film can contain particular and extremely subtle nuances. For instance, when Laura Linney watches her brother and her son pounding nails together on a job site, and after a few moments she leaves without saying anything. The sense you have of what’s going through her mind and how that’s conveyed is completely different than the sort of emoting that’s possible in theater. Do you prefer having that set of tools at your disposal or are film and theater so different that it’s difficult to compare?

KL There’s no preference. There are so many tools in film that I tend to get overwhelmed and intimidated; it’s easy to feel lost. One bad thing that happens is that you tend to drift toward storytelling clichés from other movies that you’ve seen as a kind of anchor. I’m always afraid of re-creating the boring bad movie version because there are so many choices that I can’t imagine chiseling out my own way of doing it amongst all those options. I mean I can, but . . .

RK We’re all imprinted from having seen things done a particular way.

KL You try to find a way that’s true to what you’re doing and not just derivative. The visual style of an average movie shot in the 1970s was much more interesting than what’s being made now. It was more documentary-like and less theatrical, and now it’s gotten more primitive and crude and cheap. So those movies are in my head, but when I’m trying to think of how something should be shot or what the scene should be, the lousy images come flooding in just as often as the good ones, and you have to be careful. In a play, yes, it’s harder because you have less choices, but you’re already focused by the external limitations. You can’t have a million characters and you can’t jump all over the place or go back and forth in time without thinking of an interesting way of doing it. In a play it’s, How am I going to tell the story within these strict limitations? And in a movie it’s How am I going to find a particular way to tell the story given the fact that I can do anything I want? They are sort of opposite challenges, which is why it’s fun to go from one to the other.

RK I get this phantom-leg feeling that you write and rewrite and cut a lot, especially in the film. In the scene where Terry gets introduced, all we see is the top floor exterior of an apartment house in Worcester—a depressing, vinyl-sided building. Something ineffable occurred for me when I saw that one frame; you pegged just how much to show us of Terry’s world, and it was enough for me to understand a lot about his life. Do you pare down and pare down, and could you talk about that process?

KL That’s true, I do try to do that—although I think I may have pared down a little too much in the movie. There are a couple of little scenes I cut that I shouldn’t have, but I was nervous about moving things along and about the story not being boring. But interestingly enough, one of the helpful things that happens in a low-budget situation is that you can’t do everything. You have half a day’s schedule to shoot the scene of Terry and Sheila in the apartment and in that half a day, you have to run outside and take some establishing shots of the neighborhood where they live. So we ended up with basically three shots of that building.

RK It seemed like such a deliberate decision to me.

KL Well it was, in a way. I didn’t decide afterward that I needed more footage of Worcester, I didn’t go back and shoot more. I tend to write a lot at first and then pull it back as much as I can. I assume if I’m bored—and I’m bound to think that everything I do is fascinating and interesting—other people are going to be more easily bored. In a movie or a play, you get it fast. A lot of movies nowadays belabor the point, you know the two people love each other, or hate each other. Please let’s get on with it. My favorite movies establish things very fully and very quickly and then they get on to the next thing. On the other hand, I don’t like being brief for the sake of it. Directors who are scared to linger with dialogue—they’re scared to have dialogue scenes period, because it’s a movie and they have to keep it moving. After a few of those, you’re bored, too.

RK In this country, there aren’t many films released that address the pain and humiliation and fantasies of everyday life, the melodrama of just being a member of a family. I think this has contributed to people’s positive reaction to You Can Count on Me, and although I think your film is much more sophisticated, it reminds me of the reactions to American Beauty. People were so relieved and yet surprised to see something that translated to their own lives.

KL Yeah, because that’s gone out of fashion. If this movie had been made in the ’50s or ’60s, or even the ’30s or ’40s, it wouldn’t have been considered terribly unusual. Ordinary family stories have been pretty popular over the years. It’s just in the last 20 or 30 years that character stories have become so ubiquitously destroyed by this excess of sentimentality and messaginess, learning lessons and sharing or believing in yourself. Look at Paddy Chayefsky, or all those television dramas in the ’50s. There are so many examples, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, or The Best Years of Our Lives, even though they’re dealing with big issues, the entry point is daily life.

RK It’s interesting that you site the 1950s, because I have a suspicion that American Beautywas based on a John Cheever story called “The Country Husband.” To me, that film seems essentially like a linear, modern extrapolation of Cheever’s story, which was written in the ’50s, and certainly the sort of suburban, family drama that isn’t popular anymore.

KL Well, nowadays, in terms of popularity, what the people who are making the films thinkpeople want to see and what people actually want to see—are not, in my opinion, the same thing. The reaction to my movie—and I don’t mean this to be a grandiose statement—just shows how hungry people are for something that’s more grounded in everyday life. They don’t need the kind of smarmy, sentimental, insulting-to-the-intelligence goo laden over everything that many moviemakers and studios seem to think is required for people to like films.

RK Are you working on writing and directing another film? I think a lot of people are hoping that you are.

KL Oh, that’s nice. Yes, I am working on another movie and I’d like to direct it next year, as soon as I can get the script ready.

RK I wanted to ask you something about This Is Our Youth. The characters in that play have emotional dispositions that seem very specific to that era, kids with no real-life skills who’ve been brought up against the backdrop of Reaganomics. I finished college myself in 1990, and I must say, it was a terrible time to try to make your way in the world. But these kids in the play seem particularly sandbagged by—ironically—their wealth, because it protects them from having to act out of basic necessity, something that can force people to learn to function as adults. Secondly, they seem extremely acute intellectually, which pushes them into these depressing psychological and philosophical loops. The play reminded me of the painful reality that at that age what you know isn’t really there to help you. I’m assuming the play was autobiographical, because of their age and the year in which it was set; are you finished with that era as a writer or is it something you want to go back to?

KL I’m not finished with it necessarily. I haven’t thought of doing anything else in that time period but I wouldn’t be surprised if I went back to it. I hadn’t come at it from a desire to write about that time, but I did want to write about my own background and that’s such an important part of it, that it became part and parcel of the whole story.

RK I wonder if people don’t realize, or forget, how enormously the Reagan/Bush years affected young people.

KL We really felt like the bad guys had won, and that’s a naïve view, but we also felt that our team had failed, so there’s literally nothing for us to do except be ironic and removed.

RK Exactly, and this has to do to a certain extent—at least for me—with having liberal parents yet being put in a framework where their values are not being espoused by the powers that be, or society as a whole.

KL Right. Exactly.

RK We have a lot of stuff. It’s been over an hour, and I’m assuming you have other things to do . . .

KL Well, I was going to go up to the park and look at the cherry blossoms.