“Some people are constitutionally ill-equipped to enjoy themselves,” laments Kenneth Lonergan. “I’m afraid I’m one of them.”
Lonergan, the writer-director of the Oscar-nominated film You Can Count On Me and the about-to-open Off Broadway drama Lobby Hero, had just blustered into this dimly lit, crummy West Village café, harried and half an hour late, talking into his cell phone and blaming his tardiness on “this terrible fax machine” that had refused to send his Gangs of New York script revisions to Martin Scorsese in Rome. Poor guy. Disheveled and distracted, he sits and mourns the fun that’s recently drained out of his life.
“There’s Ping-Pong, but I never play it,” he sighs. “I used to go to the theater. I used to go to concerts. But now all I do is work.” If this is how ecstatic Kenneth Lonergan feels after winning two prizes at Sundance last year (the Grand Jury Prize and the screenwriting award) and writing awards from the New York and Los Angeles film critics’ associations, one fears what might happen if the Academy votes to give the Original Screenplay Oscar to the grouch.
“Yeah, it’s like fashion models,” Lonergan grumbles, relishing his crabby persona. “They say how they always feel ugly and out of place, and I go, ‘Fuck you!’ “
At a time when emerging West Coast auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze are making their names as flashy stylists, lifelong Manhattanite Lonergan is working in a subtler idiom. If these other writer-directors are the class show-offs, Lonergan is the sensitive loner in the back row, scribbling in his notebook. His painstaking, hyper-verbal style – a fitful dialogue of incoherent moments, awkward pauses, and embarrassing mistakes – has everything to do with his New York background. So do his neuroses.
“He’s a genius complainer, but the self-deprecating bit is kind of an act,” says actor Mark Ruffalo. “He’s stubborn and methodical – like a tortoise.”
For starters, there’s the poor-me act. “What? He was at the beach all summer playing Ping-Pong!” Matthew Broderick yells, laughing. “That’s a downright lie! All summer! In a big house! Playing Ping-Pong! On a big table that I and my brother-in-law strapped to a car and delivered to him!”
Lonergan and Broderick have been ribbing each other since the age of 15, when they met in A Midsummer Night’s Dream theater auditions at the Walden School on the Upper West Side. Lonergan got Demetrius. Broderick played “The Wall” but, a couple years later, found his first leading role in a play that Lonergan co-wrote their junior year.
“They’re a couple of sarcastic, worldly-wise old men,” says actress J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s wife (she played Broderick’s surly employee in You Can Count On Me). “I think they’ve been like that since high school. It’s a particular jaded New York humor that you only develop if you grow up here.”
“Kenny’s a great whiner,” agrees Broderick. “That’s where we really connect.”
The two friends came of age, as Lonergan says, “smoking pot and making fun of people.” Lonergan, Broderick, and pals would sit on Central Park benches, roll joints, and nerd out – singing Fats Waller tunes and debating the merits of old Honeymooners episodes. At home, Lonergan wrote incessantly and had finished his first sci-fi novel at the age of 11. “I switched from fiction to drama in high school,” he says matter-of-factly.
“We were brought up by these classic bleeding-heart liberals, and then graduated the same year Reagan was elected,” says Lonergan, whose mother, an Upper West Side psychoanalyst, and father, a doctor, divorced when he was 5. “The whole country turned around, and we felt just like we were all grown up with no place to go.” This era, treated affectionately and hilariously by Lonergan, became the subject of his first legit play and critical hit, 1996’s This Is Our Youth, about a trio of disaffected drug-using teens fooling around, getting in trouble, and debating the relative street values of cocaine and a vintage G.E. toaster.
This Is Our Youth, which opened at the cramped intar Theatre and transferred to the more reputable Second Stage, put Lonergan on the map – but it was his Hollywood break, the lucrative sale of the screenplay for Analyze This in 1991, that allowed him to dump his various freelance jobs, which included speechwriting for the EPA, Fuji film, and Weight Watchers. To his disgust, though, the script was reworked by at least a dozen other writers – and Lonergan, to this day, has refused to see the film. (“Writing scripts,” he has said repeatedly, “is a good way to pay the bills.” The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle also paid a few.)
His negative experience pushed him to fight for control over the development of You Can Count On Me, a subtle tale about a rambling, misguided stoner, his uptight sister, and how differently the two face the world after their parents’ deaths. With Broderick’s bankable name attached and his “new friend Marty Scorsese” signed up to executive-produce, Lonergan was able to direct and write the film virtually free of any studio meddling – he even acted in it, fittingly, as a depressed and fatalistic priest.
“He’s a genius complainer, but the self-deprecating bit is kind of an act,” says the film’s co-star, Mark Ruffalo. “He’s really stubborn and methodical – like a tortoise. The miracle of You Can Count On Me is that he never let anybody fuck with it.”
“There’s that part of his personality that we all love to tease and rib him about,” the film’s Oscar-nominated Laura Linney agrees, “but he also has a real understanding of what people are facing on a day-to-day basis.”
So in a world where even character-driven films feel a need to set off pyrotechnics, the movie is, in fact, a bit of a miracle. Not only is it Lonergan’s first time out as a director; it came in at just $1.9 million, and is a movie made up of almost nothing but tiny moments.
“I love Kubrick films and big theatrical productions,” Lonergan says, leaning forward, visibly uncomfortable in his creaky velour-upholstered chair, “but I think the thing I’m best at is small little dynamics that have a lot of resonance. I like to imagine that I’m interested in all of these little people all underneath this huge sky.”
Thanks to Lonergan’s newfound fame, his small, four-person play Lobby Hero might have rated a star-studded cast and a Broadway production. Instead, the play, directed by Mark Brokaw, bows this week at Playwrights Horizons’ tiny Anne G. Wilder Theater without a single marquee name. True to form, Lonergan is presenting a stageful of sticky dilemmas: Should a security guard help out a brother who may have committed murder? Should a female officer report her partner and former lover for sexual harassment? Minor characters who would be extras in almost any other play grapple awkwardly with headline subjects – but their conflicting emotions ultimately overwhelm the hot-button issues.
“A lot of the characters that I write about are struggling with things that are bigger than they are,” says Lonergan. “Most things I know are bigger than us.” In this sense, Lonergan is a quintessential New York writer: someone who grew up amid tall buildings and masters of the universe and found himself writing about small things in a small apartment. So it’s no surprise that he has found a home – and a career, a wife, a cast, a best friend, and (gasp) something like joy – in the relatively intimate family of New York theater.
“Even a Broadway show has something a little hokey about it,” Lonergan gushes, the grumpiness beginning to fade. “There’s a cheesy set and there’s cardboard behind it and there are little dressing rooms even for the big stars. It’s wonderful, you know, when your wife is in the show and afterwards you all go to Joe Allen to see all these people from the other shows.” He grins widely, for once – just once – dropping the weight of the world as he rhapsodizes, “I feel like that is just unalloyed fun.”