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A Playwright in Pottsylvania

'Bullwinkle's' Kenneth Lonergan finds writing movies is as fun--and aggravating--as plays.

July 02, 2000|STEPHEN FARBER | Stephen Farber is a film critic for Movieline magazine and writes about entertainment from Los Angeles

When he was at the Walden School, he was inspired by a theater teacher and began writing plays. His classmate Matthew Broderick starred in his first play when they were both in 11th grade. "That was my first lead," Broderick recalls. "And then we did more plays together. We put a lot of energy into that part of school. Only that part."

Over the next several years, Lonergan wrote several plays but was unable to get any produced. So he paid the rent by writing speeches for the Environmental Protection Agency and Weight Watchers, video presentations for Grace Chemicals and comedy vignettes for Fuji Film sales meetings. He turned to screenwriting to escape the drudgery of industrial writing.

His stepfather had once told him the true story of a Mafioso who sought therapy from a psychiatrist when he was feeling depressed. "This analyst said, 'Forget it. I'm not interested,' " Lonergan says. "And I thought it might be interesting if the analyst didn't say, 'Forget it,' but actually took him on."

So he wrote the script for "Analyze This" and sold it to Warner Bros. "After you sign the contract, then they tell you what they really plan to do with the movie," Lonergan says.

Eventually a dozen writers had a go at his screenplay, and it took eight years before the film was made. Although he still received a screen credit, the experience was so demoralizing that he has never seen the finished film.

Nevertheless, the success of "Analyze This" landed him many other screenwriting assignments, often to doctor other writers' work.

Lonergan rails against the wastefulness of the Hollywood development process, during which a script can undergo seemingly end-less revisions by people eager to leave their fingerprints all over a project.

"The fallacy," he says, "is to think writing can be done by a group. If executives took that approach with cinematography, there would be no movie. Of course, they realize they don't know anything about cinematography, but everybody knows how to read and write, so they think they can improve a script.

"I would love to do an experiment where you tell the studios, 'Half your movies will have no story consultation and no market research, and you have to advertise them as much as the others, which will have as much story consultation and as much market research as you want.' I swear to God there would be absolutely no difference in the amount of money those two sets of movies make.

"But a lot of people would be out of work, especially all the marketing people and all the development people."

He decided to direct "You Can Count on Me" to ensure that the script would be filmed as he wrote it. As added protection, he hired several actors who had worked for him before, including his high school buddy Broderick and Ruffalo, who had starred in his first produced play, "This Is Our Youth."

"He was very assured," Broderick says. "He's had a lot of experience fighting for his point of view with people who want to tell him what to do. So he was very good at keeping control of things."

Filmmaking was not an unalloyed pleasure for Lonergan. "When we were making the movie," Ruffalo says, "Kenny kept saying to me, 'I'll never direct again. I hate people.' He's a solitary person. He's not a recluse, but he steers clear of the herd. On a movie set you have to deal with people asking you questions every five minutes."

"It was totally grueling," Lonergan says. "The hours are brutal. The pressures are intense. I like working with the actors, but I'd rather be sitting in my apartment talking to my imaginary friends. What I'd like best would be to write on my own and give the script to someone who is just like me to direct and produce. I'd drop by and say hello to everyone and have it all turn out exactly the way I wanted. But since that's not going to happen, I'm sure I will direct again."

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