DATE March 6, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Kenneth Lonergan discusses his new film "You Can Count
on Me," for which he is up for an Academy Award
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
"You Can Count on Me," starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, is a new movie
that avoids most Hollywood pitfalls. The dialogue is written the way real
people speak. All the characters are flawed and multidimensional. And at the
end of the film, nothing is neatly resolved. "You Can Count on Me" has earned
two Academy Award nominations: one for Linney for best actress, and the other
for my guest, Kenneth Lonergan, for best original screenplay. Lonergan also
directed the film. Mainly known for his theater work, Lonergan is the author
of the long-running off-Broadway play "This Is Our Youth."
"You Can Count on Me" is about a brother and sister who are orphaned very
young, and meet again as adults when the rootless brother visits his sister in
their small-town home. His chaotic presence threatens the fragile stability
she's negotiated as a single mother of a young son. Here's a clip from the
beginning of the film. In this scene, the brother, Terry--played by Mark
Ruffalo--has just arrived in town, and is having lunch in a restaurant with
his sister, Tammy--played by Laura Linney (soundbite from "You Can Count On
Mr. MARK RUFFALO (As Terry): So how are you?
Ms. LAURA LINNEY (As Sammy): I'm fine, Terry.
Mr. RUFFALO: So--oh, how's Rudy?
Ms. LINNEY: We're fine, Terry. How are you?
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah.
Ms. LINNEY: Where have you been lately, Terry?
Mr. RUFFALO: No, I haven't been...
Ms. LINNEY: I got a postcard from you from Alaska.
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah, yeah. I was out there for a little while.
Ms. LINNEY: That was in the fall, Terry.
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah. No, I've been out of touch.
Ms. LINNEY: I was a little worried. I mean...
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah, I've been a lot of different places. I was down in
Florida for a little while.
Ms. LINNEY: Yeah?
Mr. RUFFALO: I was doing some work in Orlando, and man, I've been all over
Ms. LINNEY: Well, I wish you had just let me know you were OK.
Mr. RUFFALO: Yeah. I didn't realize it'd been so long.
Ms. LINNEY: You gonna stay in town for a while?
Mr. RUFFALO: Well, I don't know. I got all these things I got to do back in
Ms. LINNEY: Oh.
Mr. RUFFALO: So I'm probably not going to be able to stay for more than a day
Ms. LINNEY: Oh.
Mr. RUFFALO: I mean, I'm trying to keep to a schedule of sorts.
Ms. LINNEY: Mm-hmm. Oh, that's--I just--that's all right.
Mr. RUFFALO: It's a very worthy story, but I won't trouble you with it right
(Soundbite of people sighing; glasses clinking)
Ms. LINNEY: Are you expecting someone?
Mr. RUFFALO: Who would I be expecting here?
Ms. LINNEY: You just keep looking around, that's all.
Mr. RUFFALO: Oh, I was just, you know, actually just wondering if we'd get
some more refreshments, actually.
BOGAEV: A scene from the beginning of Kenneth Lonergan's new movie "You Can
Count on Me."
Kenneth Lonergan, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. KENNETH LONERGAN (Director, "You Can Count on Me"): Thanks. It's great
to be here.
BOGAEV: You know, I came out of the theater trying to remember a movie I had
ever seen about a brother-sister relationship as the center of the film, and I
couldn't think of one. Did you first think of "You Can Count on Me" as a film
or as a play?
Mr. LONERGAN: I never really thought of it as a play. I had written a short
scene that was workshopped in the theater a couple of times, which is just a
lunch scene between the two characters, that is basically still in the movie.
But as soon as I thought of it as a larger piece, I immediately thought of it
as a film.
Mr. LONERGAN: Well, the structure of the story takes place over--well, I
guess it only takes place over a few weeks, but it felt like longer than that
to me. There's a big element of life in a small town that seemed to me much
more suited for film than for the stage. An important element in the story is
how the brother and sister each relate to the town where they grew up and the
whole element of it being quite beautiful, but quite confining. And that
seemed to me much more suitable for movies. Theaters are not great for
conveying a sense of the great outdoors, except perhaps through poetry. But
I'm not a poet, so that's sort of why I decided to make it into a movie.
Also, the num--I wanted it to have a number of characters. I think the
atmosphere was so important that it seemed best for a film.
BOGAEV: You've written a couple of other things about brothers and sisters.
Why do you come back to this theme?
Mr. LONERGAN: That's a very good question. I don't really know the answer.
I have a large extended family and lots of brothers and sisters. But the
relationship in "You Can Count on Me" is not particularly based on any of my
fraternal relationships. I don't really know why. It just always strikes me
as an interesting situation. And it's--I wrote a one-act play when I was in
10th grade that was about a brother and a sister that was not completely
dissimilar to the brother and sister in "You Can Count on Me." It was a sort
of overly responsible sister and a brother who was actually in a mental
institution. And I just don't know why that particular dynamic seems to be
inwrote into my imagination, but it is.
BOGAEV: It's interesting about brothers and sisters. They don't really know
what to expect from each other. You know, sisters know what to expect from
each other, and brother-brother relationships--that has a whole, I guess, a
cliched element to it, you know, buddy-buddy thing. But that brother-sister
bond is so much more ambiguous.
Mr. LONERGAN: I guess it is. I don't know. I never really thought about it
in those terms. I suppose I was more interested in just the idea of somebody
trying to take care of someone else who's very difficult, and--but without it
necessarily being a romantic situation. So I guess you could have that
between siblings of the same sex just as easily, but I think there's something
maternal that starts to go on if you have an older sister and a younger
brother, but it's not out-and-out maternal because it's not, literally, the
And I also was just interested in two siblings who are trying to figure out
the world by themselves without parents, really, to help them since these
characters' parents were killed when they were very young. I mean, one thing
that's interesting about those relationships is they're just as intense and
they inform who you are just as much as your relationships with your parents
do. And I think that's something that we tend to not notice so much because
it's--we're all used to the idea that our parents form our personalities. But
you think about the intensity with which you relate to your siblings, even if
you don't have a relationship with them, those feelings are still very strong
or they're strong enough that they're--you've just cut off from them
completely. And I think they just--anything that goes that far back into your
past just runs so deep that I think it just naturally makes for an interesting
situation. And I think it does dictate how you are with the rest of the
BOGAEV: There's another great thing that I think the movie plays up about
brothers and sisters is that when you're an adult and you're with your
sibling, one moment you're a grown-up, and the next moment, you're five and
he's seven again.
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah. Yeah. Unfortunately, that happens all the time.
Not even--you don't even have to be with your siblings for that to happen.
But, yeah, I know, I think that's very true. I think these switches get
flicked inside of you that are--they've just been there for a long time, and
it can make you regress, I suppose, and it can feed all sorts of situations
that might not be quite as fraught if you were involved with someone who was
not your sibling, or not your parent, in that situation.
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the new
film "You Can Count on Me," starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.
I'd like you to talk about the writing in this film. The scenes really seem
to breathe. The dialogue has such a natural rhythm, and it's not as tight and
clipped as a lot of movie dialogue is. Seems more true to the way people
Mr. LONERGAN: Thanks.
BOGAEV: Is that something that's hard to make happen in film?
Mr. LONERGAN: I didn't find it to be so. I love writing dialogue, and I
love trying to make it as naturalistic as possible, because I think the way
people really speak is more interesting than the artificial way they tend to
speak in some plays and movies. The movie--no, it was very--in fact, in a
strange way, it was easier to make it sound the way I wanted it to in a movie
than in a play, because you can be really particular about how things turn out
when you get in the editing room in a way that is destructive to the acting
process if you're dealing with actors in a theater situation. You can't--even
though I'm very--I always care a lot that the actors say the lines exactly as
written, it's not good to go in there and mess around with their inflections
and tell them exactly how to say something, and to be too micro-managing of
their delivery, because it interferes with the spontaneity of their
performance, and it just--it's quite hampering of them.
But once they've shot the scene and you're in the editing room and you don't
like a pause, you can take it out. In all sorts of horrible, manipulative
ways, you can swap dialogue, you can show the back of somebody's head and have
them say whatever you want. You can do all sorts of edits to make it flow in
a way that sounds more like what you had in mind, although frequently what
you're doing is just kind of getting the best out of what the actors did when
they got there, because what you want is to provide a sort of a blueprint, a
really good blueprint for the actors to then take and really breathe life
BOGAEV: So in your script, you write in `ums' and `likes' and interjections
Mr. LONERGAN: I sure do. Yep. I do that all the time. I like to do that,
because those are words, too, and those are part of the way people express
themselves, and when you pause to say `um,' sometimes you're doing it because
you can't think of what to say, or sometimes you're doing it because you're
angry and you're trying to hold back, or because you're angry and you're
trying to hold back for effect. When you get past the `um,' you're going to
say whatever it is you have to say, and I think people use--I don't see why
dialogue shouldn't include all spoken words, including `uh,' `like,' `um,' you
know, `uh-huh,' all that stuff, and it's fun trying to make that all work in
fiction, or, you know, theater or screen.
BOGAEV: Now this is the first film you've directed. You have a lot of
experience in theater, but not in film. Were you up to speed on all this
technical stuff? Would you have to admit, `I just have no idea, I don't know
anything about any of this?'
Mr. LONERGAN: I said that every day, several times a day during the course
of the film. I didn't have any technical knowledge at all, and I told
everyone that immediately, so that they would tell me as much as they could in
as short a period as possible so that I would be able to get up to speed or
close to up to speed. So I would start every meeting with whoever the new
person was, whether it was the people doing the pre-production, whether it was
the cinematographer, the sound person, the--you know, there's just a million
different divisions. And I would say, `I don't know anything, and I'm not
embarrassed, so tell me everything you think I need to know and don't worry
about, you know, making--hurting my feelings, because you won't.' I learned an
amazing amount in a very short period of time, and it was very intimidating,
because there's a lot--even in a low-budget movie, there's hundreds of people
working on it; it goes on for nine months straight, and you just have
to--there's just so much to it, it's fascinating.
BOGAEV: Can you give us an example of something that happened on the set
that, you know, another person who might not have taken this humble approach
would have gotten into hot water?
Mr. LONERGAN: Well...
BOGAEV: If you hadn't asked, `What is this? What do I do here?'
Mr. LONERGAN: Well, yeah. One thing I did was, I asked everybody I knew who
had directed a movie what they wished they had known before they started, and
Matthew Broderick, who's my best friend, said, `Make sure that they schedule
important scenes in a way that you're comfortable with. Make sure that they
give important scenes enough time during the day,' because the schedule is
incredibly important, especially in a low-budget movie. We had a 28-day
shoot, and the first assistant director, who is the person who basically runs
the set, is in control of the schedule, and he--you know, you have 200 scenes
and you have to shoot all of them, and you only have 28 days to do it, and
there's all these locations that have to be juggled. It's really pretty
interesting, and the schedule changes quite frequently due to circumstance,
and every time you have a scene outdoors, you have to schedule a--I forget now
what it's called, but you have to schedule a scene that can be shot indoors if
it rains that day, and--a cover set, they call it.
Anyway, so the last scene in the movie, which is the scene where Terry and
Sammy say goodbye to each other, which is on a bench outside and is as
important as any scene in the movie, was scheduled for day five, and if I
hadn't been warned by Matthew to check out the schedule for just that thing, I
wouldn't have known--I would have gotten to day five and seen we were shooting
this hugely important scene and none of us had even sort of gotten to know
each other yet. So I made the first A.D. team move the scene two weeks back,
which both the actors were very happy about.
And the other thing is just literally how much time during the day was set
aside for these scenes, and I sat down with the first A.D. when we had our
first meeting and said, `Look, I need a long time for this bench scene. I
need all day for this lunch scene, and I need a nice big chunk of time for the
scene where she throws him out of the house, so I got half the day for each of
those scenes, and if I hadn't asked--known to ask for that, I wouldn't have
got it, and I would have been in big trouble.
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the new
film, "You Can Count on Me." It won two prizes at Sundance, for best picture
and best screenplay.
Kenneth, let's take a break, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote
and directed "You Can Count on Me." He also plays a small part in the film, a
mild-mannered minister who counsels both Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo's
characters on separate occasions. Laura Linney's character, Sammy, is a
member of his church, and she asks him to speak with her troubled,
non-believing brother. In this scene, she goes to see him with problems of
(Soundbite of "You Can Count on Me")
Ms. LINNEY (As Sammy): I don't know what the church's official position is
on fornication and adultery these days, and I felt really hypocritical not
saying anything to you about it before, so what is the official position these
Mr. LONERGAN (As minister): Well, it's a sin.
Ms. LINNEY: Good. I think it should be.
Mr. LONERGAN: But we try not to focus on that aspect of it too much right
off the bat.
Ms. LINNEY: Why not?
Mr. LONERGAN: Well...
Ms. LINNEY: I think you should.
Mr. LONERGAN: Well...
Ms. LINNEY: I mean, maybe it was better when you came in here and they
screamed at you for having sex with your married boss. They told you what a
terrible thing it was. They were really mean to you. Maybe it would be
better if you told me I was endangering my mortal soul, and that if I don't
quit, I'm going to burn in hell. Don't you ever think that?
Mr. LONERGAN: Um, no.
Ms. LINNEY: Well, it would be a lot better than all this--'why do you think
you're in this situation' psychological bullshit you hear all the time.
Mr. LONERGAN: Well, why do you think you're in this situation?
Ms. LINNEY: With which one?
Mr. LONERGAN: All of them.
BOGAEV: Why'd you cast yourself in the movie?
Mr. LONERGAN: Well, I had the idea that it would be fun to do. I just--I
like acting when I get a chance. I don't do it professionally and I've never
pursued it, but I do enjoy it sometimes, and I thought it would be a fun part
to play, and I thought I could handle the material, so that's why I cast
myself. I was sort of sorry about it while we were shooting, because I was so
tense with everything else, but now that it's all over, I'm kind of glad I did
BOGAEV: For this minister character, were you drawing on any experience
you've had in the church, or with ministers?
Mr. LONERGAN: No. I did some re--I'm an atheist myself, so I was--my
interest in the religious point of view is from an outsider's perspective, and
like some other things that I'm interested in that--other opinions or points
of view that I don't share, what I'm interested in is how they correlate to my
point of view or to opposing points of view, and what are the similarities and
sort of how can you put yourself into the shoes of someone who just doesn't
see the world the same way that you do. Not being religious, but wanting the
character to be true to life, I did do some research. I talked to an
Episcopal priest that I know, and I kind of asked--I put the situation to her,
I said, `What would you do if someone came to you with this set of problems?
What would be your policy? What would be your response?' And she told me, you
know, she--and a lot of what she said is in the movie.
And I was just generally fascinated by what it's like to have the religious
point of view and to believe that there's a God looking after you who cares
about you and cares about everybody and really thinks that everything you do
is important. I think in some ways that's a wonderful--must be a wonderful
feeling. It's one that I don't happen to share--not that I don't think life
is important; I do--but that particular spin on it is not mine. I was brought
up in a very secular household and it's just not what I was brought up to
BOGAEV: That situation, a minister talking to someone--a person in trouble,
you expect to suddenly to drop into sitcom territory...
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah, but...
BOGAEV: ...and it doesn't. It's a surprise.
Mr. LONERGAN: Well, that's good, and I didn't ever--I mean, it's funny,
because never having had a movie out in the marketplace before, I've never
dealt with people's expectations based on other movies they've seen. I was
just trying to tell the story I was trying to tell, and there's--I've gotten a
lot of interesting comments about how the film plays with people's
expectations. You think one thing's going to happen, you think they're going
to be cliches and then they're not. And I never intended them to be cliches
or ever to seem like they were going to be cliches, and I--again, I don't
think that's--expectation is created in any way by the content of my movie,
but simply by the context of characters like this that you want--people have
seen in other movies. I'm not a kind of writer that tends to play around
with, you know, cultural archetypes, if you want to call it that, or pop
images. It's not what interests me. I'm just trying to kind of get into
what's going on with the people I'm writing about as if they were real.
And there was an interest--someone once asked me, did I deliberately call
Terry, `Terry' after Marlon Brando's character in "On the Waterfront," because
Mark Ruffalo is sort of a little Marlon Brandoesque, and it never would occur
to me to do anything like that, because why would I want, in the middle of my
movie, which is supposed to be about real people in a small town, to be
reminding people of Marlon Brando in a famous movie in the 1950s? I mean,
what could a reference like that possibly add to this particular story? But
it's funny how people's minds work.
BOGAEV: Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed "You Can Count on Me." It's up
for an Oscar for best original screenplay and best actress for Laura Linney.
We'll continue our conversation with Kenneth Lonergan in the second half of
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's get back to our interview with Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed
the new film "You Can Count On Me." It's up for an Oscar for best original
screenplay and best actress for Laura Linney. Lonergan's other screenwriting
credits include the original script for "Analyze This" and "The Adventures of
Rocky & Bullwinkle." He's also the author of the acclaimed off-Broadway play
"This Is Our Youth."
Laura Linney, in this film, is--I don't know whether she's better when she's
talking or when she's not talking. There's some scenes where she has no
dialogue at all, but she's just really interesting to watch; one in which
she's driving away after she had slept with someone, and she's thinking about
it. And you just watch her face go through a million emotions. And there's
another scene where she's just brushing her teeth after the same kind of
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah.
BOGAEV: And she just reveals so much doing that, of what she's thinking while
she's standing there brushing. Did you write these scenes just for her,
knowing what she can do, or were you pleasantly surprised when you saw her at
work on your screenplay?
Mr. LONERGAN: I was very pleasantly--I wasn't surprised, but I was very, very
pleased. I didn't write the part for her. I don't usually write parts for
particular actors. I try to just fit the actors to the parts that I've
written once they're written. But the first day or two of shooting, it
rained, so we moved from our plan A to plan B, which was to shoot various
scenes with Laura alone in the house. And the scene where she's had a
terrible fight with Terry and she's walking around in her room by herself,
desperate to talk to somebody about her situation, and there's nobody for her
to call. So she picks up the phone, and she tries to make two phone calls,
and she hangs up on both of the people whom she calls. And she was just
And the next day we shot a scene where she just arrives at a work site and
sees her son and brother hammering away at some planks, and she just watches
them and then kind of sneaks away without telling them she was there. And
after three days, I said, `Laura, you're amazing.' And she said, `Well, I
haven't done anything yet.' And she really had because she just--I'm amazed
when actors can do those kinds of scenes because there's nobody else there;
there's 20 people watching you; there's a camera in your face, and yet you're
doing this very real, very private behavior. And it's very much along the
lines of what I had written and then some, which is just very gratifying.
BOGAEV: I think she's rumored to write a whole book of notes about her
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah.
BOGAEV: ...and show up on the set with it? Did she?
Mr. LONERGAN: I believe I started that rumor. It's not that she writes a
whole book. It's just that her script is filled with notes on, you know, all
the margins, very detailed, very thorough. She just works really, really
hard. And then she shows up and is ready to throw it all away if something
different happens between her and the other actors.
And I just also want to say that her and Mark Ruffalo are such a wonderful
pair. They just worked off each other so well. There's such a delightful
contrast between them and such a great working and off-stage relationship
between them. At least that was--I think that's one of the big strengths of
the film, is just how good they are with each other. And he also has this
incredible ability to throw himself into the scene and really give himself
over to the other actor and let things happen that are unplanned between them
in the behavior, not in the dialogue because I don't allow that. But in the
behavior, it's very much this wonderful spontaneity that goes back and forth
between them, which is based on the homework they've done and, also, their
skill in giving over to the situation they're in.
BOGAEV: Mark Ruffalo also starred in your off-Broadway play "This Is Our
Youth," and he was another feckless kind of character in that play.
Mr. LONERGAN: Yes.
BOGAEV: In his acting, he comes off as very intelligent and, at the same
time, very stoned, which is hilarious. He also somehow seems ashamed of
himself and his intelligence. Is that something he developed in the play?
Mr. LONERGAN: I think he's--I mean, I think that characterization is true of
both of the parts that he played, although the characters are pretty different
in some ways. I mean, one's a 19-year-old Jewish kid from the Upper West Side
and very wealthy, comfortable background, and the other is a small-town
drifter with no parents and no roots anywhere. But they are both potheads,
and they are both very bright, and they're also both very self-destructive.
And he's just got a real feel for those characters. There's something about
him that just latches on to the essence of those people and just brings them
to life. It's just remarkable what he does.
BOGAEV: You wrote the off-Broadway play "This Is Our Youth" about these three
kids who are just out of high school, slumming it in New York. They're kind
of post-slacker youths.
Mr. LONERGAN: I think they're pre-slacker. We had never heard that term in
1982, but anyway--yes.
BOGAEV: Really? I guess you're right.
Mr. LONERGAN: Oh, yeah.
BOGAEV: You're right, you're right. Right.
Mr. LONERGAN: I never heard it. It might have been around, but I was stoned
at the time, and I wasn't paying any attention. So we were out of it.
BOGAEV: Well, that kind of prompts my next question. "This Is Our
Youth"--was that your youth?
Mr. LONERGAN: Very much so. I'm not on stage, but those characters are very
much based on my friends and myself at that time, and that is exactly the life
that I led when I was in my late teens and early 20s. But one of the things I
was interested in the play was how people from my background can do extreme
things and take a lot of horrible risks and do a lot of stupid,
self-destructive things, and they can always bounce back, unless they really,
you know, kill themselves or are killed or become serious drug addicts,
because there's always the money to give you a second chance, whether it's,
you know, to go to college whenever you want for the rest of your life or to
get any kind of training. There's always a cushion, which I think makes the
kids a little more reckless in some way. You know, other kids from less
privileged backgrounds do that kind of stuff, and they do go to jail and end
up drug addicts and die, and that was something I thought was kind of
BOGAEV: The kids in "This Is Our Youth" are really cynical and really turned
off by the '80s yuppie culture, the rush to Wall Street.
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah.
BOGAEV: Was that your experience? Was it a depressing time for you, at
Mr. LONERGAN: It was interesting because we were very interested in a lot of
things, and we were very interested in life. But later on, I noticed that
none of us--there was no adult world that we wanted to be a part of. I think
those of us who are artistically inclined are interested in being writers or
actors. But in terms of there being a bigger world out there that we thought
was great, that we wanted to join up with, we didn't have that. And you don't
get that sense when you think about kids from the '30s or '40s or '50s. It's
not that the world was better then. I just think that the adult world was the
world you wanted to be a part of, and people were in a hurry to grow up. And
something flipped in the '60s, and now everybody's very anxious not to grow up
too fast, or at least at that point we weren't. I don't know what it's like
for 19-year-olds nowadays. But that was something that I thought was kind of
interesting and possibly new to young people.
BOGAEV: Now how did you support yourself while you were kind of bumming
around New York and, I guess, trying to get into theater? I understand that
you wrote speeches for a while for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah. I took a year off college right away because I didn't
want to go to college; I wanted to be a playwright. And I moved back home to
New York, and I lived with my parents, and if I wasn't going to be in college,
I had to work. So I got a job as a backstage doorman for the Shubert
Organization, and a year of that convinced me that it was a lot easier going
to college. So I went back to college.
Mr. LONERGAN: It was incredibly boring.
BOGAEV: Need a lot of coffee, that's right.
Mr. LONERGAN: Well, it's just so boring. Working is awful, you know. You
show up to work, and you hate it and it's miserable and there's nothing to do
and you're bored the whole time, for eight hours a day, and that was actually
a six-day-a-week job. And I thought it would be OK because I could just read.
I was a daytime doorman, so I only had people in the building twice a week, as
opposed to the night backstage doorman. So I read a lot, and I smoked a lot
of pot on the job, which makes the hours pass extremely slowly. So it was
just not a good situation.
And so I went back to school. I went to NYU this time. And when I graduated
in 1985, I didn't have--I was very depressed, didn't have any work at all, and
I felt horrible. And my parents had to start paying my rent, which was lucky
on the one hand that I was fortunate enough that they could do that; on the
other hand, quite humiliating, you know, at the age of 22 or whatever I was.
And then I finally got a job at the Environmental Protection Agency about four
or five months later doing speechwriting for the head of the region--I think
we're Region 2. We might be Region 1, which is New York, New Jersey, Puerto
Rico and the Virgin Islands. And that was great.
BOGAEV: That was great, writing for the EPA?
Mr. LONERGAN: Well, it was in a way because it was a job which required a
skill, and it happened to be my skill, and it was a very easygoing place to
work. And it felt like it had some importance, and it also enabled me to pay
my rent myself, which, you know, gives you a certain feeling of self-respect.
And I was extremely lax in terms of--I got all my work done, but I never asked
for any more. My friends all laughed at me because I used to take these
incredibly long lunches and show up to work very late. I sometimes would ride
my bicycle and go home and take a nap for lunch and then come back a couple of
hours later. So I was a terrible employee, although I did all my work. I
just did the absolute minimum. And it was really a lifesaving job for me, in
And then after that, I did some industrial writing, like speeches for
corporations and promotional videos and sketches for sales meetings and that
kind of thing. And I did that for a while, and then that worked right up
because I wasn't being too conscientious about it. And I finally borrowed
some money from my friends and family and decided to try to write a screenplay
for commercial purposes, and I wrote the first version of what became "Analyze
This." And I got an agent, and I started getting screenwriting work, and
that's how I've been supporting myself ever since. So that was the real
turning point for me financially.
BOGAEV: Can you give us an idea of what some of your industrial writing was
like? You wrote comedy vignettes for Fuji sales meetings.
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah, which is not easy. You know, they're not big laughers
over there at Fuji, although they were perfectly nice. Gosh, I wrote
speeches. I had to write a--first thing I ever did, I think, was I had to
write an in-house promotional presentation to the sales force of a new product
for low-fat butter. And the slogan, which I didn't come up with--Bob Cortez,
the extremely nice head of the company, came up with the slogan, but I wrote
off the copy--was, `A revolutionary product for a revolutionary time.' And
this was, basically, pitching low-fat butter, which I think was a quite
disgusting product, which didn't really work out too well because when you
liquify it, it just separated in some horrible way.
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah, it was awful. And, basically, you're telling the sales
force about the new product they're supposed to go out and sell. So that was
the first one I did. I think I wrote some parody of the Cole Porter song
"You're the Top" for some sales meeting for some company. Don't remember. It
was all words to "You're the Top," but it was using in-house `in' jokes, which
they supplied me with: names of people in the company and traits they had.
And I think I wrote some sketches for some--I really hated that comp--I much
preferred doing speechwriting for the EPA, but I hated the 9 to 5 hours
because it didn't leave me enough time for my own work. The industrial
writing, which was much more flexible and paid better, was just really painful
to try to do. The...
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah. Oh, God, it was very, very difficult. But, you know, in
a strange way, it was good training for screenwriting because if you really
have to, you can get interested in almost anything, even if it's a speech
about radon in people's basements or levels of, you know, toxic pollutants
coming out of smokestacks in New Jersey. You can get kind of interested in
just the structure of the speech, just, you know, here, you lay out the
problem; here, you develop the complications; here, you talk about the public
reaction, and then you wind it all up. I mean, there's something you can
figure out that's a little bit fun to work on. And it was so boring, that
stuff, that to then have to incorporate other people's notes that I didn't
agree with in screenplays later on in life, I think I had some real discipline
training making myself do things I didn't like to do, which has never been one
of my strong suits.
BOGAEV: Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated film "You Can
Count On Me." We'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Kenneth Lonergan. He directed and wrote the
screenplay for the new film "You Can Count On Me." It's up for an Oscar for
best screenplay; also, an Oscar for best actress for Laura Linney.
You were one of the 14 writers who worked on "Analyze This," the movie
starring Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal. It's kind of an idea similar to the
TV show "The Sopranos"; a Mafioso goes to therapy. You were the original
Mr. LONERGAN: Yes, I was the...
BOGAEV: This was your idea.
Mr. LONERGAN: It was my idea, that's right, way back in 1989. My stepfather
had told me an amusing anecdote about the only Sicilian psychoanalyst in New
York--my stepfather and mother are both psychoanalysts, Freudian
psychoanalysts. And he told me this story that, at one time, this Sicilian
psychoanalyst had been approached by--I don't remember--Vito Genovese or some
very big, famous, powerful Mafioso. And he had one session with this man, who
came in, and as soon as he walked into the office, the psychoanalyst said,
`Don't tell me anything. I don't want to know anything,' and that was the
whole session because he didn't want to know anything that he shouldn't know.
And I thought that sounded very colorful and interesting. And what if the guy
had decided to take on the patient, with the ensuing complications? And that
was my idea for "Analyze This," and that sort of got me started in
screenwriting, although the script itself was taken away from me subsequently,
as often happens in the world of screenwriting.
BOGAEV: What did you think of the movie?
Mr. LONERGAN: I haven't seen it.
BOGAEV: You have never seen this movie that you wrote?
Mr. LONERGAN: No, I've never seen it. I take perverse pleasure in never
having seen it. I've heard it's good, and I've heard that it bears some
resemblance to what I wrote 10 years ago. But I, for some reason, have no
pride--it's hard for me to have pride of ownership in something that's been
rewritten that much, and it's not a process that I approve of. And I don't
understand why I would be proud of it or feel any connection to it. Fourteen
writers is a lot of writers, and it's just not mine anymore. I wrote it to
make some money, and I made some money. And it would have been great if I had
made some money and it had been preserved intact and filmed, but it wasn't.
So I kind of enjoy telling people I've never seen it because they say, `What?
You've never seen it?' And then I can explain why I've never seen it.
BOGAEV: You worked on a production rewrite of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of
New York." What was your function? What did they need to change, and how did
you do it?
Mr. LONERGAN: I was the fourth of four--well, I still am--writing partners
that Scorsese has had on this project, which was originated by him and Jay
Cocks years ago and which they worked on for quite a long time and quite hard.
So I did very little to the structure of the film, but I was asked to come in
and work on the characters and the dialogue, and so that's what I did. I made
some structural changes, but not too much because they were basically going to
production a couple of weeks after I was brought on. So I was in Rome for
three months working on this with Marty and Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel
Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz, and that was very, very exotic for me, and they
were all very nice.
BOGAEV: Well, how does that work? You're in a hotel room in Rome, and you
guys are all trading ideas and you're writing it down, and then you go back
late at night and fix it...
Mr. LONERGAN: Yeah.
BOGAEV: ...or what?
Mr. LONERGAN: Something like that. I was in a hotel room in Rome, and my
wife is out every day seeing the most amazing sights in the world, and I'm
working on this script. And then more often than writing in the hotel, I
would go to Jeani Ge Ta(ph), which is the studio outside Rome where they're
shooting the film, and I would have a little office there. And I would, you
know, sit there, and I would work on the script, and then I would get called
in for meetings about the scenes that I had written. And we would sit around;
me and Marty and Leo and Daniel would all sit around in a room and read the
scenes and talk about them. And I would go make adjustments and changes.
And, you know, you just sort of keep bringing it in until everybody's happy
with it, and then they go to the set and shoot the scene and change it all
anyway, which is fine.
I was--that was a very happy experience because I was brought in very late to
help out on their movie, and that's what I was trying to do. So I didn't feel
any pride of ownership in the material, but I was very happy when what I did
was liked and seemed to be helpful and when I felt, you know, good about the
work. It's hard to feel unhappy when you're sitting in a chair behind Martin
Scorsese, who is planning his shots for his movie about 19th-century New York
City gangs. It's a very exciting thing to be part of.
BOGAEV: Kenneth Lonergan, it's been a lot of fun talking to you today. Thank
Mr. LONERGAN: Well, thanks very much. This is great.
BOGAEV: Kenneth Lonergan. His film, "You Can Count On Me," is nominated for
two Oscars: best original screenplay and best actress for Laura Linney.
Lonergan's new play, "Lobby Hero," opens March 13th at Playwrights Horizons in
(Soundbite of "You're the Top")
Unidentified Singer: You're the top, you're Mahatma Gandhi. You're the top,
you're Napoleon brandy. You're the purple light of a summer night in Spain.
You're the National Gallery, you're Garbo's salary, you're cellophane. You're
sublime, you're a turkey dinner. You're the...
BOGAEV: Coming up, a review of the Blue Note recordings of tenor saxophonist
Don Wilkerson. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New jazz collection, "Don Wilkerson's Complete Blue Note
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson was born just inside Louisiana Cajun country
in 1932 and grew up in Louisiana and Texas. Starting in his teens, he worked
with blues men Amos Milburn and Charles Brown before he joined Ray Charles in
1954. He took the saxophone solos on Charles' hits "I've Got A Woman" and
"Hallelujah, I Love Her So(ph)." In the early 1960s, Wilkerson recorded one
LP for Riverside and three for Blue Note, but he was largely forgotten by the
time he died in 1986. His Blue Note albums have now been reissued. Jazz
critic Kevin Whitehead likes what he hears.
(Soundbite of jazz music)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Now that most jazz classics and even second-tier jazz oldies have been
reissued on CD at least once, a few labels with large back-catalogs are
digging deep in the vaults and offering up some real oddities. For example, a
new release from Blue Note's Connoisseurs series includes an album by pianist
Andrew Hill with vocal choirs and a double-disc set by George Braith, who
sometimes played two saxes at once, a sort of poor person's Rashsaan Roland
And then there's the real find: "Don Wilkerson's Complete Blue Note
Sessions," three LPs on two CDs.
(Soundbite of jazz music)
WHITEHEAD: Don Wilkerson was a Texas blues man through and through, a side of
his personality played up on two albums he recorded in 1962. His ripping
saxophone style is not too different from his work with Ray Charles. He's no
neglected genius, but he had a great feel and good tone, and his
back-to-basics approach presented fresh challenges to his side folk. That
boogie-woogie rhythm section we just heard is not a bunch of down-home blues
grinders, but some very hip, New York modernists: pianist Sonny Clark,
bassist Butch Warren(ph) and drummer Billy Higgins. The guitarist on all
these sessions is Grant Green, who was always up to his neck in the blues.
Jazz and rock 'n' roll often seem like distant cousins, but these progressives
made them sound like twins.
(Soundbite of jazz music)
WHITEHEAD: Don Wilkerson's other 1962 session included "San Antonio Rose" by
Bob Wills of The Texas Playboys. Wills had put the western in
country-and-western music, but always considered himself a jazz musician, to
the point of having mixed feelings about being inducted into the Country Music
Hall of Fame. But only a few jazz musicians ever took a stab at the country
and pop standard "San Antonio Rose." Don Wilkerson's version features another
rhythm player cast against type, Latin drummer Willie Bobo. He helps that
western swing anthem "Do The Mambo."
(Soundbite of jazz music)
WHITEHEAD: You could lift a lot of fingerprints off that one. Jazz, blues,
rock 'n' roll, Latin and western music all combine without straining. Don
Wilkerson's third Blue Note LP from 1963 broke the formula that didn't need
fixing. As if to verify his jazz credentials, this time he accommodated
himself to the rhythm section instead of the other way around. He's more than
up to it, but organist John Patton's trio sounds a little under the weather,
and the album lacked the loony excitement of Wilkerson's other dates. It was
his last Blue Note session and his last shot at the big time, at least while
he was alive. But this year he's really back. His 1960 album, the "Texas
Twister," will be issued in the fall.
If his eclectic approach seemed a little too odd or populist back when,
nowadays it sounds right on time.
BOGAEV: Kevin Whitehead currently lives in Chicago. He reviewed "The
Complete Blue Note Sessions of Don Wilkerson."
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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