An Interview with Tony Kushner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Tony Kushner is one of our greatest living writers, as well as one of America’s most important artistic and intellectual voices. Having written perhaps the greatest play of the past 30 years, Angels in America, in 1993, Kushner has spent the ensuing years writing several more plays, trying his hand at screenwriting (Munich, Lincoln), engaging in progressive political discourse, and receiving a National Medal of Arts from President Obama.

By his own admission, he also “gets very enthusiastic about the things I get enthusiastic about”. And, after seeing Margaret several years ago, he became very enthusiastic about it. Which, if you’re Tony Kushner, means getting involved. He publicly and privately declared it a masterpiece, moderated a Q & A with the cast following a screening in 2012, and, when Kenneth Lonergan approached him to write an introduction to the film’s published screenplay, he quickly said yes.

His introductory essay, which any Margaret fan would do well to go out and read immediately, is to my mind the single best thing that has ever been written about the film. Kushner hits the nail on the head right from the start—describing the film as “one of those works of art possessed of a force that can’t be accounted for by inventorying its many virtues, a force the unruly energy of which threatens the work’s perfection”—and then proceeds to elucidate and examine the film’s themes, designs, and patterns. Like the film itself, Kushner’s essay is one of astounding depth, curiosity, and compassion—and does what any good introduction should set out to do: it makes you want to read (or watch, or re-watch) Lonergan’s masterpiece immediately.

Thus, when we set out to create an entire issue devoted to Margaret, we knew we had to try and speak with Kushner. Thankfully, he was more than willing to talk some more about the film, going on well past the allotted time we were initially given with him. And, as I quickly found, he thinks out loud—tangentially, in fits and starts—every bit as intelligently, passionately, and insightfully as he writes.

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BW/DR: I was wondering if you could tell us about the first time you saw Margaret?

Tony Kushner: I first saw it in a screening room. I’d heard about it, of course, it was sort of legendary already. Kenny emailed me to say he was doing a screening of it, and asked me if I’d like to see it. I said I’d love to, and then he quickly sent me a follow-up email saying “Great. But it’s horrible and this is a terrible version of it” and he just went on and on about how bad he thought it was going to be.

And then I went and I was completely blown away by it. So I wrote him back and said—and this is a word I don’t use very often—I said, you know, this is a masterpiece. Then I got another email from him saying “Well ok, but it’s terrible compared to the original…” and so on. I wrote back and said “Hey, take a compliment.” (laughs)

So the first version you saw was the theatrical one?

Yes, the version with some stuff removed. Once the DVD came out, I watched the one I had already seen again and then went on and watched the longer version with the restored footage.

And you thought the original theatrical version was already a masterpiece?

I did. I think there’s some stuff in the longer version that absolutely shouldn’t have been removed—like the scene in the drama class, which I think is a great loss because of the sheer brilliance of the writing, but also in terms of the scene itself—but I also think there are some things in the first version that I really loved, especially the scoring of it, the music that Nico Muhly had written. So now I just tell people to get the DVD and watch both versions of it.

You don’t necessarily have a favorite between the two?

Well you know, I really don’t. I mean if someone is thinking they’re not ever going to watch two versions of the same film, I would say just watch the second one, because I think there is stuff that was cut out of the first one that is of real value to the arc of the story. But in the final analysis, I think they both deliver you to a fairly similar emotional place. Though Kenny might murder me for saying that. (laughs)

But I don’t think that’s necessarily a vindication of the people who insisted the film had to be a certain length—and I don’t mean to say that the producers who tortured him for eight years were right! To say that that vindicates the type of rough treatment he received only works if you believe that the whole point of a work of art is to get you to a certain place, and that the route you take is not of any significance. But of course, anyone who really knows what they’re talking about knows that the route, in almost all instances, is of equal importance to the destination.

How did you come to write the introduction to his published screenplay—was that something he approached you directly about?

The first time I met him was at some kind of benefit—at SoHo Rep maybe? He was sitting at a table and I walked up and said “Hi, I’m Tony Kushner, and I think you’re a really wonderful writer.” And he looked very startled and shocked, like “You do?!” I guess he assumed I wouldn’t have liked his work, but I don’t know why, because I do, and I told him that he’s really quite extraordinary. We were in touch a bit from that point on, we ran into each other at certain places, and we sort of became friendly. And then after I’d seen the film, I think he was moved by how much I adored it, and it kind of went from there. I get very enthusiastic about the things I get enthusiastic about, and if people want to use that, that’s fine.

Do you remember some of your initial thoughts about the film?

Well, I don’t know if Kenny agrees with me on this but I went on about it to some degree in my introduction—and then I interviewed the whole cast at a screening, and I’m not a very good interviewer and there were nine people and I didn’t know what the fuck I was supposed to be doing—but I led with one of the things that really struck me very forcefully, which was this issue of infantilizing; all these sort of slightly infantile adults in the film. They almost seem as childlike as the children: Joan’s baby imitation, Matt Damon with his bike, Matthew Broderick with his silly little briefcase.

And the orange juice he drinks during class, too.

Exactly, the juice box. And I thought that was a really legitimate thing, so I stupidly asked the cast about it. I remember Jeannie Berlin looking at me—and you know, Jeannie Berlin always looks at you like “I’m gonna be nice here, but you’re full of shit”—and Mark Ruffalo just staring at me. They all just basically looked at me like, we don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.

So that question didn’t land.

No, that one didn’t land. (laughs) Though I still think it’s true. I think there’s a judgment being rendered in a way, though Kenny is too large-spirited and talented to make it into some kind of Rebel Without a Cause, “These kids are rotten because of their parents” thing. But I think there is absolutely a way in which the rootlessness and deep moral confusion in which these teenagers are adrift—some of which is ascribable simply to the condition of being a teenager—has to do with the parents. Though the glory of the film is more in the direction of larger, ahistorical themes, to the extent that you can say anything is ahistorical, rather than an indictment of modern child-raising practices. But to the extent that there is a sense that there’s a modern quality of being sort of overwhelmed and adrift, I think that Kenny traces a path back from the kids to the parents. And he does it without being obvious or clunky about it, or without ever abandoning the empathic imagination he extends to everyone he writes about.

There’s this incredible specificity to what he does. He’s very subtle and never beats you over the head with anything, even though there’s always so much going on.

Yeah, definitely.

Not just in Margaret, but throughout all his films and plays.

All of them, yeah.

And there’s always this very real interest in the messiness of life, and rarely a strong, firm moral center to things. It’s always complicated.

I wouldn’t necessarily agree that there’s no moral center. There’s certainly no apparent design or didacticism. I hate to say this, because it sounds so corny, but it’s a little like Chekov in that regard. You feel like you’re looking at life actually happening. I mean on some level it’s a glimpse into a place, a room, a conversation that you feel like you’re not actually supposed to be listening in on, that it’s just life happening right in front of you. But then you start to realize that there are all these designs and patterns and themes that are being developed throughout the course of it. I mean it’s not like Chekov just laid out a slab of turn-of-the-century Russian life for people either; they’re actually these incredibly intricate works of art.

So, what I wanted to do in the introduction was to write about Margaret as a shaped literary work, because I think that’s part of what’s so magical about his writing: it takes the experience of the entirety, and sometimes a couple of viewings, to begin to really read it as something with a thesis that’s being developed, a statement or an argument that’s being made, a dialectic that’s being shaped. The nice thing about reading the screenplay is it’s all right there on the page and you can read it and it’s not being overwhelmed by all these astonishing performances—any number of which should have been nominated for every award on the planet, and should have won. Like Allison Janney, I mean she’s one of the greatest actors on the planet. That moment where they tell her she’s been in an accident and she goes “You’re fucking kidding me!” And that death, I mean the way she dies, it’s terrifying. I don’t know how she does it, but she’s amazing. And Jeannie Berlin, who is to die for. I live on the Upper West Side and I live in the middle of all these kinds of women, and you just never see them onscreen, and then suddenly there she is. I thought she was just phenomenal. And J. Smith-Cameron is a great actress and I loved her in this, Anna Paquin was amazing, Mark Ruffalo was brilliant, and Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick. It’s an amazing cast.

Absolutely. But it’s also incredible that you can strip all that away, and there’s still such a pull to it, just in the dialogue itself. I started reading the screenplay on a whim a few months ago—having already seen the film several times—and even knowing the story, I just couldn’t put it down. I ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting.

Right. And Kenny’s writing also has these places in it, like Chekov again, where in spite of the incredible naturalism of it all, it will just lift you up somewhere. You think about This is Our Youth and that amazing monologue at the end. You can feel all sorts of things while watching that play—including “Why am I spending all this time in the company of these slackers?”—and then at the very end the whole thing is launched into the stratosphere by this absolute poem of a monologue that is still completely within the syntax and the rhetoric of everyday speech, and it’s dazzling. It’s very familiar and very intimate.

I think the cinematic correlate to this—and one of the things I remember just adoring the first time I saw Margaret, even though I didn’t know what the fuck it meant—are all those shots of Manhattan at night that it keeps going off into. Where the camera just kind of lifts up and is sort of saying to you “There is another perspective from which life can be viewed.”  And from that perspective it has a kind of meaning that it may not have in the welter of doing things to other people and having things done to you by other people, but if we could lift up and see the world the way that God sees it, or the way a great artist sees it, that there’s something else at work here. I mean you go back to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, or the ecstatic thing that happens at the end, at the opera.

Well, you say in your introduction “There’s a theological discussion to be had about Margaret but to wander into it would be to overstay my welcome.” Could we maybe wander into it a bit here?

(laughs) You actually picked up exactly on something that I removed. I think if I remember correctly, and I’m not sure, but I think it got into a theological thing that Kenny was not comfortable with, and so I removed it because I wasn’t writing a review, I was writing an intro to his script, and I wanted him to be comfortable with it.

Ah, ok. Because I know he’s said in the past that he’s an atheist, but there are certainly a few religious things that sort of peek through the framework of the film.

Yeah, I think I actually had a whole section—if I can find it I’ll send it over—but in the end I removed it. But you know, when you use a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem for the title of your film you’re certainly inviting people to assume that there’s a religious…something going on there, because every Hopkins poem was so profoundly based on his faith. But yeah, I had a whole thing on that.

I wanted to talk a bit about the ending too. You write about it in your introduction, but I wanted to unpack it a little more with you.

Sure.

Well, I guess I’m wondering if you feel like that last scene is one of genuine catharsis for Lisa and her mom? Or do you feel like there might be some play-acting going on—since these are two fairly dramatic people—and that they’re sort of borrowing some emotion from the heightened power of the opera to enhance the moment—that they’ll wake up the next day and everything will be back to normal?

Well it won’t go back to normal. Because as we were just saying, there is no going back. You can’t stick your finger into the same river twice. They will be different. Joan will get older, and Lisa is going to eventually become a full-grown woman. And what her role in Monica’s death was is going to be something that she’s going to have to work on for the rest of her life.

But I don’t know, I think it’s complicated for the audience watching it. I think you’re meant to have a double experience of it, I don’t think there ever is any pure catharsis. I mean, you go to the opera and your heart is sort of torn out by something really astonishing, but at the same time you’re also aware of the craft and the skill and the artificiality of all of it. So I think it’s both. I think you’re meant to feel, and you do feel, that it’s a very important moment for both characters—because artifice doesn’t obscure that. Everything we do is artificial on many levels.

You talk about how, in that moment, “scene-painting and counterfeit work their magic,” but then you end the whole thing with that question, which the Hopkins’ poem gets at as well: Who, or what, is she mourning for?

Yeah, you don’t know. You’re left with the clearest visual correlate for catharsis that we have, which is applause, and you feel that something has broken there, that a shift is happening in front of you. As you knew had to happen, because the pressure just keeps building and building up on this kid, and she’s kind of impossible but also nobody is being particularly careful with her.

It’s basically a coming of age story, but it appeals to me enormously because Kenny manages to both embrace the wonderfulness and beauty of adolescence and the shaping of an adult—how glorious it is, and what a great triumph it is for all of us that anybody survives their childhood or their adolescence. Because for the vast majority of human history, most kids didn’t. And even today, when you see an intact 21-year-old, you’re almost like “Wow, good for us. We managed to at least not destroy all hope for the future.” (laughs)

But at the same time, the thing that’s so stunning in the Hopkins’ poem is that it’s a terrible process of loss, and a terrible experience: that every human being, as they pass through these stages of development is, in every stage, sort of miraculous and full of promise but also dangerous and full of all sorts of powers they themselves don’t understand yet—or don’t have the internal emotional constructs to wield safely in the world—and that they pass out of each of these phases and into the next one and each time it’s like a little death, a little whiff of mortality, and leaves you grieving things. It’s both a great triumph and a great, aching loss. And I think Margaret just gets at that so fantastically.

As you’re saying that I’m reminded of that great old Judith Viorst book, Necessary Losses, have you read that by any chance?

No, I remember Judith Viorst but I don’t think I’ve read that.

The subtitle of the book is “The loves, illusions, dependencies, and impossible expectations that all of us have to give up in order to grow.”

Oh wow.

And she basically takes you through the life cycle, from birth to old age, going through all the various losses inherent in each stage of our development—which seems to get at exactly what you were just saying.

Right, and how it happens for everyone. And in a way it’s true of New York City itself, and I guess of the world really, that moving through time means leaving behind a great deal that was cherished—as well as stuff that was really horrible—so that one is always in a state, on this earth, of grief and mourning. And I think the film really speaks to that powerfully.

(Editor’s Note: this interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity)