Kenneth Lonergan on You Can Count on Me

Kenneth Lonergan, the writer and director of You Can Count on Me (2000) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Twenty years ago, right around this time of year, I walked into a small arthouse theater in Seattle to watch an independent film I’d been hearing a lot of good things about. This was not a particularly uncommon thing for me to do at the time—I was 22, recently graduated from college, and working at the kind of video store where everybody talked excitedly about movies all day long. But it was certainly no guarantee that the movie itself would actually be any good. I’d had as many hits as misses using this system, and as the film was from a first time writer/director, there was no real way to know what I was in for.

Turns out, what I was in for one was of the more memorable moviegoing experiences of my life. The patient, realistic, precise way Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me captured all the messy dynamics of familial attachment—down to the very smallest of conversational gestures and details—felt revelatory to me at the time. And now, far older than I ever imagined myself being, it seems to resonate even more.

So, when I realized that You Can Count on Me was turning 20 years old in November, I reached out to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan to see if he’d be willing to do an extended interview about making his very first film. As always, he was exceedingly gracious with his time, and over the course of several hours last month we pieced together an oral history of sorts about the movie that launched his filmmaking career.

To begin at the beginning, where did you get your start as a writer?

Well, I’d wanted to be a writer since I was in the fifth grade. I wrote a lot of science fiction from fifth through eighth grade, and then in ninth grade I wrote voluminously, a lot of knock offs of other people’s sci-fi novels, thousands of pages. One day, my grandma showed me an advertisement for a one-act play contest at the Thacher School in Ojai, California—and I knew that Ojai was where the Bionic Woman was from, so I decided I had to enter that contest. I wrote a one-act play, a knock-off of Network, which I’d just seen, and won third prize and a hundred dollars and I thought, Well, this is for me. And I pretty much moved on to playwriting from that point on. 

I also had a really great theater teacher in 10th grade and he let me write things and we’d put them on in high school, and then I wrote a play with him in 11th grade and that was very encouraging.

With your theater teacher?

Yeah, which was a really generous and wonderful thing for him to do. And then that was our fall production our senior year.

It’s amazing how often I hear that from people, especially writers, that there was always a supportive teacher or two who took an interest in them or their work and made them kind of take the whole thing more seriously at some point.

That’s really, really true. He was a really exceptional teacher. And then I also had Patsy, Matthew Broderick’s mom, who I talk about a lot—and she was very instrumental to me in every possible way, from a very young age until right before she died in 2003. She always helped me, and I showed her everything I wrote pretty much from 10th grade on. She was really brilliant and just incredibly generous.

I remember last year when we spoke, you mentioned that she was the one who showed you The Heartbreak Kidit seems like there’s nothing I can ask you about that doesn’t lead back to her in some way?

I know, she’s all over my life, truly.

And I think I remember reading that at some point in high school you actually wrote a one-act play that wasn’t entirely dissimilar to You Can Count on Me?

Oh yeah, that’s right. It’s called The Rennings Children and it ended up being in the Young Playwrights Festival, the very first year they did it in the United States. I submitted it right before I turned 18 and then it was put on the following year. It’s about a brother and a sister, and the sister is kind of staid and the brother is in lots of trouble. So, there’s definitely a similar dynamic—but don’t ask me where it comes from because there’s no dynamic in my family like that that I’m aware of.

So just trying to trace the evolution of the film…there’s some of that same dynamic in that first play?

Yeah, very much so. It’s funny—I’m sure there’s some psychological trail I could find or that you could pick up on. But basically, the brother is in a mental hospital and the sister is trying to get him out, and she’s sort of over-dedicated her life to helping him out, to the point where she ends up being not helpful and pushing him too far. The domestically settled sister and the roaming, troubled brother is a thing that seems to have cropped up a few times in my work over the years.

And that scene where they first meet in the restaurant, that was originally it’s own one-act play as well at some point?

That’s correct, yeah. The first iteration of the story was a one-act play, about 12 pages long. It was essentially the restaurant scene from the movie, plus the bench scene at the end, plus a couple of pages that were ultimately cut out of the movie version.

I belonged to this theater company called Naked Angels, and every year we’d do an evening of short plays, between 10 and 15 minutes, all gathered around a very broad theme. I wanted to write this particular play for an evening on the theme of “faith” and thought of this basic story, with Terry and Sammy, but oddly enough was then unable to write it. So I wrote something else that was very different—and then six months later sat down and wrote the You Can Count on Me stuff all in one sitting, the restaurant scene and then what later became the ending of the film. I truly, honestly don’t understand how that works.

So we put that one-act version on at the West Bank Theater with Missy Yager, who was in the first production of This Is Our Youth, and a great actor named Matt Dawson. And I really liked it, so I was hoping to do something else with those characters, Terry and Sammy, after that. It was directed by Geoff Nauffts, but we all just sort of worked together on everything, so I was definitely there all the time. 

And at that point, and I don’t mean this in a critical way, but the reputation you tend to have now as being a very particular writer—who really wants lines said the way you’ve written them—was that present at 18 years old?

[laughs] No, I wasn’t really like that. But I always had a sense of what the main outline of what was going on in a scene ought to be, or what it couldn’t be, if the scene was to be realized along the lines that it had been written. So, I mean, no, I was never any good at saying Here it is, do what you want. And there’s really not much reason to be. You get very territorial when you’re young—or I guess maybe I’m always pretty territorial. I had a pretty clear idea of how what I’m writing should go. I wasn’t always right, but it always felt funny to give something to a total stranger, and then get into arguments with them about it. I mean, we’re talking about a 12-page thing here.

The flip side of that is, it’s not fair. If you don’t want to direct it you should let the other person direct it, not be a backseat driver driving them insane. If you want to do that, you should just direct it yourself. So, I slowly realized I was being unfair both to others and to myself.

And what time frame are we talking about here?

Well we’re actually taking a jump in time here. This would be around 1995 or so now. I saw The Cryptogram, the David Mamet play, and it had a little kid in it. And while I was watching it, somehow or other I had the idea of giving Sammy a son, and having Terry get involved with the son in both a good way and a bad way, and I thought that would make for an interesting dynamic. As soon as I had that thought, I felt like I had an entire movie right away, which was a very exciting feeling.

So it was definitely going to be a movie then, from the start?

It was always going to be a movie even though it was based on the one-act, because the town itself plays such a big part of the story—what it meant to him and what it meant to her—and it’s hard to convey a sense of a town’s outdoor atmosphere in a play. I always saw their relationship to the town and to the scenery too—I wanted it to be in a very beautiful setting that felt constrictive to him but calming and secure to her—and I didn’t know how in the world to do that in a play.

There are so many shots of the town throughout the film, was that in the original script or something you came up with in the process of making it?

Both. For some scenes everything changes when you get to the location. I think the film follows the script pretty closely. You structure what you’re going to shoot based on the screenplay, for me anyway, and then once you get there sometimes other things occur to you.

This is kind of hard to articulate, so hopefully you’ll understand what I’m trying to get at here, but there’s a…feeling to the overall movie that is very distinct. And I guess I’m wondering how much of that is in your head as you’re writing the script? I recently read someone refer to it as “precise and messy.”

[laughs] Yeah.

I loved that description because it doesn’t feel messy overall, as a film—if anything, it feels quite composed—but the scenes themselves often feel very realistically messy.

I’d written several screenplays by then—not that many, but enough to be comfortable with it. But I think one thing that changed over time, since this was my first film, is the number of scenes I could see clearly in visual terms. Compared to later screenplays I wrote, it was pretty small. Once I’d been a director, I started thinking much more visually about things. 

But as far as the general feel of it, all I remember is that I wanted to keep it simple visually, because I didn’t feel capable of handling anything else—I thought I’d just fuck it up if I tried to do anything fancy. And then with one of the cinematographers I was interviewing for the movie, I said, “I don’t know how anything works. I never watch movies for the shots, I’ve never noticed.” So it was wonderful for me because it ended up being a real education in cinema. I’m a big rewatcher of movies, so I started watching movies that I liked and knew very well and was suddenly like Oh shit, oh my God…I’d watch a scene and see things I’d never noticed—how two people were never actually in the same frame together, but the film would just cut back and forth between them. Or I’d notice that one scene was a two-shot, and that they’d somehow turned the two people around a couple times without cutting. And just that simple choreography, I’d never paid the slightest attention to before, ever, in a whole lifetime of watching movies. So that was really fun to begin to learn about back then. I was told just to watch my favorite movies and steal shots from them, because it would never look the same any way.

Solid advice.

It really was. And the two movies that felt “right” to me, or that felt the most to me like what this movie felt like in my head, were A Coal Miner’s Daughter and Five Easy Pieces. And then there’s that big homecoming scene in The Best Years of Our Lives

Oh God, yeah.

I watched that movie a lot, because the return home is such a big part of that movie, and in You Can Count on Me his return home is supposed to be a very big deal as well.

You were watching these after you’d written it, but before you started making it?

Yeah, this was all afterwards, when it occurred to me that I’d actually have to think of shots. [laughs]

So when you’re writing this small personal script, did you always just assume you’d direct it? How did you make the jump into that whole world? 

Well, I’d been writing plays at that point for about 15 years, so I’d written a lot of them, including many that were never produced anywhere because they weren’t that great. So, This Is Our Youth wasn’t the first play I wrote, it was probably like the 20th. And in fact, I wrote The Waverly Gallery before I wrote This Is Our Youth. I often forget that myself actually. But I think that was my first good play—though I wrote two earlier plays that I liked a lot and would still like to find a way to put on somewhere, somehow, some day. But anyway, I was comfortable with scenes and working with actors, and had done a lot of backseat driving over the years. 

I had two friends who directed movies for the first time in the previous couple of years, both with low budgets, and they had been able to do them fairly easily because this was a time when there was a real boom in independent filmmaking. So, suddenly it became something very imaginable to direct your own movie—and I also knew, having made a living as a screenwriter for five years before, that there was no point in writing something I cared about as a screenplay if I wasn’t going to direct it. Because I knew by then, very well, what happens to screenwriters when they sell their script to somebody else. So that combination of wanting more control than a writer should be asking for and knowing what happens to scripts when you sell them, and my friends being able to make movies and maintain some control, really all inspired me to try it myself. 

But I also had enough experience in the movie business at that point to understand that I could ask for what I wanted in terms of creative control, and if nobody was willing to give it to me, I didn’t have to go forward. I had a very clear understanding of what it was worth to me to get the movie done—and one thing it wasn’t worth to me was losing creative control. So if you know that, you might not end up with a movie being made, but you’re not going to end up with a movie you feel miserable about because you lost control of it. 

And then at some point Martin Scorsese gets involved, and I’m guessing that changed the dynamics around all of this?

Right, so this was my brilliant coup. [laughs] I knew that I needed a protector. John Hart, who was the original main producer of the film, wanted to make a movie of This Is Our Youth, so I said what about this script which I just finished instead? He and his partner read it and really liked it and wanted to produce it. They told me they’d give me final cut and said “If you get two movie stars we can probably raise about $3 million, if you get one movie star we can raise $2 million, and if you can’t get any stars we think we could probably get about $1 million.” Which I thought was great, to just say that right up front. Because what people usually say is We want to do it, we don’t care about movie stars. And then when it comes time to sign the contract, they say “Well you know we gotta have a movie star.” But they were very up front about it and I thought it sounded fair. 

Then they partnered with a now defunct, crooked company called Shooting Gallery, which went into bankruptcy shortly after You Can Count on Me came out, owing $10 million to lots of people, including some to me. And Shooting Gallery, who were paying for half the movie, weren’t willing to give me final cut—John Hart was, they weren’t. I knew I wouldn’t do it without final cut, but they wouldn’t do it if I had final cut. I already knew Scorsese by then, because I’d written a script for him which never ended up getting produced and he’d shown a very avuncular interest in me and had always been very good to me, so I had the idea of giving him final cut instead. 

A very good idea.

A great idea—because I knew he would protect me and not them [laughs]. But I also knew it would calm them down because he’s Martin Scorsese, and his name would be on it, so they knew he wouldn’t let it be a total piece of shit. They balked a little bit, because they didn’t want to pay for an executive producer, but he didn’t want a lot of money so in the end they were fine with it. And that made me feel really secure that I would have complete creative control. If you don’t have the power yourself, you have to get a protector. So that’s what I did.

And that worked well?

It worked very well. They were great. There was one casting dispute and one editing dispute that got pretty heated, but apart from that the rest of it was just pretty ordinary wrangling over this and that. But the security of knowing they had to convince me, rather than the other way around, was invaluable. 

So you would have been somewhere in your late 30s at this point?

It came out in November of 2000, so I would have been 38.

Which is pretty interesting—it’s really rare for a first time writer/director to release their first film at 38. It’s almost always these young directors in their 20s it seems.

I guess so. I didn’t think of it that way at the time and now that I’m almost 60, 38 doesn’t seem that old. [laughs] But I also think it was easier to do at that time. To send a screenplay around for a low budget production…that just sounds like doom to me now. You might get a nice check from Hollywood that you can live on for a couple of years, but that’s the end of your screenplay.

Well and also, to be fair, nothing about You Can Count on Me really feels like a “first-time movie.” So often those first-time efforts feel like first-time movies. But this felt like a mature, fully realized vision.

Well that’s certainly nice to hear. I mean, I was a nervous wreck on the set, completely unprepared for how time dominates everything on a movie set, from the moment you start until the day you wrap. You’re always racing against time. You have to be able to function as if there’s no financial gun to your head, even though there always is. It was a 28-day shoot, 6 days a week, and I was miserable the whole time. I swore I’d never do it again afterwards. But that was mostly just all anxiety—the pre-production was fine, the post-production was fine, the production itself though was…extremely nerve-wracking. Mostly because of the time pressure. Nobody on set was difficult though, the cast and crew were wonderful. 

I was also shocked by the division of interest that happens on a movie set, which I think more experienced directors probably manage to purge from their experience. But when you first walk in there you think that everybody’s going to be working on the same movie. So if you’re naive like I was, you’re shocked that the lighting department is in conflict with the first AD or whatever, and they’re clashing; or that the sound department and costume department are clashing about when to put the mic on somebody and where it should go. It’s shocking to me how much this happens. And I don’t think it happens on a Wes Anderson set or a Paul Thomas Anderson set or a Martin Scorsese set. It doesn’t happen with the real directors. But for me it feels like you’re at the mercy of this machine that isn’t in sync with itself. The mindset was less collaborative than I thought it would be, and it’s the most collaborative art form that’s ever existed—so I found that to be really bizarre. 

The prop guy on You Can Count on Me was my favorite though. He was fantastic. They were all very good creatively, but he was my favorite to work with for some reason.

Yeah, I watched an interview the other night from a few years ago where you talked quite proudly about getting these nice, crisp blue towels into the bathroom for one scene?

Oh yeah, that was great. That was a real lesson for me, because you know, my orientation was very much not visual—it’s orientated to the words and the script. I didn’t know you could convey the feeling of a scene just by having the towels look a certain way. I hoped you could, but I didn’t know. It was the crispness of them. Terry’s been on the road living out of a backpack for a year at least, and now he’s back in his sister’s house in this nice clean bathroom, and he feels like an alien. I said that to Mark, and being the wonderful actor he is, he knew exactly what I was talking about, so then we spent a tremendous amount of time just smoothing these blue towels, so they would look perfect. Mark looks all grubby and uncomfortable and these towels look perfectly smooth, and, to me, that conveys the entire point of the scene, without a single line of dialogue. So that was a real education—it’s not news to anybody who is used to thinking visually, but it was definitely news to me. 

And now it’s so much fun for me to explore the relationship between the visuals and the dialogue, discovering ways to tell a story visually. You know there’s a big, boring school of didactic thought which says Movies are visual, ergo you must not say it in dialogue, ergo blah blah blah, and that’s the boring version of it. But the exciting version of it is, you know, all the movies that you and I love and how they tell the story visually in a zesty, creative way, not just as a way to obey arbitrary rules.

And if you’re doing all of that right, by definition, the viewer isn’t really supposed to notice that you’re doing it. You just take that in as the reality of what you’re seeing.

That’s the theory anyway. It’s old-fashioned somewhat but it’s true. If you read books from cinematographers in the old days, they all pretty much say If you notice the cinematography then I’m not doing my job. And that’s kind of gone out of the window a little bit, not always in a bad way. 

Well certainly when you have a master, like Scorsese, I love when he calls attention to his shots.

Oh, God, yeah. It’s incredible.

But you know, so often when I see a film from a first time writer/director they’re putting these fancy, noticeable shots in there and at times it almost seems like the whole reason they wanted to make the movie was to use those shots.

Yeah, it’s just…such a deep art. And I knew it was going in, and I knew I shouldn’t fuck around with it [laughs]. I knew I had no fluency with visual language at the time. And in a funny way, if it at all looked like I knew what I was doing, it was because I had a very good idea of what I didn’t know and I didn’t try to push things. I knew what I liked—even then I was much more conversant with movies than with theater, I always have been. I didn’t quite know how to get what I wanted, but I knew what I wanted. I wanted it to look like real life, and real life doesn’t have a color palette—it has many palettes, wherever you go. 

Stephen Kazmierski, our cinematographer who did an incredible job with almost no time and no money, would talk about different ways the movie should look and he showed me the Duvall film, The Apostle, which is beautiful looking, but it’s very smoky and atmospheric the whole time—the lighting in his house is the same as the lighting in his church and the same as in the store. Steve loved how it looked and so did I, but I wanted our bank to look like a bank and the house to look like a house and the church to look like a church. And he immediately was like Oh ok, great. I didn’t know how to do that, but he did. We had a really wonderful collaboration, and he helped me out with so many things.

So I wanted to take you back to my own first experience with the movie, when it first came out. I was…let’s see…21 or 22, and I went to see it by myself one night. And at the time, or even now I guess, there just weren’t a lot of movies that focus in any real way on the adult brother-sister dynamic. Which is strange to think about, since so many of us have siblings, who were often just as much a part of our childhood as our parents. But it’s hardly ever focused on in movies. So once it started, I was all in. And then as it went on, I started to get that feeling I’m always chasing when I sit down to watch a movie, you know, this is for me. Whoever made this is absolutely speaking my language.

But whenever that happens, about halfway through, I always start worrying about the ending. I don’t know how you’re going to pull this off, but please just don’t ruin this.

[Laughs] I know, I know. That’s so true.

So when that final scene on the bench comes up, I’m still kind of holding my breath. And then the fact that you build up to, but then leave out, the obvious place where the characters would say the name of the movie to each other—that just made me so ridiculously happy. I wanted to start jumping up and down in the theater yelling “He didn’t do it! He didn’t have them say the name of the movie!” [laughs]

[Big laughter] Oh, thank you. Thank you. That was definitely on purpose.

But rewatching it recently, I really noticed how often you’re doing that, cutting out the obvious line or beat, or just entirely eliding a lot of the more maudlin moments in the story.  Nothing is ever beat over the head, ever. Right from the start, really, when the policeman comes to the house to tell the kids what’s happened, but instead of showing them finding out this awful news, you focus in on the policeman’s face as he’s trying to figure out how to tell her—and then right when he’s about to finally speak, it cuts to the next scene. And you’re doing things like that all the time, letting the audience piece things together for themselves. 

They usually can though!

But it’s so rare to watch a movie that understands that, and doesn’t go in for those big Hallmark-type moments. 

Well, you know, there’s a lot to talk about in there. Not overstating things was definitely a conscious choice, but it was guided by a couple of things. One, it clearly and totally ruins the scene, immediately, because it rings false. Which is partly because it doesn’t reflect anything that would likely ever happen in actual real life. People don’t tend to… [long pause] Ok, so did you ever see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock?

I was waiting for you to bring Star Trek up! It comes up in so many of your interviews, I wondered what I was doing wrong. [Laughs]

I’m probably usually bringing up Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is the one that I like, but Star Trek III is…not my favorite. But the moment I wanted to draw your attention to is this horrible thing they do to William Shatner, as an actor. He’s on the Enterprise and the Klingons have a bunch of prisoners down below on the planet, one of whom is his son, who they threaten to kill if Shatner doesn’t turn over the plans or whatever it is they want, and he says he won’t. So they kill his son while he’s on the communicator with them. And he says, “Did they kill him?” and the lieutenant says to him, “Yes, Captain, David is dead.” And then William Shatner has to say, “The Klingon bastards killed my son.” Now you tell me how anybody in the world is supposed to pull off that acting—hearing that his son has just been stabbed to death and having to say that line. That’s just impossible to do. 

So, in addition to it being probably not how somebody would react, how in the world do you do a scene where you tell a 14-year-old girl, the babysitter for Sammy and Terry who are inside playing, that those kids’ parents have just died. So that’s one thing. I don’t know how much you want to hear about this, because there’s a lot of thoughts I have about this.

Oh, please, as much as you want to say. I love all of this.

So the other thing is, like you just said, we all know what the policeman is going to say there, so what am I going to do with him saying it that’s not going to fuck it up? What I wanted the scene to show was that there’s a certain point, or certain times in life, where the grown-ups don’t really know what to say or do either. 

Which is something that shows up in all of your movies, in some way.

Right, it’s something that I’m obviously very interested in. So that scene is not about the direct impact of the kids getting the news that their parents have been killed—I have no idea how that would go. But I do know what it’s like to have more to say than I’m capable of saying, or have someone come up to me with news that they don’t want to tell me. It’s not impossible to write that other kind of scene, but as it happens here, that’s not what the scene is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about how he has no idea what to say.

But the other thing is that you can’t show 24 hours a day over a month in a movie, so when you select things to show you’re now creating a false impression about what’s happening in these people’s lives. That much stuff doesn’t all happen all in two hours, and we’re not saying it’s happened in two hours. But if I show somebody who is upset about something in one scene, and then I cut to a scene three days later and they become upset about it again, I’ve left out three days where they weren’t crying or upset the whole time. So the false weight of their grief that I’m creating is based on the fact that it wouldn’t be like that—someone might be crying for weeks over something, or even over a whole year, but they’re not going to be crying all day long each of those days. You get cried out at some point, and then you get up and something else happens. So it stops being a “real” description of somebody who is grief-stricken or frustrated, and instead becomes an exercise in me showing you how upset they are more than I needed to.

Which you basically never do, from what I can tell.

The reason why that would feel fake is because it is fake. I figured this out recently, one thing you always want to try and cut is duplicated scenes or actions, scenes that have the exact same value. You don’t want to put two of those in a row in a movie, and probably not at all really. But why is that true? You know, half of what I’ve said to you today I’ve already said to someone somewhere before, which I’m sorry about, but my mind just kind of goes into that groove. But like we repeat ourselves all the time, people are very repetitious and life is very repetitious. In real life, though, there are other things in between. So it feels more false in a movie to do that. If you had a 12-hour movie you could probably have as many repetitions in there as you wanted. It might get boring, but it wouldn’t feel fake. But if you do that in a two-hour movie, scene after scene, it’s just dead—partly because it’s boring but more so because it feels fake. So you have to somehow try to recreate a real feeling by being judicious about repeating yourself or skipping things. You have to skip things, but you can’t skip an emotional beat.

And then it’s more about the restraint, and also the trust on your end, that people can project and extrapolate and fill things in.

But they fill it in because it’s already there. So it’s really not a question of trusting as much as it’s just about not fucking it up. So like if you show the kids crying and then you have one of the kids say I guess I was lucky to have him around for as long as I did—that’s a filthy line. No kid would say that, it’s total sentimental bullshit. It may be true, or something they realize later, but they’re not going to say that in that moment. Or if they say anything like I never got to tell him blah blah blah… that is not how people react, and everyone kind of knows that. It would just be me trying to squeeze something out of a situation that’s already there any way. 

All of which is to say that all these things I’m supposedly so wonderful for doing, is really just a matter of not gilding the lily when it’s already blossomed, so to speak. You just get allergic to it, because the truth is that there’s been this terrible trend for three decades now of so many people writing in this disgusting, sentimental way saying what’s happening way too directly. “I’m sad because we never really talked…” Who the fuck says that, you know?

But then the other thing that happens as a result, which is actually really damaging, is that the average person watching so many of those kinds of movies ends up with this idea that something like grief is supposed to feel like that, and then they worry that they’re somehow not “experiencing grief” the right way. And the reality is, there is no right way. I mean, I’m thinking now about that scene in Manchester by the Sea, after his dad dies and Patrick is hanging out with his friends at the house joking around a bit. To get you back to Star Trek again for a bit…

Yeah, it’s all too much for them to talk about directly. And in that scene, the girl who tries to stop them is actually less effective than any of them because she wants to bring everything out in this big TV moment type of way.

She wants to do the Hollywood version, and in that version of how this goes, you can’t sit and talk and joke about Star Trek right after your dad just died. That’s not how it’s supposed to go.

I totally agree. And I think everybody knows that from their own experience. I think most people tend to respond to something, not just to my stuff, that has a semblance of reality to it. I mean, even if it wasn’t the title of the movie, we know what he’s saying at the end of the movie when he doesn’t say Hey, you can count on me. They could say it, it wouldn’t be terrible I guess if they did it nicely—

It wouldn’t be terrible, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.

It wouldn’t be as good probably, but that’s because they already know in that moment what they used to say to each other, so why would they say it to each other right then? They might say it, but they probably wouldn’t ever say it right after saying “Remember what we used to say to each other?” It’s just…too much. I don’t know what that is, but it just feels like too much.

Well, I think it’s because you’re probably just constitutionally allergic to something like that. And I think that fits, or comes through rather, in pretty much all of your movies. This sort of allergy to fake sentiment.

It’s disgusting of me, it’s horrible. [laughs]

But it’s fascinating to hear about. I mean, I’m trying now to think of an overly sentimental moment in any of your movies, and I’m drawing a blank. I guess there’s maybe the self-generated melodrama of Lisa at times in Margaret, but in terms of the more maudlin kind of scenes we get used to seeing in movies—

Well I hope there’s not!

It feels like that would be a kind of high-level balancing act, to not tip over into that, given the themes and stakes of your movies. But to hear you talking about it, it doesn’t sound like it’s that way for you at all—that’s it’s more just…not a thing that even occurs to you to try and do.

It doesn’t, you know? I’m just…not tempted to ruin things. Because whatever people say, while it’s always expressing something that’s going on internally for them, it’s not because they usually pick the right words. If you say, “How are you?” and I’m angry at you and I say, “Fine,” you’re hearing the word I’m saying and the tone in my voice, but if you don’t hear my tone in there, then I’m not actually communicating well with you. But then again, even in a text, we all know “Fine” isn’t a very friendly answer.

Oh for sure. And if you put a period at the end of that, it sounds even worse.

Exactly—that conveys that I’m not happy with you. And that I’m probably not happy, period. So if I say “fine” in a clipped voice, and then I realize I’ve been a little harsh for whatever reason—either I don’t want you to know I’m mad at you, or I wasn’t actually mad at you, or maybe I just don’t want to get into a discussion about it with you—I would say “You know, I’m actually doing ok.” So your first impression, that I was mad at you or being snotty, I then, like, check that by saying something in a slightly nicer tone of voice. So basically, the internal content of what’s happening there is, I’m saying, “Fuck you!” and then right away adding “I actually don’t mean that. When I was saying fuck you I was actually just joking.” You know what I mean?

I completely do. [laughs] And we all know that complicated little emotional dance we’re doing all the time with each other as we walk around in the world.

Yeah, I swear sometimes I think people are just barking at each other all day long in different pitches. When you shout at someone, unless they’re very tough or very used to it, it has a big impact on people, the same as barking or snarling would. So sometimes I think the vocabulary we’re using is just totally superfluous. 

And people are just vastly unknowable to one another, even the people you know really, really well. 

They are. Because you don’t get the internal information most of the time, but you get the emotional content and have to make sense of it somehow.

And that’s something I love about your films, there’s always this sense that there’s so much going on with every character, even if you don’t ever fully learn what it is. Everybody feels complex. Like, coming back to the policeman, just the fact that he comes back in all these small ways in the film and you get this sense that he has this whole relationship to Terry and Sammy and their whole family story. He never sits down and does any big expository “I’ve known you since you were children” scene, but you absolutely understand that history is there.

Right, and nobody would say that in real life. You know, I was really worried about you when you were a teenager but it looks like you turned out ok. I mean, somebody might say that, but it would be horribly embarrassing and it would be an extremely insensitive person who said that, because they would be breaching every boundary of social agreement that people generally make with each other. And it would be a crazy thing to say! So if the movie had someone saying that, and it was meant to be taken as a warm, affectionate moment, that’s why it would be terrible—because it wouldn’t be warm and affectionate. It would be weird and embarrassing.

So to get back to that final scene, I mean, the actors are really good, so they get a sense of the moment. And if the writing is ok, then what they do say is based on the reality between them and not on some phony reality I’m trying to impose just to get a reaction from the audience that I don’t deserve. And it doesn’t suit the scene, whether I deserve it or not.

It definitely seems like the emotions that come through in your movies tend to be earned and deserved, rather than sculpted. And that that seems important to you, to have them be earned. I mean, I assume that you could write the weepy tearjerker scene in your sleep but—

But anybody can. Jesus Christ, look at…I mean what if I had one of them say “Sometimes you have to let go.” Has anybody ever said that to you in your life? And if they did, didn’t you want to throw up? But how many times have you heard that in a movie? “Sometimes we just have to get to know ourselves before we can to know anybody else…” If somebody said something like that to you, you’d slap them. [laughs]

Well it’s another thing that often comes out in your work—this idea that real life doesn’t inherently go any certain kind of way. So many people think, again largely due to movies and media, that things are supposed to go a certain way, or feel a certain way. And I see this all the time as a therapist, people feeling like they’re not experiencing some emotion or situation the ‘right’ way because it’s not like how they’ve seen it in the movies.

Yeah, that makes sense.

So I’m not implying that your movies don’t have any kind of narrative arc to them, there’s absolutely a dramatic structure in place in all of them, but I love that they don’t ever have these big huge Endings to them. Like, Terry doesn’t learn some big lesson or get some great job and go off and become a successful adult or something. As much as he has a plan at the end, it’s more just I’m gonna try this I guess, and if that doesn’t end up working, I’ll try to figure something else out. And that’s all the “closure” we really get. 

And he may end up being successful eventually, who knows? He’s doing pretty well at the end for what’s happening in the movie. He didn’t have some huge self-destructive tantrum or wreck their relationship over the fact that his sister is no longer going to let him run roughshod over everything with his petulant, babyish side. I mean, I think it’s a very happy ending in a way, because they’re very attached to each other, and that attachment has been able to survive her figuring out that she needs to put up some barricades around things, and that he’s not going to die if she doesn’t let him come in and tear the place down. They do get to some kind of new place, for sure. But it’s not like he’s not going to still drive her crazy sometimes and vice versa.

It’s a new place that also feels like an old place. I mean, it seems like they’ve probably been through many iterations of this dance as adults—he comes into her life when he’s in trouble and she gives him money and kind of bails him out of whatever trouble he’s in?

Well, I think this is new for them actually, at the end. Because I don’t think she’s ever had the nerve to throw him out of the house or ever gotten really seriously tough with him. He just goes way too far, chronically, and she’s always been so worried that he’s going to die or something if she pushes him out of her orbit. I think she’s basically had a terrible time drawing some boundaries around what he can and can’t do if he wants to be around her. And that’s a hard thing to learn to do with people who you love but who are fucked up and are willing to fuck you up even though they care about you. 

For me, the story is that she finally says, basically, I’m telling you, you can’t live here, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to you any more. So when she says that to him and he responds that he’s just going to leave, she says very clearly, If that’s what you want to do, you do that. I’m not saying that, and if you’re going to take it that way I can’t be responsible for that. And that’s a really hard thing to do, which you probably know as a therapist—

Yeah, for sure.

But the person often adjusts to it, to new limitations being placed on them. Sometimes they won’t, they’ll just fly off because it’s too much for them.

And like a lot of people do in that type of situation, Terry pushes back to see how serious she is about holding that boundary. But then once he understands that she’s serious about it, he sort of backs down and figures out a way to adjust.

And that scene would have been totally phony if he’d just said, Yeah you’re right, I guess I really do go too far sometimes. That’s not the reaction someone has. You have a babyish reaction and then, after a little time and depending on who you are, you either stick to it—which means you’ve got some real problems—or you find that your will to fuck things up fades a bit after that first reaction. It occurs to him that he doesn’t want to be drifting around nowhere all the time, severed from her and her kid, and that’s a real change for him. So I think they are in a different place by the end because it’s not going to feel so…oppressive for him to go back the next time he does. Though he’s still never going to want to be back there for very long.

Do you think he comes back and sees the kid after all of this?

Oh, I’m absolutely sure he does. I don’t doubt that at all.

Ok, good, that makes me very happy to hear 20 years later. 

Yeah, I definitely think he does. When he tells Sammy that he doesn’t want to live there but that doesn’t mean she’ll never see him again, I think he truly means that and I imagine he sticks to it. It’s never gonna be a place he’s comfortable in, but the bottom line of this whole story is that they’re really, really attached to each other.

Another thing I noticed about the ending, and I’m guessing it was intentional, is that it echoes the first time we see the two of them together, as kids. The first time they’re sitting together in a church listening to the eulogy at their parents’ funeral, holding hands tightly, sitting on a pew, so basically a bench—

Oh wow, I’d never noticed that. Huh. 


No, never. That’s really cool.

Yeah it’s like a bookend, how we first see them together on a pew and then how we last see them together on that bench, so you get this powerful but subtle reminder at the end that this bond or understanding between them goes all the way back to that first time we saw them, that while we’re watching two adults, what we’re really watching is just those same two kids on a bench, in grown up suits so to speak.

Oh yeah, that was very intentional. Everything you’re mentioning except the bench is something I wanted and tried to do. But the literal bench itself being in both scenes, I’d never noticed it. That’s terrific.

And I think they’re even in the same positions, in both scenes. I think she’s on the left and he’s on the right if you’re watching the screen.

And she’s actually wearing a white shirt in both scenes too! But I guess at the same time, neither of these people actually exist. They’re made up. [laughs] 

Well should we talk about the actual people, the actors, then?

Sure, I’d be happy to.

Ok, so Mark Ruffalo…it seems like you and him are very much on each other’s wavelength. How did he come into your life?

We first met back in 1995. He did a one-act play of mine in California, that was actually an act taken from This Is Our Youth, which I was writing at the time. And then once it came time to cast for the actual play, once it had been fully written, I very strongly urged the director to ask Mark to read for it—and as soon as the director saw him, he said “Ok, you’re right, he’s great.” So we did that play together, which was a big deal for both of us, and he was just so wonderful and we became really good friends during that process. He was around a lot, and I love to work with great actors that I already know are easy to work with, so we did a number of smaller projects together after that. 

Then oddly enough, when it came time to cast You Can Count on Me, I felt like I’d been working with nobody else for the past two or three years, so I thought maybe I should just kind of change the channel; I knew it was a great part for him, but I resisted casting him for a long time. We saw a lot of people, a whole lot of people came into audition for that part, but we just…weren’t finding it. We found a handful of guys that were really wonderful at nailing one aspect or another of the character, really brilliant actors, but the nickel just wasn’t dropping for me.

So I asked Mark, after apologizing profusely, if he’d come in and read for the role. Which wasn’t really necessary, because I already knew how great he was. But I was much less experienced at the time and much more nervous. He came in for 45 minutes and read through a whole bunch of scenes and the minute he left, we were all like, Well there it is

It’s obvious in the room, right when he starts reading through it?

Yeah, just because everything about him that’s so wonderful in the movie was just immediately evident when he started reading. That combination of vulnerability and sensitivity but also the childishness and selfishness and the volatility, he was able to do all of that at once. I mean, that’s not Mark the person, but he’s able to do all of that. I’ve known actors who were wonderfully volatile and tortured, and others who were great at being irresponsible and fun, but nobody else was able to be tortured, volatile, irresponsible, fun, and sweet like Mark was.

And it’s gotta be a difficult role to play in a lot of ways, or to get right anyway, especially since he has a lot of scenes where it’s just him and a kid. And it feels like in so many movies, even when you’ve got a really great adult actor and a really great child actor, there’s still always this slight sense that, you know, this is a professional actor pretending to relate to a child actor, more than they’re like really relating to each other in a real way? So I guess my question is…I don’t understand how someone does that? [laughs] It seems like they’re basically the same age a lot of the time, in a very real way. 

I don’t really understand how he does that either. But that’s very insightful to say, because I always thought the characters were basically the same age. I know Mark said that to me as well, so I think we both thought that. Because Terry pretty much stopped growing up when his parents died, and he was about Rudy’s age when that happened. So in a lot of ways, he’s still really a kid. 

And then also, the access to Mark’s soul is not guarded very heavily. He’s very open, and has a truly wonderful way of connecting with people, so he and Rory [Culkin, who plays Rudy] made an immediate connection together, they spent a lot of time together off camera and really bonded, which I think comes through in the movie. He was just such an immediate natural with Rory, and Rory really fell in love with him too, and so then this whole other side of the film really just started flowering beautifully. 

But how he does it? I truly don’t know. Really good actors, especially the experienced and kind ones, are very much on the side of their scene partners, whether it’s a little kid or just someone who has less experience. And so Mark’s enormous kindness as a person was of great use to him in playing those scenes, I think. And Rory was very much a natural—I don’t think he was hard to act with, because he didn’t really ever “perform.” If he was ever having trouble with a scene, he would just sort of drop out and shut down, he would never try to fake anything. But that didn’t really happen very often, and Mark was so good at engaging him, I don’t think there was ever any issue with them acting together. Rory was only 10 years old but he was incredibly responsive, very thoughtful, very sensitive. I can’t imagine it was very difficult to act with him, but I guess I don’t know since I’m not an actor. I very often look at actors doing things and think how in the world are you doing that?

Speaking of incredible actors, how did Laura Linney wind up in the film?

She was very much a theater person, so I knew her from there. We weren’t friends or anything, but we shared some of the same circles of friends and co-workers, and I really admired her a lot and had always hoped to work with her. But that was another situation where I saw lots of people for the role because I just didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted. I had a very clear sense of who the character was, but wasn’t finding anyone who was quite the right fit. So Laura came in, which she very much didn’t have to do since she was fancier than I was at the time, and still is, but she generously agreed to come in. And she just had this wonderful sunniness to her but also this sadness—not smiling-through-the-tears but genuine warmth and a genuine depth of feeling—and so again I was just like, Well, there it is. 

The producers were very happy about her but nobody really knew who Mark was so they were a little nervous about him, and encouraged me to bring them both in to read together. I was ready to cast him anyway, and to insist they cast him if there was any kind of pushback, but as soon as everybody saw them read together, their chemistry was instantaneous and there was never a question or doubt about him after that.

So that dynamic they have in the film, that was natural and immediately apparent?

Yep, right away. They understood each other in that way and would always say they became brother and sister for that shoot. So, my main job was just not to mess around with it. We did some rehearsing, talked about the backstories together so everyone was on the same page, that kind of thing.

And I would imagine that she has some of that same openness as Mark, in terms of being a good scene partner?

Very open and a very good scene partner. Very present and very generous as an actress. She was much more experienced in movies than I was—I mean you couldn’t be less experienced than me because I’d never made one—and I hadn’t realized until too late, having come from the theater, how much you could just do different versions of a scene. I was probably too controlling and too pushy in the direction that I imagined things ought to go. So at first, if she came in with a different idea, I’d talk with her and try to move her over to my way of thinking instead of just doing some takes the way she wanted and then making some suggestions. They were all used to that, but I wasn’t, so I think she lost her patience with me a few times, but then she would forgive me later on. 

The other thing about her, which I loved, was that she always knew how inexperienced I was and was always very forgiving if we got into a tussle on the set. There was never anything too bad, but she’d get testy with me and I’d get anxious with her, very slightly. But she always always made sure we patched up or smoothed over any conflicts at the end of the day. I mean not even one day, if there had been even a hint of snarkiness, did she not make sure that we were absolutely ok and I really appreciated that. Laura is just amazing. From the moment I met her until today, she returns her phone calls within 24 hours, no matter what. 

I mean, I don’t know her at all, but that seems like exactly what I’d expect.

She’s really classy.

That’s a real struggle of mine, returning calls or emails promptly.

Me too, I’m horrible. I’m the absolute worst. But I call her right back. [laughs]

And I’ve read that she comes to the set quite prepared?

Oh my god. She showed me her script once and the notes she’d written on the margins were denser than the typing on the page. It was very impressive. The other thing she did—which was so sweet since everything was so new to me, and it’s such a big job trying to direct a film—was during the first week of shooting, when we were all staying at this motel on top of a mountain. I went and knocked on her door one night and said “Laura, I don’t understand how to read this schedule.” And so she said, “Come on in, I’ll show you exactly what everything is.” And she just walked me through the days, and never made me feel stupid. It was very nice of her. I just really admire her tremendously.

So I know from our previous discussions that Matthew Broderick has been your best friend for many decades, but at what point did he get involved with You Can Count on Me?

Yeah, he’s in all my movies in some way. But on this one he was actually the first one cast—the whole film was actually contingent on him being in it, because he was the biggest star in it. So he was there from the start. Almost everything I’ve ever done, I always do a reading or two just in my apartment with friends playing multiple roles, just so I can hear it. And Matthew read the part of Brian during that, and asked me afterward if he could play that part. So I was like, Yes of course you can, because I’d already planned on basically begging him to be in the movie.  Then once he was attached, that obviously helped the financing come through tremendously. And it was great having him there on set, because when he was there, I felt safe.

Well, you had your best friend and your girlfriend/almost wife there, which is a good way to do it.

Yeah, I think J [Smith-Cameron] and I were living together by then. We met in 1996, so we’d been together for a while, and then we got married the summer after the movie was shot, in 2000. So that was definitely very nice, too. But, also, they’re great actors. Like everyone says, 90% of good directing is good casting. There were only two people in the entire movie who I didn’t already know previously from somewhere else—Rory, and then Nina, who played Matthew’s wife. Everybody else I either knew them or really knew their work. Which was basically true of Margaret too. Manchester was the first movie I did where there were more people that I didn’t know than those I did. 

Is that more of a trust thing or a familiarity thing or…?

It’s just that I’m very cautious. Once I know what I want to do, I know it very well. I think Lincoln once said something like “I’m slow to make up my mind, but once I make it up I’m set.” And I think…I really just want things to be good, and so if I know an actor is going to be great there’s really no reason to try and find somebody else. So, you know, having J play that small part meant that small part was now going to be played by a great actor, having Matthew play Brian meant that part was going to be covered by a great actor—who I also really get along with. I’m not somebody who feels it’s worthwhile working with geniuses who are assholes. There are enough great actors who are nice that you don’t have to spend your time working with people who aren’t pleasant to be around. I never think that’s worth it. So I guess it’s just a natural caution, or wanting to make use of what you’ve got if you’ve already got something wonderful. And it was a great comfort to have both of them there.

And I’m guessing you knew this question was coming eventually, but, well, you’re in it too.

Ah, yes. [laughs]

Well I know you usually answer this in a sort of “It was fun and I wanted to try it” way, but you certainly acquit yourself well as an actor in your handful of scenes. And I really love the scene you and Mark have together. How did you approach that, both in terms of writing it and then acting in it?

I loved playing that part! When I was actually doing it I was so anxious and felt so self-conscious about acting in front of the crew and everybody, that I felt like a real ass for having decided to do it. But now I’m glad that I did. It was just for fun—I don’t have any range as an actor, either I can do it or I can’t—but I knew I could do that part, and I really liked playing it. 

As far as writing it, I did speak to Matthew’s sister Janet, who is an Episcopal priest, and asked her what she would say if someone came to her with this problem, like Sammy does in the movie. And she basically said, I would try to be an example for him; don’t tell him what to do or try to get him to go to church or browbeat him. Just be an example.

Well as someone who grew up religious but hasn’t been religious in probably 25 years now, that whole scene just really resonated with what I wished the religious people were like in my life. That line about “Can’t you just call whatever that is to you God?” is just perfect. I think that would convince almost anybody to at least entertain that conversation.

I don’t remember how exactly that got written, but I believe I made that part up. And that whole part about “Do you think your life is important?”…I don’t really know where that came from. I don’t have even a scintilla of religiosity in me, but I’m always very interested in that point of view as a human trait, and what the world might look like and what people get from it that’s positive. And I remember going to a wedding—so maybe this is where it came from—my one and only Catholic wedding, at a beautiful church in Brooklyn. I remember thinking Oh, I get it, the whole idea is that God and the universe actually care that these people are getting together. Not that I think the universe is wrong, or that they’re wrong to feel that way, just more of a realization that that’s part of what this is. It puts you in the center of everything—the universe cares about you and your life means something, not just because you make it so. Which is something that those of us who don’t believe in it have to scramble around for a little bit more. 

Yeah, I miss that aspect of it a lot. There’s this great Julian Barnes line at the opening of one of his books, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” And I think that’s where I’m mostly at, I miss having that belief because, in many ways, it was a great comfort.

I know, I think so too. And I think there’s still a way to something like that which doesn’t require a supernatural entity that shrinks everything down to human size, which I feel is one of the great comforts and great mistakes of religion—that it takes an unimaginable enormity and shrinks it down to something you can actually imagine, while claiming to do the reverse. 

But in terms of the scene, I’m very happy about it, and I love Mark in that scene. Mark’s openness is…so unusual, and so great. It’s just a wonderful quality that he has, and it makes that character somebody you just like and want to root for, despite his interminable adolescence and approach to things.

Oh, for sure. It’s impossible not to root for Terry.

Some of that is the writing, but a lot of it is Mark, too.

And since we’re talking about this film in light of its 20th anniversary, I have to ask the obvious question someone asks in a piece like this: If you were making this movie now, 20 years later, is there anything you would do differently?

Very little actually. There’s one shot that I wish I hadn’t cut, and one snippet of a scene that I wish I hadn’t deleted, so really little, tiny things. But I think overall I’m pretty happy with it and I don’t think I’d change much of anything. I think all movies are harder now because everyone in real life is staring at their phone all day long, and that’s exceedingly boring to look at or be around. And nobody is ever really out of touch with anybody now—so the technology changes the kind of difficulties people can or can’t get into. But other than that, I don’t think there’s really much of anything I’d have done differently.

Ok, so I’m gonna give this a shot even though I know you’ve been asked this many times, and you genuinely do not seem to know the answer, but I’ve still gotta try.

Ok [laughs]

Well, first I guess just a theory, or maybe more of an observation, that I wanted to run by you about the three films you’ve made. So in this first one, the tragedy happens mostly off-screen and the characters it will impact most are children at the time and have nothing to do with the accident. And then in Margaret, she’s an adolescent, the accident happens while she’s there and she’s possibly somewhat involved. Then in Manchester, he’s a full-grown adult and the accident is entirely his fault. So here’s the question I guess, the one you usually say you don’t know the answer to: Why do you think grief and loss shows up so often, in so many ways, in your films? Where do you think that comes from?

The truth is, I really don’t know. I mean after a while you have to notice that certain themes keep showing up in your work. And in a lot of my stuff, not just the movies, there’s often something really terrible that happens at some point, something that’s more than most people are usually equipped to deal with. But in a way it’s almost just a function of trying to write a dramatic story, and I guess that’s what my mind comes up with. I remember seeing a Coen Brothers interview once where they said people are always asking them why they have so much violence in their movies, and the only thing they could come up with is because it’s dramatic. I think it’s just something where you have these events that just…raise the game in terms of what’s happening. It’s just a bigger, more pointed and dramatic version of things a lot of us go through. 

And the psychological roots, I don’t really know? It’s not that I’m particularly interested in grief. Things I like to write about often are about connections between people that are double-sided, or people struggling with larger-than-life problems. But why it keeps taking this particular form, I don’t know. The three movies have all had an accident at the center of them, but I’m not sure that’s not just a quick way to get things supercharged, so to speak, in the neighborhood I’m interested in exploring.

So, that’s a different answer than I think I’ve given before, a slightly different evasion. [Laughs] Because I really don’t know the answer. You have a million different ideas as a writer, and the ones you’re actually able to write, nobody really knows why that happens. 

Indeed. And I’m ok with the evasion! It seems genuine. 

As far as I know, it is?

One last thing I wanted to be sure to ask about, and not at all as an afterthought because it’s one of the first things I noticed about the film 20 years ago, and that’s the music. 

Well I just started, really, with what I liked, just trying different tracks against the picture. And then everybody says the same thing—you get a track that just feels right and it works, and nobody really knows why. But then we also had Lesley [Barber], who wrote this really beautiful double cello piece which is so gorgeous and unique and very suitable to the film—you hear it a couple times, towards the end of the lunch scene and then again at the end. If you had to put it in an old-fashioned way, I guess you’d say that was “Terry & Sammy’s Theme.” Not because it was a direct metaphorical connection, but because it has these two musical lines that are intertwined with each other, and it’s very sad but also very beautiful. Lesley is just really wonderful. She wrote a few great pieces that we used throughout, this wonderful music that we always called “our town music.” 

And the Bach prelude you use as a motif of sorts throughout the whole thing, it’s just my favorite piece of music on earth. 

It’s beautiful. We had Yo-Yo Ma in there at first, but that ended up being way too expensive for us. So we found a really wonderful Canadian cellist, someone that Lesley found. I also got really attached to the John Eliot Gardiner version of that one section of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” It’s so light and beautiful and sad. There’s something about it that…it’s so hard to talk about music, it always seems reductive. But there’s something about that cemetery scene on the hill, with Terry looking out at the view and…taking a breath. I don’t know how to put it, but it’s like a tension unlatching in his body emotionally, and he decides not to continue his stupid, sulking overreaction to his sister wanting him to leave. Something about that music felt right there, felt like a widening. It’s so floating and ethereal. It feels like taking a step back from things. 

It’s almost my favorite thing on a movie, and certainly my favorite part of editing, playing with the music. The effect it has on an image is just incredible. Also I should say, I do listen to music a lot when I’m writing, to help me get in the mood or stay in the mood, and I was definitely listening to a lot of Loretta Lynn while writing this. We have a couple of her songs in the movie I think, but we would’ve used a whole lot more if I could have afforded it.

Speaking of writing, are you working on anything during this…strange year? 

I’m trying. I’m just writing, I have no work that involves other people or anything. So it’s just all up to me. It’s horrible.

Anything you want to talk about publicly?

Probably not. [laughs] Any time I say anything about something I’m working on, it tends to set me back about a month. So I’m going to keep it a secret. 


[Editor’s Note: this interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity]