Setting the Scene: Paquin and Lonergan Discuss “Margaret”‘s Inciting Bus Accident

At the Los Angeles screening of the eagerly anticipated extended cut of the acclaimed drama, the film's writer/director and lead actress recall shooting the shocking climax in the bitter...
Allison Janney and AnnaPaquin in the bus accident scene from Kenneth Lonergan's film Margaret

“I don’t know any of those actors who wouldn’t have bled to death in the middle of the street for you,” said Anna Paquin, shortly after she, along with much of the crowd assembled at the L.A. County Museum of Art last Tuesday, watched the extended cut of “Margaret” for the first time on the big screen.

A love fest from start to finish, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan took the opportunity during his introduction to thank everyone involved in the film’s birth and rebirth, specifically acknowledging Slant Magazine’s Jamie Christley and other early supporters of the film in helping to raise the profile of last fall’s barely released drama. In turn, Lonergan and Paquin received a standing ovation after the three-hour-and-six-minute version of the film, which Lonergan insists is on equal footing in his mind to the two-and-a-half-hour cut that played theaters in September. (Both are available as part of the film’s recently released Blu-ray/DVD set and have some considerable differences from each other, including a very different sound scheme for the extended cut with a heavy use of overlapping dialogue.)

Given the film’s length, moderator Elvis Mitchell kept the post-screening Q & A to a relatively short 20 minutes, allowing Lonergan time to praise Paquin’s performance as one of the best he’s ever seen and Paquin to return the compliment and elaborate on auditioning for the film even though Lonergan had written the part with her in mind after she had starred in a production of his play “This is Our Youth.” However, the majority of the conversation was devoted to the filming of the film’s inciting incident – a scene where Lisa (Anna Paquin) flirts with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to crash into a woman (Allison Janney) crossing the street, ultimately resulting in the pedestrian’s death and Lisa’s collision course with adulthood.

Although the film’s release on home video is a miracle, it is notably bereft of special features, so for those interested in how one of the most unnerving scenes committed to film in recent years came together, this is Paquin and Lonergan’s account of the experience of shooting it.

Anna Paquin: It was pretty gruesome. Allison is a remarkably talented actress. I couldn’t possibly love her more. And she came and bled for us, really [laughs] for a few days. Any time you’re shooting outside on the street in the middle of a crowded city like New York, there’s a certain intensity you just can’t get anywhere else.

The blood was freezing our skin to the concrete and you’re stuck there. It’s just a horrible, horrible scene and for me, the really horrible moment’s when [Allison] asks if her eyes are open or closed and realized that she’s going to die. That for me was always the point of the scene where it’s really traumatic. It kind of gives me chills watching it, to be honest.

Kenneth Lonergan: There’s very little you have to tell people like Allison and Anna when they’re in that kind of situation and I don’t remember having to say much of anything. I think I did say to one point to Allison that when she hears she can’t see is when she cracks. I was a little nervous to say that because it’s a very result-oriented comment to make to an actor, but a really smart, good actor can take your result-oriented comment and make it internal.

[The filming of the scene] was split up into two two-day shoots and it was very, very grueling. It was cold, it was bloody and it was very painful. By the way, everything you saw Anna do in the movie, she did 10 times. We ended up pulling out the scenes that we wanted, but no one understands what she did to make this performance. That goes for every single scene, including the last scene – they were weeping for ten hours straight. And we ended up using most of the first take, which I felt a little bad about.

AP: It’s okay.

KL: [For the bus crash scene] Anna said to me, “Can you tell the extras not to talk in between the shots because they’re just kind of making comments and it’s very distracting. I’m trying to concentrate.” So I went up to the extras, who were all actually very good, and I said something to them about being part of the scene, it was very important to sustain it and try to be serious, it’s really difficult. After a couple takes, they didn’t need to be told that anymore.

AP: I think after the first arterial spray hits a few people …not so funny anymore. Lunch isn’t quite so much the topic of conversation.

KL: [The extras] were amazing. Actually, it was Jeannie [Berlin]’s idea to have them there at all. She had just seen an accident in almost the exact same spot and it was before we shot the scene. The scene had been written, but she had seen a terrible accident and just a row of people formed like they were watching a play to watch this poor guy who was in a car crash who had been terribly burned be worked on by the EMS people. She said these bike messengers all pulled up and everyone was just standing there watching and so that’s why I had that wall of people there.

We [had] a cement colored cutout of foam for Allison to lay on, so she wouldn’t be actually lying on the concrete, but other than that, [everyone was] freezing and shivering. I’ve told the story at one point, but [looking at Paquin] what were you 48 days out of the 50? Very long days and very emotional days…

AP: I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s very lightweight. I thought we just watched a comedy.

KL: Anna does not go home when her take is finished. Everyone tries to get her to go home because her side of the phone call is finished and she’s like “No fucking way.” When it’s not her side of the camera, she’s still there doing a full-out performance for the other actor to work off of, which is very generous and very important. After we shot the death scene and then the scene where she’s interviewed by the policeman after the accident, it was getting very late and it was cold and she would have to go to this hotel to change…

AP: I think it was to shower off the five pounds of caked blood.

KL: And we’d have to start over. We had three outfits. Anyway, it was the very end of the day and after doing that interview with the policeman, she said very quietly, “Can we go home now?” It was the only moment where she displayed the slightest weakness, not even weakness. I don’t know how to put it, where she asked for anything but to do more takes.

AP: I like being tortured. [laughs]

KL: Well, sure. Who doesn’t?

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