This Is His Moment

Kenneth Lonergan’s moment is making him itchy. Mr. Lonergan, who may well win an Oscar for writing the screenplay for his film You Can Count on Me , just got back from spending three months in a fancy hotel in Rome at the request of Martin Scorsese, who asked him to rewrite the script for Gangs of New York , and is about to open his new play, Lobby Hero, at Playwrights Horizons.

Mr. Lonergan knows that every creative person fantasizes about the kind of moment he is having right now: the moment when the planets align in such a way that everybody in the world, seemingly at the same time, arrives at the conclusion that you– you! –are spectacularly talented and deserve to be adored by the world. (Of course, the creative person, in order to maintain his or her own sanity, had arrived at that conclusion early on.)

Kenneth Lonergan, it seems, is armpit-deep in his moment: Once a guy who had to borrow money from friends and family, he now has three William Morris agents on two coasts working for him, which these days mostly involves turning work down. He’s got a publicist at PMK, even though his number is still listed in the phone book.

And the thing is, Mr. Lonergan is the kind of person whom people think deserves such a moment. In 2000, a movie year that seemed particularly jaded in a pre-fab, star-stuffed kind of way–see What Women Want , Pay It Forward, Mission: Impossible 2 – You Can Count on Me was a cold drink of water, a character-driven, not overly plotted, inexpensive little film that made you cry without feeling that studio employees with clipboards and tear meters had overseen the production and decided, for example, that yes, a volleyball with a face painted on it can pull heartstrings, so long as it floats away in the second act. You Can Count on Me worked because it was unfailingly honest.

Now, of course, everybody in Hollywood wants Mr. Lonergan to unload his pack of tricks at their studio and make their audiences weep un-self-consciously, too–only this time he can do it with 10 times the budget, a happier ending and maybe Kate Hudson. Faced with this, Mr. Lonergan currently has a little bit of the paralytic fear that sucks most of the fun out becoming a big star.

“I have so many very talented friends in show business who just get murdered ,” Mr. Lonergan said. He furrowed his brow for a second to think about it. “I don’t want to be murdered,” he concluded.

It was an hour and a half before the seventh preview of Lobby Hero , which opens on March 13, and Mr. Lonergan was sitting in the empty theater a couple rows behind where the Sick-Kid Man had sat the night before. He was fuming. The audience reaction to Lobby Hero had been strange and muted last night–there was silence during lines that had previously gotten laughs, Mr. Lonergan said–and the 38-year-old playwright felt that the Sick-Kid Man was partly to blame. About 20 minutes into the play–a four-character morality tale that takes place in the lobby of a Manhattan high-rise–the Sick-Kid Man’s cell phone rang, and in part because of that interruption, Mr. Lonergan theorized, the first act just couldn’t recover and the audience tuned out.

“That fucking asshole!” said Mr. Lonergan, laughing–which for him is more like a wry, nostril-launched wheeze. “Their child was sick, apparently. So stay at home! Someone said something to them, and [he] said, ‘We have a sick child.’ Well, turn your fucking phone onto vibrate or wait in the lobby ! Or don’t go out!”

As Diana Ross as it may seem, Mr. Lonergan’s outburst about a ringing cell phone should not be confused with the madness that comes when some experience their first moment. When some great talents have their moment, they go a little Hollywood wacky: like, for example, when screenwriter Robert Towne, after Chinatown , started surrounding himself with all those six-foot-tall naked volleyball players, or when Billy Bob Thornton, after Sling Blade , divorced his wife and began eating only orange foods.

Mr.Lonergan–whose friends all call him “Kenny,” even though he doesn’t look like a Kenny–has either completely avoided the moment mania, or else it just hasn’t reached him yet. Despite the fact that he wrote and directed You Can Count on Me , he hasn’t evolved into a meeting-taking Hollywood sharpie; he still maintains that sub-alpha-male writer’s look, indiscernible from the look of a frustrated graduate student–the just-crawled-out-of-a sleeping-bag hair, the puffy blue parka, the Jansport green knapsack on his back and the half-eaten slice of pizza he drags around on a greasy paper plate. He was pulling at his black turtleneck like a hair shirt. And he cultivates his image as, in his words, “a bit of a grumbler.”

“Kenny’s brow is always knitted,” said his wife of eight months, actress J. Smith-Cameron. “There’s a photograph in our living room of him when he was 5. All pictures of kids when they’re 5 have these big sunny grins and darling faces, but his has a big, deep frown and he’s unmistakably Kenny. It’s him, but shorter .”

Many people think that with the release of You Can Count on Me, Mr. Lonergan was hatched, fully formed, as a successful writer-director, but he actually had his first dalliance with Hollywood 12 years ago–and it wasn’t a happy one.

Mr. Lonergan grew up comfortable on the Upper West Side, the son of divorced parents–mom is a shrink, and dad is a doctor–and went to Walden, where he got involved in theater and became best friends with Matthew Broderick. He went through New York University’s undergraduate dramatic-writing program and scored an internship at the Royal Court Theater in London. Then he came home and graduated from N.Y.U., and promptly fell headlong into an existential crisis.

“Nothing happened for two years,” Mr. Lonergan said. “I was dead in the water.”

He did work, however. Mr. Lonergan got a job as a script reader for MGM. He wasn’t very good at it. “I was quickly fired,” he said. “I was supposed to read scripts and recommend whether they should be read by someone higher than me or not, and decide whether they had commercial potential, and I had no idea whether these scripts had commercial potential or not. I thought they were all terrible.”

In the meantime, Mr. Lonergan had started workshopping his own scenes and short plays with Naked Angels, the downtown theater troupe that over the years has included Sideman author Warren Leight, Marisa Tomei and Rob Morrow, as well as Mr. Lonergan’s old friend, Matthew Broderick, and his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker. Later, he got a full-time stint as a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency, which he kept for two years, but which didn’t allow him much time outside the office to work on his own projects.

Then Mr. Lonergan discovered the beauty of industrial writing for a consulting firm called Cortez-Seidner. He began writing speeches, safety videos and little comedy skits that companies like Fuji could use at their big sales meetings. The money was good, and it was better than the E.P.A. job because he could do it on his own timetable.

“Then I messed up,” Mr. Lonergan said, with what appeared to be real remorse. He was supposed to prepare four speeches for a big Weight Watchers franchise-holders’ meeting. Mr. Lonergan said he did a “sloppy, lazy job” on the speeches. Cortez-Seidner called with work less and less.

So Mr. Lonergan did what any smart young man with a worthless degree and an ear for dialogue would do. He borrowed $30,000 from his mother, his stepfather and Mr. Broderick and decided to write a screenplay. Around 1989, Mr. Lonergan wrote a screenplay he called Analyze This , about an over-ambitious psychiatrist who gets entangled with a mob client.

His agent at the time sent the script out to “everybody in the world,” Mr. Lonergan said. Owing to certain market factors–including what Mr. Lonergan perceived as a surfeit of Married to the Mob -type Mafia comedies–”everybody loved it and nobody wanted it,” Mr. Lonergan said. At one point, the script made it to the desk of Jane Rosenthal, Tribeca Productions president and Robert De Niro’s partner. “Kenny was interested in having Bob act in it,” Ms. Rosenthal said. But at the time, Mr. De Niro hadn’t done Casino and he hadn’t done Cape Fear , Ms. Rosenthal said. “He wasn’t ready necessarily to spoof his one franchise character.”

Six months after Analyze This failed to sell, Illeana Douglas, who was then dating Martin Scorsese, auditioned for Suffering Colonel , a play that Mr. Lonergan had written for Naked Angels. Mr. Scorsese, who had also passed on Analyze This, read the play, liked it and decided to take another look at Mr. Lonergan’s screenplay.

After the renewed flurry of interest, Spring Creek Productions, which had a production deal with Warner Brothers–and which had also passed on Analyze This –called to see if it was still available. Mr. Lonergan sold it to Warner Brothers. “I was $30,000 in debt, and they were offering more money [than Mr. Scorsese],” he said.

Of course, Mr. Lonergan is now kicking himself for not selling Analyze This to Mr. Scorsese. Spring Creek told Mr. Lonergan that he would have to rewrite the whole thing and turn it into a buddy movie. When he demurred, they hired other screenwriters to do it. Mr. Lonergan, though he lists the screenwriting credit on his published biography, has made a special point of never seeing Analyze This , the 1999 Harold Ramis-directed version of his story, with Mr. De Niro and Billy Crystal. He also turned down an invitation to visit the set during filming. “I don’t know if the movie’s any good or not, but I know from the notes I got from them … that they wanted it to end up being a buddy movie, and I basically thought it was dumb,” he said.

But while Analyze This was shooting, Mr. Lonergan was starting another project for Ms. Rosenthal. This one didn’t make it into the biography. Though he was paid handsomely for his efforts and is listed as the sole screenwriter on the project, Mr. Lonergan had issues once again.

“I think [ The Adventures of ] Rocky and Bullwinkle was injected with a saccharine sweetness which I tried too hard to keep out of it, even though they told me to put it in,” Mr. Lonergan said. “That show [the cartoon] has no sweetness in it at all. I don’t think the movie should have, either.”

In the screenplay to The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle , Mr. Lonergan sought to skewer the banality of popular culture. His premise: Fearless Leader, played by an embarrassed-looking Robert De Niro, tries to pull a Rupert to reprogram the country’s airwaves with RBTV, or Really Bad Television. In one scene echoing Mr. Lonergan’s early experience at MGM, Janeane Garofalo, as a movie studio executive, tosses script after script into a shredder marked “Too Intelligent.”

Still, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle lacked a solid plot, and it tanked. Mr. Lonergan isn’t willing to take much responsibility for that one. “I could go on and on,” he said, after enumerating some of the reasons it was such a terrible film, including a complaint that studio executives insisted the word “reruns” be substituted for “syndication” in the script.

“It’s [director] Des [McAnuff]‘s movie and Universal’s movie,” Mr. Lonergan said. “I wouldn’t have done the animation that way. I just thought it should have been cheaper and more like the show. I think they should have spent a quarter of the money, used the script as it was written originally, not hired $20 million actors and hired really strong comedy actors, you know.”

Mr. Lonergan thought about that proposition for a minute. “And, it might still be bad.” (Mr. Lonergan might get another shot eventually: For Tribeca he also wrote a script for Sherman and Peabody , another cartoon by Rocky and Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward.)

While Mr. Lonergan was making money and suffering in Hollywood, he was making his reputation in the theater. In 1996, his play This Is Our Youth was produced at the INTAR Theater on West 53rd Street. Two years later, musical producers Fran and Barry Weissler produced the play, moving it to the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre.

Mr. Lonergan, with The New York Times on his side, became a downtown phenom. Like You Can Count on Me and his new play, Lobby Hero , This Is Our Youth is sparsely plotted and chatty, and all three display Mr. Lonergan’s penchant for ennobling his loser-innocents–whether it’s Jeff, the doorman from Lobby Hero , who was kicked out of the army for smoking dope; or Terry, Laura Linney’s unredeemable fuck-up of a brother in You Can Count on Me ; or Warren, the 19-year-old dragging a suitcase of toys from his childhood through New York in This Is Our Youth . (Both Terry and Warren were played by Mr. Lonergan’s loser muse, Mark Ruffalo.)

When This Is Our Youth became a hit, John Hart and Jeff Sharp of Hart Sharp Entertainment, who at that time were producing Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry , approached Mr. Lonergan about turning his play into a movie. Mr. Lonergan didn’t know how to adapt the play into a film–to this day, he still doesn’t–but by then he had completed the screenplay for You Can Count on Me , which grew from one scene that he had workshopped years before at Naked Angels. He asked if they wanted You Can Count on Me instead. They did.

But Mr. Lonergan hadn’t forgotten the lessons he’d learned from Analyze This . He insisted on the final cut of the movie. For backup, he called an old friend, Mr. Scorsese. “My solution was to bring Marty in as an executive producer and he would have

final cut, which would basically mean that I would have final cut,” Mr. Lonergan said.

And thus began the 28-day shoot of You Can Count on Me in the Catskills. According to Laura Linney, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Sammy Prescott, Mr. Lonergan was chronically anxious on the set.

“He worries and worries,” Ms. Linney said. “You can see him looking with a furrowed brow in a very concentrated way. You see him worry that way. He would check things and then recheck things. He does worry. He worries a lot.” In fact, in an interview after wrapping the film, Mr. Lonergan said he never wanted to direct again.

He has changed his mind, with conditions. “I’m loath to do anything I’m not going to completely control now,” he said. Mr. Lonergan is currently trying to wrangle the rights to adapt a few projects he didn’t want to talk about, as well as converting This Is Our Youth and its follow-up, The Waverly Gallery, into shootable scripts.

Because of the success of You Can Count on Me and the Oscar nomination, of course, Mr. Lonergan can insist on such indulgences. He can be difficult if he so chooses. He can even throw tantrums and fling cell phones at assistants, and people will lap it up and come back for more. But Ms. Rosenthal said that Mr. Lonergan hasn’t changed.

“Kenny has always been doing this, and the fact that everybody knows it now is great,” she said. “But he’s very much the same self-effacing guy. The only difference is that I called him to congratulate him on his nomination, and I got a call back from an assistant who said that Kenny would call me later. That was new.”

But can someone with Mr. Lonergan’s furrowed-brow take on the world ever go completely Hollywood? In his foreword to the published edition of The Waverly Gallery , fellow playwright and friend Jon Robin Baitz wrote that Mr. Lonergan’s characters were “all parts of the Kenny Lonergan of the time: the recessive, the underachiever, the bright but inarticulate, the mismatched baleful lover, the melancholic champion of the underdog ….”

In his seat at the Playwrights Horizons theater, Mr. Lonergan thumbed through the foreword and reconsidered Mr. Baitz’s words. “Let’s see,” he said, narrowing his eyes at the text. “I don’t feel like I’m particularly inarticulate, or ever was … I guess I’m a little recessive … I don’t think I was an underachiever at the time … I don’t think I was an over- achiever … mismatched baleful lover? I don’t know what that means … melancholic champion of the underdog? Maybe so.”

It was after 7:15 p.m., and the ushers were about to open the house. Tate Donovan, who plays Bill, Lobby Hero ‘s oversexed cop, was standing alone on the stage in his police uniform, running lines. A question was put to Mr. Lonergan: Was he worried about becoming ….

“A hack?” Mr. Lonergan interrupted. “Yes,” he said. He eyed Mr. Donovan, who had heard him and stood smiling from the stage. “Look at this play ,” he said. “That, trust me, that fear is legitimate,” cracked Mr. Donovan, in cop character, pointing with his night stick.

Mr. Lonergan, no doubt, is familiar with the history of moments past, how Reservoir Dogs begat Jackie Brown , how China Town begat Personal Best , how Sling Blade begat All the Pretty Horses –and how it could happen to him, too, if he isn’t careful.

“You do things like Rocky and Bullwinkle , you know, you just take jobs just for money, [and] you get too good at doing shoddy work, I guess,” he said.

So Mr. Lonergan wades in his moment, edgy and tentative, hoping the first act takes care of itself. Then again, he said, “I’ve been really too busy to sit back and revel. But I’m not a big sit-back reveler type ….”

Mr. Lonergan paused for a moment and furrowed that brow. “Because I’m the melancholy champion of the underdog.”