Margaret Nagle is an award-winning film and television writer and producer. Nagle’s very first script, “Warm Springs,” was produced by HBO and starred Kenneth Branagh and Kathy Bates. It earned sixteen Emmy nominations and won five Emmy Awards, including Best Television Movie. She won the Writers Guild of America Award for Long Form Original Screenplay and was nominated for the Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, Humanitas and PEN Award for “Warm Springs.” She received the Writers Guild Award for her work on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” produced by Martin Scorsese and was Emmy-nominated for producing it. Nagle’s screenplay for the film “The Good Lie,” was produced by Ron Howard and starred Corey Stoll and Reese Witherspoon. For that, she received the 2015 Paul Selvin Award from the Writers Guild of America. She was also nominated for the 2015 Humanitas Award and an NAACP Award for Best Screenplay of a Motion Picture. Nagle executive-produced and wrote the Fox series “The Red Band Society,” developed from the Spanish format for Amblin Television, starring Octavia Spencer. Along with Civil Rights hero, the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, she was a recipient of the Jonathan M. Daniels Humanitarian Award for her commitment and sacrifice to make “The Good Lie,” which is now part of the teaching curriculum at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Tara Karajica talks to Margaret Nagle about “With/In,” an anthology of thirteen short films she produced and oversaw the writing of with Maven Screen Media, starring Julianne Moore, Rosie Perez, Don Cheadle, Sanaa Lathan, Debra Winger, Gina Gershon, Griffin Dunne, Emily Mortimer among others, that premiered at this year’s Tribeca Festival.
How did you get into film, and more specifically writing and producing?
Margaret Nagle: I was originally an actress, and I had gone to drama school. And then, when I was on the set of the first film I ever did, and I saw everything up and running, and went: “Oh, I would like to be involved in this in a far different way!” I was fascinated by what every department did and what the producers and what the screenwriter did. And so, I decided I wanted to be a producer, and because I didn’t see a lot of women writing at that point – there were a handful –, it seemed hard to figure out, because I didn’t have any connections or anything; I just knew what I knew as an actress. And then, I started setting up projects as a producer and I actually did pretty well. I set up four or five projects with Bette Midler and other actresses, or pieces of talent and got really great screenwriters to work on them. And then, the screenwriters kept saying: “You know, you’re a writer! You know, that’s where your head is. You’re a writer and a producer.” And then, finally, I wrote a script. I was going to produce it and then I was talking to the screenwriter, director and producer Lawrence Kasdan about writing this idea I had, and he said to me: “Let me put on my dad hat, and say to you, you need to write this. You’re a writer, Margaret. You’re sitting in my office and I hate to inform you that you’re a writer. And, I can write this idea of yours, but it won’t change my life. But if you write this, it’s going to change your life.” And, I was like: Okay!” and I walked out of the office and I wrote a script on spec called Warm Springs, which HBO bought almost immediately and they made it and it won the Emmy for Best Movie. So, Lawrence Kasdan was right. And, I won the Writers Guild Award and it was crazy! And so, I was a screenwriter, but it was a very long road before I became a screenwriter. And then, I discovered that I like TV as well and being a showrunner, because as a showrunner in television in America, you hire the director, the final edit is yours… You’re in charge of everything at every step. It’s not the director’s baby; it’s the writers-creators’ baby. They are the boss. It was just about being able to do all those aspects of a job, so I had a series and then another series…
How did With/In come about? How did you get on board?
M.N.: I was writing a movie for Maven, in London, and COVID happened, and this project came up, this crazy idea. The idea was to ask these actors in their homes during COVID to write, produce, or write and direct these films and act in them. They called me and said: “Could you show run it? Can you help oversee all the scripts?” A lot of these actors were first-time writers, but the thing about acting training, whether you’re going to be an actor or a director, acting training is always helpful. I knew that they knew what they were doing because I had known by my experience a lot more than someone just coming in from writing. So, I got involved. I wrote several scripts that didn’t get made because actors fell out. Actors changed their mind because it was scary to direct themselves in their house and they were like: “What am I doing? It’s COVID and it’s lockdown and I’m taking care of the kids…” Everybody has so many emotions with COVID. Really deeply important things were happening that you couldn’t ask too much of these people, and if they wanted to change their mind that was okay.
That’s how I got involved with it and then, it started snowballing as we were making it. Maven was really extraordinary in London, spearheading the whole process with that “We’re going to get through this!” Very English, but very helpful, very brave and encouraging to everyone!
My experience as a showrunner was helpful – because, as a showrunner, you work with a variety of writers in a writers’ room to help write the show because one person really doesn’t write the entire show, even though people may say that, that’s not true – you’re always encouraging and helping writers, teaching writers the act of show writing. I didn’t work with all the writers, but some. I worked with Rosie Perez and with Emily Mortimer’s family and went through all the scripts with everybody to make sure everything was coming through the way that they wanted and that everything was clear and really possible, because sometimes people’s ambitions are greater than their ability to carry them out. It was a great experience, I have to say. It really kept us all on our feet during the entire experience and then Maven and the team put together the post-production with Mark Adler doing music and Tariq Anwar editing and they were amazing! I’m very, very happy with the results!
Can you talk about your segment, Leap, written by yourself and directed by Sanaa Lathan, who also stars in it along with Lucy Punch as well as other segments where you oversaw the writing process?
M.N.: I’ve known Sanaa for a long time and we wanted to work together and then, it never worked out. I already had this idea about a therapist and COVID because it just seemed that therapists were suddenly working on Zoom. I actually interviewed a therapist who has OCD, who deals with clients with OCD, and the script originally was about the transition from going to the office to Zoom with patients, and the idea of OCD felt right. For people whose OCD is about germs, disease and contagion, suddenly, everything they believe, their whole life is correct in COVID. And, what did that feel like to have reality flip itself and how is that for a therapist? The therapist was explaining to me that it’s actually quite a challenge because, yes, they are correct, but once you sort of master one thing, the OCD goes to something else; the OCD as such isn’t cured. We didn’t have enough time to devote to OCD, but the idea was that OCD moves to something else, finds some other thing to grab on to. And so, this therapist talked to me in confidence about getting a dog in COVID and how that scared a lot of her patients and how she tried to keep the dog quiet during sessions. And then, from there, I started working on it and it took a while to convince Sanaa. It was really hard to talk her into it because COVID is an intense experience. Then, once I told her what it was about, she went: “Oh, okay, I get this, I understand what this is.” And, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd and the protests started happening and my best friend, who is African American and who lives in Oakland, said when she and I were having a conversation: “A lot of white friends keep asking me am I okay. And, I’m like: ‘Of course, I’m not okay. I’ve never been okay! I’m black in America. This is not new.’” And so, I shared that conversation with Sanaa and then we decided to add this portion of the script that dealt with that, and then make the dog reflect more her feelings about Black Lives Matter and her own isolation. It’s clear that she’s a therapist with OCD; we find that out and what her OCD is and being black and the work she does, and how this dog brought it all together. So, we just went back and said: “This is happening and we need to address this.”
It was interesting with Lucy Punch because she’s hilarious as that patient. I was working on a Diversity Committee at the Writers Guild of America for several years going back and always tried to get white people to consider their own racism, and we brought in some experts on race, and they said it’s really hard to get a person who’s very liberal and shops at Whole Foods to consider the fact they can be racist because racism is very deep and it requires self-examination on many levels, and that’s very hard for people to do; they get initially very defensive, and then they don’t want to talk about it anymore. Sometimes, you can chip away at it with some people and sometimes it takes many times to get white people to acknowledge that they’ve grown up in a racist society, so why wouldn’t they have racist attitudes without unconsciously having unconscious bias? It’s a huge thing. It’s women as well – unconscious bias. So, Lucy sort of represented just the tip of the iceberg in that little sequence of unconscious bias, and also thinking she’d done enough. She’s like: “Oh, I watched the documentary on Frederick Douglass a little bit and can we stop? Okay, I’m done!” It was sort of us making fun, but we also wanted to keep this in the vein of humor. My dog had died during COVID and Sanaa had a dog that died last year and we’re very close to and love animals and then, when I saw Nala, her dog who lives with her, I was like: “Well, we’re going to make Nala act two, and then act three is you bonding with her and realizing you’re going to live this life now and you’re going to take this dog in.” That’s how it sort of transformed. Sanaa is very, very, very smart; she really understands it was an opportunity for her to start her directing career, which is long overdue, and she got a big feature at Paramount off the short to direct.
She did a great job directing; she was so thought out. It was so beautiful! She went to one of the best drama schools in the country. She is a really well-educated and well-trained actress and she memorized her lines. When I work with English actors, which I work with a lot, they memorize everything way before they need the script locked so they can memorize it and Sanaa’s the same way. We did many read-throughs over the phone – Sanaa, Lucy Punch and I –, going over every single piece of the script, really analyzing every moment so we all understood it, and if my intentions weren’t clear on the script, we changed the lines, we finessed the moment and then, they both went off and memorized everything. Sanaa created a very elaborate shot list and worked very hard. She did amazing work almost by herself in her house for days. She’s methodical and meticulous as a director, as a great director should be, and made this beautiful short. So, I couldn’t be happier with how that turned out.
The other one I worked really hard on, which I love, is the Nivola family’s film – Sam Nivola and Emily Mortimer – about the kids running away from home. I sat down on Zoom and helped Sam, who’s seventeen and who wrote and directed it, break the story and how to shoot it and how to write it and went over drafts and that was really fun for me to work with him as a writer, as a peer. He did a great job! So, that was one that I’m so proud of how it turned out.
And then, I worked a lot with Gina Gershon. She had one script and then, that actor fell out and then, suddenly, she was left with: “What do I do?” and she came up with this monologue to a therapist, with all the things that women say about men that really aren’t that into them, and she had a matter of hours to shoot it in her apartment because it was being sublet. She had been already shooting one in L.A. and then, that whole thing fell apart; she lost the other actor and so, she had to come up with a brand new film on the spot and shoot it herself in her New York apartment over a course of hours. I don’t know how she did it! It’s goofy but fun, and she’s such a good actress and such a fascinating screen presence.
The one that Marianne Leoni wrote with her husband, Chris Cooper, was like doing something small and fun. Everybody had different levels of ambition and what they wanted to achieve and what they wanted to say in that moment. And, it was finding a way to incorporate all these different ideas, and make it okay. Somehow, it’s interesting how the films all sort of oddly work together. Some are silly and small and some are very deep and sprawling, but the key was to get them all to fit in the same world, which is this sort of new world we’re living in now, which doesn’t end now just because we’re taking off masks because COVID will be around forever, sort of like the flu and we’ll get a shot for it every year. And, I think, because we have the same editor on all of them, that really helped unite them in a tone, and because they were all shot on the same phone with the same lens. I can’t believe we did it! In retrospect, I think it’s insane what we did, but I’m so glad we did it. I’m so happy we did it! I just want people to see the movies, because everyone who sees them really enjoys them. And, it’s hard to explain to people that they’re sort of a hybrid of short film, TV and movies, and they’re delightful and thought-provoking!
Debra Winger’s is amazing to me. I thought hers was just beautiful! And, Griffin Dunne is a very old friend. Griffin is someone I have collaborated with on scripts we’ve written together. We’re very, very old friends and so, I loved Griffin’s with Zonia Pelensky. She’s a lovely young actress. And, I thought that one was great too – very funny, and really captured the moment as well.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your writing and your producing?
M.N.: Well, it informs everything! All my projects! I have a project right now about Clementine, Winston Churchill’s wife; I have a project called Alpha Girls about the women of Silicon Valley; I have a project about Eleanor Roosevelt. So, I’m always writing with big female roles, and women who are struggling to break out of what society has in mind for them. I am a feminist. My daughter is a director. She’s like: “I’m not being a screenwriter. I’m going to be a director! I’ll be the boss all the time!” She’s directing big commercials and music videos and she just got her first movie to direct. So, I raised a feminist, and my son is very much a feminist too. I think my son is the biggest feminist in the family. Everything I do is of feminist nature. I was born a little too early for the changes that you and other women are going to get to fully experience, but the joy is in watching you all go on and experience them. We have to remember that women are over half the planet, and if you work to turn the planet into feminists, you’re going to make so much progress so fast. It will make your head spin! And, misogyny affects 51,5% of the population and that’s pretty serious stuff, but women have got to go farther out. We’ve got to step out in a bigger way, and hold the narrative and also get into the money because the money controls so much, and recognize corruption more quickly. And, that’s hard. That’s very hard because it’s a huge risk, but if more women do it, it’s less of a risk. So, the world has a lot of work to do. Misogyny is very upsetting. It’s terrible! I’m upset about it everyday! Maven is an all-female producing team. I work with a lot of female producers, and not enough female directors, but I hope that that door opens. I hope to direct as well. I’ve learned to do everything but direct and that’s the misogyny in me that thinks I can’t do it because Hollywood told women they couldn’t direct for a long, long time. So, that’s my struggle – to get out there with my truth. But I love how the world is changing. I want it to change faster, but I love that it’s changing. I think not being a feminist means hating yourself. Never bet against yourself. You’ve got to bet on yourself!
In that sense, there has been a lot of talk about women in film these past four years. What is your take on the matter? Do you see any change since #metoo?
M.N.: The conversation is nowhere. If you look at the box office films, they’re male-driven, they’re male-directed, they’re well-written… Wonder Woman is a breakthrough! But Patty Jenkins waited eleven years between Monster and Wonder Woman to direct the movie. She couldn’t get hired. Now, she’s big in that genre. That’s very unfair. There’s lip service, but the numbers on hiring women, what women are paid, and the level of films women get to direct – they get to direct small films, not big films. And so, more women need to direct big box office as well and studios need to bank on them. Screenwriters as well. If you look at screenwriting, the majority of movies are written by men. They get greenlit and they get made. So, the numbers don’t lie. There can be a conversation, but as long as the numbers are what the numbers are, it’s not changing.
I agree with you and I also think we shouldn’t be grateful for where we are because we should have been here a long time ago.
M.N.: I agree with that! It really annoys me! I don’t think any woman needs to be grateful for anything! I think she shouldn’t! It’s just ridiculous! But more women need to become directors, and go make big films. Women tend to make smaller, more personal films. They also need to make big box office films and to fully participate. Television is great because television is telling a lot of stories that are female-driven and television is making a lot of money. So, TV has been good to the kind of stories we want to tell.
Do you have a favorite film by a female filmmaker and favorite female filmmaker, or someone that you would love to work with?
M.N.: Maria Schrader. I think she is amazing! She’s a ridiculously talented feminist director who was an actress, and who’s also a screenwriter. I thought Unorthodox and Deutschland 83 are two of the best pieces of TV I’ve seen in so long, and directed with a shorthand that was magnificent. I think she is just amazing. She’s fearless, and her male characters and female characters are equally spectacular! I mean, if I could work with one director, it would be her. I love Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. I love Kimberly Peirce. I love Monster by Patty Jenkins. A script that I love that’s very commercial, but it’s about feminism in all kinds of forms – it’s Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. Great, great movie! She should have had a huge career! She’s amazing! I think that the script that Aline Brosh McKenna turned in for The Devil Wears Prada was amazing. I loved it! For a commercial, glossy film, that was just great! There are different kinds of films, different ways of filmmaking. I just like a lot of gritty stuff, and I like Maria Schrader because I think she can make things very grim. And, I don’t see that enough in women’s filmmaking. But filmmaking is personal and you spend years on a project and it has to be something that you can immerse yourself in and care about for a very long period of time. And so, that’s why a lot of women’s films are more personal in that way. You have to know what you’re doing and it has to connect with you.
Do you have anything in the pipeline?
M.N.: Yes, I have this project about Clementine Churchill. She’s a hardcore feminist, a liberal. She was progressive, and for some reason, the one thousand biographies about Winston Churchill basically leave her to a footnote, and she was this incredible badass. So, I wrote a feature about her, with the Churchills’ granddaughter’s permission for Maven, and now we’re looking to actually turning that into a big miniseries for a network that I can’t say what it is yet. And then, I have this Eleanor Roosevelt project that I’m getting casting attachments to now.
And then, I’m writing a movie that I will direct about this night that there was a concert in my small town. I hired a band that I thought was a boy band and that they were brothers. I didn’t do my research, and it turned out I had hired The Ramones! I was fifteen and I brought The Ramones to my town and I had to take care of The Ramones for twenty-four hours. And so, I’m writing about The Ramones and their night in our small town and what happened. This is before they broke out. They had come out with their great album, but it had not sold anything and the albums were being thrown away. They did this horrible night at my school for money, and were absolutely at their lowest point, and about to just give it all up. They had this night, and we talked all night about what success means, because the concert was an utter failure. And, six weeks later, they took this random gig in London and played there, and were overnight success. And so, it’s really a story about failure and how failure can inspire – that failure can change your life, that the worst thing that ever happens to you can be the best thing that ever happens to you. It’s one of these stories that in my small town, people go: “Okay, someone said that The Ramones came here for one night! Is that even true?” So, it’s almost like taking on this legendary fairytale status. It’s really about exploring those themes and being a woman and the rampant sexism that’s unconscious at that time period in America, coming at me as a girl growing up. So, it’s a feminist story. I was a complete failure because I was a feminist even then, and trying to do the right thing and just absolutely punished for hiring them, and they felt punished for my having hired them. And, it’s about this night we spent together, talking about the worst night of our life and how we would turn it into something else.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Margaret Nagle.
This interview was conducted (remotely) at the 2021 Tribeca Festival.