Upon initial viewing, the trailer for Margaret, an upcoming film by playwright turned screenwriter and director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Analyse This, Gangs of New York) appears straightforward: a New York high school student (Anna Paquin) on her way to an assignation is witness to an accident where a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) hits and kills a woman; her subsequent uncertainty over what to say to investigators leads her into conflict with her mother, and a flirtation with a teacher (Matt Damon).
Second time around, you start to wonder why the 29-year-old Paquin is back in high school, and for that matter, if Damon has had a facelift? It turns out the secret to their youthful vitality is simple: Margaret was shot between September and November of 2005. It's taken six years for the picture to be ready for its American theatrical release on September 30.
In this case the issue was a contract that gave the comparatively inexperienced Lonergan 'final cut' (control of the finished film) as long as he stayed under a running time of 150 minutes, and his inability to come up with an edit he was willing to let go of. The relationship between Lonergan, the producers and studio Fox Searchlight ended up in multiple court cases, while respected voices such as the late director and producer Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese's long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, couldn't rouse Lonergan to achieve closure.
Despite their cost, and the vast business structure that's occupied with their public exhibition, all manner of films get delayed for varying lengths of time. A year or two for contractual disputes or reasons of bankruptcy is quite common. The British filmmaker Tony Richardson had been dead for three years by the time Blue Sky was released in 1994, because the studio, Orion, had gone under. Quality wasn't an issue in that case – Jessica Lange rightfully won a Best Actress Academy Award for her outstanding performance – but it often is. The Brooke Shields 1940s cartoon strip adaptation Brenda Starr was shot in 1986 but wasn't released in America until 1992. Unlike a wine, time didn't improve the movie and it bombed.
Some films start and take several years to actually finish production, let alone post-production – see Francis Ford Coppola's excessive Apocalypse Now shoot in the Philippines, and the terrifyingly slow progress on Michael Cimino's revisionist western Heaven's Gate – while others, such as Howard Hughes' then-shocking tribute to Jane Russell's bust in 1946's The Outlaw, required five years to get through the strict ratings process.
But the patron saint of long delayed films is Al Pacino. The esteemed actor has self-funded and directed a series of movies, none of which he has parted from easily. His 1996 Shakespearian documentary, Looking for Richard, was compiled over five years and was only released once a distributor bought the rights. In 2000, Pacino screened another of his pictures, Chinese Coffee, at a series of film festivals, although the adapted play, co-starring now deceased Law & Order star Jerry Orbach, was not scheduled for release.
His true obsession, however, was The Local Stigmatic. Pacino starred as a cockney gangster in the play, written by Heathcote Williams, off Broadway in 1968 and he has never let go of the part. In 1985, when he began his four-year long retreat from Hollywood after the release of the disastrous historical epic Revolution, Pacino workshopped the play in New York and then filmed a performance. For the next 20 years he obsessively re-edited the footage and hinted that it was finished, but nothing appeared.
Amazingly, Pacino put out all three films as a DVD box set in 2007, proving that even he knew that you have to draw a line sooner or later. Still, it's probably not wise for him to collaborate with Kenneth Lonergan any time soon.