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High Tide: Kenneth Lonergan on Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea (Photo courtesy of Claire Folger, K Period Media)

“…If it is true to say that, in essence, the tragic hero is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality, and if this struggle must be total and without reservation, then it automatically demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.”

— Arthur Miller,
“Tragedy and the Common Man”
(The New York Times, Feb. 27, 1949)

How should we grieve? When faced with inconceivable loss, most of us become amateurs, fumbling in the hope of recovery. Grief tends more to ugliness than elegance, and it has a nasty habit of overstaying its welcome.

For Lee Chandler, the protagonist of Manchester by the Sea, the dead aren’t dead — they just live on in the mind of the living. Some pain has nowhere else to go. Played by Casey Affleck, Lee is a haunted man. Death has reconfigured Lee’s family, and he’s burdened with the guilt of survival.

Affleck’s performance anchors Manchester by the Sea, the third feature from playwright and screenwriter/director Kenneth Lonergan. The film is a tremendous meditation on the pain of life — and on the loneliness of outliving family members you shouldn’t outlive. Lonergan’s previous films — 2011’s Margaret and his 2000 debut You Can Count on Me — also concerned themselves with the ways we hurt and the near impossibility of truly understanding another person’s suffering.

Lonergan’s films all feature stand-out performances, and the constellation of actors in Manchester by the Sea — Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol and Affleck — are beautifully cast. Their family could be your family. The Chandlers’ struggle to find a new normal in the wake of tragedy is surprisingly funny, human, messy and yes, occasionally gut-wrenching.

The film is a major achievement by one of America’s great dramatists, but here’s the kicker: for a story that features death so prominently, Manchester by the Sea is perhaps most remarkable for being one of 2016’s finest films about the goodness of life.

Starting at the top, how did the script for Manchester by the Sea come about? John Krasinski and Matt Damon came to me with the basic concept of the movie and wanted me to write it. John was going to be in it and Matt was going to direct. I went away and wrote the script and developed it in my own direction. Then John got busy with something. The script was finished a couple of years later, and by that time, Matt had four movies back to back, or something like that. He just couldn’t do it, so he asked me if I wanted to direct it. There was some talk about him being in it as well, but his schedule didn’t allow for that either. So it ended up as an idea that I ran with and basically made my own, and then eventually something that I directed.

Have you written scripts by that process before, where it was an idea that was brought to you that, eventually, you made your own? I don’t think so. I mean, I have, but I’ve always turned them back over to the people who were paying me to do them and wished them luck, if you know what I mean. In this case, Matt’s a friend, and I put more of myself into it, I think, than I might have if it had been a studio process. I always try to do a good job, but you never know what’s going to happen when you’re hired to do someone else’s script. Since I knew Matt wasn’t going to hire somebody else to rewrite me, I felt very comfortable and safe and developed the script as if it were my own, which it quickly became. It was kind of a unique experience in that way.

I’m projecting, perhaps, but there also seems to be a theme of loss and how we grieve in your previous two films. Manchester seems thematically kindred in that way. I suppose that’s true, and I suppose that must be why the story appealed to me from the beginning and why I was able to do something with it, because you’re not always able to do something with the stories that appeal to you.

I see in some of the characters in both your plays and films — Terry and perhaps Sammy in You Can Count on Me, and certainly Lee in Manchester by the Sea — that their pain sort of has them trapped. I suppose those characters do have those similarities. It’s funny, because I don’t think of them that way until after they’ve been written, and then you notice the same themes and ideas cropping up. But when you’re writing, you think, “Oh, there’s this guy and he works in Boston and this terrible thing happens and he has to go back [home].” And if I started thinking about the similarities, or about the overall subject, I don’t think I could get very far. I’m more thinking about, “Okay, so I guess it’s snowing and he has to put the shovel down [to answer the phone] and he has to hang up and then he has to get up there.” And then I look up how long the drive is from Quincy to Manchester, and then I have to find out where the body would be, if he gets there. So it kind of goes along like that. And then, while you’re doing that, I suppose the rest of it comes along for the ride, so to speak.

What was the time frame from when the idea was initially presented to you, to when you made it into production on Manchester? I’m not really sure, because I think of it as being three years. At Sundance, Matt said it was six years. (Laughs) I don’t know if it was six years. I wrote a first draft that I wasn’t happy with at all, and I re-did everything. After that, it was much easier. But at first, I think it took about a year of fishing around in the wrong direction before I hit on something that I was happy with.

On that note, can you talk about both your writing and your revision process? This script was pretty much my main focus for the three years preceding the production of the film. It’s usually a question of getting to the point where I think it feels alive and good and real, where the seams feel right and [I’ve paid] attention to the parts that do and don’t feel good. When I have a sort of bored, sick, dull feeling, then that means something’s wrong, and I shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t. And when I’m excited and interested, then I try to trust that that means it’s going well. Usually, if I have a vivid feeling or an idea, if I am hearing the scenes in my head, and I know what’s coming next, and the characters seem like people to me in my imagination in the same way that real people appear in my imagination, then I’m happy. Then there’s technical problem-solving stuff, which is fun and interesting — just where to put the flashbacks and struggling with different elements of the story and that sort of thing.

The placement of the flashbacks, how much did that shift during the writing process? Did they shift once you were in preproduction, production or post? They shifted. Once that became a structural conceit, or a centerpiece of the way the story was told, then they shifted around a bit, but not radically. I think that I wondered for a while if they should come in smaller pieces and be more impressionistic or just little flashes of this and that. But the way they seemed to want to come out was in full scenes, so I let them. For a while, I didn’t think I was going to direct the movie, so I just stuck them in wherever occurred to me and figured it would be the director’s problem as to what to really do with them. Once I became the director and it was my problem, I looked at them again and tried to make sure they felt justified by what was happening in the present and weren’t appearing at random.

The scene where the daughters smell smoke and say there might be a fire in their house — that for me was one of the most haunting scenes I’ve seen in a film in years. How did that scene specifically come about? That scene is actually a dream that [Lee] has, and I find that scene very haunting, too. I didn’t invent that scene; I stole it from an anecdote in [Freud’s] The Interpretation of Dreams. It’s a terribly sad dream. This young son just died and has been laid out in the parlor. The father falls asleep, and he dreams that the son is tugging at his sleeve. Then he says, “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?” He wakes up and the candles have caught fire to the curtains. I read that 30 years ago, and it just broke my heart, so I put it in the movie in a slightly adjusted form. I have to admit that I stole it. I give myself credit for stealing such a good dream, though.

Can you talk about how your experience with Margaret affected the approach that you had to Manchester by the Sea? With each movie, I’ve become more directorial in the way I think about the scripts when I’m writing them. I think I understand what’s going to be happening on the set now in a way I didn’t before. For instance, there’s a lot of driving scenes in the movie. I noticed this, and I thought, “Gee, I wonder if all these scenes should be driving?” The towns are separated, and the kid doesn’t have a license. It’s in the middle of winter. It makes sense for their relationship. I thought, “I’ll let the director figure out an interesting way to shoot all these driving scenes.” Then when I became the director, we just didn’t have an interesting way to shoot the driving scenes, so we just did our best and the actors took care of it by acting well, and it turned out okay. But I was a little anxious about that, and if I had known I was going to be directing it from the beginning, I might have developed a bit more of a visual concept.

In all of your films, and especially in Manchester by the Sea, you have a real sensitivity to depictions of class — so many films, certainly films coming out of Hollywood, are tone deaf to class. Could you talk about your work with your production designer, Ruth De Jong, and your DP, Jody Lee Lipes, and how you honestly capture these environments that these people live in? We wanted very badly to be as truthful as we could to the town and environment and lives of the people that were living in the story. I know that sounds a bit like a clichéd answer, but it’s rare for me to find something that’s more interesting than real life. We fell in love with the area, and I fell in love with those boats. I grew up in totally different circumstances, and I’m always really interested in people whose lives are very different from mine. And I really dislike upper-middle-class sentimentality about working class people. I think it’s just as crappy as any other kind of sentimentality. Manchester is a resort for big money from Boston and old money. There’s an interesting combination of the working class community that lives there, and then the very wealthy community that lives there. There’s five or six little communities around there, and they all look and act slightly differently. The harbors are so visual with the snow and the boats and the seagulls and the towns. The architecture in the area’s really beautiful. It’s kind of a feast, and it was a pleasure to be able to shoot all that stuff.

Has your approach over the three films to how you visualize your screenplays and how you collaborate with your cinematographer evolved or changed in any way?  I think it has a little. I mean, three films is not that many. The first film, I knew I didn’t know anything at all, and my goal was to keep it simple because I knew that was best — if I tried anything else, it would have been a disaster. With some advice from some DPs that I met, [I] found a couple of movies whose look seemed to me to be right for my movie, and tried to use those as a kind of a guide. I realized I liked two-shots a lot. I liked to see both people interacting with each other. I got a little obsessed with that, and then I watched Shampoo. There’s this incredibly great scene, the famous scene with Carrie Fisher and Warren Beatty at the kitchen table. You never see the both of them; you see them in the same shot once. So I was like, “Oh, this feels like it’s a two-shot, but it’s so well done,” and then I realized you can kind of do anything. But I do really like to see both people in the shot. So I said, “Okay, so I can do that. I’m directing it. I’m allowed to do that.”

Margaret had an extremely specific visual story to tell — not just that [the character of Lisa] was in this environment, but the way in which she was in it and the way in which all these other people who aren’t in the story are in it. From the beginning, [DP] Ryszard Lenczewski and I had in mind a kind of a template, a theory we were trying out: to see if we could shoot the film as if the camera didn’t care about her any more than it cared about anybody else. That goes along very much with the story of the film. I think either on purpose or accidentally, you end up shooting the film in a way that reflects the content.

Another thing that I care about a lot: I’m not a big fan of having the environment change according to what’s going on inside of the character’s heads or in their emotional lives. I’ve said this often enough: when I’m in a bad mood, my sofa doesn’t turn four shades darker, it’s still the same color. (Laughs) It doesn’t rain when my friends die. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. One thing about telling a story visually is the world doesn’t always have anything to do with what’s going on with the characters. In the case of this movie, Lee is in a place that is stark looking in the winter, but it’s very beautiful. He does not care; he just does not want to be there. The seasons go from winter to spring, and I don’t mean that in any metaphorical way. They do that in real life, and they need to do that [in the movie], because one of the main points in the story is how long [these characters] are going to stay there waiting for the funeral proceedings to be finished, which can’t happen until the warmer weather. So it was really important that we shot it in the right seasons.

Can you talk about the specific demands of directing for film versus directing for the stage? If it’s theater, there’s plenty of terrific directors and you have the control of the script, ultimately, as opposed to the screenwriter, who has no control, unless he owns the film or is directing it. It’s so different it’s hard to even compare. There’s just so much more to a movie than to a play. It’s not that it’s easy directing plays; it’s just that movies, there’s so much more going on technically. But the emphasis for me is always on the actors, whether it’s a movie or a play. With a play that tends to take up a higher percentage of your time, because with a movie, there’s so much more to control — the schedule and money and all of that.

Also, directing a movie is a nine-month job. Directing a play is rehearsal for four weeks and then your play is up and running. If you want to stick around and keep an eye on it, you can. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. I’ve only directed two plays, so I can’t really speak as a great theater director expert. I will say that I directed them because I had a specific idea about the production. I wouldn’t have otherwise because as a playwright, you can always put in your two cents about the performances and the actors and what’s happening in the scenes, and also the production, too. But I had really specific ideas for those two plays about what the whole thing should look like, and I thought it’d be fun to try to direct them.

I don’t know if they’re analogous, but what experience brings more anxiety, when a play has gone through previews and is on opening night and you know it will be reviewed, versus Manchester by the Sea’s premiere at Sundance? In both cases, you can’t control it: what’s done is done, it’s there, and it will be received however it’s received. I think movies make me a little more anxious than plays because the shooting of the movie is really stressful, and because there’s always a time limit you’re always worried about. Maybe it’s because I’m less experienced with movies than with theater. But the hours are absurdly long, you’re surrounded by anxiety because everyone’s worried about the money, the DP is worried about his shot, the AD is worried about the schedule, the actors are worried about their performances, the producers are worried about the budget and everyone’s worried about the time going by, and I’m worried about everything. You know? Oh, and the costume designer’s worried about having a good or bad discussion with the actors about their costumes. It just goes on and on and on.

This last shoot was particularly stressful because of the weather going away and the time crunch we were under. It ended up being a comfortable amount of days, but it didn’t start out that way, and each extra day was eked out of the schedule at a great cost of stress and Sturm und Drang, just because that’s the way things fell out. It all turned out okay, but it’s grueling, you know?

Can you talk about the post process? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were shooting in March of last year and obviously you premiered at Sundance. So it seems like it all went very smoothly. It went pretty smoothly for some reason. There was nobody around to fuck things up. I had a lot of support from the producers and I was, I think, fairly calm and inclusive, and there was a certain amount of trust there that was really good. I also was determined not to have a second difficult experience while I was trying to edit the movie, because I just wasn’t going to go through that again no matter what. I found some of the editing challenging creatively, but there were never any procedural difficulties at all, which was great.

The cast is amazing — they feel like a real family, with a real history and wounds and love. Can you talk about assembling that cast to create your family? It falls into place actor by actor. I have an idea of what the characters are like before I start, and then that person never appears in real life, and I start adjusting my imagination to the actors who are available and interested. I didn’t imagine Casey in my head when I was writing the script. I didn’t even imagine Matt in my head when I was writing the script. I imagined a person named Lee Chandler. I can still remember my idea of him before anybody came along, but they kind of meshed very quickly with each other as [Casey] brought his own imagination to bear on the role. What [Casey] does in this film is extraordinary, and I admire his way of working so much. He takes it so seriously. He’s so prosaic and practical. It’s really horrible hearing [on the dailies] your direction off camera: “Try it this way, try it that way.” You see the actor doing a really great job and then you hear your own voice, and you realize you just have to learn to shut the fuck up. It’s a little trick to directing, I think, but I haven’t quite learned it. But [Casey would say,] “You said I’m trying to do my task, so what’s my task here?” [And I’d say], “That’s a good question. I think this is actually a situation where what you’re trying to do is being disrupted. It’s your nephew, it’s not some doctor, or some tenant, or your boss, and you can’t close him off like you would like to.” Casey just asks a lot of questions, and he’s hard to satisfy, but in an extremely positive way, and that, I think, makes for very good results.

Lucas Hedges was obviously dealing with grief in a way that was true to his age and his emotional experience thus far, but he could be obnoxious and selfish in the way that a teenager could. Can you talk about working with Lucas and what it was about him that felt right for the role? He had this great sensitive quality and openness. That wasn’t the whole sum of the character, but I knew that it would make whatever he did of the character more interesting. If the kid is too self sufficient, there’s not much of a story. And he’s an interesting person, that boy, because he knows what he wants, and he knows he needs someone to stick around, and he’s not embarrassed about it — he asks for it very bluntly and directly. It’s a funny thing to do because he’s kind of a tough kid, but he’s also suffered a series of real, very bad losses, and he is a bit educated as to what he’s going to require now that his father is gone. He doesn’t really care if that’s not what his uncle wants or can do. It’s not that he’s indifferent to it, he just figures it’s his right: it’s his uncle, he’s a kid. He doesn’t want to move, he doesn’t want this and he doesn’t want that. It’s a funny kind of a combination.

The other thing about Lucas is he’s incredibly cheerful and friendly and giggly and likeable and ebullient. And that is something the movie really needs to be. The character has got a very rich, full life that he doesn’t want to give up. Without that, it’s just a dirge, and no one needs to sit through a two-hour dirge. Everyone’s life is miserable enough without my help, you know what I mean? It’s not what the movie’s about. The whole world is not shrouded in darkness just because Lee is struggling with something that he can’t handle. He’s struggling with something he can’t handle in the middle of a world that’s full of kids and rock-and-roll bands and teenagers trying to have sex with each other and who want to go fishing and want to be driven around.

You know, [Lucas is] a Manhattan kid from a background very similar to mine, and he hasn’t been through what this character’s been through. He has a lot of really good, guileless, straightforward questions like, “Why am I not upset in this scene? My father just died.” And I said, “Well, something hits you, and you think it’s going to knock you over, and you’re knocked over two weeks later. Hasn’t that ever happened to you?” And he said, “No.” I think at first he was a little bit afraid the difference between his experience and Patrick’s experience was going to be an obstacle, but I think it quickly turned into something fun to explore and work on.

Can you talk at all about Howard’s End, which you’re now adapting for the BBC? How has the process of adaptation been and how did it come to you? It’s been great. It’s a big job, so it’s taken a while, but everything I do seems to take a while. The script is pretty much finished at this point, and I think it’s now up to the BBC to decide what they want to do next. I was offered the job a few years ago, and I took it. I never adapted a novel before for TV. It was very difficult for a while, because the material’s a bit dense, even if you have the liberty of four episodes. There’s a lot of stuff in the narration that it’s hard to make go into the story because it’s a lot of intellectualizing. You’re like, “Oh, this is just intellectualizing bullshit,” and then you write down the scene, and what they’re saying, and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is such a good scene.”

There’s so much talk about “The Golden Age of Television.” Are you interested in doing more work in television? Yeah, theoretically. I have to think of something I want to do, but yes. I would like to. I remember when I was in my late-20s and had never written a screenplay, I actually went to the movies a lot more than I went to the theater, but for some reason I just wanted to be a playwright. When I had an idea, it just didn’t come as a screenplay. And I needed money, too, so there was no ideological objection, I just didn’t think that way. I think a similar thing might be happening with television. [When] I have an idea for something, I don’t think, “Okay, that could be a good show.” And then, of course, when I try to think of what would be a good show, I come up with nothing. So at some point, the logjam has to break and I have to think of something as a TV show and then maybe I’ll get into that.

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