While you don’t necessarily think of Manchester by the Sea when considering movies with alternate endings, the Oscar-winning 2016 drama originally had a more elaborate finale that was too expensive to shoot. The film was a long time coming and had a complicated road to getting made. The initial idea for the movie was generated by John Krasinski and Matt Damon, and Damon intended to make the film his directorial debut. He hired Kenneth Longergan to write the screenplay, but when Longergan turned in his draft, Damon realized this was a Kenneth Lonergan movie and Lonergan had to direct it. At that point, Damon agreed to simply just star in the film in the lead role, but then scheduling conflicts forced him to back out of that part, becoming just a producer instead. Of course, Casey Affleck ended up winning the Best Actor Oscar for the part.
But Manchester by the Sea is the kind of movie that studios don’t really pay to make anymore—it’s an intimate, character-driven drama without any action or high-concepts or superheroes. So it was a struggle just to get the film off the ground, and as Damon explained on the Bill Simmons Podcast recently, they didn’t even get to shoot Lonergan’s intended ending.
“I love Manchester, I’m incredibly proud of it, but Kenny had an ending—there was this scene where they were on the boat that the whole movie’s kind of about, and it was a flashback to before Casey’s kids had died, before his brother had died, when he was still married to Michelle [Williams], and they were all on this boat and they were whale watching. It’s this incredible moment of joy and you see this family all together and then these whales start breaching out of the water. You needed [a] fucking drone cam, I mean it was one day of shooting and you gotta get lucky with the whales, but either way we could’ve figured that out. It was this epic [scene], so as the camera pulls back as this family is experiencing this incredible joy—and you know it’s about to go horribly wrong for them—the camera’s pulling up, up, up and it reveals all of these other boats all around it, and it’s all of these other families watching these whales and it’s like this is one little story in this sea of stories. It was epic and it was beautiful and it tied the whole thing together, and we ran out of money (laughs). It was like, ‘fuck.’”
Indeed, in the existing film the final scene is a flashback to just Lee (Affleck), Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son Patrick fishing on Joe’s boat. It’s a nice moment that really works with the finished film, but hearing Damon describe Lonergan’s original ending, it’s easy to understand his frustration knowing what was originally written. Damon notes that in hindsight they would have had money to shoot that ending, but at the time almost no one wanted to make the movie so they had to finance it independently for a mere $8.8 million. Amazon Studios subsequently picked the film up at Sundance and funneled a lot of money into the film’s marketing and awards campaign, as an example of the studio’s seriousness about prestige pictures.
Damon talks quite a bit about the changing business of Hollywood in the podcast, pointing to the loss of the home video market as a major reason everything has shifted to big blockbusters and superhero movies—studios have replaced revenue they used to earn from the home video market with international box office, and movies that travel overseas the best are ones that are less talky and more simple in their structure and hero vs. villain setup.
It’s a fascinating discussion that also touches on Good Will Hunting, Rounders, and Ben Affleck, so I highly suggest taking a listen below. The Manchester by the Sea portion comes in around the 1:13:20 mark.