While attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival I saw a lot of great films but I only saw one that completely wrecked me and that was Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. As Adam said in his glowing review:
“Written and directed by Lonergan, the story follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a solitary janitor/handyman in Boston who has earned the reputation as unfriendly and rude, but in actuality just seems wholly uninterested in anything around him. One day, he gets a phone call saying his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is dead, so he makes the drive out to Manchester where he stays for a spell so he can put his brother’s affairs in order—which include his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), now an orphan. Still reeling from his own personal trauma, Lee attempts to settle the matter as cleanly as possible, and the story follows closely his relationship with his nephew, who is in need of a guardian.”
Loaded with amazing performances, including career best work by Casey Affleck, the film tells a deeply personal story while never treading in the conventional waters of typical Hollywood fair. As the story unfolds using a non-linear structure, we learn more and more about the characters and why certain choices have been made. By the end as everything comes into focus, I couldn’t help but wipe away numerous tears, and I left the theater stunned by Lonergan work. I’m beyond confident that at the end of 2016 when I look best at the best films of the year, Manchester by the Sea will be near the top.
The day after the world premiere, I got to sit down with Kenneth Lonergan for an exclusive interview. He talked about how the project came about (that John Krasinski and Matt Damon were originally going to make it), the way the story changed during his writing process, his first cut and how the structure changed during the editing process. Lonergan also shared what he learned from friends and family screenings, the way he likes to work on set, and a lot more.
COLLIDER: First of all, let me start by saying, huge fan of your work, so glad to be able to talk with you, loved the film.
KENNETH LONERGAN: Thank you.
Let me start with that. But here’s the thing. I think your movie is brilliant, I have one objection to the film as someone who’s from Massachusetts. I think that seeing Casey Affleck driving around and all the shots locally, there’s a huge problem. Where is the Dunkin Donuts?
LONERGAN: [Laughs] Listen, I know what you’re talking about. It is possible to drive around that area without passing a Dunkin Donuts, as I think I’ve proved in the picture. I mean, you can shoot a film in New York without seeing the Empire State Building. Or Starbucks…although the latter is much less realistic.
You do agree though, it’s every corner.
LONERGAN: Actually, in Manchester and Gloucester, it’s the only franchise allowed on Cape Ann. For some reason they kept out all the other franchises. Dunkin Donuts is the only one, and there aren’t that many of them. I think there’s one per town. There’s one in Manchester, near a gas station there’s one in Gloucester. Beverly [has] more, but we were shooting Beverly for Gloucester or Manchester, and There are some in Beverly, but the only scene in Beverly is inside of a funeral home where Dunkin Donuts has yet to encroach.
[Laughs] Thank you for indulging my stupid question. I’m always curious about how a project got off the ground. Because you are so busy in theater, what was it about this material that said, “I have to make this.”
LONERGAN: It came about a bit more gradually than that. The idea for the film came to me from John Krasinski and Matt Damon. John was going to be in it, and Matt was going to direct it and they wanted me to write it. Then I went away and I wrote it and then John got interested in something else, and then Matt decided he didn’t want to direct it. But by the time we had a script, they suggested that I direct it, and at that point I wasn’t sure if I wanted to or not because directing is very grueling, lucky as I am to be able do it, it’s a lot of work. But then I decided I had become so attached to the material that it wasn’t that hard to persuade me.
But that probably doesn’t answer your question. I just think there’s something about the character that attracted me – the situation — someone who is really, seriously broken, but someone who’s still got enough spark left in him that he feels obliged to fulfill his familial obligations to people that love him, to people that he loves. I often find myself writing about people taking care of each other, or trying to. And often seem to write about situations that are too big for the characters to handle and this has all that in it. I never start out that way, I just realize later that I wrote about all the same stuff again.
You know something, a lot of painters paint very similar stuff. But you very clearly have a an amazing ability to do this kind of material. From when you started writing to what you ended up with, were there any substantial changes, or was this always the arc you were going with?
LONERGAN: The most dramatic change in the material was that the very first draft was sequential, and it seemed flat to me and felt wrong somehow. So the second draft, I started a third of the way in and then brought in all the previous material — chronologically sequential is what I mean — the whole story takes place over seven years, the story in the present is just over 4 or 5 months. The presence of flashbacks in the movie is very important, and that’s not the way it started out. So when I felt like the first draft was flat, I just skipped up to the part of the script where I started to become interested in it and I thought that the script got stronger. I just tried starting with him in Boston and then unfolding what happened with him before and that seemed to be much better. And then later on, much later on, because you don’t always know why something feels good or bad — if it feels good there’s usually a secret reason for it, something to do with the content. And in this case, my editor, Jen Lame, pointed out to me the flashbacks are what he’s carrying around with him all the time, the main character Lee, who’s played by Casey Affleck. She said she thought they were unusual because they were not so much flashbacks but they were a second story that was going on at the same time as the main story. I said, “Well, that’s very clever of you, Jen.” Because that’s what he can’t shake is what happened to him five years ago. And also the flashbacks aren’t all bad, a lot of them are from happier times, things he wants to get back to and things that he’s lost.
The structure about the film is one of the best things about it. How long was your first cut versus the final release of 2 hours, 15 minutes?
LONERGAN: I think the first cut was about three minutes shorter.
LONERGAN: Yeah. Well, actually, that’s not true. It’s always been about the same, because you have to add five minutes of credits. If you take away the credits, it’s about two hours and twelve minutes. It’s aways been hovering around there. I think it could possibly be a little shorter, but yeah, it’s always been about that length.
Who do you invite for your friends and family screening to give you honest feedback on the material?
LONERGAN: I invite my wife, J. Smith-Cameron, my best friend Matthew Broderick, an old friend of mine named Andrew Yerkis, Peppin Parker, Elaine May, who I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with. And a few other people who are predisposed to be friendly to the movie because I don’t like getting too much feedback all at once — I don’t find it helpful — but if I can find a couple of people who I know where they’re coming from and who will be straight with me. Oh, and Ann Roth, the costume designer who is brilliant in many ways. There’s a few people who I’ve accumulated over the years who I really trust to show a first cut to and to be helpful rather than unhelpful.
What did you learn from any screenings that impacted the finished film?
LONERGAN: Well, this one, I genuinely couldn’t tell for some reason — when I first screened it and I said this to the small group of people there, I couldn’t tell what state it was in, whether it was essentially finished and needed some fine tuning or whether it was a complete mess in a very nascent state. I was surprised to see that it always seemed to be a movie, that was a pleasant surprise. It hasn’t changed much since then. It’s been small edits, interstitial moments, how much driving, how little driving, some scenes that seemed like they could become richer and some that seemed like they weren’t so great, but no big changes since the first cut, I would say. And then of course there’s music choices. There are so many details in a movie that it’s amazing how much work you’ll do to change what adds up to not that much material.
How much do you storyboard vs. finding your shot in the moment?
LONERGAN: I actually think storyboards are great. I don’t draw well enough to do them myself. I’ve only used storyboards a couple of times. We used two storyboards in Margaret, one for the bus accident and for the opera sequence at the end. We didn’t use any storyboards for this movie.
I try to plan the shot with a DP, to have an idea of what we want to do before we get there, but usually things change a little bit. It really depends. This movie was made on a time crunch. The production was pretty severe, and the pre-production was truncated because we were trying to get there before the cold weather went away. Anyway, the many things that have to line up before you start shooting, we ended up with a somewhat squashed schedule, and we didn’t plan the shots I didn’t have a chance to go over the whole film with the DP like I had with the other two films. But it worked out okay. It’s interesting that you have an idea, you show up, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, you try to figure out something else.
How long was the shooting schedule?
LONERGAN: I think we shot for 35 days, maybe 36 days.
It worked out. I’m curious about the amount of takes you do on set. Clint Eastwood likes to shoot his rehearsal and do maybe two takes if you’re lucky, while Fincher will do 50.
LONERGAN: I suppose I fall somewhere in between. I’ve heard from actors who have worked with Eastwood and other directors that like to work that way that it can be very good because they know thaT’s the only chance they’re going to get and they’re forced to step up and do what they’re going to do in those two or three takes. I’m more conservative and anxious than that, I want to know I’ve really got what I want. It very much depends on the scene and also the actors because I like to let the actors work the way they want to. When you have people like Casey and Michelle Williams and they want to do more takes you don’t say, “Sorry, that’s it.” And I also don’t like to say, “It’s fine, it’s great.” Unless it’s clearly there. Some actors really like to do only a few, some like Casey will do as many takes as there is electrical power. At some point, you’ll say, “Listen, I think it’s really good.” And he’ll say, “You sure? You sure? There’s not some other way we should try it?” And then sometimes it’s a good idea to keep trying to try different things. It really depends.
I don’t want to get into specifics of the plot, because most people reading this will not have seen the movie. But towards the end, there are some key moments between Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck that are very powerful. When you’re writing and filming stuff like that, that interaction is so key to unlocking everything. When do you know when you have it?
LONERGAN: It’s just a feeling. I suppose the only answer is your instinct because I — I don’t know. It’s hard to answer that. You just feel like, in terms of writing it, if I got emotionally involved, and it seemed as if the characters were talking and I was just writing it down and it engages me, then I trust my judgment about that. I also trust my judgment when I think it’s boring, dull, tepid and not interesting. That’s important to listen to. And the same on the set. That’s a little easier because you can see it in front of you and you can just see how great they are and you know you have something wonderful when they do something wonderful.