It’s in the Details: an interview with ‘Manchester by the Sea’ filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan

With only three features under his belt as a director, Kenneth Lonergan has already amassed quite the reputable resume as a screenwriter, playwright, and filmmaker, one that continues to grow this month with the release of the already critically lauded Manchester by the Sea (opening in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal on November 25 and expanding to other major Canadian markets on December 9), which debuted to thunderous acclaim and Oscar buzz upon its debut at Sundance earlier this year.

Although he has written several award winning plays, television shows, worked as a speechwriter for the EPA, and contributed to the screenplays for Analyze This and Gangs of New York, Lonergan has likely gained widest notoriety for his efforts as a director. The 2000 sibling drama You Can Count on Me – starring Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney – moved audiences, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay (and one for Linney), and heralded the arrival of a major talent. His long gestating follow-up – 2011’s Margaret – was acclaimed and heralded by many critics as one of the best films of the year, but gained more unwanted and unnecessary press for its lengthy, acrimonious post-production process and curiously protracted release than for the material itself.

He wasn’t even supposed to originally direct Manchester by the Sea, but it after penning the script it ended up becoming his third effort behind the camera. Originally to be directed by and starring Matt Damon (who remained on the project as a producer and huge supporter of the finished product), Lonergan stepped in to tell the story of Lee, played by Casey Affleck in the best performance of his career, a subtly grieving handyman and building superintendent in a small New England community who’s forced into making a major life change following the death of his brother (played by Kyle Chandler in flashbacks throughout the film’s subtly time shifting chronology). Never over a tragedy that led to the dissolution of his marriage to his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee finds himself the unlikely guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucan Hedges). Neither man is happy with their new living arrangement, but until either of them can find an agreeable solution, they try to make the best of it.

During a morning interview conducted before Manchester by the Sea was scheduled to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, Lonergan comes across in a fashion similar to how his characters function in his films. He’s gregarious, thoughtful, humorous, sometimes awkwardly stumbling over his words looking for the right thing to say. He’s also humble to a fault, never falling back on his critical and commercial accomplishments, and constantly quick to point out that his words on the page are nothing if he isn’t surrounded by great people.

We talked to Lonergan about how his films capture the small details of life, where he finds inspiration, the gaps in his filmmaking career, and how Affleck, Williams, and Hedges made Manchester by the Sea what it is today.

Your films to this point seem to resonate with people because they come across as being very detail and character oriented, placing emotional reality over plot. Are those the things you plan for while you’re writing and thinking of a setting and of characters or things you find over time?

Kenneth Lonergan: Well, I mean, you’re not making a documentary, but it’s all in the details, which I’m positive others have said before me and will always continue to say many times. You just try to not skip over those details, and I’ve found that those are the things that often give you the best results. The scene where Casey is fixing a boiler towards the end of the movie is a good example. Did you notice how carefully and competently he seems to go about fixing that boiler? I said to him after that scene, “How’d you know to fix the boiler like that? Do you actually know how to fix boilers?” And he just says, “No.” (laughs) He knew that the character was a janitor and a plumber, and he would be the kind of guy who has fixed a lot of boilers in his day, and so he learned how to do exactly what he was going to do in that scene. I think that teeny little detail is just tremendous because it makes him seem like a real janitor. He learned just enough to cover that one scene, which is what I try to do with my writing, and if he were a real obsessive, he would have gone and learned all the tricks and tools of the janitorial trade. You try to do that with everything, both the big moments and the small moments, and you hope that you’re creating something that has a ring of truth to it all the way through.

I’ll give an example of mine. This was a last minute addition, but we were rehearsing a flashback scene between Casey and Michelle, and I added this exchange that they have about her mother. They have this exchange where he comes home after an afternoon out, says they had a good time, and he asks if her mother is still there. She says her mom just left, he says “Oh no,” and she says, “Yeah, she was sorry to miss you, too,” then he says “Did you get any rest?,” and she says [sarcastically], “Oh, you know how restful it is when my mother visits.” Now that’s only five lines, but that gives her a mother. That gives him a relationship to her mother. That gives us what her attitude is towards her relationship to her mother, and it tells you a little about the relationship they have to each other and how comfortable they are. That’s a lot from about five lines, and I thought of it at the spur of the moment, but that exchange creates this fictional marriage and creates some kind of foundation for it in real life.

Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan on set of Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan on set of Manchester by the Sea

Did you have to direct Casey and Michelle to where they needed to be with these characters? What kinds of discussions did you have about the characters once you had your leads?

Kenneth Lonergan: I did not have to take them anywhere. (laughs) They’re great actors who got themselves there. I don’t know how Michelle Williams shows up at night, takes her coat off, stands in the freezing cold in her pyjamas, and can make every scene of heartbreak that she experiences feel totally real. It’s just so chilling and inspiring. She did that every scene. And I don’t mean that we didn’t discuss the character or talk about a lot of things about it, because we had a lot of fruitful conversations about it, but I’m also not an actor and when I watch someone like Michelle do that, I don’t know how they do it. It was her idea to have her – in the parts where she’s putting her life back together – to change her style of hair and dress.

And Casey said to me very early on – before we rehearsed or anything – that he was really worried about [one of the big scenes in the film] where he has to break down. I said, “Well, you don’t have to cry or anything because I think he’s mostly just in shock,” and I thought of it as a scene where he can’t fully process what he’s seeing. I told him that I envisioned it like how I felt when I saw the Twin Towers fall down on television. I wasn’t in New York, and I couldn’t process what I was looking at; the kind of thing where you see something happening and you don’t understand what you’re seeing. One time I saw a guy waving a gun around in the street, and I had never seen a real gun before; only on television. I didn’t get what I saw in that moment. I told him all of this, and Casey said, “No, no, no. I’m not worried about crying, but I don’t know how I should be holding this bag of groceries.” (laughs)

Casey and I had discussions about how Lee in the present was a lot more fastidious with things. He would comb his hair, and trims his beard better, and dresses more neatly, instead of the past bits of Lee looking all disheveled. Without any previous contact between them, Casey and Michelle had come up with the same idea, which was that after a certain period of their life once they’ve fallen apart that they would return to the world taking a bit more conscious care of how they look because they’re both trying to keep it together somehow. We never had to work on that transition or change, and they just did it, but for me it just rings so true to me and beautifully so. Michele even said there was a balance because Randi could seem at times like she was trying too hard to keep things together, and neither of us wanted that. Neither of these people are just going to throw on a T-shirt and sweatpants to go outside like they used to. It’s a big deal for them to go outside, so that’s a great discussion to have.

Casey also brings with him this depth of feeling and specificity of behavior. He’s like a dog with a bone. He won’t be satisfied until he feels like he knows he’s in control of the feeling of something. He always wants to try things a number of different ways to make sure we’ve gotten everything covered. He also knows that there’s a chance that we might have gotten something wrong, so he wants to do like six takes of everything even if people are waiting to get to the next shot. He never wants us to feel like we missed something, and sometimes I just had to tell him, “Nah, we have it now.” (laughs)

He’s just there to do these scenes to the absolute best of his ability, and it’s great to have an actor like that because he reminds you to just calm down, shoot the movie, and not worry about the schedule, lighting, budget, weather, and all that stress. He was always so incredibly supportive on the set, not just of the film, but of me, personally, and I was just so grateful for that. He always reminded me why we were there. All shoots are stressful. You always worry about money. We had to worry about harsh weather at times. This was a stripped down process, but Casey always reminded me to take my time, and that we were there to shoot the scenes, so we should just focus on the scenes. That’s great. There are a lot of things on shoots that I have no control over. I can have all of these great ideas, but it takes great people to execute them.

Is there something about stories where the past seems to infect the present that appeals to you? Because all three of your features have elements of that.

Kenneth Lonergan: Well, I definitely think that’s true of this film, and I think it’s definitely part of You Can Count on Me. It’s not the main theme of You Can Count on Me, but kind of the foundation of it. And Margaret is about a lot of things. (laughs) Margaret isn’t really about a past that we can see affecting the story, but more about consequences of the actions of the people in the story, and the bus accident that kicks off the story in that film is really more of an inciting incident to the story than the past coming back in any way. Here that’s definitely the main thread of the story, though, and I do find it fascinating.

For a lot of things that I find fascinating, sometimes it’s as simple as picking up a newspaper. I’m sure if we were to pick one up right now we would find a story or a tragedy that’s just as bad, if not more horrible than this one. You’ll find tragedy, miracles, anything that you never knew you were looking for just by looking around. Sometimes it’s hard to digest what’s going on around you, and sometimes I don’t know how people can get through things.

What’s it like moving on from a film that had kind of a tortured post-production and release like Margaret to something like Manchester by the Sea where you’ve been getting a lot more notice and acclaim?

Kenneth Lonergan: Margaret was, um (long pause), a procedural difficulty and not a creative one. I’m very happy with Margaret creatively, and even editing it was interesting and fun to do in hindsight, but it was just the arguments, and disagreements, and mutual distrust and obnoxiousness that surrounded the editing process that was tough to take. Blissfully, this process has not replicated that. What does that say about the business that I’m in? You can draw your own conclusions. (laughs)

I mean, after that I directed two plays, one in 2009 and one in 2012, and then I wrote a play that I didn’t direct last February, so I think splitting my time away from film helped a little bit. I did an adaptation of Howard’s End for the BBC that was great to work on. I tried to just keep busy. I always hope that I never come across as too much of a slacker or that I’m some kind of recluse. (laughs)

Matt Damon was actually going to direct this even though I had written it, but when he wasn’t going to, we had already had a discussion about me doing it. I think that was always part way on my mind while I was working on it, but I knew that if he did direct it that he would be as respectful of this script as if it were a play, and that I would be participating anyway in some sense. I thought I was writing it for Matt to star in it, too, but because I knew how busy he always is I had Casey on deck almost the whole time. I never thought of the character as someone like Matt, but someone who had some of his qualities, and once I knew it was going to be Casey, the role took on that shift completely. I’ve never consciously written a part specifically for anyone with the exception of writing the role of the mother in Margaret for my wife. If Matt had directed this, the film would have been totally different because the director has so much control over how a film turns out, and it would have been different, but not as much, if he had just acted in it. Every performer is different, but I assume the overall would have been similar.

The truth is that it’s hard for me to say that I’m going to spend the next year of my life working on any project, because that’s what making a film means. It takes a year to set it up. I don’t have the machinery in place to think like that. I also don’t like to start work on a film as a director until I’m completely satisfied with the script because I am no good at rewriting things on the fly. I can’t plan ahead as a director if I don’t know when the script is going to be finished. Perhaps that accounts for the huge gaps in my filmmaking career. (laughs)

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea

One of the best things about Manchester by the Sea is the rapport that this troubled, wounded man has with his equally wounded nephew. It feels so unforced and lived in. What was it like writing the back and forth between those two characters and creating this loose feeling relationship that’s also the backbone of the film?

Kenneth Lonergan: Well, thank you because I really liked writing those scenes, and we really liked shooting those scenes a lot. You have this character like Lee who’s trying the best he can to keep everyone at bay for the rest of his life if he can get away with it, and here’s the nephew who refuses to allow him to do that. It knocks Lee out of this trench that he’s been in, not quite in the way that his nephew would like, but in a way that forces Lee to respond to this kid. I like very much the rapport that Casey and Lucas have together, and Casey is really responsible for a lot of what the two of them created with that relationship. They both deserve a lot of credit for what they did. I wrote the dialogue, but they created the relationship and their interactions.

Something about kids and teens that I like, also, is that they can have a terrible argument at the beginning of a drive, and by the time they get to their destination, often times it’s forgotten and the kid is onto something else, and they’ll be talking about their sex life or that they need a ride somewhere. I just love how Lucas can play someone who knows what his uncle has been through and has a handle somewhat on what he’s going through, but he also really wants to be taken shopping, taken to his girlfriend’s house, wants Lee to pay for his books, and how he as a performer can transition between those sides of the character effortlessly. He just sometimes barks orders at this guy, and I think it’s good for Casey’s character that this kid is that spunky with him.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.