Kenneth Lonergan Captures the Storm
Talking to the acclaimed director and playwright about Manchester by the Sea, being open to surprises, and how Michelle Williams broke his heart
In Manchester by the Sea, the third feature from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, Lee Chandler (played by an doleful, devastating Casey Affleck) faces a family tragedy and is forced to take care of his late brother’s teenaged son. The film is a quiet, devastating drama that’s one of the most fully realized of the year. Wrote Naomi Skwarna in a piece for The Review, published during TIFF ‘16 where the film played: “Manchester by the Sea features male characters, in particular Lee and his now-teenaged nephew Patrick (an excellent Lucas Hedges), diminished and often brutalized by the covenant of masculinity; consumed by it from within.”
Lonergan is no stranger to comedy and trauma. Going back to his breakthrough play This Is Our Youth (which recently received a Broadway revival starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson), he is the master of the one-two punch of a one-liner after the tears fall. TIFF’s Malcolm Gilderdale interviewed the filmmaker about conceiving his third film, happy accidents and whether catharsis can ever be realized on screen.
In Manchester by the Sea, the opening of the film feels almost like a comedy. The shift into tragedy hit me even harder as a result. How did you approach creating this story?
It’s a rather large question, but I’ll try to answer it if I can. It sounds stupid, but you have to have an idea, or given an idea that becomes your own. I always start out with a character in a situation. I don’t start out with some subject that I’d like to write about or work on.
I also find the character’s environment is always very important to me, their interaction with the environment, the story of the environment — whether it’s an apartment in New York City, or the city itself; a small town in the Catskills, a small town on the north shore of Massachusetts. That’s always the starting point. The ideas that turn into full-length pieces are where I have some intuitive sense of what the beginning, middle, and end is. I usually have to know that early on, or I can’t get far. I have lots of ideas that go nowhere because the story went nowhere.
I get a great feeling of relief when I know where it’s going to go. It’s a very vague but distinctive sense at the same time.
What was the process of writing this film?
It started out as an idea brought to me by Matt Damon and John Krasinski. The core — the uncle going back home to take care of his deceased brother’s son, and not wanting to because of his own personal history with the town — that was their idea. From that point on, the rest of it was me.
I don’t really remember at what point I felt it could become a full story. I think I was afraid, but I was interested in trying to write a story about someone who had been through something very difficult — terrible, tragic — and was neither totally destroyed by it, nor going to snap out of it anytime soon. That seems to be more common in life than it is in art. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful movies about people who hit a new plateau after going through the fire. On the other hand, I know a lot of people who were knocked over. It takes quite a while, sometimes forever, to get back on their feet.
[I was interested in] all the ways in which the main character played by Casey Affleck feels obliged to stick around. He feels obliged to take care of his nephew, he loves his nephew. He doesn’t want to love anyone after what’s happened to him, but his brother more or less saved his life. He cannot let his nephew fall into the abyss, or even be sent off somewhere he doesn’t want to live, and that’s the main conflict of the story. He’s duty-bound and emotionally bound to make sure his nephew’s going to be alright, but that involves him staying somewhere he doesn’t want to be.
Casey Affleck in *Manchester by the Sea*
Can you talk about catharsis? This film deals with such emotionally difficult territory. How did you conceive and work with your cast to create that emotion, which is rarely seen on film?
As far as conceiving and directing it, I just tried to put myself in [Lee’s] shoes as best I could. I used whatever personal experiences, and whatever insight about other people’s experiences [ I could]. The people close to me and just my imagination about the things you read in the paper, who go through things you can’t imagine. Some of them come out the other side doing amazing things, and some of them don’t. Sometimes, I didn’t feel that I had the right to make the film because I hadn’t been through what the character’s been through. Then I thought, what are films for and why not? Why can’t Lee Chandler get a film made about him?
Working with the actors, it was the same process. You try very hard to specifically ask, “What would happen under these circumstances?” Working with Michelle Williams and watching her track where her character was five years ago, what’s happened in between that we don’t see, and where she is now, was watching a virtuoso piece together this incredible emotional specificity. Her character has suffered this terrible loss and is changed completely, but able to regroup. She’s able to start a new life, which Casey’s character has not been able to do yet.
Watching Michelle, listening to her questions and her answers… watching her know, step-by-step, where that person was at at every moment: what kind of haircut she would have, what kind of wardrobe when she was ready to go out in the world… the specificity was beautiful to observe, to work with, and to be a part of. Casey was very much the same way. I’m very detail-oriented, and it’s rewarding to work with actors who really want to know. They’re not there to express themselves, they’re there to be these imaginary people and to make them real.
Michelle’s character had so little screentime relative to many other characters. Still, I can’t think of another performance that had such an effect on me in such a short space.
It’s because of what she means in the story to Casey’s character. Her presence or her absence is always hovering. They have this wonderful scene where she throws all of his friends out for playing ping-pong in the middle of the night and being too loud, which was hilarious and really great. She can do anything.
It wasn’t all Sturm und Drang; there was a great variety that she brought to that character, an authenticity. She was really, really exciting to work with.
Do you think your work in the theatre has affected your approach to making films?
Yes, very much so. In the theatre, your tools are the cast, the set, and the lights. In film, the technical element is so much greater than the kinds of plays I do, anyway. A movie is almost all technology and technical elements.
From the beginning, doing theatre, I was very focused on the interaction between the characters, between human behaviour and what’s happening in the situation. That has carried over into the three films that I’ve done.
Do you work from chaos or methodology in your creative process?
Well, I’m trying to think of a pithy way to combine them. It’s methodology to create not chaos, but spontaneity, to grab that when it crops up. I have a long ways to go in terms of being more open to accidents and letting things happen.
No matter how carefully you plan and how sure you are that the script is going to relate to the film, you capture things because you have extra time. We were in the middle of a scene and this tremendous storm whipped up. The DP and I immediately turned the camera around to look at the ocean waves, which started coming in at us very strong. That storm became very instrumental in one of the most important sequences of the film and it was completely unplanned.
You can’t generate a storm, of course, but there’s a famous story about John Ford. He was shooting in Monument Valley, his favourite place to shoot. It was a funeral scene in a western, and they said, “We’d better start filming, there’s big storm clouds coming and we’re not going to have any light in 10 minutes.” He said, “let’s wait 10 minutes.” He could see the storm just coming across the desert.
Then when the storm hit, he started filming, and there’s this magnificent scene where suddenly the environment just goes wild. It’s good to be open to that.
On our film, there was a mechanical breakdown in one of the scenes. It was at a painful moment of the movie, and as soon as the crew finally got this gurney working, I said: “Do you guys want to practice a little bit more for the next take so we can get that going?” They said, “No, no, no we got it,” then it was worse the second time. And it was great because it was so awful, so real.
I tend to use almost every accident I film, so maybe I have to learn how to plan for more accidents.
Life is filled with those moments. A gurney not working — the low comedy of that intersects with something that is the exact opposite, it’s horrible.
Anything that builds up the sense of reality, I’m all for. In the film I did before this, Margaret, there is a couple of sequences at the opera. Whenever I watch a movie with a concert scene, the sound is perfect, and I know they’ve recorded it somewhere else. When I go to a concert, everyone’s coughing because they’re trying to keep quiet. I made sure we had a lot of coughing and shuffling because that’s what you hear when you go to the opera, and I’m very pleased because it sounds right to me. To suddenly have perfect sound because someone’s singing when it’s supposed to be in a realistic situation doesn’t make sense to me.
With reference to Margaret, it seems there were a lot of challenges in the production and release. Did that impact the way you made Manchester by the Sea?
There was an unfortunate buildup of mutual distrust after the film was shot, during the editing process, that led to an extremely drawn-out situation. The editing itself wasn’t much of a problem, but getting everyone to agree on what constituted the finished film was. It was such a drawn-out situation that I didn’t expect it to ever be repeated.
This film started out with Matt Damon producing; I had absolute trust in him. He’s a friend and he’s been so generous and good to me over the years that I knew I would be protected from the beginning. He kept saying, “Dude, this should be fun!” I was like, “Well, it’s fun for you.” He really wanted me to have a good time. It was an easier time for sure, there were no problems such as the ones that unfortunately came up with Margaret.
Would "fun" be a word you’d use for this movie?
It’s fun to watch the film, it’s fun to work with the actors, it’s fun to plan the shots, or to see the shots working well. Still, I haven’t found a methodology to work on a movie set that’s comfortable for me yet, but I’ve only worked on three movies.
It’s a situation that lends itself to succumbing to this terrible feeling of pressure and forgetting about everything else. Casey Affleck was very helpful to me during the whole process because he would continually remind me why we were there, and that was very nice to have. He’d just say, “Yes, it took an hour to set up the lights,” or “Yes, we’re in triple overtime, but we are actually here to film the scene, bear that in mind.” So I’d say, “Okay, thanks.”
Once it’s over, I start to have fun. I always have fun working with the actors, no matter what’s going on.
If you were speaking to a young filmmaker, what advice would you have for them?
I would say find some way to control the material creatively, if that’s what you care about the most. My personal technique, which isn’t always successful, is to find a protector who is powerful enough to protect what I want to do.
I suppose my generic advice is to do what feels right and true to you and not worry about whether it’s supposed to be in a movie or not. “Supposed to be” means somebody else’s idea. I think movies are always best when the creators follow their own ideas that feel truthful to them. “Follow your own interests and trust that they might be interesting to others” is my own creative template.