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The death-obsessed film about grief in a small American town

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan talks about his acclaimed Manchester by the Sea, developing his craft as a teenager and working with Matt Damon

Is Kenneth Lonergan the best American filmmaker working today? With Manchester by the Sea, the writer-director delivers a sprawling study of grief that’s heart-wrenching and tragic, yet also frequently funny. Building upon You Can Count On Me and Margaret, it’s another exceptional, somewhat death-obsessed drama from an artist at the peak of his game.

At the sulky centre of Manchester by the Sea is Lee (played by Casey Affleck – now the new “Sad Affleck”), a friendless handyman whose lifestyle obeys a strict routine: dodging small talk with customers in the daytime, then seeking drunken punch-ups in the evening. Everything changes for Lee when his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies, and he’s made the reluctant legal guardian of 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). A change of scenery, but not necessarily mood, awaits.

During what Lee hopes to be a temporary parenting stint, he returns to his seaside hometown, aware that his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) still resides in the area. Whereas Patrick copes by chasing adolescent pursuits (juggling two girlfriends, launching a crap band), Lee retreats further into his skin, and the pair form a tragicomic double act. Eschewing phony Hollywood conceits, it’s a film that dares suggest that, in real life, tragedy rarely lends itself to constructive character makeovers.

In between features, Lonergan’s a celebrated playwright and screenwriter-for-hire (projects include theatre staple This Is Our Youth and Scorsese’s Gangs of New York). But now he’s undeniably an actor’s director too, eking out devastating performances from Affleck and Williams. On his visit to London, Lonergan spoke to us about Manchester by the Sea, prostituting himself for Hollywood writing gigs, and why rules about filmmaking should be ignored.

I’ve been reading your plays and film scripts, and I noticed you format them with columns to indicate characters speaking at the same time. How do you shape the rhythm of your dialogue?

Kenneth Lonergan: I really love writing simultaneous dialogue. I don’t know why, but I love those twin columns and the cacophony of people talking over each other. It’s really fun to figure out, and it’s just fun to do.

In terms of finding the rhythm, I don’t think in terms of the rhythm. I just try to close my eyes and hear what people would really be saying. I hope it’s the rhythm of natural speech. You’ll see I’m speaking to you in a certain way because I’m being interviewed. I’m a bit self-conscious, and that’s making me choose my words a bit more carefully than if we were just having a conversation. Every scenario has its different way of expressing itself vocally.

Aaron Sorkin speaks his dialogue out loud when he writes. Do you?

Kenneth Lonergan: I do that sometimes. If I hit a stumbling block, I’ll sometimes start talking when I’m writing. In fact, I do that quite frequently. It’s best when I’m really hearing the scene in my head and I’m simply writing it down, as if someone was dictating it to me.

In This Is Our Youth, Warren has photos of his murdered sister on the wall. And now with your three films, they’re all, to some extent, about grief.

Kenneth Lonergan: I don’t think all three films are about grief, though. This film is about grief and about someone who… I hate saying what films are about. I know you’re not asking me to.

But I think Margaret is about someone who’s finding out about the size of the world. While we’re having this conversation, within walking distance there are tens of thousands of people doing something completely different. If you’re trying to get justice from all those people, you’re going to have a very hard time – not because they’re evil and you’re good, but because they have their own interests that they’re following. It’s about someone very young finding that out for the first time.

If the access point of each film is a tragedy or a disaster, that may just be a lack of imagination on my part. But to me, it gives it a certain gravitas and a certain size to what the characters are dealing with. What I hope comes from that is different in each case, although obviously there’ll be common themes since I’m only one person.

“The ratio of work-to-money when you’re writing for television or prostituting yourself in Hollywood, is such a good ratio that I can do one rewrite or one film script a year for other people” – Kenneth Lonergan

Theoretically, the plot of Manchester by the Sea could be set in New York, like Margaret. But then it’d be a different film. In Margaret, there’s the anonymity, whereas Manchester has locals whispering whenever Lee passes by. Why did you pick the location?

Kenneth Lonergan: Yeah, I hope by the time the films are finished, they could only exist as they are, where they are. I try very hard to be specific. The locations are so important to the life they lead. I don’t think Margaret would work nearly as well if it wasn’t in a big city. New York is such an immense place, and there’s so much going on. There’s so many different levels to the culture and the society and the demographics. You’d have a very different feel if it was in a small town.

This film, which is set in a small fishing community that’s also a resort community for wealthy Bostonians; the more I was working on it, the more the place became integrated into the content. An important element is the boat that the kid wants to be on; the fact he wants to pursue a career in fishing, but the one- or two-man fishing vessel is on its ways out.

And it’s a small enough place that… for instance, if Casey Affleck’s character had had the experience he had in New York City, he could still walk around New York City. He might not like being there, but everywhere he goes, people wouldn’t know who he was. It’s too big. He can be anonymous there. You can’t be anonymous in a small town that you’ve grown up in.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but at school you started out as an actor?

Kenneth Lonergan: (laughs) No, I started out as a writer. I was in every play I could get into in high school, but I never meant to be an actor.

I asked that because Charlie Kaufman also appeared in plays when he was in school, and I imagine it’s hard to lose that urge to act. If so, does that suppressed desire to perform affect how you write? 

Kenneth Lonergan: I don’t think it’s because I acted. My best friend is Matthew Broderick. We met when we were 15. He wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to be a writer. We were both in school plays together. He was in a play that I wrote in high school. His mother, who was a brilliant writer and taught me everything, oriented me very much towards writing actable material – because I wanted to be a playwright.

She read everything I wrote, and was extremely supportive and extremely critical and extremely helpful. But she was also his acting coach. She oriented me towards writing for actors and thinking about their behaviour, not just what they’re saying.

John Krasinski and Matt Damon originally asked you to write Manchester by the Sea. Why do you think they came to you specifically for this project? I mean, Matt didn’t come to you with The Martian.

Kenneth Lonergan: No, but I would happily have done that as well. I guess it’s a character-driven idea. We worked together on This Is Our Youth when he did it London in 2002. He liked my writing. I suppose it sounds like the kind of story I would write.

How did they pitch the idea to you?

Kenneth Lonergan: Matt called me and said he had an idea for me. He talked to me about it, and I said, “Sure.” They came over to my apartment and essentially pitched the story of a guy from Boston who’s from Manchester-by-the-Sea, which is a small town north of Boston – he moved to New York, in fact, in their pitch. And he’s suffered a tragedy. He’s forced back to his hometown to take care of his nephew when his brother dies. His brother gives him guardianship without warning him, and he has to reintegrate himself in the town somehow.

That was their main idea. I changed some of the elements. Their idea for the nephew was that he was a young boy, and I made him into a teenager. I essentially stripped everything, except for the common core, and went off in my own direction.

“If the access point of each film is a tragedy or a disaster, that may just be a lack of imagination on my part. But to me, it gives it a certain gravitas to what the characters are dealing with.” – Kenneth Lonergan

I scrolled through your IMDb and you used to do some writing gigs more for… uh, money.

Kenneth Lonergan: (laughs) Yes, sure.

Well, just for fun, I watched an episode of Doug you wrote back in the 90s.

Kenneth Lonergan: I wrote that with my friend Andy Yerkes. We did two episodes. They paid pretty well. The ratio of work-to-money when you’re writing for television or prostituting yourself in Hollywood, is such a good ratio that I can do one rewrite or one film script a year for other people; it’d take me a few months to do it, and then I can spend the rest of the time doing what I want to do and not worry whether it’s going to be lucrative or not.

So that’s been a fairly good arrangement for me, to keep my financial life separate from my creative life. And I try to do a good job and be a good craftsman. But I’m working for someone else, and it’s their film and it’s not mine – I have a more detached feeling about it once it’s finished.

Do you still do those writing gigs, then, but have your name taken off the credits?

Kenneth Lonergan: I did a number of rewrites that my name isn’t on, of various movies, some of which I think are quite good. In Hollywood, there’s a lot of rewriting for scripts that never get made.

Are there any examples you can say?

Kenneth Lonergan: I did a few. I have a friend named Andy Tennant who directs comedies. I did a rewrite for him on a film called Hitch, and I just did a rewrite for him on a film called Wild Oats, which I don’t think has been released yet. And there’s one other – I can’t remember what the name of the film is. But that’s how I make a living.

Do you set yourself any rules for the visuals?

Kenneth Lonergan: Visually, it’s a process. I’ve only done three films. It’s a great, deep art, figuring out what should be on the screen and what shouldn’t. It’s fun to play around with. For each film I’ve done – it’s only three films, which isn’t many – I’ve wanted the environment to be very much a part of the story, not just the background. It’s now occurred to me that I’m very interested in that, and I didn’t know I was until I started doing films.

For myself, I have to feel the characters are alive and truthful, and the behaviour is believable. I often get there through the specifics of the situation – little details in life which are sometimes overlooked in fiction.

Rules about writing and filmmaking are only there if they support the making or writing of a good film. If they don’t, then throw them right out. When people say, “You have to do this, this and this…” – no matter what they’re saying, I always think they’re wrong. You can always point to films that don’t do any of that and are wonderful.

‘Manchester by the Sea’ opens in cinemas on 13 January