Interview: Kenneth Lonergan on Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan makes a triumphant return to movies with a story about a solitary man who must go back home to face his family and the events that changed his life
By Jay Stone
TORONTO — There’s a scene in the penetrating and devastating drama Manchester by the Sea where Casey Affleck, playing a loner with a crippling secret in his past, stands in front of a burning building. It’s defining tragedy in the film: the Affleck character, named Lee, has just been to the grocery store to buy some 2 a.m. snacks and beer, and he has returned to find his life going up in flames.
It’s the kind of moment that would call — in a lesser film — for a lot of outsized emotions. But Manchester by the Sea is too quiet and controlled for that: it’s written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, a master of understated sadness, and has in Affleck a leading man whose own work (he’s the younger, less famous brother of Ben) reflects a thoughtful, more realistic approach.
Lonergan recalls the day the scene was shot, when Affleck asked him for some insight into the character. Lonergan said Affleck wouldn’t have to worry about crying. Lee would be in shock, the way he himself was the day he saw the twin towers collapse on 9/11. “I didn’t understand what I was looking at and I think it’s that feeling,” he advised his actor. “I didn’t get what was happening.”
“I wasn’t worried about crying,” Affleck responded. “I don’t know how to hold the groceries.”
Manchester by the Sea is filled with those kinds of details, making it one of the most powerful films of the year: a thinking person’s melodrama although, as Affleck says, Lonergan has nothing to do with melodrama. When — during interviews during the Toronto film festival, where the movie had its premiere — someone asked Affleck about the thoughtful pauses in the dialogue, Affleck had a wonderful answer: “The better the words are, the better the pauses are. If it feels like real people getting real information, then you’re sort of paying attention and you want to see what their reaction is. If you’re detached and you don’t care, then the pauses are meaningless.”
The art is in the details, and Manchester by the Sea is told in their accumulation. It’s a moving film, but not a sloppy one. “Kenny’s almost allergic to sentimentality, so no matter what, he’s going to find his way through avoiding those landmines,” Affleck says. “It keeps it feeling very real and that includes the moments between the lines.”
In the film, Lee is introduced as a quietly seething janitor at a Boston apartment who fixes furnaces and shovels snow, then goes out at night to have a solitary drink and, in an almost casual way, get into pointless fights at the bar. When he learns that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died in his hometown, nearly Manchester, he returns to confront his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and discover that he has been made the guardian of his teenage nephew, Joe’s son Patrick.
It’s set in a realistic fishing village culture of thick Massachusetts accents and rough-hewn loyalties that lie under a surface of hard men and women who make their living from the sea. Lonergan’s well-crafted script moves smoothly between the present to the recent past so we learn the cause of Lee’s grief. Its climax comes in a tiny moment — a meeting between Lee and Randi on the street to talk about what happened to them — that is a scene of almost indescribable grief unfolding in barely a whisper.
In Affleck and Williams — as well as in Lucas Hedges, a newcomer who turns Patrick into a slyly funny adolescent simultaneously mourning his father and carrying on several romances with high school girls — Lonergan has been given an ideal cast: actors who come to the project without the burden of movie star personas, but with a love of the kind of truth that lies beneath the surface and must be discovered rather than shown.
Part of that came by chance. The movie is the latest chapter in Lonergan’s own quietly unfolding drama in the movie business. He is the son and stepson of psychoanalysts, and he grew up in a privileged part New York City (he went to school with the actor Matthew Broderick, a friend who has appeared in all his movies.) He became a playwright, then helped write a few Hollywood movies, including the Robert de Niro comedy Analyze This and the Martin Scorsese drama The Gangs of New York.
He made his triumphant directorial debut with the 2000 film You Can Count On Me, a similarly small and penetrating family drama that introduced Mark Ruffalo as a troubled man who comes home to live with his sister (Laura Linney) and try to sort out his life. The movie led to Lonergan’s next film Margaret (2011) a drama about a girl who distracts a bus driver and causes a fatal accident. It became a cause celebre when it was caught up in a creative and financial dispute with the producers over its editing and length. It ended in lawsuits and almost finished Lonergan’s career in cinema.
“That was a procedural difficulty, not a creative one,” Lonergan says now. “I’m very happy with Margaret creatively and even editing it was creative and fun to do. It was just the arguments and the disagreements and the mutual mistrust and obnoxiousness that surrounded the editing process. Blissfully this process has not replicated that.”
He wrote Manchester by the Sea partly as a comeback. It was supposed to star Matt Damon, or even be directed by him, but the actor was too busy and so he agreed instead to help with the financing. The result is a movie with a star who isn’t a box-office name — the trailers for Manchester by the Sea feature Damon talking about it — but who helps root the movie in its blue-collar milieu.
It worked out well. Lonergan is thrilled with the way Affleck threw himself so completely into the role that learned how to do the small skills a janitor would need. In an early scene, we see Lee fixing a boiler at his apartment building.
“You notice how beautifully and how comfortably and how well he fixes that boiler?,” Lonergan asks. “That teeny detail I think is tremendous because it makes him feel like a real janitor. You do that with the big moments and the small moments and you hope you’re creating something that has a ring of truth to it all the way through.”
Lonergan is known as a director who complains about the complications of movie-making, but he may have met his match in Affleck, who is obsessively attentive to the characters he plays.
“He’s like a dog with a bone,” Lonergan says. “He will not let go until he’s really in a position to behave spontaneously within the truth of the circumstances and feel like he’s doing so. And he wants to try it in a number of different ways and he wants to be sure we’ve got it covered and he knows we could be wrong so he wants to do six takes. And you’re like, ‘Okay, I think we’ve got it’ and everyone around can be waiting to get to the next shot and he’s completely, calmly just like, ‘You sure you don’t want to do it some other ways?’”
Lonergan says such perfectionism reminds him to calm down and forget about the worries of moviemaking — things “the schedule and the lighting and the time and the money and stress and all that stuff” — and just get on with the job.
Manchester by the Sea, which is generating Oscar buzz for all of the leads and for Lonergan, evokes some real-life tragedies that Lonergan has massaged into something of a character study. Finding material for his brand of cinema — movies about people coping with terrible things in their pasts — isn’t difficult in today’s world.
“I’m sure we could look through today’s paper and find something that is unbearable for the people it’s written about,” he says. “And I often think of that, flipping through a newspaper looking for something somebody wrote about you, and you skip past earthquakes and massacres and tragedies and miracles and all these things. I often stop and find it hard to digest what’s going on all over the place and I don’t know how people get through it, but they do.”
He pauses — a very Kenneth Lonergan pause, true to the feeling between the lines.
“Sometimes,” he adds.
(Manchester by the Sea opened Nov. 25 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. It opens Dec. 9 in Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria, and throughout the winter in other cities.
THE EX-PRESS, November 30, 2016