Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams Interview

In part two of our conversation about Manchester by the Sea (read part one with director Kennth Lonergan here), stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams discuss the challenges of bringing this raw tale about loss and reconnection to the big screen, about drawing universal truth from the specificity of their circumstance, and how picking the right pair of jeans makes things feel even more real.

Kenneth Lonergan is so good at creating dialogue and saying profound things without actually using grandiloquence. Did you work with him before the shooting in order for the dialogue to come out as natural as it does in the film?

Michelle Williams: I wasn’t around for very much rehearsal, maybe just a couple of days. But to pull off the dialogue, it’s deceptively naturalistic, but actually the writing is very structured. When you have overlaps, the dialogue is written sort of side by side about when you interject into what the other person is saying, so it just takes a lot of preparation and memorization. 

So everything was on the page

Casey Affleck: Yeah, everything was on the page, so it’s just a different challenge. You have to make those words work instead of taking the idea of the words and then paraphrasing them and making them the way you would say it. I think sometimes I can be harder but ultimately, the result is better.

Every time you get some kind of crushing information you just take a minute. What’s it like trying to provide those quieter moments?

CA: Those are the moments where I if you have some sense of what’s going on in the scene they play themselves a little bit. That’s not to just sort of bang Kenny’s writing drum over and over, but 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 in some way. 

It’s a very emotional movie for the actors and for the audience, so there’s a lot of conflict, but the conflict isn’t petty, although sometimes on the surface it might be, “oh, do you want a pizza?”, “I don’t eat that kind of pizza”, “Eat the pizza!, EAT THE FUCKING PIZZA!!!” But it’s what’s underneath it, it’s not about the pizza obviously. 

The film avoids melodrama entirely. It stays present, it stays in the moment, it uses quietness rather than sort of histrionics to tell the story. Were there moment where you were wanting to go big or wanting to go much more into actorly moments and Ken was making sure that things kept within the tone of the film, or did it just all play out the way that we saw it play out on screen? 

MW: I’ve gotta see the movie.

CA: OK, can we show Michelle the movie so we can talk about this?

M: Where can I get a DVD of this movie?

You’ll like it, it’s pretty good. It’s not bad at all. There’s no moments where you’re like oh, this is going crazy over the top, this is, the whole film is about quiet. 

MW: I know for me specifically he never said, oh, that’s too much or hold back, or that you’re embarrassing yourself and the rest of the cast and crew right now. He never said do less of what you’re doing, he actually just said keep doing what you’re doing or do more of what you’re doing. 

CA: That isn’t… His direction is way better than that anyway. Do less and do more is not really kind of helpful because it’s not specific and you don’t even know exactly what you should do less or more of, you know? So if he were to say, he would just talk to you about what was happening in the scene the way you would talk to your sister if she came to you and said fucking boyfriend and this and that and the other and you’re sort of talking them through it. His direction was more like advice you’d give a friend, like why do you feel that way, what if you just said, what if you just tried to be nice to them, and what if you did this, and what if you did that, it wasn’t about bigger or smaller.

Is that relatively unique? Specifically about his style of allowing the moment to exist whereas other directors may be more procedural?

CA: I think so. If you don’t understand the material as well as Kenny understood it, you might have to have an outside in approach. Do less, do more, what if you just dropped your bags in this moment, you know, about the surface of it. He was really an inside-out kind of director. He knew all of the characters as well as all of the actors, if not, better. But, that said, I think it’s a good question because it did end up being really restrained performances without losing any of the emotional impact or punch of it. Ken wants everything to go up to the point of too much and then say, we’ll contain it, or he did seem to not want it to be melodramatic.

Sundance - Manchester by the Sea

Michelle, what did you tap into for your quiet rage?

MW: Do you remember there was that house fire in Brooklyn? There was this Hasidic family that had left the hot plate on and they had something like 9 children and maybe 7 of them died, I can’t remember. The mother was in fact in similar situation and there was reportage about it at the time about what she was saying. It’s a strange thing to be a voyeur on somebody else’s pain when you’re trying to lift something and take it more broadly but it made me feel very uncomfortable to be sort of making notes.

I just want to tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. A luxury about doing this movie for me is that I didn’t think of her as half of a person, it’s a small part, but it doesn’t mean that she is only half of a person. I knew I had a whole person to go out and play. 

To what extent was this just an emotionally and mentally draining experience?

CA: Yeah, it’s kind of true. I don’t think it’s unique or particularly committed or brave or anything of me, it’s just what you have to do is to go there and show up on set with the right feelings, to be prepared to play the scene the way it’s supposed to be. I’m just not good enough to be able to show up and be in a great mood and good morning to everybody and check in with your kids and read the paper and then walk in to the scene and be believably gutted in the way that he’s supposed to be carrying around all of this guilt and devastated and feel self-loathing and all of that.

I’d have to really start way back in pre-production and try to just slip into all of your own worst feelings and stay there for as long as you can. Kenny cast not just Michelle although she’s the summit of the mountain, but everyone else was really good. People came in for one or two scenes and there were people that he had found in some play and they were amazing actors and they were going to be awesome. So if you just tried to show up and walk through it or do anything but give 100% you’d really look like a jackass. 

That’s kind of like what I like about making movies anyway – If you’re just showing up on set and hanging around and chit chat and having fun, it’s just not really what’s satisfying about making movies. It feels really good to be somebody else and live in some character’s life, even if it means that their life is tragic in some way. 

Which scenes took the most takes and why?

CA: Sometimes the most takes is not the hardest thing to do. I don’t know why.

MW: Sometimes it’s a technical…

CA: I would say probably the longest scene was the scene where I come in to find her in the bedroom. It was one of the lightest, most pleasant scenes to do. Take my clothes off and straddle Michelle.

MW: Is that why we had to do it over and over again?

CA: Yeah. One more please! I’d like, can we just try something different there? [Laugh]. But that scene took the most time, set ups and camera angles and so forth, I’m not sure why. But then, some of the more, what you’d think would be harder scenes to do, we just sort of started and did them and finished pretty quickly.

This film obviously seems very much a part of where you come from

CA: I knew people I think like this. I grew up in Massachusetts, but I never went up to that area of the State for some reason, but it’s pretty familiar. It’s not so different than anywhere. It’s a working class community and of families. One of the things that Kenny does so well is just make it universal. It doesn’t really matter where the people are, whether it’s You Can Count on Me and it’s upstate New York, or it’s Margaret and it’s New York City, or it’s these people and Manchester by the Sea, it doesn’t feel like some alien life form that you’re like, what are, this is how these people behave when they have a tragedy? It feels really relatable all the time. 

I don’t know how he does it because it’s hard to do. To write something that’s very specific, like it is very accurate, it feels authentic. It feels like this is a guy who grew up in this place, knew how these people, what their accent was like – he was correcting us on his accent! I’m like, motherfucker, I’ve never even been to this place before! But he knows and is just a very smart guy, so it’s super specific, but it’s also very universal.

I’m pretty sensitive to the authenticity of movies that are set in a place where I grew up and know really well, but it might be that we just over value the specificity of a thing and really people are people everywhere. A lot of that is attributable to set design and costumes and if those things are off, then things start to feel off, but those houses really look like, they look great. Inside those houses didn’t look like they we were in southern California, in Miami. Michelle spent so much time with the people in that area and she was the one who advocated for a certain appearance, she was like no, it should look this way and it’s this haircut and these jeans.