Manchester by the Sea: Kenneth Lonergan Interview

Ever since its bow at Sundance last January Ken Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea has been slowly, quietly making its way to the top of many people’s best-of-year lists. The film was initially greeted with a mix of trepidation and excitement as his last project, Margaret, became embroiled in controversy both legal and aesthetic. Manchester’s route to the screen was also a choppy one, with original lead Matt Damon bowing out and becoming a producer. 

Any skepticism was soon dismissed with the film’s first screenings, with near universal praise for the moving, powerful work. With standout performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, Lonergan’s work displays immense confidence in both writing and directing, justifiably thrusting the often mercurial man into the limelight with gentle talk about awards nominations fluttering for much of the year.

In this first part of a conversation about the film (read part two with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams here), director Lonergan spoke during TIFF about his work, the travails of bringing it to the screen, and the notion of “authenticity” and how it shapes his work. 

Let’s discuss the notion of authenticity – surely there’s a balance between getting it right while still being flexible to allow the narrative to breathe. You’re not here to craft non-fiction, but it’s got to feel real.

No, you’re not making a documentary, but everything’s in the details. You just try to not skip over them.

[Take] that scene where Casey is fixing the boiler towards the end of the movie. You notice how beautifully and how comfortably and how well he fixes that boiler? I said to him afterwards, “how the hell did you fix that boiler? Do you know how to fix boilers?” If he was a real obsessive, he would have learned all of the janitorial tricks. You just try to do that with everything. You do that with 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. 

So it’s authenticity not for its own sake but to buttress the dramaturgy. 

Yes, absolutely, it’s to support [the film]. I’ll give an example of mine that was a last minute addition. We were rehearsing the scene between Michelle and Casey in the flashback, and I added the little exchange about her mother. She comes in and he says “how was it?”, he said “we had a good time, is your mother still here?” “No, they just left”, and he says “Oh, no!”, and she says “yeah, she was sorry to miss you too.” And then he says “Did you get any rest?” and she says “Oh, yeah, it’s really restful whenever my mother visits!” 

Now, it’s about 5 lines, but it gives her a mother, it gives him a relationship with her mother, it gives us what her attitude is about what the relationship is with her mother, and it tells you a little bit about their relationship with each other and how comfortable they are. So that’s a lot from 5 lines. I thought of it kind of in the spur of the moment, but that little exchange helps to create the fictional marriage and give it some foundation in real life. 

How do you help your actors to get to the truly dark areas they need to visit in this film

They are great actors and they got themselves there. I don’t know how Michelle Williams shows up at night in her coat and takes her coat off and is in her pajamas and sees her house burning down and is completely real. It’s just chilling and inspiring. And she did that every single scene.

I don’t mean we didn’t discuss the character, [or that] we didn’t discuss a lot of things about it and we didn’t have a lot of interesting and fruitful collaborations. But with that [fire] scene… I’m not an actor and I don’t know how they do it. 

Casey said to me, very early on, before we had rehearsed or anything, that “I don’t know how to do this scene with the fire”. I said I didn’t know, but that he didn’t have to cry or anything. I think he’s just in shock. I remember when I watched the twin towers fall down on television, I wasn’t in New York, and I didn’t understand what I was looking at. And I think it’s that feeling. Like you see it, and you don’t understand what you’re seeing. One time I saw a guy waving a gun around in the street. There was a crowd of people around him. And I had never seen a gun in real life before, only on television. And I didn’t get what was happening for a second. So I said that, and he said, “Oh, I’m not worried about crying, I just don’t know how to hold the groceries!” [laughter]

In terms of how she holds herself together, Michelle’s character completely changes her look after the accident

Well, that was one of the most instructive parts of the film for me, talking about a woman who has lost everything and is rebuilding her life and has to go back out in the world and how she arms herself to do that. Michelle was very insightful about that. It was her idea to have her change her hair, and to change her style of dress. 

Casey and I had discussed how Lee in the present, as opposed to Lee in the past, is more fastidious. He wants to keep everything in order, he combs his hair, and he trims his beard better and he dresses more neatly, instead of being all disheveled and suffering. He’s trying to keep it together. Without any previous contact between them, they both came to somewhat of the same idea, which is that after your life has fallen apart, if you’re going to go back out there in any way a lot more conscious care of how you do it. It just seems very true to me, and beautifully so, that she’s trying a little too hard. 

Manchester By The Sea

Margaret was really like a labour and it was really painful for you, just dragged on…

….But that was a procedural difficulty, not a creative one. I’m very happy with Margaret creatively. Even editing it was interesting and fun to do, but it was just the arguments and the disagreements and the mutual distrust and obnoxiousness that surrounded the editing process. Blissfully, this process has not replicated that.

What does it say about this business that you’re working in?

You have to draw your own conclusions. 

It’s been said you came to direct this one because Matt Damon was too busy to do it.

Well, I wrote and directed 2 plays in 2009 and 2012, and I wrote an adaptation of Howard’s End for the BBC, so I do a lot, I try to keep busy. Matt was going to direct it, but when he wasn’t going to direct it, I knew that it was likely that they were going to ask. 

I also knew that if he did direct it, he would be very respectful of the script as if it were a play, and it would be, I would be participating in some sense. But the truth is, it’s a little hard for me to say, OK, I’m going to spend the next year of my life doing this project, because that’s what it really means, and it takes a year to set it up. I don’t like to start the work on the film as a director until I’m completely satisfied with the script because I’m no good at rewriting on the fly. So that means I have to plan ahead. I don’t know when the script’s going to be finished, [so that] perhaps that accounts for some of the immense gaps in my filmmaking career.

When you write, do you write for a specific actor? Did you know you were writing this for Casey? 

No, I thought I was writing it for Matt, who was going to be in it. But because he’s so busy, it’s always a little dodgy, and Casey was always on deck, or quickly became on deck. But I didn’t really think of it as Matt, I thought of it as a guy who has some of Matt’s qualities. 

The only time I’ve ever written consciously for a specific actor was when I was writing the part of the mother in Margaret for J. [Smith-Cameron], for my wife.

Perhaps an impossible hypothetical, how do you think the film would have been different if Matt had directed it? How different would it have been if Matt was in the role? 

It would have been totally different if Matt had directed it because director has so much influence over how a film turns out. It would have been quite different but not as different if he’d been in it, because every performer is different, but if I was to direct Matt in it, I, I assume the overall would have been similar, but obviously there would have been a totally different performance. 

So what did Casey bring to the role that Matt and you didn’t originally see in it? 

Well, now that he’s that guy, I never think of anyone except him in it, the two people become molded together. He brings so much to it. He’s got this depth of feeling and this specificity of behaviour and this commitment to being truthful. He’s like a dog with a bone, 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. He wants to try it a number of different ways, he wants to be sure we’ve gotten it covered and he knows that we could be wrong. He wants to do it a bunch – if we do 6 takes and I’m like OK, I think we’ve got it, everyone around can be waiting to get to the next shot and he’s completely, calmly [asking if we’re] sure I don’t want to do it some other ways, is there something we forgot, did we miss something?

It’s really very good to have an actor like that because it kind of reminds you to calm down and shoot the movie and not worry about the schedule and the lighting and the time and the money and all of that stress. 

How did you tackle the big fire scene as a director?

Well, we thought long and hard about how to do it technically, and that wasn’t really my decision, though I had to approve everything. All the guys who do that particular work in Massachusetts are really very good at their job. The house had to be completely on fire, or there’s no excuse for not going in. It has to be all over basically, and that dictated what kind of fire it was and then how we showed it. We had two cameras, but we mostly just used the one pullback shot, which I’m proud to say I think was my idea. It worked out really well, although I didn’t execute it. 

You can have all of these great ideas, but other people have to do the work.