LOVE TRUMPS GRIEF

‘Manchester by the Sea’: How Kenneth Lonergan Made the Year’s Most Heart-Wrenching Movie

In ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has given us a path out of life’s darkest moments.

11.18.16 6:08 AM ET

Early in Manchester by the Sea, there is a long shot of Casey Affleck’s character Lee Chandler quietly and dutifully shoveling snow. Lee, working as a janitor for a Boston apartment complex, focuses all his energy on the task at hand. He is a very different man from the one we see in the film’s opening scene: a gregarious uncle, joking around with his young nephew Patrick on a boat off the coast of Massachusetts.

The tragic event that occurs in the intervening years is not revealed until midway through the film. As writer-director Kenneth Lonergan tells me, he would prefer that audiences not know the details of that tragedy before they see the film. Suffice it to say, it is horrific.

But Lonergan, looking a little out of place in a suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, wearing his signature plaid shirt, salt-and-pepper stubble, and thick-framed glasses, bristles at the suggestion that his third feature film is “dark.” 

“I don’t really like movies that are dark,” he says. “Even when I hear that word, I’m like, I don’t want to see that, because the world is not just dark or light, it’s both.” Lonergan can admit that Affleck’s character is dark, given that he’s “been through a terrible ordeal that nobody should have to go through,” but at the same time, he is forced to coexist in the world with people who are just trying to live their lives. 

“I think that the only way to tell a story like this, for me, is to have everything going on at the same time,” he says. “I love that Casey’s character has this terrible weight that he’s carrying and that he’s right next to Lucas’s character who is very much engaged and alive and trying to enjoy himself, even though he’s been through an ordeal himself.”

Lucas is Lucas Hedges, the 19-year-old Brooklyn-born actor who transforms himself into Patrick, a popular teenager with a thick North Shore Massachusetts accent who is thrust back into his uncle Lee’s life when he experiences a tragedy of his own. 

It’s easy to imagine a more clichéd version of Manchester by the Sea in which Patrick is a loner who gets bullied at school, and it’s up to his uncle to show him how to be a man and get girls to like him. But that’s not the direction Lonergan chose. Instead, Patrick is a good-looking, confident athlete with not one, but two girlfriends. “It’s a very complicated part, actually, and he makes it even more so, in a good way,” Lonergan says. 

The idea for Manchester by the Sea began when Matt Damon and John Krasinski approached Lonergan to write the film following the tumultuous experience of his second feature, Margaret. Lonergan began his career as a celebrated playwright with This Is Our Youth and received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his debut screenplay, You Can Count on Me. His career ascendent, he shot Margaret, starring Anna Paquin, in 2005 but it was not released until six years later, following a lengthy legal dispute with one of the producers. 

“A lot of his friends were, quite frankly, worried about him,” Damon told The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead this year. “He needed money, but he couldn’t write—it was this horrible limbo.” Damon commissioned the script that ended up being Manchester by the Sea with the intention of directing and starring in it. But once he read the first draft, he knew Lonergan had to helm the project. A scheduling conflict led Affleck to take the lead role.

As Lonergan tells it now, the idea that Damon and Krasinski pitched to him was a story about a character who has to leave his hometown because of a family tragedy and returns “more or less against his will” to assume guardianship of his brother’s son. 

“I liked the idea of someone in that situation who has lost his family,” Lonergan says. “It seemed very poignant to me, and very moving. And the idea that he still has to take care of his brother’s family, and that his brother took care of him when he was in trouble.” 

Patrick was originally envisioned as a much younger character but Lonergan decided to make him a teenager, “Because I liked the idea that the kid had a really full life, a life he wanted to keep going,” he says. “And that seemed like an interesting contrast to the Casey Affleck character, who’s basically trying to keep life at bay as much he can. And doesn’t want to get involved and has stripped his life down to this really ascetic, spartan, non-existence, where he’s just trying to get through every day as rigorously as he can so the walls don’t cave in on him.”

The script did not change after Affleck signed on in Damon’s place, but after watching the film it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. “They’re both great actors, so I don’t know what Matt would have brought to it,” Lonergan says. “Casey just brought his own persona and his own skills and his own emotional life to it.” He describes Affleck as being “really thoughtful, really emotional, really funny” and, perhaps most importantly, “really soulful.” Affleck embraced the “strangeness” of the character, he says, the “weird out-of-step quality that’s a result of the work he’s doing to keep everyone away from himself,” in a way that Damon may have had more trouble capturing. 

Affleck’s Lee Chandler is always saying “no” to opportunities, rejecting the advances of women, refusing to bring new people into his life. He disengages with the world. It’s a type of character that could be difficult to make compelling onscreen because, on a fundamental level, he doesn’t want to be seen. But Lonergan doesn’t see him that way.

“Once I was inside his head, it all went perfectly smoothly,” Lonergan says. “He’s almost leading a Zen existence in a sort of negative and bad way. Because he’s trying so hard to not think about anything, because he can’t bear the content of his own thoughts. His distress is so over the top that he’s got to just reduce the world to a series of small chores. And he tries to make taking care of his nephew into a series of small chores and it’s impossible, because his nephew is a human being who needs and wants a lot of attention and love and care.”

Despite Lee’s desire to shut down emotionally, Lonergan thinks of him as a very emotional character. “He’d love to be unemotional and shut down, but he’s not,” he says. “I always see him holding up this huge boulder or holding up all the walls at the same time without enough hands to do it,” he adds, miming the metaphorical action as he speaks. “To me, that’s a very active man and that’s easier to write. Passive doesn’t really exist. You can be passive, but you’re doing something all the time.” 

The tragic event that shapes Affleck’s performance also precipitates the moment that will likely deliver Michelle Williams her fourth Oscar nomination next year. As Lee’s wife Randi, Williams makes a huge impression despite appearing in just a handful of short scenes. 

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Lonergan says Williams “worked really hard” to perfect her character, who has to be “tough and nice and loving and no-nonsense” all at the same time. Williams would show up at different points throughout the shoot “fully prepared and ready to go,” he says. “It was really impressive. For me it was like, here comes Michelle, and a switch goes on and she’s in this incredibly sweet scene in the bedroom and then she’s in this unbelievably nightmarish scene or she’s in this incredibly funny scene where she’s throwing the guys out of the house for playing ping-pong. She does so much in this part.” 

For that “unbelievably nightmarish” scene, Lonergan says Williams “just showed up, took off her coat and was in her night shirt and just went insane.” With every new take, “she’d go insane again.”  

“I couldn’t believe it,” Lonergan says. “I don’t believe I had to say anything to her that entire scene. I mean, what are you going to say?” He adds, “I find that scene almost impossible to watch. I’m just glad that it’s over very quickly.” 

After all of the turmoil that plagued his previous film, Lonergan is grateful for all of the “support and attention” this one has received. Referring to recent profiles in The New Yorker and elsewhere—“as complimentary as they are”—that paint him as some sort of tragic figure, he says, “I want to read one about what a good mood I’m in. Because that was a long time ago and I’m actually really happy with how that movie came out. It was definitely a big pain in the ass over all those years. But they act like I’ve been through some major tragedy and I just haven’t. I don’t quite get that. I guess that’s the narrative.”

The narrative of digging oneself out of a hopeless situation can be irresistible, as Lonergan has proven with Manchester by the Sea. And it is a theme that may be particularly resonant for more than half of American voters, who are currently experiencing a form of grief. In Casey Affleck’s character, we have a model of how to overcome something that feels insurmountable. 

“Once the worst has happened, there’s no hope that it’s going to be undone,” Lonergan says. “I’ve never thought of the movie in terms of hopelessness, but just in terms of grief and trying to carry around something that’s too painful to bear. And trying to function in the face of that, which I find to be the positive side of this story.

“Casey’s character is an extremely dutiful person,” he continues. “He doesn’t disappear. It’s agony for him to stick around and he does because he really wants to do the right thing. To me, that’s not hopelessness, that’s love.”