Sundance Report: Kenneth Lonergan Goes Deep on ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and Getting Over ‘Margaret’

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Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (Sundance)

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker and playwright Kenneth Lonergan has developed over the past two decades a reputation as a bit of a quiet genius who prefers to let his work do the talking. But at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the 53-year-old auteur (You Can Count on Me, Margaret, the play This Is Our Youth) was very visibly happy: He had just seen his wife, the actress J. Smith-Cameron, give a stand-out performance as Rebecca Hall’s free-spirited mother in the festival movie Christine, and his own new film, the long-awaited Manchester by the Sea, had just sold to Amazon for $10 million after premiering to rave reviews.

The success of the Casey Affleck-starring family drama — and especially the rich deal it scored from the distributor — can be seen as a vindication of sorts for Lonergan; his previous film, Margaret, was given a meager release in 2011 after six years of nasty legal battles with one of its financiers. Lonergan was visibly relieved by the quick and lucrative resolution this time, but in speaking with Yahoo Movies, he hadn’t yet processed the technological or business implications of selling to a big streaming platform.

“Truthfully, and I don’t mean to sound naive, but I don’t know that much about the film business,” said the native New Yorker, whose new film is still available for a theatrical distribution deal. “And it’s a sign that I’m really trying to educate myself about it at a late stage, that I don’t have an opinion. I’m happy that someone bought the movie and wants to distribute it and that they’re excited about it. That’s what you want, and that’s what we got.”

What audiences will get is a nuanced drama that is punctuated by frequent laughs, a masterful screenplay, an engrossing lead performance, and an examination of class and grief. Affleck plays Lee, who is still suffering from the memory of an unspeakable tragedy (we won’t spoil it here) when he is called back to his hometown on the coast of Massachusetts after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). He’s put in charge of his teenage nephew (a breakout Lucas Hedges) and has to try to adjust to his new responsibility even as the past (including an ex-wife played by Michelle Williams) refuses to release him from its grip.

Lonergan spoke to Yahoo Movies about the film (which was produced and originally pitched by Matt Damon and John Krasinski), his past work, and moving beyond the Margaret fiasco. Warning: Light spoilers below.

Your plays, and your two previous films, were wholly original ideas that you generated yourself. So was it a much different experience to write and then direct something that was initially conceived by someone else?
It was the first time that I’ve written anything that became my own. Well, everything in my creative and professional life has been in two categories: The work I do for myself, and then there’s work that I do for other people for hire [Ed. note: He wrote the screenplay for Gangs of New York, among other films]. I do a lot of screenwriting rewrites and that kind of thing. And in that category, I try to do as best I can to do what I’m being asked to do. And when it’s something that I care about for my own self, not just as a hired craftsperson or writer — sorry my sentences are too long. This was the only script I’ve ever written that wasn’t my idea that I came to care for as if it were.

Did it take time for you to care for it that way?
It was an odd situation. When you are hired to write a script for someone else, you are guaranteed to be fired eventually, no matter what kind of job you do. So you have to maintain a certain detachment from it. But because it was Matt and John — I didn’t know John very well, but Matt did — I knew whatever I wrote would get made the way I’d written it. So I put as much into it as if it was going to be shot the way it was written. It’s just a different kind of a job. I really try to do a good job when it’s for someone else, but I really don’t expect it to end up on the screen the way I wrote it. So you’re just a little bit more detached and ready to let go of it at any time.

With everything that went down with Margaret, were you reluctant at all to get back into movies?
It’s an interesting problem, because Margaret was a two-track situation. Because I thought it was some of the best work I had ever done, writing the script, everything about it except for the external troubles that started to pile on during the editing was extremely exciting. So Margaret as a creative entity is something that I’m very happy and proud of. But Margaret as a professional experience was a nightmare until it was rescued by critics and people who liked it.

But yes, it was very tumultuous, and even though eventually a miracle happened and people rescued it from all the bullshit that went down, yes it was tiring and I think I was probably a little bit shy to get back into the world.

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Lonergan and his ‘Manchester by the Sea’ collaborators (Getty Images)

Once Matt Damon decided not to direct Manchester by the Sea, and it became a possibility that you would, did you say that you needed final cut?
Well, I had final cut on Margaret — and through [Martin] Scorsese a proxy final cut on it — and I had final cut on You Can Count on Me, but people can give you a lot of trouble even if you have final cut. All they have to do is get in your way, and all you have to do is let them get in your way and make things worse by arguing them. Which I did. So this situation, because it was Matt, I had complete trust that I would be taken care of and protected. And I was.

[Executive producers] K Period and the financiers and producers Kevin Walsh and Chris Moore and Matt, they had opinions, but that’s it. I had complete creative license from start to finish. Which I ostensibly had on the others, but that’s a grey area. Because if you batter someone with your notes and your worries and anxieties and mistrusts, then that starts to impinge — I’m not thinking about the movie, I’m thinking about the people who are arguing with me and not letting me work. So you don’t have to lose final cut to lose your mind and lose your focus. But in this situation, I didn’t ever have that kind of anxiety.

It’s a lot easier to trust creatively Matt Damon than the businessman who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Yes. Yes. And, there was no studio involved. But I also just didn’t want to go through another of what was a very unusual situation. So I was determined to try to have a smooth path through this one. And it’s never a smooth path when you’re making a movie, it’s always something. And this movie had its problems like any movie, but they were different kinds of problems, and certainly not problems of the previous sort.

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This film has some Lonergan trademarks — someone dies at the beginning, for one — but here, you rely heavily on flashbacks for the first time. Was that always the plan? Was it a matter of deciding to show and not tell?
No, I tried that around the second draft. The first draft was just chronological and sequential. I never used flashbacks before. And partly, at that time, I wasn’t planning to direct it, so I figured if there was a problem with the flashbacks, they could play around with them in the edit. But I ended up giving a lot of attention to them because you can’t just have a flashback for no reason at any arbitrary time. And eventually, you’re tracing why the character’s mind is jumping back to this particular moment at this particular time. I can explain to myself, at least, why one scene from his past will pop into his head at one moment and another scene at another time. And it was kind of fun to do.

They were so long and so immersive, too.
It was interesting because when we were editing it, we were like, “Should we show his face to show that he’s thinking, and then cut to the boat, for example?” And then we started to lose all those transitional moments and just started jumping back into the past. And because the flashbacks are in chronological sequence and because I tried to make them connected to what was happening in the present, even though they pop up out of nowhere, it seems to work for some reason.

Lee is a dynamic character in the flashbacks, but very quiet and sullen through much of the film. Is it hard to write a lead character that is the center of the action, but is quiet and somewhat passive?
No, as long as a person seems like a human being to me in my imagination, I’m usually on safe ground. I feel that character, he’s quiet and he’s not unresponsive, but responsive in a very strange and controlled way. So once I had a vivid idea for him, he’s carrying around so much all the time, he’s got a very pro-active plan for how to get through each day, because if he doesn’t, he falls apart. So even though that doesn’t involve a lot of talking, behaviorally… and this is something Casey and I talked about a lot and had a lot of very productive and fun and stimulating conversations about: Where he was at what time and why he was reacting this way, and what way he might otherwise react?

He has to chart such a difficult course just to get through his day, and when these unexpected big things come at him — taking over the guardianship of his nephew, possibly being forced to live back in the town where he desperately doesn’t want to be — his system of functioning breaks down. And the opportunity to move on presents itself, but it’s very hard for him to take that opportunity because there are some things that are very hard or impossible to move on from.

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There’s no clear triumph for him.
There isn’t, and I wanted very much to do a movie about someone who doesn’t turn out to be OK in the end. I personally don’t need to see a story about a person that starts up miserable and ends up worse. I don’t know what that’s about, so I didn’t want to do that. But I also feel that life can be so hard on people, and people everywhere, no matter what their situation, can undergo such painful experiences and sorrow. And the truth is that many people don’t recover and don’t bounce back and they’re not OK. And I don’t like the lie that they just need a second chance to flourish and be a playground and suddenly they’re smiling and everything is fine. People carry around a lot with them, and not everyone can recover.

So I think the movie is about loss, and how some people deal with it and how some people can’t deal with it. And how most people can’t deal with it at all without people who love them, trying to help them.

Michelle Williams in ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (Pearl Street Films)

They say write what you know, but I hope that in this case, you didn’t. It’s such a devastating experience that he goes through. How do you get inside the head of someone like that?
Well, with great trepidation. Nothing this bad has ever happened to me and I hope to God it never does. But you hear about it, you know people have gone through unspeakable things that you can’t imagine. I suppose the things that one does go through can be moved over to help you understand what someone else might be going through. And I guess that’s part of the function of art, movies, books, and music — to put yourself somewhere else, and your emotions are engaged with someone else’s situation in a way that helps you to understand them. And I was very nervous about writing about something like this. I felt like I had no right to, but I did think, why shouldn’t there be a movie about this?

A lot of your work is set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and this is a different place and economic class of people.
I like to get away from the Upper West Side every once in a while. It was very interesting to learn about this area and try to capture the cadences of the way people speak there. I’m always really interested in different environments and how they affect people’s lives and what it would be like to live somewhere else. I really like to have the environment not just be the background, because what’s the point? Just coming here and looking at mountains out the window — when you live in New York, you forget that there’s anything else. So it’s nice to go somewhere else and go, “Oh, there’s the ocean! There’s these huge mountains that have been here all this time.” It wakes you up, and I like to try to do that with the work I’m doing, if I can.