Kenneth Lonergan directed a movie that wowed audiences at Sundance back in January and has found a place on many critics’ short list for the best of the year. But it almost wasn’t so. Lonergan began his career — and continues to work — as a playwright, earning acclaim for efforts like This is Our Youth and Lobby Hero. He found his way to screenwriting via the script for Analyze This in 1999 and followed it in 2000 with his much-loved debut as a writer and director, You Can Count on Me. Much of what makes Lonergan such a compelling filmmaker is evident in that debut: His choice to let scenes play out and place the weight of the work on dialogue and acting rather than incident, his ability to find just the right actor for each role, and his willingness to delve into the messiness of personal and familial relationships without offering easy solutions.
It’s evident, too, in Lonergan’s follow-up, Margaret, which found a low-key release in 2011 after going through a troubled post-production that lasted years and led to a compromised version making its way to theaters. After initially receiving mixed reviews, it earned critical champions who helped keep it in the spotlight and ensure that Lonergan’s preferred cut would see the light of day on home video.
Which brings us to Manchester by the Sea. Lonergan wrote the film for his friend Matt Damon to direct, working from an idea from Damon and John Krasinski, who had previously co-written the film Promised Land. When Damon’s schedule tightened, Lonergan decided to make it his return to directing. Playing to all his strengths, it’s the perfect film with which to make a comeback, planned or otherwise.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a Boston-area janitor who’s called home to the titular Massachusetts town of Manchester-By-The-Sea after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Unbeknownst to Lee, Joe has named him guardian of Joe’s teenaged son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a task Lee believes he’s incapable of handling. There is a standard path for a movie with this set-up to follow, but Lonergan avoids it. As Lee deals with the situation, a series of flashbacks reveal why it’s so difficult for him, and the tragic incident that led to the dissolution of his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams). (That everyone in the cast delivers extraordinary performances is a bit of an understatement.)
Over the phone, Lonergan spoke to us about the importance of getting the details right, how dialect influences dialogue, and when he knows a movie is finished.
The first thought that came to mind after watching your movie was a James Ellroy quote: “Closure is bullshit.”
I kind of agree with that idea. I don’t really know what closure is or means. I did want to resolve the story in a way that seemed commensurate with real life, with the real depth of distress that the main character is in and the difficulty he’s having moving forward with his life. I didn’t want to have it end where it started either because that’s not very interesting. I don’t think people end up where they start anyway. They usually go one direction or another or several at once. From the beginning I pretty much had the ending that we had in mind.
It has to be a challenge to make a film that works toward that but also to make a film with a character who is so interior, so inexpressive.
There’s just certain conversations he’s just not interested in having. I see him as being extremely active. I never noticed that he didn’t say much until people started point it out to me. Because, to me, every day [for him] is a struggle to not collapse. A very active struggle. He works very hard to get through every day in a way that he can stand. He’s sometimes not successful. He’s in so much pain. He has got so much emotional burden to carry that he’s got to work very hard to keep it at bay or he just can’t function. He does it by trying to relegate everything into small tasks. When he has a bigger task he tries to do that too, but it is not as successful because once human beings become involved it becomes very difficult to control your environment.
This is not a film that you set out to direct. Was there a point at which it was either you had to direct it or it would go away?
I don’t think that ever came up. I think it was just a question that Matt was going to direct it all the time it was being written. Then, when he read the script, by that time his schedule had constricted. Also, I think he was enthusiastic about the idea of me directing it. It was never put to me like, “If you don’t direct it, we’re not going to be able to do it.” He said, “I think it would be a really good idea for you to direct it. I think you’ll do a great job.” Whether that’s true or not, I thought about and decided I did want to direct it because I’d gotten very attached to the material in the interim.
Was it hard to make the decision to come back to directing after the break and after your last experience?
No, not at all. I knew I would at some point. I wasn’t sure it was going to be with this because I was writing it for Matt.
When you know you’re going to do a piece and set it in a place like this, how does the accent influence approach to dialogue?
I approach dialect by trying to write down what I hear in my imagination. In this case I heard them speaking with this regionalism and that just works its way into the script. I wanted to avoid certain clichéd expressions. Nobody says, “wicked,” or anything like that. It’s not a favorite expression anyway. Even nowadays most of the people say in a sort of self-referential way because they have seen it in the movies so much. I avoid that one. Other than that, you know where your characters are from, you know how they talk and you write that down.
What steps do you take to get the region correct? If you don’t get it right, I’m sure you’ll get called on the details. How did you make sure you got it right?
You just try to follow the details, really. Details give you the bigger picture. I did a fair amount of research on the town and of the area when I was writing the script. A lot more when I got there in pre-production. Then we integrated as much of the environment as we possibly could on the fly when we were there. I really like dialogue. I’m really interested in it. I’m really interested in verisimilitude because that’s how I personally build up my work. There are a lot of approaches that don’t necessarily have to do with verisimilitude, but that’s my way in.
I’ve noticed movies that take place in certain specific locations. I’ve noticed movies where everyone sounds the same and you can tell they all have the same accent coach. I didn’t want to do that. My wife [actress J. Smith Cameron] shoots a TV show called Rectify in a small town in Georgia. You go down there and a lot of people have a strong local accent and a lot of people don’t. I don’t see that in a lot of movies. Usually if it takes place in Maine everyone has the same accent. When you really go to Maine everyone has a different accent. I wanted to make sure their were characters who did not have a regional accent and there are several. When you go to Manchester, Gloucester, and Cape Ann, a lot of people have the local accent, a lot of people don’t. I wanted to reflect that. I knew which characters I wanted to have a specific local accent and which ones I didn’t. There are a lot of transplants.
We were scouting the movie and ran into two guys who came out of a boat repair shop, they both had thick Southern accents. One of them was from Alabama and one of them was from Tennessee. They lived there for 20 years. It was really hilarious because they had these strong Southern accents. They were like, [adopts Southern accent] “Oh, yeah. I’ve lived up here for my whole life practically. I love it.” And you’re standing in the middle of Gloucester Harbor. They’re covered with grease from the boats and they’re just chattering away in their Southern accents. You just try to stick to the particulars and it often gives you the bigger picture.
They do a really good job with that on Rectify, too. I’m from Ohio and there are parts of it that are as much the South as the Midwest but you never really see that in movies.
I live in New York City, there’s not just one New York accent there’s hundreds.
Does TV have any appeal to you? The storytelling possibilities of it?
Oh, yeah. Certainly. There’s so much great TV now. I just haven’t really had an idea for a show that I like. If I ever did, I’d be very happy to explore television.
You’re used to creating plays and movies that are complete pieces and the idea that open-ended story would be something new.
It is a very different form. It took me a while to get into screenwriting and filmmaking. I started out as a playwright, and I’m still a playwright, but I was in my early thirties before I ever tried to write a screenplay for myself. I was doing it to make a living but it took awhile for me even do that. I think it might just be a trick of my imagination, just a switch to jump the track and go over to the television world. I don’t know.
Something about the long form appeals to me. One of the main worries about a play or a movie is that they are only supposed to be so long. The fact that if you can do the show over four episodes or four hours, or eight episodes, eight hours, or eight two-hour episodes if you happen to have that much to say or write about, that’s very liberating.
When do you know when a movie is done?
When your adjustments start to make it worse instead of better, you have to stop.
What’s a sign of that?
Just that when you watch it you’re like, “Why did I do that? That’s not better. That’s worse.” You’re in there, you have this great idea. You’re like, “Oh, wow! That scene’s really good, but this other take we didn’t use is so great. Maybe I could just get a couple of lines from that take in there. Switch those out.” Then you do all this fussing, you do a screening and you step back and you’re like, “Oh. This is not as good.” When you see more breaking down than improving, it’s time to stop.
One thing I’m curious about, without giving too much away for the readers: There is the scene in the middle that reveals the traumatic incident. Did you always know that the editing would work the way it works, cutting between the two timelines?
Yes, in the main and in the specific locations of the switching back to the past timeline. That particular one, the really big flashback, it always happened in the lawyer’s office. The specifics of going back and forth with the shots was something we constructed in the editing room. We started out following the script and for the most part the flashbacks are in the film as they written, but that one just getting into it and getting out of it was constructed in the editing room with the help of my great editor, Jennifer Lame.
It’s very elegantly done. Was there a lot of refining involved in that?
We worked on that a lot. I don’t know if our first pass was any worse than our last one because it was all visual, all along the same lines going back and forth him walking in the snow. That was worked on quite a bit. Hopefully, successfully.
Did you always plan to cast yourself as someone who’s antagonistic to your main characters? [Lonergan has a memorable, confrontational cameo in one scene.]
[Laughs.] I don’t. I play a nice, very kindly and supportive minister in You Can Count On Me.
Oh, no. I meant specifically in this film.
Oh, in this film? I figured there was three parts that I could play, or three parts that I could play and this was one of them. I think I would have been okay as the lawyer and I think I would have been okay as Gretchen Mol’s husband, but I thought I would give those bigger parts to better actors.
I always thought the minister in You Can Count On Me could get his own movie.
Yeah, I had that thought myself, but I don’t know. May be a little late for that.
Lucas Hedges is great in this movie. It’s a lot of weight to put on someone that young. What was the casting process for that like?
Because it’s a lot of weight to put on someone that young, I was very anxious about it. I made him audition probably a lot more than he needed to. I think he came in five or six times. It’s the first time I’ve worked with someone who was both that green and that accomplished.
I worked with Anna Paquin, carries the entire film of Margaret on her small shoulders like a real champion. It’s like a King Lear-sized performance, but she was 22 and had been acting for 13 years. That came in enormously handy because I don’t think that a neophyte could handle that role with the same brilliance.
Lucas is wonderfully talented and very accomplished. I just didn’t know his work and neither of us knew if he was going to be able to do everything that he did. Then he just came in and did so much more than I even wanted and expected. It was just great. He does the accent. He does the hockey. He does the music. He does the scenes with the girls that are so funny and charming. Then he does these incredibly painful, beautiful, emotional scenes with Casey. It’s just a bravura performance in my opinion.
That’s part of what I liked too: A horrible thing has happened but he can goof around with his friends. Grief is not this all-encompassing emotion that you feel all at once, all of the time.
The kid is really resilient. He has had a lot of trouble but he had a great father who really helped him through tough times. He has a big support system and a lot of friends. He’s not a despairing type. He’s a very hopeful, positive person. He’s not afraid to ask for what he wants from his uncle, even though he knows his uncle may not be able to give it to him. He’s old enough to know he needs a guardian and a father, and he’s young enough to insist that he get one.