Interview: Kenneth Lonergan Talks “Manchester by the Sea”

Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan on the set of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan on the set of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Photo credit: Claire Folger, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Each and everyone has their own way of handling their tragic past. Regardless of the degree of tragedy, some of us choose to move on with a new life, but some move on without even having one. But when the time comes to face the painful and unbearable pain that occurred back then, a decision should be made to ensure the bleeding heart doesn’t bleed more…

Kenneth Lonergan who has written and directed Manchester by the Sea finds the best way to reach the audience`s heart. It`s heartwarming, sad and quite profound film about one particular person, who believes, his presence brings only danger and happiness.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, Mr. Lonergan found a few minutes to share to answer to the questions, I am sure, you will find informative to be more prepared for Manchester by the Sea.

MOVIEMOVESME: Why did you decide that Lee couldn’t move on with the loss but Randi got remarried and expected a baby afterwards?

Kenneth Lonergan: Well, he’s responsible for the fire I think and he feels responsible for the tragedy that happens in the story and I think that makes it much harder for him to move on with his life. It was his negligence that caused the terrible loss when she was asleep in bed. That’s the only thing I can think of and seemed to me the core of the story.

MOVIEMOVESME: How do you get actors to do the kind of devastating scenes the film contains?

Kenneth Lonergan: We all try to tell the truth I guess as best we can. It’s a fictional circumstance, thank God. I’ve often felt if I had the right to make the movie about something like this because I haven’t been through it. But it is something you worry about as a parent all the time. It seemed like an important and worthwhile topic to make a film about.

MOVIEMOVESME: Did you in the course of the script make iterations before you settled on a final one?

Kenneth Lonergan: No, this is more or less where it started with this sort of circumstances. How a character has responded to it changed a bit over time as I tried to film my way through it but circumstances were pretty much the same from the beginning.

MOVIEMOVESME: Did the complications that you had previously to bring a movie to the audience affect the way you approached this film?

Kenneth Lonergan: A little bit. It was such a weird set of circumtances that I wasn’t worried would happen again because it was so extreme and odd. I was determined to make things move smoothly; I’m not in control of what othe rpeople do but I’m in control of what I do possibly. I wanted to make sure everyone got along. This is also more of a family project. I knew John and Matt. Matt’s a good friend who’s producing it from the begining, so I knew I would have as much protection as any filmmaker could possibly have and that’s all you could ask for.

MOVIEMOVESME: How much of the idea was there from earlier and how did it feel to pick up on this idea that was created by somebody else?

Kenneth Lonergan: It felt fine; the core of the idea was theirs. The basic idea of a man who left is hometown because of a tragedy he is largely responsible for. Then he has to come back and take care of his brother’s son as his brother passes away. That was John and Matt’s idea absolutely. Anything you work on you have to make it yours anyway even if you’re doing a simple rewrite for a studio movie. This was an idea for a film that was brought to me and I liked and you make it your own. It was unusual but I developed that much personal investment in something that wasn’t my idea, so this became my personal script and obviously tried to do a good job.

MOVIEMOVESME: What about this story made you want to make a feature out of it?

Kenneth Lonergan: I don’t know; you worry a lot and my daughter’s 14 right now. She’s fine but you worry a lot. If there’s a noise in the house you think it’s a burglar. You tend to worry and imagine a lot of awful things and then you’re very happy that they don’t happen. My daughter was very good friends with a girl in the neighborhood who was the same age as she was and she had blood cancer. When my daughter was about six the girl had died, so anything that hits you at all you often think what if that happened to me? I think that is one of the foundations of fiction.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about when you started writing and who encouraged you?

Kenneth Lonergan: I started writing in the fifth grade and everyone encouraged me! I wrote science fiction till I was about in the tenth grade then I got interested in theater. I was lucky that I didn’t have to struggle. My parents were really encouraging and my teachers were encouraging.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the way you envisioned the movie and brought it up?

Kenneth Lonergan: It’s bit by bit. I think you have to get to the idea of the script and make it as best you can. Then you keep building up. The more people you bring on if you’re clever or lucky enough, as in my case, then everyone starts to contribute to the story. Everyone invests their life. When you don’t have an idea that comes readymade and others also don’t have it you feel your way through it and follow your instincts. You kind of assume your subconscious is in the right spot because that’s the part of everybody that’s the smartest and most intuitive.

MOVIEMOVESME: Was it intimidating to make a Massachusetts set movie?

Kenneth Lonergan: Not intimidating really; I felt I had experts on hand and a lot of local actors. I was concerned it shouldn’t seem like that and everyone was working to make it look as authentic as we could.

MOVIEMOVESME: Are there things that change after the movie has been received by the audience?

Kenneth Lonergan: Yes. I wouldn’t know how to characterize those changes but absolutely, even without talking about it takes a few years for you to get a clear view. For me it works better and it works quite best if you’d don’t know what you’re doing. Theater actors at times after giving a great performance come off stage and they don’t realize what actually happened. I think that’s because they were so present in the moment on stage. I think there’s a similar feeling when you’re witting and directing. Six months later you look back and go lie, “Oh my God that scene goes with that scene and that was very clever of me!” But I didn’t know back then I was being clever.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talking about crafting that contrast, just right?

Kenneth Lonergan: There was a point in the script which I thought this doesn’t seem dead to me because I thought there’s no life in it; it seemed too grim. If you don’t include the life and humor that’s going on you’re just limiting yourself to a point where the film isn’t life like. I personally like jokes and people who have a sense of humor and I like that these characters have them. I like the way Casey and Lucas bat each other around. I’ve noticed that even when you’re upset someone else is not and most people I know with a sense of humor retain it no matter what’s going on.

MOVIEMOVESME: What’s your views on bruised masculinity, which the movie explores and your experience working with Casey Affleck?

Kenneth Lonergan: I think of it in terms of specifics and particulars and people and what’s happening with them. If that has a larger resonance it’s great but I can’t work thinking of the topic and ending up with people or vice versa. Casey and I both wanted to be true to what you’ve invented and pretend what you’ve invented as real. We even had a 45 minute lively yet friendly dispute on one scene. We discussed that because we’re both trying to be that guy in that room at that time having just been beaten up as he was. I tried it his way and he was absolutely right. But I did say to him after the first take that you’re beaten up but you’re moving too easily, I don’t think you’re nursing your wounds enough. He was like, “Oh shit, right!” Then he came in and did a beautiful pained movement, so those little things I hope are what builds the entire edifice of what big or small.

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