By Iain Blair
It’s been 16 years since filmmaker and playwright Kenneth Lonergan made his prize-winning debut at Sundance with You Can Count on Me, which he wrote and directed. The film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and was an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee for Best Screenplay.
Lonergan’s most recent film is also garnering award attention. Directed by one of the most distinctive writing talents on the American indie scene today, Manchester by the Sea, fulfills that earlier promise and extends Lonergan’s artistic vision.
Both an ensemble piece and an intense character study, Manchester by the Sea tells the story of how the life of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a grieving and solitary Boston janitor, is transformed when he reluctantly returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after the sudden death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). It’s also the story of the Chandlers, a working-class family living in a Massachusetts fishing village for generations, and a deeply poignant, unexpectedly funny exploration of the power of familial love, community, sacrifice and hope.
Co-produced by Matt Damon, the film from Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios — which received four SAG nominations, a crucial Oscars barometer — has a stellar behind-the-scenes list of collaborators, including DP Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck, Martha Marcy May Marlene), editor Jennifer Lame (Mistress America, Paper Towns), composer Lesley Barber (You Can Count on Me) and production designer Ruth De Jong (The Master, The Tree of Life).
I recently spoke with Lonergan about making the film and his workflow.
I heard Matt Damon was very involved in the genesis of this. How did this project come about?
Matt, his producer Chris Moore and John Krasinski were talking on the set of this film they were shooting about ideas for Matt’s directing debut. Matt and John brought me the basic idea and asked me to write it. So, I took some of their suggestions and went off and spent a couple of years working on it and expanding it. I don’t really start off with themes when I write. I always start with characters and stories that seem compelling, and then let the themes emerge as I go, and with this it became about people dealing with terrible loss, with the story of this man who’s carrying a weight that’s just too much to bear. It’s about loss, family and how people cope.
Is it true that Damon was going to star in it originally?
Yes, but what actually happened was that John was going to star and Matt was going to direct it, but then John’s schedule got too busy and then Matt was going to star and direct it, and then he also got too busy, so then I came onboard to also direct.
You ended up with a terrific cast. What did Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges bring to their roles?
Casey’s a truly wonderful actor who brings tremendous emotional depth even without saying much in a scene. He’s very hard working, never has a false moment and really has the ability to navigate through the complicated relationships and in the way he deals with people.
Michelle has a tremendous sense of character and is just brilliant, I think. She brings a beautiful characterization to the film and has to go through some pretty intense emotions. They’re both very generous actors, as there are a lot of people they have to interact with. They’re not show-boaters who just want to get up there and emote. And Lucas is this real find, a very talented young actor just starting out who really captured this character.
You shot this on location all over Cape Ann. How tough was it?
It was a bit grueling, as we shot from March until April and it was pretty cold a lot of the time, especially during prep and scouting in February. We had some schedule and budget pressures, but nothing out of the ordinary. I loved shooting around Cape Ann — the locals were great, and the place really seeped into the film in a way that I’m very happy about.
Do you like the post process?
I love post because of the quiet and the chance to really concentrate on making the film. I also like the lack of administrative duties and the sudden drop in the large number of people I’m responsible for on a set. It’s just you, the editor and editorial staff. Some of the technical finishing procedures can be a bit tiring after you’ve seen the film so many times, but overall post is very enjoyable for me.
I loved my editor, and doing all the sound mixing; it was so much fun putting it all together and seeing the story work, all without the stress of the shoot. You still have pressures, but not on the same scale. We did all the post in New York at Technicolor Postworks, and we worked from May through September so it was a pretty relaxed schedule. We had our basic template done by October, and then we did a bunch of little fixes from that point on so it would be ready for Sundance. Then we did a bit more work on it, but didn’t change much — we added four minutes.
Talk about working with editor Jennifer Lame. Was she on the set?
No, we sent her dailies in New York and we never actually met face-to-face until after the shoot. I had to interview her on the phone when she was in LA working on another job, and we got along right away. She’s a wonderful editor. We began cutting on Avid Media Composer at Technicolor Postworks and then did some over the summer at my rental house in Long Island, where she’d come over and set up. Then we finished up back in New York.
How challenging were all the flashbacks to cut, as they’re quite abrupt?
All the flashbacks were very interesting to put together, but they didn’t really present more of a challenge than anything else because they’re such an intrinsic part of the whole story. We didn’t want to telegraph them and warn the audience by doing them differently. We discussed them a lot. Should they be color-timed differently? Should they be shot differently? Look and sound different?
In the end, we decided they should be indistinguishable from the rest, and it’s mainly only because of the content and behavior that you know they’re flashbacks. They were fun to weave into the story, and the more seamless they were the better we liked it. Jennifer actually pointed out that it was almost like telling two stories, not just one, because that’s how Lee experiences the world. He’s always dealing with memories which pop up when they’re least wanted, and when he returns home to Manchester he’s flooded by memories — for him the past and present are almost the same.
You shot in early spring, but there’s a lot of winter scenes, so you must have needed some visual effects?
Some, but not that much. Hectic Electric in Amsterdam did them all. We had some snow enhancement, we added some smoke, clean-up and did some adjustments for light and weather, but scenes like the house fire were all real.
How important is sound and music to you?
It’s hard to overstate. For me, music has the biggest influence on the feeling of a scene after the acting — even more than the cinematography in how it can instantly change the tone and feeling. You can make it cheerful or sad or ominous or peaceful just with the right music, and it adds all these new layers to the story and goes right to your emotions. So I love working with my composer and finding the right music.
Then I asked [supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer] Jacob Ribicoff to record sounds up in Cape Ann at all our locations — the particular sound of the marina, the woods, the bars — so it was all grounded in reality. The whole idea of post sound, which we did at Technicolor Postworks with Jacob, was to support that verisimilitude. He used Avid Pro Tools. There’s no stylization, and it was also about the ocean and that feeling of never being far from water. So the sound design was all about placing you in this specific environment.
Where did you do the DI?
We did the color correction with Jack Lewars, also at Technicolor Postworks. He did the final grade on Autodesk Flame. We shot digitally but I think the film looks very filmic. They did a great job.
Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?
Pretty much, but it always changes from the script to the screen, and once you bring in your team and all their contributions and the locations and so on, it just expands in every direction. That’s the magic of movies.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.