Loss and Redemption: Kenneth Lonergan explores a wounded soul in acclaimed ‘Manchester by the Sea’

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Aching with an uncommon kind of honesty, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a downpour of emotions reached through a slow-burn ascent. A story of guilt-ridden demons trapped inside the darkest corners of the human soul, this is one of the most artful, elegantly devastating films you will get to see this year (or any year), as those of us who experienced its quiet power at Sundance 2016 have been saying ever since. With his newest film, the New York-based auteur—behind the camera for the third time after his former Sundance alumnus You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (released in 2011 after long legal battles, though written after 9/11 and shot in 2005)—once again taps into a chaotic flood of remorse, grief and angst, and follows one man’s self-inflicted isolation with graceful compassion.

The humanism of Manchester by the Sea is not an oddity for Lonergan, who is originally a playwright by trade but holds screenwriting credits across a variety of genres, as diverse as Analyze This and Gangs of New York. His signature screen work, visibly infused with his theatre flair and singular sense of realism, features meticulously constructed characters and relationships, rich monologues and multifaceted dialogue. Regardless of how steeped in distress his subjects might be, you still get the feeling that you somehow intimately know the people Lonergan imagines, whether your next-door neighbor or even your own self-image in the mirror. Like the best of writers, Lonergan organically sets one’s inner empathy mechanism in motion, without overt dictation. Such is the case with Manchester by the Sea, his Oscar-contending masterpiece that’s recently traveled to the Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals, garnering the same overwhelming audience response at each stop. Joining me on the phone at the top of the New York Film Festival press screenings last September, Lonergan fondly mentions his then still-fresh Telluride experience. “It was my first time there and I loved it. It was great to see Casey; we had a good time together. I got to meet Werner Herzog, which was thrilling.”

As the defiantly unsociable, purposefully quiet character at the heart of Lonergan’s latest, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) experiences the kind of extreme trauma thatis foreign to many of us.In a career-best performance that might win him the Best Actor Oscar next February, Affleck plays a deeply troubled janitor who mostly keeps to himself in his miserably barebones Boston apartment, when he is not busy getting drunk or abruptly picking bar fights with strangers. When the death of his brother brings Lee back to the Massachusetts town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, he learns, with some protest, that he has been asked to be the legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges, terrific). Amid forming a bond with Patrick, walking the ghost-filled streets of the town (where his ex-wife Randi, played by the extraordinary Michelle Williams, still lives) and sorting out the legal facets of his situation, he slowly leads us into his visceral sphere and troubled past, the details of which we get to learn in fragments of flashbacks.

To reveal the source of Lee’s desolation would be to betray Lonergan’s patient, watchful progression towards it. Once he exposes the full backstory, he wipes out all our preconceived judgment and misperceptions about Lee. But that method, which bolsters the film’s heartrending effectiveness and understated suspense (which Lonergan calls “a happy accident”), wasn’t always there. “The flashbacks were a function of the second draft of the script,” he recounts. “The first draft proceeded in a more linear way and I wasn't happy with it. I had all those scenes written, so I started to fold them in no particular order. Then the order became dictated by his state of mind. I knew that revealing the past tragedy was a big moment. Once we saw it, we had to know that we've proceeded beyond a certain point in the story and to understand why he was the way he was.”

It was important to Lonergan that the flashbacks did not seem arbitrary. “[The scene] when he has one of the many arguments with his nephew [about moving to Boston] is followed by a flashback. He remembers leaving town, how good his brother was to him and kept an eye on him. So the next morning, he's weighing that in the balance.”

Pleased to hear that the flashbacks don’t feel conventional, Lonergan explains that he treated them as fragments of memories instead. “The way [memories] popped in and out of his mind, I hope, was like the way real memories pop in and out of your mind. Memories tend to be a bit more fragmented than [traditional] flashbacks, which are full scenes. He had two tracks running in his head all the time.”

When Lonergan started working on Manchester by the Sea, the legal ordeals and headaches around Margaret weren’t entirely behind him. “Because of the political problems and the legal problems, Margaret wasn't really finished until 2012,” the director recalls. “I was working on it on and off. Part of the argument was who's going to pay for it and how it's going to proceed, so during those five years [between scheduled release and actual release], I was spending my time dealing with the difficulties, but also editing the movie and trying to get it the way I wanted to. Then in between, I wrote three plays and I directed two of them. I wrote a lot of other things. I wrote this script [Manchester by the Sea]. I was pretty busy, even though it would've been much nicer to have edited and released Margaret a year after it was finished, instead of five years.”

Lonergan was initially attached to Manchester by the Sea as a writer only. First, Matt Damon and John Krasinski (now a producer and an executive producer, respectively), approached him with the idea for the film, which Damon would direct and Krasinski would star in. Later on, Damon was supposed to both direct and star in it when Krasinski’s schedule changed. But once his schedule didn’t allow it either, Damon didn’t want to delay production (as he recounted during the film’s Sundance Q&A). Eventually, Lonergan was talked into directing. And his engagement with the story through pre-production and beyond naturally evolved as a result.

In order to nail down the specificity of the town, Lonergan did extensive local research and tried to adapt as much of Boston as possible into the material. And while that didn’t alter the script drastically, he fine-tuned it with some authentic texture. After talking to several fishermen, for instance, he learned that when they go fishing, they cut the cuffs off their shirts, as the buttons would get caught in the nets otherwise. “That was a very small detail, but very important, and we made sure the costume designer knew about that.”

During post, Lonergan played around with various musical tracks to see what fit with the image. He admits that using Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” made the key (and most shattering) scene of the film a bit more tolerable to watch. “That piece is so strong, sad and lofty. It sounds as if the whole universe is weeping. Without that music, I think it may be more awful than you should put in a movie. It gave it some perspective,” he muses. “It made it a bit more of a memory, a terrible, terrible memory, than just a hideous event.”

And despite being a devout lover of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred oratorio “St. Matthew Passion,” parts of which he generously uses in You Can Count on Me, Lonergan replaced its brief appearance in the Sundance cut of the film with a different track. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of music in the world. It has so many tunes in it that I tend to just try out everywhere I can. In the end, we were trying to find other pieces that composer Lesley Barber had written. We put this piano music in and I ended up preferring that, much as I love ‘St. Matthew.’”

The filmmaker reminisces that the grim headspace Casey Affleck had to live in throughout the production inevitably reflected itself in the atmosphere of the set. Alleviating it was a challenge. “The [set] mood was a little bit strange for a lot of the shoot, partly because of the subject matter, and partly because Casey had to be in such a dark place for so long,” he recollects, adding that he felt a great sense of relief for a couple of days when they got to shoot scenes with the kids, practicing with their band and making out in the bedroom. “Then Casey came back. He shot practically every day, and came back after those two days. He was really in a foul mood, because in addition to having two days off from being this character, he had come back and he realized we'd all been having fun and giggling. He was very annoyed with me.”

Lonergan says Affleck understood his character well from the very beginning. “He’s really an extraordinary actor, so he didn't need a lot of help from me. If he didn't understand something, he’d say, ‘Why am I not nicer to him?’ And I'd have to think and say, ‘I don't think you're being cruel. You're actually doing everything you're supposed to do, but I don't think you want to engage with emotion right at first.’ We talked about each moment in each scene, not to knock it out, but to have a foundation from which he could then perform and interact with the other characters. A lot of actors, even if they want to talk to you, tend to be a bit private about how they get to things. Casey and I had a very good rapport, and I think he was very comfortable. It was one of my most enjoyable collaborations with an actor. He's also got this tremendous emotional depth and sense of what is/isn’t real. He's very hard on himself, but in a productive way.”

As heart-wrenching as this particular story of familial grief is, Lonergan doesn’t shy away from injecting it with a fair dose of humor that brightens up the mood, casually but somehow not unexpectedly. And that’s a common thread throughout his work. It comes easy to him to blend the two elements, as he finds there isn’t much of a difference between comedy and drama. He actually refers to “extreme comedy” as a kind of “heightened reality.” Because he perceives no conflict between the two, he says he is able to see the humor in many serious moments in life, and vice versa. “I like jokes,” he declares. “I like making jokes and I like hearing jokes. I like characters that make jokes. I really don't feel there's this tremendous gulf between the comedy and drama. I just feel like they're kind of the same thing.”

A recurring theme in Lonergan’s work is facing the past, with characters going back home after a tragedy, grappling with past trauma. His most recent play, Hold On To Me Darling, which was staged at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company last spring in a limited engagement, is no exception to this theme. But to Lonergan, any chain of continuity between his various pieces is a coincidence, as he doesn’t view his creations jointly. “I think of [my work] individually. When I start to look at them collectively, I find it difficult…because I start to think, ‘Oh God, I'm going to write about that again.’ I more think, ‘Oh, look, a country-western singer is sad about his mother and wants to move back home [Hold On To Me Darling]." Or I think of a handyman from Manchester. I think of an astronomy professor in New York City in 1995 [The Starry Messenger]. It turns out the themes tend to naturally be similar since they're all written by the same person.”

Lonergan admits that he leans to the melancholic side, even though he doesn’t necessarily want to. “I don't think it's very useful or productive, particularly. I don't think I always looked at the past terribly more than anybody else. The past few years, maybe I have been a bit more. But I'm also older now, so there's more past to look at.”