Talking to Manchester by the Sea‘s Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan—Part 1

At 54, Kenneth Lonergan has experienced the highs and lows of the movie biz. The filmmaker has basked in the glow of having his directorial debut, 2000’s You Can Count on Me,  bestowed with rave reviews and two Academy Award nominations – one for his screenplay and the other for his leading lady, Laura Linney. And he has dealt with the frustration when  the running time of his more ambitious sophomore effort, 2011’s Margaret,  became a point of contention, leading to three lawsuits, multiple cuts and a six-year delay before being released in theaters.

But success is the best revenge, and by all accounts, Lonergan’s third movie, Manchester by the Sea, is likely to force this scruffy and often spiky observer of human foibles to hit the awards -show circuit again. So far, Oscar prognosticators are forecasting that the drama about Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor with tragedy in his past who is forced to return to his home town after being appointed guardian of his late brother’s teen son, is likely to compete for Best Picture. Other nominations expected include star Casey Affleck as Lee for Best Actor, Lucas Hedges as his nephew, Patrick, for Best Supporting Actor and Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi for Best Supporting Actress — along with Lonergan’s original screenplay.

In Part One of his interview with The Credits about his latest release, which opens Friday, the New York City native speaks about how he avoided the difficulties he had during Margaret, Matt Damon’s contributions to the film, and why he decided to occasionally time-shift his narrative with the use of flashbacks.

I am fan of very human stories that manage to combine moments of immense humor and profound sadness. This film seems to have come together pretty much as you wished. 

There was some problems afterwards, but it did turn out all right.    

I finally saw Margaret over the weekend.

Did you watch the extended version?

No, it was the theatrical release.

That was just the version that I turned in back in 2008 that they sat on until they released it in 2011. But the extended edition, if you ever feel like going back, is much better. It moves a lot faster even though it is much longer.

Watching Margaret, about a teen girl who is partly to blame for a traffic death,  and then Manchester, I began thinking about how you handle adolescents. They can be very wonderful but a lot of times they can be very hard to deal with.

As opposed to grown-ups? (he laughs)

You can at least forgive an adolescent for their behavior. But not so much with adults. Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me was an example of a grown-up who acted as if he never fully  matured or took responsibility for his feckless actions. Do you like those kind of characters who challenge us in that way?

I don’t think about whether they are lovable or not. I am trying to make them into human beings as best I can. I don’t think I’ve ever disliked any of the characters I’ve ever made up. Even though I would dislike them in real life, probably. I am much less judgmental when I am working than I am in my daily life. It’s not fun for me to make up paper tigers of bad people and then have to tear them down and say how bad they are. I don’t see the point.

Your characters are essentially everyday human beings, and we can see ourselves in them – and relate to their problems.

People are difficult because they are human. They do have a flawed life of their own that doesn’t do what you want. I think that is more interesting to talk about. I don’t like flattening out the characters, whether it is for good or ill, no matter what. I guess I’m interested in the fact that everyone I know and everyone I’ve ever heard of has a lot of different characteristics. Nobody I know is without difficult characteristics.

Did you ever base anyone on a real person?

Sometimes I have, sometimes it is a composite. Sometimes it’s a composite of real people in my imagination.

Where did Patrick come from? His sense of humor is quite specific.

I made him up. There are parts of him I think I can recognize in myself. Lots of him I can’t. I am just as interested in people who are nothing like me as I am in my own personality. And I think that gives you all kinds of interesting compounds.

Going through the kind of frustrating experience that you did with Margaret, what did you take away from that? What will you try to avoid in the future?

I don’t know. I just really was trying to fight for my movie and get it made the way I wanted to. That’s all I wanted from start to finish, and so maybe try to learn how to be more effective when you are trying to do that. But, apart from that, I really don’t know. Also, I learned to have a little more faith in things working out. Because, in the end, it did work out.

It’s a shame more people didn’t see it when it did open.

Actually, everywhere I go, people ask me about it. So I don’t know whether people have seen it or not. It didn’t have a big release but it’s had a long life and many people have seen the version that I like. I have just been all over Europe promoting this film and, wherever I went, audiences asked about it. And journalists asked about it. It has a life and that’s a lot more than most films get. I am very grateful for that.

The idea for Manchester came from your actor friends Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both Massachusetts natives, who ended up with producing credits. Matt asked you to do a script for him that he planned to direct and star in. It sounds like from what was written in the recent New Yorker article that they were intentionally trying to get you out of your so-called despair over Margaret and back to work.  

I don’t know anything about that. They are very nice guys. But I don’t know what they are talking about. I did a play in 2009, I did a play in 2011, I've been doing a BBC miniseries about “Howards End,” I did a TV pilot for poor James Gandolfini before he died. And I was very tired and worn out by all the legal procedures surrounding Margaret. But in the end, we got to do the extended edition and people really seemed to appreciate the movie. I think that New Yorker piece makes it sound as if they visited me in the hospital or something. They really didn’t.

I didn’t imagine that. But I think they wanted to make sure you made another movie.

That’s very nice of them but I think I would have anyway. I am glad it is this one. And, I have to say, Matt (who played a high school teacher in Margaret) was always very supportive of me all throughout the film, before and since. He’s the greatest guy in the world. But I don’t quite know what to make of that particular article.

One change with Manchester from their original idea was that Patrick, who becomes Lee’s responsibility after his brother dies from a heart condition, was supposed to be younger.

I think they originally wanted him to be about 9. I had already done that with You Can Count on Me, which was partly about Mark Ruffalo’s relationship with his 10-year-old nephew. And partly because of that, I didn’t know if I had anything else to say about that. But I thought a teenage nephew who was in a middle of a real life was more of a conflict for someone like Lee, whose life had been destroyed.

You really trust the audience to understand a story that isn’t always linear and opens midway through what is happening. Why did you start with scenes that come later in Lee’s story?

I first chose that because the initial draft of the script wasn’t going too well and it was started before the accident, before the tragedy. It started at the beginning and went chronologically, and it was pretty flat to me, the way the story was told. And I got bored very quickly. So I started over. I have often done this where I don’t know what to do so I just throw out everything and I only leave what I really like. And the first thing that I liked was Lee shoveling snow and doing his chores as a handy man. So that is where it started. I had written all this material about what happened to him in his past. When I brought that in later, as flashbacks when he is going home, that felt really full and good to me. That had a kind of side benefit of creating a certain amount of suspense, what’s with him and what is going on with him. Throwing up a back story in sections creates a little bit of interest in what is happening to him and what happened to him to make him so seemingly  detached and strange. I figured the audience is going to follow it.

I read in the press notes that there was a concern that moviegoers might be confused by your use of flashbacks at certain key moments in the story.

No, no one ever said that to me. I think people always think someone else won’t understand them. But when I hear that, I know that everyone else is understanding them just fine. There is nothing confusing about them. What I have heard is, “The flashbacks might be confusing to some people.”  And I say, “Were they confusing to you?” And they say,”No.” So …

I appreciated the one when we get to see Lee and Randi together as a couple, where she is sick and in bed, and there is the baby in the crib and the two older daughters are watching TV. And he is coming onto her as she is miserable with her cold. It’s a very real way of showing what their relationship was like before. Because of that scene we know what they had and then we realize what they have lost.

We all loved doing that scene. It was really fun. The kids are so great. And Michelle and Casey were so good. It was nice to do a really happy scene like that.

Everybody is most moved by the scene at the end between Michelle and Casey, when she says they should have lunch sometime. They clearly still care about each other despite the pain they feel.

I think that scene says it all, because they both are really heartbroken and they are both trying to be nice to each other. But they are both at odds, because she can’t do it and she can’t bear to watch him suffer. It is so sad because you see how much she has lost and how much he has lost, and how sweet she is. And they are never going to be together again. It’s just terrible (he laughs). But I think everyone does really love that scene and it is a testament to how really great the actors are. They are just so present and alive, and it is such a difficult scene. We did it in the second to last week and it was really good to shoot it late in the process, because it happens late in the story.

I am always amazed by bar brawls in movies. As a woman, it is hard for me to imagine getting into one, especially on a regular basis. Lee, obviously, feels the need to be punished and that is the point. He just want to be beat up. It is hard to watch. Have you ever gotten in a bar brawl?

Never. I almost did. One guy was being so obnoxious to me  and I realized he was very little. And I was like, “I don’t want to fight this guy.” But he was being so belligerent, that I said, “All right, let’s go outside.” And if he tries to hit me, I guess I will have to hit him back. But then he immediately caved in and, like, went home.

Matt Damon had final cut on Manchester by the Sea. Did he make you change anything?

No, no. He had final cut to protect me and not to f—  around.  I wouldn’t have done it without me or him having final cut. And I thought, under the circumstances, it would be better if he had final cut because that would reassure everyone that everything would be OK. The same deal with Martin Scorsese on You Can Count on Me and the same deal with Scott Rudin and Sidney Pollack on Margaret. Didn’t help with Margaret. But it certainly helped with the other two films. I couldn’t have made such an unusual movie at all without me or somebody powerful having final cut. That is what I have done on all three movies. I wouldn’t have done the movie without him having final cut. 


Susan Wloszczyna

Before becoming a critic and contributor at in 2013, Susan Wloszczyna worked at USA TODAY for almost 30 years, primarily as a film reviewer and senior entertainment writer. She also was an Oscar columnist at Women and Hollywood and a regular contributor at Thompson on Hollywood. She currently freelances for AARP The Magazine and The Buffalo News. She is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Washington Area Film Critics Association and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.