Kenneth Lonergan never takes the easy way out, but that seems to be working for him. The playwright and screenwriter has directed three movies in 16 years, each filled with nuanced and unexpected characters. His first film, 2000’s You Can Count on Me, debuted at Sundance and earned him and his lead actress, Laura Linney, Oscar nominations.
His second film, Margaret, starring Anna Paquin and Matt Damon, was shot in 2005 but didn’t see the light of day until 2011 because of a protracted dispute over the final edit of the movie. When Margaret finally opened, a passionate group of critics heralded it as a masterpiece. Now Lonergan, 54, is generating Oscar buzz again with Manchester by the Sea, a moving, complex, and emotionally brave portrait of grief, the kind that isn’t healed in two hours.
The film follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a man scarred by an unspoken trauma who’s forced to return to his hometown to care for his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the boy’s father (Kyle Chandler) dies. The project began as a concept created by Damon and John Krasinski, and the former then commissioned Lonergan to write it. It took Lonergan a year to finish his first draft, and by the end he was bored by the structure and uninspired by his main character. So he implemented an old trick: cut every scene he didn’t care for and start over.
What was left? Lee shoveling snow. Lee fixing a lightbulb. Lee performing solitary menial tasks. They’re small moments, but they gave Lonergan the details he needed to form Lee’s personality — a personality irrevocably changed by a single event five years earlier. From that came a new structure and enough clarity to finish the screenplay. “Immediately, the whole thing opened up for me, and I didn’t have a lot of trouble after that,” Lonergan says. “It seemed like a richer way to tell the story.”
Through flashbacks, Lonergan explores Lee’s pain and comes to an authentic conclusion that doesn’t attempt to make the audience feel better. Some tragedies are too difficult to see yourself out of. “Many movies about people recovering, moving on, and redeeming themselves are really wonderful and inspiring,” Lonergan says. “But I think the more sentimental ones that are less good make me feel isolated — like if you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps like the guys in the movies, there is something wrong with you. That’s a shame.”
For Manchester’s heart, Lonergan chose Affleck, and the actor says he couldn’t have performed the role of Lee Chandler without his director at the helm. “The fact that I knew, respected, and trusted Kenny so much, I was able to just do my job and not worry about making too many mistakes,” Affleck says. “I could be in a really terrible mood, be kind of a wreck every day, and I knew Kenny would keep my performance and the whole movie on track.”
Despite its unflinching subject matter, Manchester wowed festival goers at Sundance last January, selling to Amazon Studios for a reported $10 million, and the film is expected to impact the Oscar race in a big way. To Lonergan, the response is validation that tough material, when handled with a humane, humorous touch, can connect with audiences. “I think I was afraid that people wouldn’t want to see a movie like this beforehand because it sounds like it’s going to be one long dirge,” he says. “It really isn’t, and it isn’t meant to be one.”
Manchester By the Sea opens in limited release Friday.