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Oscars

Manchester by the Sea writer-director breaks down pivotal scene

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In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. The nominated writers will break down select pages that were essential to the stories they were telling.

Our Oscar screenwriters series kicks off with Kenneth Lonergan discussing a low-key but emotionally important scene in his film Manchester by the Sea, which was nominated for six awards in all, including Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, and Picture.

The sequence comes toward the end of the movie, after Patrick (Supporting Actor nominee Lucas Hedges) meets his mother (Gretchen Mol) for the first time in years. When the reunion doesn’t go as expected, his uncle Lee (Casey Affleck), attempts to connect with him.

Below, Lonergan explains the significance of the sequence and shares some of the thought that went into the writing process.

Patrick was always going to see his mother at some point. I knew it wouldn’t go well, and I think that the idea that this was a pivot point in the story came later, when I was actually writing the scenes. I believe that this is the first time that Lee really realizes that he’s possibly gone a bit too far in his refusal to stick around.

It occurred to me later on that Patrick’s been left by everybody. When his mother lets him down and can’t handle him, I think Lee finally realizes that without meaning to he’s been rejecting him as well and that Patrick sees it that way. That’s the first time it really sinks in with Lee that his refusal to take on the guardianship is really affecting Patrick, as if he’s rejecting him.

I really like dual dialogue. If you have normal dialogue and the last person in the conventional dialogue is, say, Lee, and the dual dialogue starts beneath it — and say it’s Lee and Patrick — and there’s a sense that Lee is continuing and Patrick starts talking as well, I’ll put Lee on the left and Patrick on the right. If the idea is that Patrick responds and Lee jumps in right away, then I’ll put Patrick on the left and Lee on the right.

Lee can’t handle the guardianship, and he can’t handle being there. But he’s trying very hard to do the right thing, and he hasn’t really seen it as a rejection as Patrick, more as a protection of himself. That’s the first time he realizes the extent to which his reluctance to take on the guardianship is really hurting Patrick’s feelings in a very serious way.

I don’t know [who owns the email address]. I just made it up. I guess it was legally cleared, but I actually don’t know if it was or not. They’re usually pretty scrupulous about this kind of thing. 

Email is not the most cinematic thing. Computer screens are pretty boring in life and in movies. In this case, I think the fact that it is an email from a stranger saying, ‘Don’t talk to your mother directly,’ the coldness and dullness of emails works to our advantage in this particular case.

The whole two-page sequence is a pivot point. The scene in the car is the first scene where Lee is emotionally solicitous with Patrick. He can tell that Patrick is upset, and he’s trying to draw him out of it a little, as opposed to the other way around, which we’ve seen more of. This is a continuation of that and Patrick is not having it. It’s also the first time in the whole movie, at a very late point, that we see Patrick having run out of gas and being emotionally defeated. 

The guns did have a role in a flashback, which was deleted from the script and never shot. It was an earlier flashback between Lee and Joe where there was some suggestion that Lee might be considering taking his own life, but I took that away. I thought that element was already in the story sufficiently. But it set up that the guns were there, and I got rid of it. As often is the case, you don’t have to set everything up. You don’t need everything foreshadowed.

I think in a bigger sense, [the sequence is about] the idea that you sometimes hold your position until you break the other person, and you then realize that you were wrong. Having stuck so hard to this position, Lee has essentially broken this very high-spirited kid. That’s what draws him out of his own shell, trying to make up for that. He starts to rejoin the land of the living for the first time.