In a run-up to tonight’s Gotham Awards sponsored by the Independent Film Project, nominees Kenneth Lonergan and Casey Affleck — writer-director and star, respectively, of the multiple nominee Manchester by The Sea — answered questions about the seriously adult drama, which has benefitted from a major kick into awards season from both critics and ticket buyers. NBC Today show contributor Dave Karger asked, and fielded, questions after a screening of the film for press and industry people hosted by Amazon Studios/ Roadside Attractions.
On the development of the story, Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) said he conceived the brooding film as a tale of three people in a seaside Massachusetts village, before narrowing it to the character played by Affleck, a man who returns to Manchester several years after a family tragedy, only to find he has been made guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. Questioners seemed focused on what drives an artist to immerse himself in such dark material, which has been a hallmark of Lonergan’s work for both film and theater.
Considering the question, Lonergan mulled for a few seconds and then answered, “I didn’t know if I had the right to make a movie” about such grief, and the search for grace in the wake of life-changing events. Once he accepted it, he said, and worked his way through to an ending, he knew only that such grief “deserved respect.”
“Once I know the ending, I know I have an idea for a film,” he added. He shared drafts with close colleagues, “looking for the kind of feedback I know not to use.” The two friends acknowledged a kind of reversal of typical roles during the shooting of the film: “I was trying to get the job done,” Affleck said, “while Kenny was obsessing over every detail.”
One of the film’s most talked-about scenes comes near the end, in a gripping confrontation between the former spouses played by Affleck and Michelle Williams. One questioner asked if the scene, which has a raw emotional power, had been improvised. Answered Affleck, “No, it wasn’t improvised. Kenny writes in a way that’s so conversational (but) with real precision that only works if you find the rhythm of it.” He also noted that “improvisation is sometimes a way of letting the actor off the hook.”
I asked Lonergan, a highly regarded playwright (This Is Our Youth) if he had considered developing the story as a play, rather than a movie. “No,” he replied, arguing that the town plays an essential character in the film. “Theater is not at its best in capturing outside environments,” he said, before quickly adding that “there are obvious exceptions.”
Both men were asked to describe the best and worst aspects of shooting a film by the ocean in the dead of winter. Lonergan recalled the pleasures of returning to his home at dawn after a night of shooting. Affleck was slightly more ambivalent. “After every shoot I went home to my mom’s house,” he said. “I guess that was the best and the worst of it.”