When Kenneth Lonergan sat down to write Manchester by the Sea, he’d had the idea kicking around for a while, courtesy of Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who’d first approached him with the basic concept. Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret), did not initially plan to direct his own script, as producer Damon was originally set to take the helm. But Lonergan’s results speak for themselves, as the film was snapped up by Amazon at Sundance for $10 million and is now the subject of much Oscar buzz.
The tone of this film is set by its windswept, freezing location. Was it always going to be in that wintry landscape?
It was always going to be Manchester. I’m not sure if the season came into it right away, but it came in pretty quickly. [Damon and Krasinski] suggested Manchester, more or less at random, and said that I could change it if I wanted to. They said I could do anything I wanted, but I liked the idea, I liked the name of the town and I liked the area.
What might you have written differently had you known you would be directing?
There are a lot of driving scenes in the film and if I had known I was going to be the director when I was writing it, I might have thought ahead a bit about how to shoot them. As it turned out, it was fine, but it was something I thought, “Oh, I’ll let Matt worry about that,” and then it turned out that I had to worry about it.
The film opens with Lee (Casey Affleck) going through a series of slow, methodical chores. Was that something you had in mind from the beginning?
That beginning came about on my second pass at the script.
The first pass was just chronological and it was quite boring. I started over again with him doing his job shoveling snow. It seemed right to me right away because it just tells you who he is immediately. In fact, you start to wonder why he is the way he is. Then you have a little bit of dramatic interest, which is what you want. I liked this idea to do this very cold, somewhat anthropological look at this guy, who’s fairly anonymous, not engaged, and not talking like a normal person. Just doing one job after another until the day is over. Then he gets drunk, goes home and does or doesn’t get into a bar fight.
The film doesn’t offer any resolution to family tragedy. Did you always set out to avoid that?
Yes and no. It never occurred to me to put it in there in the first place. I wasn’t trying to be different just for the sake of being different. When I do that I know I’m reacting to other movies and I’m not reacting to the material as if it’s authentic; as if it’s real people. I’m mostly trying to follow the lines laid down by the situation, by the characters, and follow them to what seems to me to be an authentic course of action.
The scene when Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) meet in the street is the point of action on which the whole film turns. What sort of preparation went into that?
We made sure we all had the same backstory. In a looser sense, we went through a similar process in terms of what they are trying to give to each other or avoid giving to each other. That had to be a little looser because you want the actors to not just fill in the blanks but take what’s written and bring it to full life, which they did so magnificently. I don’t recall having to direct that scene a lot. We just had a pretty good idea, all of us, what the orientation was. Then you just turn the camera on and let them go.
You’d worked with Casey Affleck before in your play This Is Our Youth in London. What did you think made him perfect for this role?
He’s constitutionally right for it in that he’s very emotional, he has a great sense of humor, he’s a bit of a brooder himself, and he’s also familiar with the area. He’s an exceptionally good actor. I’ve always thought so. He brought his performance, which goes beyond anything I just said. It’s just really brilliant. It’s total commitment to the emotional reality, which is not easy to do, and not easy to live with as an actor. It’s a very heavy load to carry and he does it with such a simplicity and truthfulness. It’s really remarkable.
What was the process of casting Michelle Williams?
She’s got such an incredible skillset and such incredible, natural talent that I was never in the slightest doubt that she could be wonderful in the part. She really wanted to do it, so that told me she was going to be able to do it. It’s one of the great modern performances, I think.
As a father yourself, how did writing about the deaths of Lee’s children affect you?
It’s hard to feel that I was entitled to write it because I haven’t had that tragedy in my life, thank God. It made me question whether it was something I had the right to work on. I thought ultimately I did, because if I could approach it with respect and as much authenticity as I was capable of bringing to bear, then maybe it was a story worth telling, because people do have to suffer through these incredible losses. They do carry on with bravery, heroism and love for each other. Very often people have such a strong sense of duty to each other under these circumstances. It’s very inspiring. It doesn’t make the tragedy go away, but it exists side-by-side with it, and that was something I was interested in looking at.