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‘Manchester By the Sea’: How Kenneth Lonergan & Crew Made a Non-Linear Masterpiece

The crew of "Manchester by the Sea" had to crack the unusual flashback structure to get inside the mind of Casey Affleck's grief-stricken handyman.

“Manchester by the Sea”

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Flashback memories can be tricky, but director Kenneth Lonergan decided with his crew to embrace them head-on in the Oscar- contending “Manchester By the Sea,” in which Casey Affleck’s repressed, grief-stricken handyman returns to his hometown to confront his demons.

Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (shooting digitally with the Alexa and older lenses for softness) wrapped the movie around the New England coldness. “But the problem we ran into was that even though that winter set a record for snowfall, by the time we started it was disappearing, and it was a struggle to include as much snow as we could. There were times we had to bring in snow,” he told IndieWire.

By contrast, the scenes at sea were shot to convey a sense of refuge. “It always felt like we were on the edge of not getting to the finish line. But something I learned from Kenny and admired was that there never was a compromise,” Lipes said.

“The story read as a mystery as though I were reading two narratives at the same time, and I wanted to make sure that came through in the film,” editor Jennifer Lame told IndieWire.

Therefore, the flashbacks were not visually separated — they were treated as a parallel narrative. As a result, past and present flowed naturally and chronologically. “His life is overwhelmed by the past and therefore avoids it by consuming himself with busy work as a handyman so there are never any private moments,” Lame said.

The editor had a lot of choices when it came to Affleck’s performance. In the hospital hallway scene, for example, when he learns of his brother’s passing (played by Kyle Chandler), there were takes where he got very emotional but then they decided to pull it back. This repression became the hallmark of the protagonist.

"Manchester By The Sea"

“Manchester By the Sea”

Production designer Ruth De Jong (“The Tree of Life,” “There Will be Blood”) traveled to Cape Ann to scout locations in search of the movie. She immersed herself in the community, getting to know the residents by visiting them on the streets, in their homes and in the bars. And she found the right locales to establish the emotional and physical worlds of the eponymous environment.

“It’s a very sad script, it’s a very dark script, but Kenny said, ‘Look, it’s real life, the sun still shines,'” De Jong told IndieWire. “He wasn’t interesting in changing that. This is where these people live and breathe, where their kids exist, where they have life, where they have community, where they have jobs.  We needed to tap into that.”

Composer Lesley Barber musically tapped into the emotional gaps left unstated. She provided a baroque score highlighted by A-cappella vocals. “It’s different from a conventional narrative score where there’s a slow gathering storm for Lee,” she told IndieWire.

"Manchester By the Sea"

“Manchester By the Sea”

During the opening at sea, for example, there’s a more spacious approach than in later pieces, recorded in a more confined space.

“For Lee [Affleck], except for the things that are happening in real time, everything exists in his mind all the time,” Barber said. “So, for flashbacks, I didn’t have to define how far back or how recent. It was just all with him, all the time. There is something in the phrasing of the vocal music that it could go on infinitely, but you wouldn’t be aware of the repetition. So I wanted the music to thematically carry itself along the way he’s carrying so much inside him.”

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