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Kenneth Lonergan: How the ‘Manchester by the Sea’ Filmmaker Honed His Skills as a Writer-Director

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The filmmaker and playwright on getting great performances and his relationship with the screen and the stage.

Lucas Hedges, Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan on the set of “Manchester by the Sea”

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[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Amazon Studios’ and Roadside Attractions’ “Manchester By The Sea,” directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams.]

On the surface, it might seem surprising that one of the most recognized films of this awards season would come from a filmmaker who hadn’t shot a movie in 10 years. For anyone familiar with Kenneth Lonergan’s track record as a screenwriter, director and playwright, however, the accolades that “Manchester by the Sea” has been racking up are very much par for the course.

Long before the film earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, Lonergan had established himself in the theater world as an award-winning playwright. He was first recognized in 1982 at the age of 18 by the Young Playwrights Festival, for his play “The Rennings Children,” which centers on a sister who advocates for her brother’s release from a mental hospital.

Many of the themes in Lonergan’s plays are reexamined in his feature films, starting with his debut “You Can Count on Me,” which focuses on the relationship between a single mother named Sammy (Laura Linney) and her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo), who visits her after a short stint in jail. The siblings’ reunion opens old wounds, including the tragic death of their parents in a car accident when Sammy and Terry were children. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and earned Lonergan his first of three Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay.

“You Can Count on Me” also introduced moviegoers to Lonergan’s distinct brand of drama that frequently involves heartbreaking circumstances. His second film, “Margaret,” shot in 2005 but not released until 2011, focuses on a teenager played by Anna Paquin who is accidentally involved in the death of a pedestrian on the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The film borrowed the setting of Lonergan’s first hit play, the character drama “This Is Our Youth,” which also focused on young privileged New Yorkers who live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan on the set of “Manchester by the Sea”

Amazon

Though Lonergan doesn’t see himself as a playwright-turned-filmmaker, he conceded that his experience writing for the stage did pave the way for his career in Hollywood.

“I don’t think it matters what road you take to get to do the work that you do,” he told IndieWire at the National Board of Review awards. “On the other hand, the theater is everything to me and it’s where I come from. What little I know I learned in the theater. It’s somewhere I always want to go back to.”

Though Lonergan explores the themes of loss and tragedy once again in “Manchester by the Sea,” which stars Casey Affleck as a janitor thrust into the role of guardian for his orphaned nephew, the first script Lonergan wrote that attracted the attention of Hollywood was the Robert De Niro comedy “Analyze This,” which took in more than $106 million at the box office. He also worked on the script for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and earned Lonergan his second Best Original Screenplay nod.

Despite Lonergan’s success in the film industry, his hesitation to completely abandon the theater is understandable. His 2000 play “The Waverly Gallery,” based on his grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, while his 2001 play “Lobby Hero,” about a young New York City police officer’s nightshift spent in a lobby, earned several theater awards.

Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan on the set of “Manchester by the Sea”

Amazon

Once described as an “ultrarealist” for, among other things, his ear for natural dialogue that doesn’t sound written, Lonergan is known for getting extraordinary performances out of his film actors, as evidenced by “Manchester by the Sea’s” Best Supporting Actor nominations for Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams and Affleck’s Best Actor nod. Affleck credits Lonergan with coming up with inspiring material that brings out great performances.

“Kenneth Lonergan is really my favorite writer,” Affleck said at the NBR Awards. “He’s a treasure to me and should be to everyone. I wish that our business were a little bit different and that people like Kenny were given the support to do whatever they want, however they want, because it’s really movies like ‘Manchester by the Sea’ that inspire us and keep us all growing and it’s the reason that I love movies, and it’s scripts like this and experiences like this that keep me wanting to act.”

While Lonergan has collected enough awards across theater and film to be considered a master of his craft, he said that accolades are the farthest thing from his mind when he’s making movies.

“You can’t think about that stuff when you’re trying to work. I’m thinking about the characters, and the actors and how to encourage them and protect them and get the performances to where they need to be,” he said on the red carpet at the NBR awards. “If you’re thinking about awards and people complimenting, you you’re really in trouble.”

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