When film editor Jennifer Lame called filmmaker Kenneth Longeran last year to discuss the possibility of working on his newest film, “Manchester By the Sea,” she saw potential in the project — and also potential to screw it up.
“I had heard for a while that Kenny was making a movie, and I was really excited to see if I could try to get involved in it,” Lame recently explained to IndieWire. “When I read the script, I was like, ‘Wow, this is such a great movie for an editor, because it’s so well-written and so well-constructed on the page, but it could totally get fucked up in the editing.'”
The film follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he attempts to rebuild his already-fragile existence after the sudden death of his beloved big brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Forced to return back to his hometown — which holds other tragic connotations for him — to care for his scrappy young nephew (breakout star Lucas Hedges), Lee must grapple with a series of ghosts, both old and new.
Although Lame made her interest known early, she was rebuffed by the film’s producers, who were busy interviewing more experienced editors. But Lame, who had six feature editing credits under her belt, persisted. It paid off, and she was eventually allowed the chance to talk to Lonergan over the phone. “He wouldn’t FaceTime or anything, so I was kind of nervous,” Lame laughed.
So how do you snag an editing gig over the phone? Lame went right to the script, which she had studied throughout its many iterations.
“I brought up that I had read a bunch of drafts of the script, and he had cut out these couple scenes that I was really sad about,” Lame said. “I was thinking that if he were annoyed, I shouldn’t work on the film anyway, but if he was intrigued, that was a good thing. Luckily, he was happy, kind of like, ‘I love those scenes, too, and I was just talking to Casey, and he missed them too. I’m going to put them back. How did you know?'”
That dedication impressed Lonergan, but also proved to the filmmaker that he and Lame were already in sync. The duo didn’t even meet in person until Lonergan finished shooting the film, and Lame crafted her assembly cut of the film without Lonergan leaning over shoulder.
“I felt alone, but it was also kind of empowering in a way,” Lame explained. “But it was definitely nerve-wracking.”
The demands placed on Lame were great, as Lonergan’s film zips between both tone (flitting between comedy and drama, often punctuated by a well-placed cut) and time period (without any of the standard filmic signals that alert film-goers to such choices) with what looks like relative ease. Both elements are bolstered by Lame’s generous editing work and her desire to accurately tell and represent the story Lonergan first put on the page and in front of the camera.
One of the most crucial pieces that she and Lonergan had to work out in the editing room was exactly how the film’s flashbacks would function. Even Longeran wasn’t sure at first.
“He joked, ‘We’ll figure out how to clue the audience into the flashbacks when I get in the edit room,'” she said with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Oh, God, really?'”
Despite her initial trepidation, Lame found her answer soon enough — by not treating them like flashbacks at all.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know, I don’t think there should be a flashback device,'” she recalled. “And I don’t think Kenny did either. Once we talked that out, we were actually on the same page, with the idea that these weren’t like ‘flashbacks’ or ‘memories,’ it was just a concurrent movie.”
As Lonergan told IndieWire earlier this year, cracking those flashbacks was essential to him as well, complications and frustrations and all. For the filmmaker, the very nature of Lee’s complicated life “forced me to put the past into the flashback structure.” Instead of being stymied by it, he and Lame used it as another way to tell the emotional side of the story.
“[It] turned out to be a very successful structural correlative to the emotional situation, because he’s someone who’s carrying a block of memories that he can’t live with,” he said. “And it wasn’t conscious on my part, but it worked out.”
Trusting their audience helped, too. “Once we decided that the audience was smart enough and we didn’t need some sort of rule or device, then the movie kind of locked into place,” Lame said.
After the film’s well-received Sundance premiere, both Lonergan and Lame — perfectionists by nature — were still eager to make some changes to the film, including a few edits that Lame herself deemed “radical,” though they eventually realized that the cut they had was as close to perfect as they would make.
While the film did go through a few small edits between its Sundance bow and its New York Film Festival premiere, Lame noted that the tweaks were very small and she suspects most viewers who have seen both versions won’t notice the difference. (Lame shared that the pair initially considered totally cutting a scene involving a phone call Affleck’s character receives from Michelle Williams’ character, because Lonergan felt the whole section it appears in was too sad and too devastating, though they eventually decided to keep it in with some small changes.)
“We kind of have this thing where you never want to stop tweaking,” Lame said. “It’s hard to let go of your baby. You can probably always make something better, but along the way, you’re going to make it worse. When do you draw the line?”
For Lame, the final step is just letting go, and making peace with the final product. “Maybe it’s not perfect and it’s a little messy,” she said. “But that’s what’s beautiful about this movie.”
“Manchester By the Sea” is in theaters on Friday, November 18.