Kenneth Lonergan on the Quiet Extremes of ‘Manchester by the Sea’: Awards Spotlight

The director's route through the specifics of love and loss that helped craft a film, script and performance for the ages.

Kenneth Lonergan - Awards Spotlight 2016-2017

Kenneth Lonergan

Daniel Bergeron

There’s a deceptive simplicity to the way Kenneth Lonergan describes his latest film. But like “Manchester by the Sea,” the story of a grieving man charged with becoming his nephew’s guardian, there are layers beneath every statement.

“Manchester” first wowed audiences at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, garnering a wave a critical acclaim that carried the film into the final weeks of awards season. It’s a worthy payoff to a behind-the-scenes journey that saw the director’s chair and the above-the-title billing switch ownership before production started.

Lonergan’s contributions are self evident. The sparse, lived-in feel of every personal interaction signals a true blend of a playwright’s instincts and a filmmaker’s eye. By weaving the film’s elliptical timeline into a grounded tale of loss and reconciliation, Lonergan shows how he can craft stories for the screen in a way that few others can.

Much of the artistic success of “Manchester by the Sea” comes from the symbiotic relationship between Lonergan and his cast. In addition to Casey Affleck’s much-lauded central performance as Lee Chandler, Lonergan also manages to get memorable work from Michelle Williams and a career-best turn from Lucas Hedges. The trio of acting nominees at the center of “Manchester” testify to the power of Lonergan’s scripts. (The director also makes a memorable cameo.)

The film’s highs and lows aren’t shortcuts to an emotional reaction. In our closing interview for this year’s Awards Spotlight series, Lonergan explained how that depth comes from the polar opposites inherent in love, regardless of where (and how) those feelings are being directed.

“Manchester by the Sea” thrives on the ambiguity of its characters’ inner turmoil. As the film unspools the details behind each of their anxieties, some things come to life while others stay hidden. Lonergan emphasized that for both he and Affleck, the focus was always on the specific, precise motivations and actions that reveal those tiny insights.

The intersection of family and guilt has long been a focus in Lonergan’s writing, but this film adds a fresh spin to well-worn tropes. Letting those new ideas dictate story is something Lonergan is passionate about, especially when applied to the film industry.

As the film always loops around to Lee’s struggles, Lonergan was quick to acknowledge the difficult places that Affleck had to delve in order to deliver his star turn. As a twin creation of writer and actor, Lee serves as the film’s painful heartbeat. Still (or maybe as a result), Lonergan described getting to work with Affleck as “one of the great creative pleasures of my life.”

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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