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“I just burst into tears” – Q&A with Manchester By The Sea director Kenneth Lonergan

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I WAS recently tempted into seeing Oscar nominated Manchester By The Sea for a second time.

I do not often give such emotionally weighty – and magnificent – films a second viewing so soon after my first (yes, I’ve seen the delightful La La Land four times already). But the opportunity to participate in a live Q&A with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan was something no true cinephile would dream of passing up.

Packed into screen one of the Curzon Soho in London’s West End, my appreciation for Lesley Barber’s impeccable score and the film’s immense performances reached even loftier heights. But one thing did take me by surprise that I had not noticed in my first screening – the film’s acknowledgement of laughter and fun.

Speaking to acclaimed film critic Danny Leigh afterwards, Lonergan explained his use of comedy. He said: “I always try to put humour into everything I do because I find it everywhere I go. There are certainly humour-free zones in life and it is very unpleasant to be in them. But most of the time, if something terrible is happening something funny is bound to happen soon after.”

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Indeed, the balance that Lonergan finds in Manchester By The Sea is strikingly human, and one which prevents the film from slipping into a pit of perpetual sombreness. That was a concern for the director who admitted he questioned his own right to bring humour to a film based on such an awful and tragic tragedy.

The original concept for Manchester By The Sea had been brought to Lonergan by Matt Damon and John Krasinski. Damon was earmarked to direct – and star in – the film before his Hollywood megastar schedule ruled him out, leaving Lonergan to direct and Casey Affleck to step into the film’s lead role.

It is a ‘Plan B’ combination that could easily be collecting Oscars on February 26. Lonergan spoke fondly of his collaboration with Affleck, including one story that highlighted the intricacies and emotional burden of their work.

He recalled: “I got really upset one day. Casey and I had a 20 minute discussion about whether he should pat Lucas (Hedges) on the shoulder when he walks through the kitchen or not. It was the kind of discussion we had every day and I really enjoyed them.”

FACTFILE: Kenneth Lonergan
  • Born October 16, 1962 in New York City, New York
  • Wrote screenplay for Analyze This (1999)
  • First Oscar Nomination for You Can Count On Me (2000) 
  • Wrote screenplay for Gangs Of New York (2002) with Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian
  • Wrote and directed Margaret (2011)

 

Viennale 2016 opening

But after shooting one of the film’s most affecting scenes Lonergan admitted to breaking down.  “We were in the middle of this discussion and he was really digging in. We both had our reasons and eventually I just burst into tears.”

Manchester By The Sea also gave Lonergan the chance to work with Michelle Williams, whom he admitted to being a long-time admirer of.

He said:  “Michelle was just someone who came to mind right away when we were starting to cast the other parts. I’d seen her in a Mike Leigh play in New York when she was 19. A Broadway production called Smelling a Rat, which she was just amazing in, and I’ve followed her career with great interest since.”

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Williams and Affleck’s ‘amazing’ chemistry is one of Manchester By The Sea’s key cornerstones, with many of the film’s memorable and poignant scenes involving the two. Lonergan gave insight into one particular scene – one with the baby stroller, discussing the amount of planning behind it.

He said: “They both have to know when the last time they spoke was and agree on the common history, as that scene is so dependent on their common history. The specific relation that people have to each other in their lives is something we have to establish and have a mutual foundation to proceed from. There is also my version. It is something to offer the actors as a starting point.”

The preparations certainly pay off as Lonergan produces one of the most perfectly executed scenes you will witness in cinema. It is typical of his brave, thoughtful, small-scale masterpiece that deserves acclaim and accolades at this month’s big award ceremonies.

Read my review of 20th Century Women & check out my In Focus look at Spring Breakers. 

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