Interview: Kenneth Lonergan (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA)

With films like 2000’s YOU CAN COUNT ON ME and 2011’s MARGARET, Writer-Director Kenneth Lonergan has demonstrated an incredible talent for writing characters that bare their souls and show their scars. Lonergan solidifies his place as one of the great screenwriters of the modern era with his latest film, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions).

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA debuted with a huge amount of buzz at Sundance and has gone on to be one of the most prized films of 2016. It will compete for a Writers Guild Award for Original Screenplay.

OnWriting spoke with Lonergan about the origins of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, writing characters that can make you cry and his advice for up-and-coming filmmakers.

Can you tell me about the genesis of the story for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and how the project came to you? What was it about the story that attracted you to this project?

The genesis for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA originally started with actor John Krasinski and Matt Damon. They came to me with the basic premise. I worked on the script for about two years. My first draft was just written straight through, with the story unfolding chronologically. It wasn’t until I had the notion of presenting the relationships through flashbacks that it began to open up.

Please tell me about how you put together the screenplay for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA? Do you create an outline or work off index cards? What source materials did you use? Do you approach screenwriting differently when you know you’re going to direct the film?

I did a fair amount of research on the town and of the area when I was writing the script, and a lot more once we got there during pre-production. Then we integrated as much of the environment as we possibly could while we were shooting. I don’t usually write a formal outline. Sometimes I’ll write one in the middle when I get stuck, in order to re-orient myself in the story.  I do jot down ideas for characters or scenes in a notebook, and draw on them later when I’m writing the script. I often know that certain scenes are coming up at some point later on in the story, while I’m writing.  Once I know more or less how the story is going to end, I know it’s something I’m going to be able to complete to my satisfaction.

More and more, I find myself trying to build stories from the ground up, so to speak; to try to construct a large emotional framework that somehow reflects the human experience, starting from the pedestrian details of everyday life. Doctor appointments, paperwork, the work day, the school day, bad cell phone reception, getting to a hospital, getting to the doctor, losing your keys, finding a place to park, etc. These details comprise the main part of your day no matter what else is going on, and it’s a fascinating challenge to build the story of a family or a community facing some of the most difficult problems life has to offer, without losing my grip on their daily experience.

Take me into how you developed a character like Lee Chandler? What brought Lee to life for you?

I liked the idea of someone in that situation who is carrying an emotional weight that nobody should ever have to carry, still trying to do his best. Lee is trying to keep his emotional life at bay as best he can, minute by minute, every day, because facing it is simply more than he can stand. I see him as someone who is always actively trying to keep the walls from caving in around him. Once I rethought the story, after the first draft wasn’t working out so well, and I had the image of him shoveling snow outside of the apartment complex in Quincy, I knew I had my main character. He became a human being for me. Lee performs tasks, all day long, until he runs out of things to do, and then he gets drunk and goes to sleep. Then it starts again the next day. He’s not living, so much as functioning. But it’s the only way he can get through the day. It’s also how he tries to handle things when it’s his turn to take care of his nephew, but it doesn’t work because his nephew is someone he can’t just handle.

For the most part, I saw him as an ordinary guy with a pretty happy family life, and a job he enjoys – not a very ambitious guy, just an ordinary fairly happy working class man from a close-knit, homogeneous, comparatively healthy community, who loses everything. His closest ties suddenly become the source of unbearable distress and he has to flee. But he’s also someone with a brother who loves him and refuses to let him fall off the side of the earth. When it’s his turn to take care of his brother’s son, he’s very much actuated by a sense of duty and responsibility, even if he can’t bear the idea of forming a new human connection. It’s that sense of duty, and his feeling of obligation towards his brother and his nephew, that eventually form the foundation of a provisional capacity to love someone again.

What is a line of dialogue that you wrote that represents Lee and his story?

“I just can’t beat it.”

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, to me, is a film about sorrow. Would you agree? If so, why do you think you were able to capture that in your script? If not, what would you say the  theme of the film is and why?

I started out thinking the movie was an attempt to deal honestly and thoroughly with the real nature of sorrow. But, in the end, it was impossible to tell a story about grief without it being a story about love. The power of sorrow is directly proportional to the power of love. Love is the only weapon we have against death. The love of friends, family – even strangers; strangers often give us their love when we need it simply because they understand what we are going through. It seems to me that when you sentimentalize and trivialize the distress that people all over the world experience sooner or later – say, by perverting the inconceivable loss of a loved one into a pat formula for some kind of sanitized TV movie moment of personal growth – you are also sentimentalizing and trivializing the value of the love that gave that loss its terrible force. You are trivializing human beings. This is not to say that we shouldn’t or can’t ever recover from life’s worst blows – just to recognize how hard it is for some people to recover, and to embrace their experience as being every bit as valid and every bit as human as the capacity for renewal and transcendency.

How has your experience as a speechwriter and playwright affected your screenwriting?

It took me a while to get into screenwriting and filmmaking. I started out as a playwright, and I’m still a playwright, but I was in my early thirties before I ever tried to write a screenplay for myself. The theater taught me to respect actors, the advantages of rehearsal, the magical power of theatricality, the plain fun of putting on a show, and the unique thrill of creative collaboration.

What advice do you have for other filmmakers who are navigating the independent film circuit?

I am always imagining what’s going on in the room between two people and following their behavior and trying to bring that out in the script.  The hard work of being a writer is accessing the unconscious part of you that does all the best work when that’s not happening on its own. When you can’t get excited about anything that you’re working on, you have to search for and find whatever it is that switches on your imagination. Following that trail is the main basis of all the work that I try to do.

The other part, which is external, is that you have to get used to everybody telling you their opinion about what you’re doing. And when I say get used to it, I mean figuring out a way to handle it without hurting your work. How you do it depends on your personality. But handle it you must because it’s impossible to function with that much input. Don’t ask everybody what they think of your work. Be aware that most comments, smart or dumb, are critical and not utilitarian. Understand that the problem that appears in Scene 20 may be caused by something that happens (or doesn’t happen) in Scene 8. Don’t lie to yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Follow your own interests and never mind whether it’s Like A Movie or not.

How can people find your cut of MARGARET?

The 186 minute MARGARET Extended Edition is available on the regular DVD that comes bundled with the Blu-ray theatrical cut DVD and on Amazon Instant Video.

You can follow Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA on Twitter at @MBTSMovie.


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