'Manchester by the Sea' is a study in loss and love

Arts

ANTONIO MORA: It's award season in Hollywood, and one of the most highly praised films of the year, "Manchester by the Sea," was nominated for six Academy Awards this week.

Its director, Kenneth Lonergan was nominated for two of them.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with him recently at the Atlantic Theater in New York.

This report is part of our ongoing coverage of awards for the 2016 movie season, Beyond the Red Carpet.

JEFFREY BROWN: In an early scene in the film, "Manchester by the Sea," Lee Chandler learns that his recently deceased brother has named him as his nephew's guardian, and the weight of the world comes crashing down again.

CASEY AFFLECK, Actor: He can't live with me. I live in one room.

ACTOR: Well, but Joe has provided for Patrick's upkeep, food, clothes, et cetera. And the house the boat are owned outright.

CASEY AFFLECK: I can't commute from Boston every day until he turns 18.

ACTOR: I think the idea was that you would relocate.

CASEY AFFLECK: Relocate to where? Here?

JEFFREY BROWN: As played by Casey Affleck, Lee is a lost, mostly silent man at sea over some hidden grief.

But, says director Kenneth Lonergan, it's more than that.

KENNETH LONERGAN, Director, "Manchester by the Sea": I don't see it as a film about grief. I see it as a film about love, and about people trying to help each other and take care of each other, as much as it's a film about grief. It is about grief, obviously, but it's really about someone who's trying to do right by his family, even though he's ready to quit.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film's title is also its setting, a small coastal Massachusetts fishing village, a place Lee Chandler is pulled back to against his will.

Kenneth Lonergan wrote the screenplay as well, and says he worried at first how he'd capture the kind of trauma he himself had never experienced.

ACTOR: Nobody can appreciate what you have been through. And if you really feel you can't take this on, you know, that's your right.

KENNETH LONERGAN: You always write about things that are not exactly you, and sometimes things that are really far afield.

I think it's the emotional content that tells — that's the acid test. You know, you couldn't enjoy a movie if you weren't able to put yourself into other people's shoes, and you certainly couldn't write or direct a movie if you weren't able to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you do that?

KENNETH LONERGAN: When it's going well, you don't have to think these things through. You just — I pretend I'm him. I pretend I'm the other people in the room with him. And I — then they start talking, and I write it down. And when it's not going well, I try to get back to that place.

JEFFREY BROWN: But are you writing the pauses, the shuffles, the — you know, the moments where it's so fraught, right?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Yes, most of them, but not all of them. Like, the actors will come in, and you discover just as much in the set as you do at your desk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lonergan first made his name as a playwright, with such works as "This Is Our Youth" and "Lobby Hero."

ACTRESS: I don't know what the church's official position is on adultery these days.

JEFFREY BROWN: "Manchester" is his third film. His first, "You Can Count on Me," set in Upstate New York and dealing with a different kind of family drama, came out in 2000.

The second, "Margaret," set in New York after 9/11, was a traumatic experience for Lonergan himself, after numerous disputes with the studio led to a very limited release.

JEFFREY BROWN: With "Manchester," Lonergan again deals with loss and the whole idea of closure.

KENNETH LONERGAN: Which is a really unpleasant word to me, and I don't know what it means.

And it's not that — there are many really beautiful and inspiring stories about people overcoming incredible odds, much worse than the odds my characters face, and coming out the other end whole or stronger or — that's the good side of it.

The bad side of it to me is the obligation to do so, like the failure to recognize that there are millions, billions of people who have suffered blows that they're not going to recover from.

JEFFREY BROWN: If that sounds depressing, well, it is. But the film has gained much positive attention because of its powerful performances and the way it packs its emotional punch, with parts of the story told in flashbacks to see the characters in different, happier times.

CASEY AFFLECK: This is the same girl who was over at the house?

ACTOR: No, that was Silvie and this is Sandy. And they don't know about each other, so …

JEFFREY BROWN: There's also a great deal of humor and warmth, especially between Lee and his teenaged nephew.

CASEY AFFLECK: Do you actually have sex with these girls?

ACTOR: We don't just play computer games.

CASEY AFFLECK: With both of them?

ACTOR: Well, with Sandy's mom here, it's sort of strictly just, like, basement business.

CASEY AFFLECK: What is it that mean?

ACTOR: It means I'm working on it.

KENNETH LONERGAN: People are funny. I mean, they just are.

And I think that doesn't go away. The world doesn't grieve when you're grieving. The world goes on about its business. You're having a good day and I'm having a bad one and vice versa. And they could be very good and very bad at the same time. And that's — you multiply that by seven billion and you have one element of human experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's an interesting way of looking at life, the world.

KENNETH LONERGAN: It's true. But it's true. You can't think for seven billion people. And you can't put yourself in positions of the seven billion people. But you can certainly stretch a little bit and put yourself in a few hundred other people's place, I would hope.

JEFFREY BROWN: So then what's the job of a writer in that, when you think about the world that way?

KENNETH LONERGAN: One job that you have is to notice patterns that only you notice. A writer, a director or an actor or any artist or creative person is who is re-representing life through their work is, I think, describing the patterns that they see.

JEFFREY BROWN: In "Manchester By the Sea," Lonergan knows he's fortunate to be working with great actors, include Michelle Williams, giving life to his words.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS, Actress: I really kept in touch with Joe. It's been kind of weird for me not seeing Patrick.

CASEY AFFLECK: I knew that.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Oh, OK, I didn't know.

CASEY AFFLECK: You could see him if you want.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Could we ever have lunch?

KENNETH LONERGAN: You have a version in your head that works. And then the actors come, and that's what I would say would be…

JEFFREY BROWN: And they mess it up or they do it …

(LAUGHTER)

KENNETH LONERGAN: Well, if they're not seeing all the elements in the scene that I can see, then I will try to point them out.

Once they understand the scene at least as well as I did, they then go much further. And they become the characters, whereas I only imagine the characters. And when it's Casey and Michelle, I really expect and get, like, way more than I — than I think that I put in.

And when you have people like this, you're — sometimes, you just sit back and watch them go. And that's just — that is why you become a director, or why you become a playwright or a screenwriter, is to see actors do that with your — with what you imagined initially in your little room some time two or three years ago. And it's just beautiful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kenneth Lonergan, his film, and three lead actors all received Oscar nominations this week, aiming toward the February 26 awards ceremony.

From New York, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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