MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
By Eric Hynes
Every January, there are a few films that seem destined, from the moment they premiere at the Festival, to be talked about for the rest of the year to come. Judging from its emotionally devastating unveiling at the Eccles Theater one of those 2016 representatives will be Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea. Lonergan’s follow-up to the critically beloved Margaret, and his first return to Sundance since taking home the Grand Jury and Waldo Salt Screenwriting prizes in 2000 for You Can Count On Me, the new film stars Casey Affleck as a New England man haunted by tragedy, struggling to care for a teen nephew (newcomer Lucas Hedges), who’s suffering through loss of his own.
“I have an aversion to the idea that there’s some kind of closure or catharsis. I guess people find ways to live with real tragedy. But some people don’t,” Lonergan said during the post-screening Q&A. “I thought that maybe those people deserve to have a movie made about them too. I’ve seen a lot of really good movies about people coming fully back to life. I wanted to do something different, something that seemed a bit more understandable to me.”
When asked how they dealt with the weight of the material, and if getting into their characters affected their real lives in any way, the actors cast back to the greatness of the script, and to the safe and guiding hands of their director. “Being that character meant trying to understand the complexity of what Kenny had written,” Affleck said, “looking for different ways of playing things, different ways of looking at a scene or thinking about a scene. Remaining open to things that seem counterintuitive in the moment. Being that character that was so well written, it made me a better actor.”
“In my limited experience doing movies and theater, doing scenes and playing roles that demand a certain amount from you emotionally is often more fulfilling and therapeutic than it is destructive,” said Hedges, a breakout candidate after this performance. “It’s probably the biggest role I’ve had, and also the most demanding – the first role I’ve ever really got to play that had an arc. It was amazing to get to do that with Kenny, who’s really one of my favorite people on the planet, and Casey is genuinely one of my heroes – I told him that when I first met him in the audition. This is life changing. I’m a freshman in college. And I go to a school for acting, and it’s really weird to leave a school where I’m getting taught and then… I come here. It doesn’t make any sense. I just want to get better.”
Not in the film but on the stage thanks to his role as producer, Matt Damon spoke about collaborating with Lonergan, and how Affleck came to play a role he’d long desired. “Casey and I did one of Kenny’s plays in London, 14 years ago, and Kenny’s our favorite writer. We went to Kenny with this idea, John Krasinski and I – and originally the idea was for me to direct this movie and John was going to be in it,” he said. “Then I read a very, very rough draft – it was about 4000 pages – and I just begged Kenny, I said you have to direct it. And he eventually saw the wisdom of my thinking. And then I was going to be in it, but in a really bizarre and atypical fit of generosity, I gave it to Casey. And immediately regretted it. Basically it’s one of the best roles I’ve ever seen. I had a full slate and I wouldn’t be able to do this movie until next year, and they could go last year with Casey. And I didn’t want to get in the way of a great movie getting made. I had already said to Kenny that I will not give up the role to anyone but Casey Affleck. And Casey instantly took the role. Because he saw what we all saw. I never made it through this script without crying. And I never made it through any iteration or cut of this movie without crying. It’s just absolutely devastating, and it’s one of the most beautifully written things I’ve ever come across. And I wish I was in it but I’m happy just to be attached to it.”
“I’ve never cried watching a movie that I’ve been in, unless it was out of utter disappointment,” Affleck added. “But I did today, and I think that’s a testament to the story and just how magically it works.” Kyle Chandler, who plays Affleck’s older brother in the film, made similar remarks. The deadpan Lonergan, however, was more critical of a film from which most people on stage and off were still trying to recover.
“Well, I think it needs a little work,” he said.