Manchester by the Sea is damn near a masterpiece

An interview with director Kenneth Lonergan and actors Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams about their new film.

In terms of comeback stories, Manchester by the Sea is a doozy.

Few thought writer-director Kenneth Lonergan would ever really recover from the long legal battle and multiple delays that beset his previous film, Margaret. He reportedly wasn’t even granted final cut on Manchester. Instead, it went to producer Matt Damon. It seems strange that financiers chose not to trust Lonergan, who went from celebrated playwright to celebrated filmmaker in 2000 when he directed You Can Count on Me, but whatever concerns may have been brewing behind the scenes didn’t affect the final product much. Manchester by the Sea is damn near a masterpiece, a perfectly calibrated and extremely affecting drama filled with unusual and organic beats.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a building custodian in Boston who lives in a spartan apartment and spends what little free time he has drinking and seething. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies from a heart condition, he learns that he has become sole guardian of Joe’s teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking care of Patrick (who’s already well on his way to becoming a man) means returning to his hometown of Manchester, a small coastal village where Joe worked as a fisherman. But the town of Manchester holds painful memories for Lee, and the idea of returning to it to raise a man who has already gone through most of the raising he’ll need might be too much to bear.

Kenneth Lonergan
Kenneth Lonergan

Without delving into spoilers, Manchester by the Sea does explore some extremely painful and disturbing areas of life and particularly parenthood — an especially thorny subject considering all of the principals are also parents in real life.

“We try to tell the truth as best we can, I think, as best we understand it,” says Lonergan. “It’s a fictional story. For us, it’s a fictional circumstance, thank God. As I was writing the script, I often wondered if I had the right to make a movie about something like this, because I haven’t been through it. As a parent, you think about it all the time. You read about people going through things you can’t imagine, withstanding them and having to carry on in some way. It seemed like a worthwhile thing to try and make a film about and to try to understand.”

“One of the things that struck me when I read it is that it’s actually about human bravery,” says Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife in the film. “It’s about people who stay alive and how they choose to stay alive.”

The film is such an emotional rollercoaster that it almost feels like it would have a profound, course-correcting impact on the actors’ lives — but the fact remains that it’s all in a day’s work.

“You think about the things that make you feel the worst, you hold on to those things, you sort of tuck ’em in your pocket and when it’s time to do the scene, you hold on to ’em a little bit,” explains Affleck. “It’s really not as complicated as it sounds. You’re just trying to make yourself feel sad by thinking about the sad things in your life, in other people’s lives and in the characters’ lives and you try to just stay there. It’s sort of the opposite of what you would do going through your own day.”

“I’ve had other jobs where, sometimes, you wouldn’t do that much in a day,” continues Affleck. “You’d come home feeling like, ‘Ahhh, I’ve wasted a day!’ or whatever. Then sometimes you really get a lot done. You have a different job to do. It feels good when you come out of a day of work feeling like you’ve done a full day of work. You really did the thing that you like doing and prepared yourself to do. You’d be sort of drained, but you’d feel that sense of completion, you know?” ■

Manchester by the Sea opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 25.