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'Manchester By The Sea' Director Explores The Depth Of Grief


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. On Fridays this month, FRESH AIR is counting down to the Oscars by revisiting interviews with directors, actors and other artists who have been nominated this year for Academy Awards. Today, our guest is Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the film "Manchester By The Sea." Terry Gross spoke with him last November. "Manchester By The Sea" has been nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, best director and best original screenplay.

It's a moody film starring Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a man living in a neighborhood near Boston who seems to have cut himself off from life except for doing his job as the maintenance man in a small complex of apartments. When he's not at work, he's getting drunk in bars and getting into fights.

Early in the film, he learns his older brother Joe has died of congestive heart failure. Joe was separated from his wife years ago and no one knows where she is. Lee returns to his hometown, Manchester by the sea, to take care of funeral arrangements. In this scene, he's in the office of his brother's lawyer where he learns he's been named the guardian of his brother's teenage son.


CASEY AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I don't understand.

JOSH HAMILTON: (As Wes) Which part are you having trouble with?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Well, I can't be his guardian.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Well...

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I mean, I can't.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Well, naturally - I assumed Joe had discussed all this with you.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) No. He didn't. No.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) I - sorry, I have to say, I'm somewhat taken aback.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) He can't live with me. I live in one room.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Well - but Joe has provided for Patrick's upkeep - food, clothes, et cetera - and the house and the boat are owned outright.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I can't commute from Boston every day until he turns 18.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) I think the idea was that you would relocate.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Relocate to where, here?

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Well, if you look, it's - well, as you can see, you know, your brother worked everything out extremely carefully.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) But he can't have...

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Yes.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) ...Meant that.

BIANCULLI: There's a lot about "Manchester By The Sea" that I don't want to tell you because I want you to be able to see it and allow the story to unfold at its own pace. Kenneth Lonergan also wrote and directed the films "Margaret" and "You Can Count On Me." His plays include "The Waverly Gallery," "The Starry Messenger" and "This Is Our Youth," which was revived on Broadway two years ago.



Kenneth Lonergan, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love this film. Thank you for making it. I want to play another scene from the film. And in this scene, Casey Affleck and his nephew have just left the lawyer's office. And, again, you know, Casey Affleck has been appointed the guardian of his nephew but doesn't want to be the guardian. And so as they leave the office, they're arguing about what to do with the father's fishing boat with the father - the late father was a commercial fisherman. And as they're arguing, a stranger walks by and mutters something sarcastic. And you play that stranger. So (laughter)...


GROSS: ...Let's listen with that in mind. And playing the role of the nephew, Patrick, is Lucas Hedges.


AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Right, we've got a lot to do.

LUCAS HEDGES: (As Patrick) What about the boat?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) We'll talk to George about it. There's no use hanging onto it if no one's going to use it.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I'm going to use it.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) It's got to be maintained.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I'm maintaining it. I'm going to maintain it.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) You can't maintain it by yourself.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Why not? It's my boat now, isn't it?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Because you're a minor. You can't take it out alone. And I'm the trustee because I got to make the payments, I got to keep up the inspections.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) So what does trustee mean?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) It means I'm in charge of handling everything for you until you...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Does that mean you're allowed to sell the boat if I don't want you to?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) ...Turn 18. I don't know. I'll definitely consider it.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) No [expletive] way.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) You're so God-damned sure of yourself. There's no one to run it. You're 16 years old.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I get my license this year.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Doesn't matter, you're still a minor. You can't run a commercial vessel by yourself. Meanwhile, it's a big expense, and I'm the one that's got to manage it, and I'm not going to be here.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Who gives a [expletive] where you are?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Paddy, I swear to God I'm going to knock your block off.

LONERGAN: (As Manchester Pedestrian) Great parenting.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) What? What'd you say?

LONERGAN: (As Manchester Pedestrian) I said great parenting.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) [Expletive] Mind your business.


HEDGES: (As Patrick) Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, it's OK. It's OK. It's OK. It's OK. It's OK.

LONERGAN: (As Manchester Pedestrian) Smash me in the face. Come on, smash me in the face.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Want me to smash your face?


GROSS: OK. That's the bleeped version (laughter) of the scene.


GROSS: And that was Kenneth Lonergan as the stranger who walks by and says, great parenting.


GROSS: In that scene, we hear a lot of overlapping dialogue. The character that Casey Affleck plays and his nephew, they're talking over each other, and you do that intentionally. You know, I was looking at the script of your play "This Is Our Youth," and in the opening page, you have a note about the script. It's a note on simultaneous dialogue. And I'd like to read what you wrote there.

You wrote, (reading) double dialogue laid out in side-by-side columns is meant to be spoken simultaneously, i.e. the actors saying the dialogue in the right-hand column is not to wait for the actor saying the dialogue in the left-hand column to finish but to start speaking at exactly the same time. While in some cases, absolute exactness is neither possible and/or necessary, in general, the more precisely the actors try to stick to this rule, the better the simultaneous dialogue will work.

Did you do that side-by-side simultaneous dialogue in the screenplay for "Manchester?"

LONERGAN: Yeah. Yeah, I really like overlapping dialogue. I like the way it sounds. And it's fun to do and it's fun to listen to. And I think the actors like playing it. And, you know, that note was written after a few experiences that I'd had where it was just simply unclear to the actors when they were supposed to start talking. So when I hear it or read it back, it seems a bit overly controlling on my part. But the truth is, when I write it down very carefully, I'm - when I'm thinking of it, I try to be loose and improvisatory about it by myself. But then I hear it pretty clearly and I write it down as carefully as I can.

And they're - actors sometimes are trained to ignore all stage directions and pauses and descriptions of whether they're smiling or serious, which is - which comes from a good place. They're trying to - the idea is not to follow the script as though it's a piece of literature but to embody it and to feel their way through it. But occasionally, you have to respect the pauses because they're as meaningful as - you know, we don't just express ourselves with words. We express ourselves with silences and with difficulty in finding words. And so there's only one way to write that down.

And sometimes if you don't follow the two columns of dialogue fairly closely to the way they're written, the whole thing just falls apart and you find yourself saying things to something that has - answering a question that hasn't been asked because you got ahead of the other actor in your column. So without - you know, without being too nitpicky about it, it is a good idea to stick to it pretty closely. And it works pretty well, I think.

GROSS: Are there scenes where you feel like you learn in part what's happening in the scene by watching your actors in spite of all of the attention you've paid to scripting and to italicizing words and to your simultaneous dialogue? And here's the scene I'm thinking of. When I interviewed Casey Affleck a couple of weeks ago, he said in the morgue scene where he goes to see his deceased brother, you know, his character is kind of at the point where he's incapable of feeling emotion. And Casey Affleck, as I understand it, was supposed to, like, show up and say, yeah, that's him and stare at the body...


GROSS: ...And then leave. But he found himself, unplanned and unscripted, leaning over, kissing his dead brother's head and then just tearing up.


GROSS: So when you were directing that scene, were you surprised to see that? And what was your reaction?

LONERGAN: Oh, I was so surprised, and I was so happy. It was so beautiful. It was one of those great, great moments you have on a film set. And it is actually scripted that he leans over and hugs the body and kisses him on the cheek, but it's not scripted that he gets emotional. And I just - my admiration for Casey, which was already very high, just soared that day because he - you know, he just spontaneously started to cry just a little bit, but it was just beautiful. And he did - and the first - he did that on the very first take.

And it was - it's shot all in one. It's all - there's two cameras there, so it cuts back and forth between the two cameras a little bit in the editing. But it was shot in one - you know, in one, as they say. You know, all the action happens in one take, and then you do it again and you go through the whole action again. You don't - it's not chopped up. And it was just beautiful.

So we did it one more time, and he did the same thing again just as beautifully. And then what's really remarkable about Casey is I said, that's it. I think we've got it. It was so great. And he said, well, are you sure? Let's - why don't we do one where I don't have any emotional reaction? Because you might not want me to get this emotional this early in the story. And I said sure, but I'm sure I'm going to use one of those because they were just so beautiful but absolutely.

And we did one and he hugged the body and kissed his brother with no feeling at all. And I didn't end up using it. But the fact that he was that vigilant about making sure I had all the choices I might need in the editing room for the story as it was written is really special.

And just the - that's one of my favorite scenes to watch. It was certainly one of my favorite scenes to shoot. And I didn't expect it at all. And that's the biggest fun you can have out of doing this kind of work, is when the actors surprise you with something that you didn't think of but that fits in the story and also enhances it and makes it better.

BIANCULLI: Kenneth Lonergan, writer and director of "Manchester By The Sea," speaking to Terry Gross last November. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation from last November with Kenneth Lonergan, the writer and director of "Manchester By The Sea." His film has been nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, best director and best original screenplay.


GROSS: I want to play a piece of music that you use in "Manchester By The Sea." And this is from Handel's "Messiah." And this is used during the funeral scene for the main character's brother. And before we hear some of it, tell us why you chose to use this.

LONERGAN: Well, "The Messiah's" one of my favorite pieces of music. I've been going to hear it at the - with a group called Musica Sacra, which does it every year. And I think I've been going with my family - with my parents and brothers and sisters and whoever's around - since I was 18 years old. I don't - I think I've missed one or two years maybe. And I just fell in love with it the first time I heard it.

And this particular - it's - I guess it's technically a duet, even though the soprano and the alto don't sing together. First the alto sings and then the soprano. And it's just one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. And it just - it's one of those pieces that's simultaneously just so beautiful that you can't - that you're just reminded how gorgeous the world really is. But it's also - has this incredible melancholy to it.

And it just - again, it just felt right to put into the funeral sequence. And there's certain pieces that I'm always trying to get into a movie, but they don't always fit, so there's a whole scat of rejects of pieces that I love that just are not right for a scene. And I always try to put them against the picture. And when they don't work, I have to leave them out. But this one, I was very happy to find, seemed to work really well.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear it. This is an excerpt of the music from Handel's "Messiah" that you use in "Manchester By The Sea."


MUSICA SACRA CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA: (Singing) He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, with his arm. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, with his arm.

GROSS: That's an excerpt from Handel's "Messiah" that's used in the soundtrack of the film "Manchester By The Sea," which was written and directed by my guest, Kenneth Lonergan.

We've spoken before about how you're an atheist and basically were brought up by a Jewish mother and stepfather but who also were not practicing Jews. But I'm wondering if there's a certain type of religious music that gets you into the type of contemplative state that religion might but music can get you there without the religion part (laughter).

LONERGAN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that piece you just played is so beautiful. And one thing about it that occurred to me that I didn't mention when you were playing it is that your whole spine just relaxes when you hear those chords and you hear that singing. And also the text for that piece is so - if only you could believe in that - it's all about, you know, he shall feed his flock, and then the next one is come unto him all ye that are heavy laden and he shall give you rest.

And this idea that God is going to take care of you and comfort you and relieve you of your burdens and relieve you of your sorrow is a wonderful, if imaginary, idea. But there is something in the world that does that. Sometimes it's nature, and sometimes it's music, and sometimes it's love from people who care about you, sometimes it's just quiet. I don't know what it is, but - so there are many things that are analogous to what I suppose is the religious feeling of being cared for by a supernatural entity in whom I don't believe.

But there's a human capacity for that, for giving that kind of care and for receiving it that is very truthfully and beautifully reflected in music like that. And in the context of the film, this is also a film about someone who's unable to feel comforted by anything because he's so heavy laden. So in a way, the piece is a - in contrast to the main character's experience. And what happens in - under the - under that music in the movie is we see a funeral in slow motion and see the main character's isolation. And then you see everyone else hugging and comforting each other, and he feels very much left out of the community that he's in.

GROSS: So one more question. I've seen "Manchester By The Sea" twice. I saw it once at a screening before interviewing Casey Affleck, and there were three people in the theater then - me, one of our producers and somebody representing the movie. And we were just all sitting there in just silence, you know, just watching this movie and watching it play out. And I saw it again with a large audience Thanksgiving weekend. And, you know, there's a lot of sarcasm in the film because, like, the nephew's really sarcastic and the Casey Affleck character has a pretty cutting wit. But yet they don't strike me exactly as, like, laugh lines because there's so much pain and so much anger, like, underlying all of the sarcasm. But the audience really actually laughed a lot during the film.

LONERGAN: Well, I'm glad. I think...

GROSS: Are you glad? Yeah, tell me why you're glad...

LONERGAN: Oh, yeah. Well, I think the movie's really funny. I mean, I think the characters have a good sense of humor and I have a good sense of humor. And I think that the movie has a good sense of humor and - as it should. I think it's - you know, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, too. I'm sure I've said it before, but I feel like humor and drama are not just different sides of the same coin. They're the same thing.

The really funny comedies to me are always the ones that are played the straightest or given the most emotional content. And when people start making faces and setting things up and commenting and winking at you, I don't find that to be very funny. A really good comedy, I think, is played as if it was real and it's the circumstances that make it amusing. And I think that the - the inverse or the reverse is true for drama.

I don't think there's a lot of life in anything that's humorless. There are some situations in life that are simply not funny and there's nothing funny about them, but they're rare and they don't last all that long. As soon as you get somewhere else, something else is happening that is probably somewhat amusing in some way. So to me, without humor, the movie would be an arid dirge, and I don't want that.

And I don't want the film to be a punishing experience for people. And it's not even so much a question of providing comic relief as providing that side of life in the movie so that the movie resembles life and not just one narrow piece of it. There are some - there are a couple of laughs that I don't actually like or share, but you get used to that when you're a playwright or a filmmaker. You get used to the audience not always thinking the same thing is funny as what you do.

GROSS: Give me an example.

LONERGAN: Well, I don't - there's a line he has when Patrick is very, very upset because he has a - finally has a breakdown. His father - they can't bury the father right away because the ground is too hard, and the cemetery he's going to be buried in doesn't allow the use of heavy equipment. So they have to wait till spring to bury the father.

So that's - and the image of his father being frozen in the interim is very disturbing to Patrick. And he's been pretty stoical about the whole thing until he knocks some frozen chicken from the freezer onto the floor and he has a panic attack. And Lucas does the scene beautifully. He has this real breakdown and he's sobbing, and he's just terrified and upset by the sight of this frozen food because it's reminding him of his father being a body and not a person.

Then there's - then he runs up to his room, he locks himself in, and Casey's character insists on him opening the door. And then he kicks the door open when he won't - when the kid refuses to open the door, and he says to him - he says, I just don't like him being in the freezer. And Casey says, I understand that. You've expressed that very clearly. I don't like it either, but there's nothing we can do about it. And if you're going to freak out every time you see a frozen chicken, I think we should take you to the hospital. I don't know anything about this.

Now, that line always gets a big laugh. And I think it's because the word chicken is a funny word. I don't actually find it to be particularly amusing. I think he's really trying to help out and he doesn't know what to do and he doesn't know what to say. And he's trying to point out to the kid that he's very upset and possibly to the point where maybe they should go see a doctor or something. But it always gets a laugh.

But I - it doesn't bother me at all really in the end because I think people are involved in the scene. And if there's something that suddenly comes out of left field as an odd phrase or a funny-sounding word, I just don't think it hurts the scene terribly. And that's the idea anyway, to get them involved.

GROSS: Kenneth Lonergan, thank you so much for your movies, and thank you for talking with us.

LONERGAN: Oh, thank you. It's such a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Kenneth Lonergan speaking to Terry Gross last November. His film, "Manchester By The Sea," has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best original screenplay. After a break, we'll have a tribute to jazz pianist Barbara Carroll, who died Sunday at age 92. Film critic David Edelstein will review the new Matt Damon movie, "The Great Wall," and I'll review two upcoming TV shows, CBS' "The Good Fight" and HBO's "Big Little Lies." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.