‘Manchester by the Sea’ director Kenneth Lonergan

The film-maker has survived Hollywood battles to find success with his new movie
Kenneth Lonergan in New York © Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic

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It’s the stuff of Hollywood fairy tales: the lone hero who takes on a seemingly indomitable force, gets bruised and battered, yet finds the strength for one more fight and finally emerges triumphant. This is the story of the film-maker and playwright Kenneth Lonergan: his second film, Margaret, was all but buried by a Hollywood studio, only to be hailed on its eventual release in 2011 as a masterpiece, and he has now returned to the screen with Manchester by the Sea, a film already tipped for awards glory. 

But Lonergan himself does not do fairy tales, and certainly not of the schlocky, Rocky-like kind in which I have cast him. Rather he writes and directs highly charged dramas more redolent of John Cassavetes, full of warmth and wit, in which raw and difficult human emotions are given eloquent expression. 

Manchester by the Sea is no exception. It tells the story of Lee, a Massachusetts janitor whose life is upended by tragedy but is forced to carry on regardless for the sake of his teenage nephew. Casey Affleck (brother of Ben) has received rave reviews and generated Oscar buzz for his heart-rending portrayal of Lee as a monosyllabic ball of pain and regret who self-medicates with hard liquor and fisticuffs. 

Starring opposite an equally impressive Michelle Williams, Affleck is all the more affecting for playing a man whose conversation has previously revolved primarily around beer and ballgames and is unaccustomed to talking about his feelings. 

“I’ve heard it said a number of times now, how Lee doesn’t talk very much, and I never noticed it,” says Lonergan when we meet in a central London hotel. “What I was thinking about, and what Casey and I would work on, was he talks exactly as much as he needs to, and then he moves on to the next thing. That’s how he gets through the day.”

Lonergan himself is a generous talker but quiet, thoughtful and measured, weighing his words carefully, frequently correcting himself and peppering his speech with charming self-deprecation. When I observe that the fallout from tragic accidents is a recurring theme in all three of the films he has directed to date, the 54-year-old New Yorker looks positively pained, takes off his glasses and briefly and untheatrically buries his face in his hands.

“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “In fact, it’s a bit embarrassing. I feel it shows a lack of imagination of some kind. But it’s not conscious. I think those random terrible things that happen are something that I have trouble processing. I don’t have any philosophical system in place for dealing with those kinds of things.”

Casey Affleck in ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016)

Manchester by the Sea is emotionally wrenching, yet it provides a happy ending of sorts — or new beginning — for fans of Lonergan, who many feared would never make another movie after his previous experience in the business. Having made his directorial debut in 2000 with the touching and widely praised You Can Count on Me, in 2005 he shot Margaret, a searing drama that cast Anna Paquin as a bolshie Manhattan teenager whose moral certainties unravel after witnessing a fatal bus crash. The film does not deal explicitly with the events of 9/11 yet it captures the confusion and anger of those times as Paquin’s character grows ever more irascible and ends up at loggerheads with everyone around her. 

Unfortunately she was not the only one. Filming went smoothly but it was during post-production that the project became bumpy. Fox Searchlight refused to countenance Lonergan’s wished-for three-hour cut, the director refused to compromise and so a long, bitter dispute began. 

“They became fixated on the running time after a certain point,” Lonergan says. “I’m not sure why. I think they were so angry at me for arguing with them and wanting to be left alone that it became a power struggle for them.”

The struggle lasted six years, by which point Anna Paquin had long outgrown her onscreen self (though Matt Damon, playing a schoolteacher, somehow retained his baby face looks). Lonergan was exhausted, in debt and frustrated creatively. “It took a lot out of me, and so it took me a while to recover my energy,” he says. “I can’t say I ever fully recovered it.”

One of those who came riding to the rescue was Martin Scorsese, no stranger himself to disputes over final cut, having wrestled with Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein over Gangs of New York

Recalling the saga, Lonergan’s customary sanguinity starts to wear off: “Fox Searchlight didn’t just give it a limited release, they gave it suppressed release.” His soft voice seems to drop to a weary hush. “They would do one day of critic screenings and then take it out of the theatres. I can’t exactly understand why . . . It was put in the smallest theatres legally available, and then pulled immediately — no advertising, nothing.”

Anna Paquin in ‘Margaret’(2011)

But against the odds it started to gain a following, especially when it crossed the Atlantic. “It got three really magnificent reviews in the major papers in London, unexpectedly, and then there were critics lobbying to have it screened again, there was a Twitter campaign — and yet they didn’t capitalise on that as you would think they would want to. Why? You’d have to ask them.”

Hollywood history is littered with high-calibre casualties of studio interference. Sam Peckinpah, Ridley Scott and Michael Cimino all faced it, to name a few, and Orson Welles famously saw some of his work cut to ribbons or dumped in the Pacific Ocean. So we can be grateful that Lonergan was eventually allowed to complete his three-hour cut for the 2012 DVD release. 

Yet Margaret’s story doesn’t end there. Describing its coda, Lonergan begins to sound like a Kafka protagonist battling an unfathomable entity: “To this day, they’re still unresponsive to requests from theatres that want to show the film,” he says. 

Not surprisingly, in the years that followed, Lonergan returned to the sanctuary of the New York theatre where he began and continues to thrive to this day. In 2009 he brought The Starry Messenger to the stage and earlier this year Hold on to Me Darling played off-Broadway.

For the fact that he returned to moviemaking at all, post-Margaret, we can thank Matt Damon, who conceived the story idea for Manchester by the Sea with fellow actor John Krasinski. Damon initially intended to direct himself, bringing Lonergan on board as scriptwriter. “Matt remembers it, very kindly, as him reading the script and telling me I had to direct it because he liked the script so much and it was such a ‘Kenny film’. I remember that his schedule changed.”

Michelle Williams in ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016)

For one of the saddest films of the year Manchester has a surprising number of laugh-out-loud moments (Lonergan, whose writing credits include the hit 1999 comedy Analyse This, can do funny). But what really shines through is its no-nonsense naturalism and sensitivity. “I do a lot of improvising when I’m writing, and I work very hard on the scripts . . . they are written very much in an actor-friendly way,” he says.

His actors in turn reward him with universally excellent performances. And unlike some directors, he is full of empathy for performers. “Actors are very demanding because they have nowhere to hide,” he says. “If I write a scene, it doesn’t turn out very well, I don’t ever have to show it to anyone; when you turn the camera on, or when you walk on stage, they have to feel like what’s happening is real.”

It’s an approach that seems to pay off, with both his script and their performances being showered with praise and pushed by Amazon Studios for awards nomination (unlike Margaret, which received no campaign). 

What better way to signal his triumph over Hollywood, I suggest, than to hold up a statuette to the assembled multitude of studio suits on Oscar night? Lonergan smiles — or perhaps winces — at my corny Hollywood ending. 

“Despite the difficulty and all the Sturm und Drang . . . I don’t feel like I’m in need of any particular vindication,” he says. “And I’m certainly not out to pay anyone back.”

‘Manchester by the Sea’ is out now in the US and is released in the UK on January 13

Main photograph: Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic

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