The biggest breakout success of 2016's Sundance Festival was surely Manchester by the Sea, which earned outstanding reviews and reminded the world of film of the enormous talents of both writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret) and star Casey Affleck, who is often overshadowed by his brother but shines brightly in films such as Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The film is a wrenching and powerful character study of a Boston man who has to confront intense grief and take on the care of his nephew in the small seaside town in Massachusetts where he grew up, and it succeeds in its ability to maintain a focused scope, thereby giving valuable attention to emotions and subtle character details. Given that the film tells such an intimate and personal story, it seems possible that Manchester by the Sea is a true story, but surprisingly, it's not.
The unique complexities of growing up in a working-class family in Boston and its surrounding areas often mean that those people who are best suited to telling those stories are the ones that lived it themselves. And while Manchester by the Sea isn't autobiographical, it is informed by the experiences of the people who were involved in its creation.
In a February interview with Rolling Stone , Lonergan describes how the film's idea initially blossomed when John Krasinski and Matt Damon, both of whom grew up in Massachusetts, approached Lonergan about a character sketch and concept they had come up with of "an emotionally crippled jack-of-all-trades." Though the two stars eventually became too mired down in other projects to continue turning the concept into a film, Lonergan, who is not from Massachusetts but grew up in New York City, remained interested in the project and after writing a script, was encouraged by Damon to direct the movie as well.
Though the storyline itself, of Affleck's character returning to his home town and grappling with the consequences of tragedy, is fictional, Lonergan put years of effort into making it feel real. A profile in The New Yorker notes that it took him two years to write the screenplay, and he describes his creative process as being highly focused on intimate personal details: “Talking about people’s personalities, and why people do things, is a big part of my life, and has been since I was little.”
In the New Yorker story, Affleck provided an example of how that attention to detail came through in the script and contributed to the emotional acuity of the final product. Affleck's character is written, in the script, as holding a bag of groceries throughout a scene. “It was one of the few scenes where, when I read it, I thought, What is going on here?” said Affleck. But he continued, "when we came to do the scene, it made perfect sense. The character—he doesn’t scream and gnash his teeth and pull out his hair. He is just clamped down on himself. From that moment, he tightens up." This was the moment, he said, that he "learned to have faith in the writing."
The Rolling Stone interview even notes that Lonergan and Affleck bickered on set just like real family members ("that's how I talk to people I love," Lonergan said), providing even more genuine emotion and realism to the filming experience and the movie itself. "Our editor," the director said, "would get footage back and ask the crew, 'Have they killed each other yet?'"
So, while the story of Manchester by the Sea may not be true, it certainly feels very real.
Images: Amazon Studios