“It took me a while to get into screenwriting and filmmaking. I started out as a playwright, and I’m still a playwright, but I was in my early thirties before I ever tried to write a screenplay for myself..”
You saw “Manchester By the Sea” as a story of a guy going through the steps that lead him nowhere.
I was interested in someone who has endured something that was unbearable, but because of his attachments to the rest of his family, he can’t simply disappear. My fantasy always has been—I have a daughter—my fantasy has always been that if she lost her life I would kill myself. Because I couldn’t bear to be alive. That may or may not be true, I certainly hope I never find out, and you’re not even supposed to say things like that, but that’s the thought you have as a parent. And so, how people survive what they survive is a mystery to me. It’s interesting that what causes that amount of anguish, and can help you through it, is love, and you don’t feel that kind of pain unless you lose someone you love. But love is the only thing that can get you through that kind of distress. There are other situations in which love is of no use whatsoever, like when you’re being murdered and massacred by ISIS, it doesn’t matter how many people love you, they’ll still cut your head off.
It has to be a challenge to make a film that works toward that but also to make a film with a character who is so interior, so inexpressive.
There’s just certain conversations he’s just not interested in having. I see him as being extremely active. I never noticed that he didn’t say much until people started point it out to me. Because, to me, every day [for him] is a struggle to not collapse. A very active struggle. He works very hard to get through every day in a way that he can stand. He’s sometimes not successful. He’s in so much pain. He has got so much emotional burden to carry that he’s got to work very hard to keep it at bay or he just can’t function. He does it by trying to relegate everything into small tasks. When he has a bigger task he tries to do that too, but it is not as successful because once human beings become involved it becomes very difficult to control your environment.
Regarding your casting of Casey Affleck in the lead role of Lee: how did you get him to express what you wanted most from the character, especially in terms of the restraint within his performance?
Well, he’s an amazing actor and an amazing person. We’re very good friends now. We were friends before, but we’re very close now, I would say. I don’t know if he would agree because he’s frequently wrong about everything, so he might have the wrong idea about that too. But he has an amazing worker bee attitude towards the part he plays. We had the most interesting in-depth, interminable discussions about the character: where he was at, why he was acting this way in this scene, why he wasn’t acting one way in another scene, where he was later, why did he react to the kid. [Casey’s] first comment was that he felt he was being very mean to the kid, his nephew; he wasn’t being comforting about when his father died. In the beginning of the discussion months later, we knew how the character was getting through his days after this terrible thing that had happened to him, and we both worked out together where he was at. It’s easy for him to be mechanical and cut off from the doctors and nurses who are trying to express sympathy, but his nephew gets to him. So it’s about who gets to him and when, and what shakes him out of the routine that he’s established in order to survive what’s happened to him, was a source of really interesting and really productive discussions. We talked about it months before the movie started, we talked about it every day on the set, we talked about it even after he saw the movie. It was really interesting and I learned a lot doing that.
How exact do you plan films, not just with characters, but in directing? How exact do you imagine these projects?
It’s always … you have one idea. Well, ideally, you have one idea that works in your head. And then you start with that, and then other people come along and either don’t get it and you try to get them to it, or they have some other idea that is germinated from your idea or related to it, and it enhances it and makes it better. And then you build on it together. That’s the really fun part of that. That goes for every element of the film, of acting, cinematography, the sound mixing, the locations, everything. When that’s all going well, it’s really fun. But I like the actors to stick to the dialogue as best they can, some pieces of dialogue I don’t really care that much, some I really do care, I couldn’t say why, it depends on the line. But I usually feel like [actors] should work within the dialogue and not outside of it. But apart from that, the behavior and how you shoot it, and where the emphases go and in the editing of course too, it’s all, “I know this works, and where can I go from there?”
There are many moments [in your films and plays] of people being stupid or putting their foot in it or just not expressing themselves clearly.
I know I write about that a lot, people misunderstanding each other, but I don’t do it on purpose. I don’t know what that is. But I do remember high school really vividly, and college, too, in some ways. After that, it all becomes a murky, semi-grown-up blur until this moment. Which will then be absorbed into the blur later. But I remember the grown-ups from then, too. I remember people’s parents. I remember watching other people’s parents and my parents trying to cope with us and feeling bad for them, while also going off privately and making fun of them in a snotty teenage way. It’s clearly a bad situation for everybody. [both laugh] I also remember being a little kid really vividly. But I couldn’t write scenes about that because I wouldn’t know how to write what a little kid says. But when you’re a teenager, you’re so self-conscious and so self-aware for some reason. And I remember what people talked like very well. And then you get older, and you see teenagers, you hear them in the streets, half showing off and half nervous. And you just watch them, their physicality, like, three boys in the street, and you can tell which one’s the leader, which one’s nervous, if they all are really comfortable with each other … Their body language is so clear. Or, if it’s girls, you’re like, “Okay, which one’s the cute one? Which one’s the popular one? Which one’s the kooky friend who’s hanging around?” And these hideous things they have to be. They seem very much like everybody else, but times ten.
This is not a film that you set out to direct. Was there a point at which it was either you had to direct it or it would go away?
I don’t think that ever came up. I think it was just a question that Matt was going to direct it all the time it was being written. Then, when he read the script, by that time his schedule had constricted. Also, I think he was enthusiastic about the idea of me directing it. It was never put to me like, “If you don’t direct it, we’re not going to be able to do it.” He said, “I think it would be a really good idea for you to direct it. I think you’ll do a great job.” Whether that’s true or not, I thought about and decided I did want to direct it because I’d gotten very attached to the material in the interim.
Was it hard to make the decision to come back to directing after the break and after your last experience?
No, not at all. I knew I would at some point. I wasn’t sure it was going to be with this because I was writing it for Matt.
When you know you’re going to do a piece and set it in a place like this, how does the accent influence approach to dialogue?
I approach dialect by trying to write down what I hear in my imagination. In this case I heard them speaking with this regionalism and that just works its way into the script. I wanted to avoid certain clichéd expressions. Nobody says, “wicked,” or anything like that. It’s not a favorite expression anyway. Even nowadays most of the people say in a sort of self-referential way because they have seen it in the movies so much. I avoid that one. Other than that, you know where your characters are from, you know how they talk and you write that down.
What steps do you take to get the region correct? If you don’t get it right, I’m sure you’ll get called on the details. How did you make sure you got it right?
You just try to follow the details, really. Details give you the bigger picture. I did a fair amount of research on the town and of the area when I was writing the script. A lot more when I got there in pre-production. Then we integrated as much of the environment as we possibly could on the fly when we were there. I really like dialogue. I’m really interested in it. I’m really interested in verisimilitude because that’s how I personally build up my work. There are a lot of approaches that don’t necessarily have to do with verisimilitude, but that’s my way in.
I’ve noticed movies that take place in certain specific locations. I’ve noticed movies where everyone sounds the same and you can tell they all have the same accent coach. I didn’t want to do that. My wife [actress J. Smith Cameron] shoots a TV show called Rectify in a small town in Georgia. You go down there and a lot of people have a strong local accent and a lot of people don’t. I don’t see that in a lot of movies. Usually if it takes place in Maine everyone has the same accent. When you really go to Maine everyone has a different accent. I wanted to make sure their were characters who did not have a regional accent and there are several. When you go to Manchester, Gloucester, and Cape Ann, a lot of people have the local accent, a lot of people don’t. I wanted to reflect that. I knew which characters I wanted to have a specific local accent and which ones I didn’t. There are a lot of transplants.
We were scouting the movie and ran into two guys who came out of a boat repair shop, they both had thick Southern accents. One of them was from Alabama and one of them was from Tennessee. They lived there for 20 years. It was really hilarious because they had these strong Southern accents. They were like, [adopts Southern accent] “Oh, yeah. I’ve lived up here for my whole life practically. I love it.” And you’re standing in the middle of Gloucester Harbor. They’re covered with grease from the boats and they’re just chattering away in their Southern accents. You just try to stick to the particulars and it often gives you the bigger picture.
You’re used to creating plays and movies that are complete pieces and the idea that open-ended story would be something new.
It is a very different form. It took me a while to get into screenwriting and filmmaking. I started out as a playwright, and I’m still a playwright, but I was in my early thirties before I ever tried to write a screenplay for myself. I was doing it to make a living but it took awhile for me even do that. I think it might just be a trick of my imagination, just a switch to jump the track and go over to the television world. I don’t know.
Something about the long form appeals to me. One of the main worries about a play or a movie is that they are only supposed to be so long. The fact that if you can do the show over four episodes or four hours, or eight episodes, eight hours, or eight two-hour episodes if you happen to have that much to say or write about, that’s very liberating.
When do you know when a movie is done?
When your adjustments start to make it worse instead of better, you have to stop.
What’s a sign of that?
Just that when you watch it you’re like, “Why did I do that? That’s not better. That’s worse.” You’re in there, you have this great idea. You’re like, “Oh, wow! That scene’s really good, but this other take we didn’t use is so great. Maybe I could just get a couple of lines from that take in there. Switch those out.” Then you do all this fussing, you do a screening and you step back and you’re like, “Oh. This is not as good.” When you see more breaking down than improving, it’s time to stop.
As a playwright and screenwriter, what is your attitude when going into the editing room?
It’s been different every time. I have only done three movies. The first movie I was so nervous on the set because I never directed before, that when I got to the editing room it was a complete and utter relief because it was just like writing. All the materials were there, it was like writing a script and then trying to make it the best version of it. I had all the materials, the editor Anne McCabe and I worked on the individual scenes and put them together, we stepped back and looked at them, the same as you write a bunch of scenes and then read the whole act of a play. You notice things, go back. So, it was a breeze. It was really fun and easy and familiar to me. “Margaret” was so challenging because there are so many balls to keep in the air, but it was really fun too, in a different way. Again, you just have to keep the whole thing in your head, but I had a very clear idea of how to edit that too. But the trouble came from outside. But I knew what we were doing, and finally, [we] more or less got to do what we wanted to do in the extended version, years after years of torture and misery and rescue from critics and friends and Twitter. That was very unpleasant, and then a miracle at the end. That multiple story form I am very interested in pursuing again.
This movie, I wasn’t sure how to edit. We went in and we just started playing the scenes. I had an idea for the beginning should be a bit of his routine, and I knew I wanted to establish the routine. The idea of starting the film the way it starts now was a later idea which I think works. It was more feeling your way through it, I think. It’s tricky because you have all of these takes and all of these performances that are great, and you have to decide what shapes a scene. Casey also makes you do hundreds of takes because he won’t stop until you tell him to go home, if there’s a somewhat better way to do it he wants to do it. And I’m a little bit that way too, sometimes. So, it’s hard to decide which one of his dozen great deliveries of this line to use. But eventually, a cohesion appears.