IFFBoston and Coolidge Corner host Kenneth Lonergan for advance screening of ‘Manchester by the Sea’

“I’m always moved by people who are trying to look out for each other.”

Earlier this month, Independent Film Festival Boston and the Coolidge Corner Theatre hosted the New England Premiere of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. This stunning family drama was shot last year on the North Shore and has been flooring festival audiences all over the world ever since its Sundance debut back in January. (It opens in Boston November 25th.) When I saw Manchester by the Sea eleven months ago I said that I didn’t expect to see a better movie this year, and I still haven’t.

Lonergan was back in Boston for the Coolidge screening, where Paul Barclay of Manchester-by-the-Sea’s Board of Selectmen presented the filmmaker with an official declaration of November 18th as “Kenneth Lonergan Day” in the town. “We would have given you the key to the city but we don’t have one,” admitted Barclay. A beaming Lonergan, visibly moved by the honor, quipped “I’m gonna show this to my daughter. Show her I’m not a bum.”

After the movie, IFFBoston’s Executive Director Brian Tamm moderated a discussion with Lonergan, during which the filmmaker explained — in his trademark rapid-fire mumble and run-on sentences — how Matt Damon and John Krasinski had originally hired him to write the screenplay, with Damon intending to direct. “Matt and John had an idea for a movie, and essentially it was the story of a guy who’s lost his family and has left town and is brought back by the death of his brother and has been given guardianship, unbeknownst to him previously, of his nephew. They said ‘We want you to write it the way you want to.’ So I changed some things that didn’t appeal to me and I left that core idea and I just wrote it by myself after that.

“They said, ‘We want to set it in Manchester-by-the-Sea but you can set it anywhere.’ I said no, that’s great. I’d been a couple times to Cape Ann in the past and I really liked the area a lot. Manchester itself, as you probably know, is a fairly wealthy community. But there is a working class component of the population that fixes the boats and plows the snow and kind of lives alongside the wealthier people in the town. I always imagined that these were boat guys. Their grandfather was a fisherman and they were now trying to make a living in some way working with boats.”

Scheduling conflicts left Damon and Krasinski unable to appear in the film (the brothers ended up being played by Casey Affleck and Kyle Chandler) but they stayed on as producers while Lonergan stepped behind the camera for the first time since shooting his sophomore feature Margaret all the way back in 2005. After six years of legal battles and public squabbles too miserable and convoluted to recount here, a truncated, incoherent version of Margaret was dumped into theaters with no fanfare in the fall of 2011. (Lonergan’s preferred edit is finally available online and it is a masterpiece. Don’t get me started on the theatrical cut.)

With stars like Damon and Krasinski watching his back this time, Manchester by the Sea was obviously a less agonized undertaking for Lonergan, but just don’t call it smooth. “No moviemaking process is smooth,” he grumbled. “On Margaret we had a lot of procedural difficulties in the editing room and a lot of arguing and fighting, stress and disturbance and lawsuits and bullshit and there wasn’t any of that with this. But I wouldn’t say that it was smooth. It was smooth-er. The shoot, for instance, was much more difficult than the shoot on Margaret because there was less time and less money.

“I’m sorry to say I was always in charge of everything, and never in charge of anything. A movie is too big and sprawling for any one person to be practically in charge of everything. For instance, the director doesn’t make the movie, the first assistant director makes the movie. The director says, ‘I’d like that to be blue’ and someone else does the work of making sure that it’s blue. And often they come to you and say, ‘It can’t be blue. How about red?’ And you say okay. Multiply that by about ten thousand and you’ve got how a movie gets made. But I will try to remain as in charge as I can be, and try to keep myself close to powerful allies who can help me when I need help, and that’s the best I can really do.”

What makes Manchester by the Sea such an overwhelming emotional experience is how deftly it veers from laughter to sorrow and back again. It has the messy unpredictability of life itself, where crying jags can give way to giggling fits and vice versa. As a Pulitzer-nominated playwright Lonergan has obviously studied up on the forms, but these days he refuses to distinguish between comedy and tragedy.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot and more and more I start to think there’s no difference to me between the two,” he shrugged. “I just don’t see a dividing line at all. Dramatic or funny is all the same thing to me. I think they co-exist very nicely with each other. In fact, when you have the total absence of one or the other I think the life goes out of it somehow. Life is never one thing or another, it’s always everything at once. Which is why it’s so confusing and unpleasant and also so fun and interesting.”

Lonergan shares screenplay credits on movies as all over the map as Analyze This, Gangs of New York and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. But the three films he’s written solo and directed — You Can Count on Me, Margaret and now Manchester by the Sea — are all small-scaled dramas about wounded or broken families trying to figure out how to love one another. When asked why he’s drawn to such stories, the filmmaker was at a loss.

“I really don’t know what draws me to the things that I’m able to write about as opposed to all the things that I’d like to write about. I have a lot of interests, but there are certain things you find yourself writing about and certain themes keep recurring. I’m sorry, I don’t have a great answer for that. I’m very interested in people in conflict, I’m interested in people who have mixed feelings about each other, people who love each other and can’t get along. I’m always moved by people who are trying to look out for each other, and I think that’s a big part of this movie. Actually it’s a big part of all three of my movies and all of my plays, so maybe it’s that.

“Why? You’d have to ask my psychiatrist.”

Manchester by the Sea opens Friday, November 25th at Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square.