In an interview with Kenneth Lonergan at the Toronto Film Festival, he acknowledges the sadness imbuing his latest film, about a New England man who returns to his seaside hometown to care for his nephew.

Share story

TORONTO — Kenneth Lonergan likes to cry at movies.

“My daughter’s 14 now, and I can’t tell you how often we’re sitting watching a movie and she’s like, ‘Are you crying?,’ ” the playwright/filmmaker (“You Can Count on Me,” “Margaret,” the upcoming BBC miniseries “Howards End”) said earlier this fall at Toronto International Film Festival. He was in town with his new film, the acclaimed drama “Manchester by the Sea.” “Of course I’m crying. I’m always crying.

“I think when you go to the movies to cry, or read a book to cry, it’s some strange way of channeling your distress into something that’s pleasure. I don’t know why. I don’t like stuff that’s depressing. I feel like this is a different feeling — depression is like a weight on you, and crying is like a release.”


Kenneth Lonergan, ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Opens Friday, Dec. 2, at several theaters. Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.

You may well cry — I did — at “Manchester by the Sea,” a beautifully acted, emotional tale of a New England man, Lee Chandler, who returns to his seaside hometown to become the guardian of his teenage nephew after his brother’s death. The two forge a connection, but something tragic in Lee’s past (we don’t learn what it is until halfway through the movie) haunts him, seeming to pin him down, preventing him from moving on.

Lonergan said that the original spark for the film came from his friends Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who approached him with the idea. At the time, Lonergan was exhausted from the seven-year strain of his previous film, “Margaret,” which spent years in editing due to long, stressful disagreements between the writer/director, the producers and the studio. (A lawsuit was resolved in Lonergan’s favor in 2013, two years after a truncated version of the film was released in a handful of theaters. The three-hour cut of the film — Lonergan’s preferred version — is a masterpiece.)

“That definitely took a lot out of me,” Lonergan said. He was glad to dive into a new project, which was originally planned for Damon to direct and play the lead role. When the actor’s schedule changed, Lonergan stepped up; Damon stayed on as a producer and Casey Affleck was brought on to star.

“Matt and I both admire Casey’s acting tremendously,” Lonergan said. “Matt has said publicly that he wouldn’t have given the part up to anyone but Casey. It was either that or wait for his schedule to clear for two years, and he generously urged us to go forward with the movie with Casey.”

Shot in early 2015 in the Cape Ann region of northern Massachusetts, “Manchester By the Sea” also stars Lucas Hedges as Lee’s nephew, Patrick, Kyle Chandler (in flashbacks) as Lee’s brother, Joe, and Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. Williams and Affleck share a scene, late in the film, that’s stunningly emotional — and that’s sure to be the talk of Oscar season.

“We put off shooting it a couple of times, just by accident, which I think was good in a way,” Lonergan said. “Sometimes if I’m writing something and there’s a certain scene coming up, I’ll avoid writing it because it’s an emotional scene. I want to make sure I’m ready to dive in and be in the scene as I’m writing it. I think the actors and I felt the same way about performing it.”

It’s a devastating scene, between two people who once loved each other, and perhaps still do. “The thing I love,” said Lonergan, “is how kind they’re being to each other. She’s desperate to talk to him, but she doesn’t want to make things worse, and he’s desperate to not talk to her, but he doesn’t want to hurt her either. There’s so much shared distress and love between them. That’s what I find so moving about the way they perform it and the fullness of their emotions as actors — it just blows me away. You can’t ask for more than that.”

That scene — and others — in “Manchester By the Sea” will surely bring tears, but one of the film’s surprises is how gently funny it can be. Laughter, like tears, is a release, Lonergan says, “and that’s why I try to put laughter in.” Of the characters, he says, “They’re going to be OK. I hope so.”