'Manchester By The Sea' Director Probes The Drama And Humor Of Grief Kenneth Lonergan's new film is about a janitor, crippled by guilt and grief, who returns to his hometown after the death of his brother.
NPR logo

'Manchester By The Sea' Director Probes The Drama And Humor Of Grief

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/503865472/503896423" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Manchester By The Sea' Director Probes The Drama And Humor Of Grief

'Manchester By The Sea' Director Probes The Drama And Humor Of Grief

'Manchester By The Sea' Director Probes The Drama And Humor Of Grief

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/503865472/503896423" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Kenneth Lonergan's new film is about a janitor, crippled by guilt and grief, who returns to his hometown after the death of his brother.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea." It was just named best film of the year by the National Board of Review. It's a moody film starring Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a man living in a neighborhood near Boston who seems to have cut himself off from life except for doing his job as the maintenance man in a small complex of apartments and getting drunk in bars and getting into fights.

Early in the film, he learns his older brother Joe has died of congestive heart failure. Joe was separated from his wife years ago and no one knows where she is. Lee returns to his hometown, Manchester by the sea, to take care of funeral arrangements. In this scene, he's in the office of his brother's lawyer, where he learns he's been named the guardian of his brother's teenage son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANCHESTER BY THE SEA")

CASEY AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I don't understand.

JOSH HAMILTON: (As Wes) Which part are you having trouble with?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Well, I can't be his guardian.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Well...

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I mean, I can't.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Well, naturally, I assumed Joe had discussed all this with you.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) No. He didn't. No.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) I - sorry - I have to say, I'm somewhat taken aback.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) He can't live with me. I live in one room.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Well, but Joe has provided for Patrick's upkeep - food, clothes, et cetera. And the house and the boat are owned outright.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I can't commute from Boston every day until he turns 18.

HAMILTON: (As Wes) I think the idea was that you would relocate.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Relocate to where, here?

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Well, if you look - well, as you can see, you know, your brother worked everything out extremely carefully.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) But he can't of...

HAMILTON: (As Wes) Yes.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) ...Meant that.

GROSS: There's a lot about "Manchester By The Sea" that I don't want to tell you because I want you to be able to see it and allow the story to unfold at its own pace. Kenneth Lonergan also wrote and directed the films "Margaret" and "You Can Count On Me." His plays include "The Waverly Gallery," "The Starry Messenger" and "This Is Our Youth," which was revived on Broadway two years ago.

Kenneth Lonergan, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love this film, thank you for making it. So there's an opening montage in the film of the Casey Affleck character working as a janitor. And we see several scenes with several different tenants whose homes he's working in. He's repairing a toilet that isn't flushing right.

KENNETH LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: He's plunging a stuffed-up toilet that's really messed up and the tenant is really embarrassed by the whole thing.

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: He's repairing a leaky shower with a woman who was really, like, rude and trying to seduce him at the same time.

LONERGAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: He's repairing a light fixture from an older woman who's on the phone complaining about a bat mitzvah she has to go to. Each tenant has a different personality - impatient, grateful, nasty. And in that scene, we different - we see the different shades of Lee's personality, his ability to be understanding and helpful but also to push back hard.

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So what was your thinking behind that scene? Because it seems to do a lot of work in telling us what his life is like and who he is.

LONERGAN: Well, I - that's essentially the - what I wanted it to do. The idea of the opening was to present his daily life as it exists now, as it exists at the start of the film. And it's a pretty routinized life. He's very methodical. He's a very good custodian. He's also not interested in having much of a personal relationship with anybody. And the four scenes are four different kinds of interactions. And my idea was to somewhat coldly show him going through his day, which is a series of functions, activities and tasks combined with a active effort to keep other human beings at bay.

But someone pointed out to me recently that he didn't choose a job which keeps him totally isolated from people. He actually chose a job which makes him - puts him into contact with other human beings. So it's a very limited contact but he's not quite as isolated as even I thought he was at the beginning writing the script.

GROSS: In telling the story, you go back and forth in time from the present to the past to the present to the past. Why did you decide to tell the story that way?

LONERGAN: It seemed like the natural - it was a natural development when I was working on the script. The first draft of the screenplay was extremely hard to write and didn't come out very well. And I started at the very beginning of the chronology with him back in town before the family tragedy that forces him to leave had occurred and went all the way through. And it just was - it felt very flat to me and boring and dull when I was writing it. And after six or eight months of trying to write the script that way, I started over again.

And I - when I'm in that much trouble with a script, I sometimes just throw out everything I don't like and start again with the few scenes that I do like. And the scene that I was most interested in was the scene of him shoveling snow at the beginning. And I had a - and that gave - that was sort of - that was a vivid idea for me - and - just to see him at work. And then the question comes up is, who is he? Because he's - his behavior is very strange. And then I had written all the material of what had happened to him in the past, or quite a lot of it. And I don't remember the moment of inspiration or solving the puzzle. But it seemed like a natural and good idea to slop that in to his memory, rather than seeing it happen in chronological order.

And then later it became very valuable because he's somebody who's got - carrying around his past with him very actively and very - with - and - with great difficulty. He's in a lot of distress because of his past. And it's with him all the time. And so the structure of having the two narratives unfold side by side almost felt very good. And it felt right. And it kind of gave me the whole story in a way.

GROSS: I want to play another scene from the film. And in this scene, Casey Affleck and his nephew have just left the lawyer's office. And, again, you know, Casey Affleck has been appointed the guardian of his nephew but doesn't want to be the guardian. And so as they leave the office, they're arguing about what to do with the father's fishing boat. With the father - the late father was a commercial fisherman. And as they're arguing, a stranger walks by and mutters something sarcastic. And you play that stranger. So (laughter)...

LONERGAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Let's listen with that in mind. And playing the role of the nephew, Patrick, is Lucas Hedges.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANCHESTER BY THE SEA")

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Right, we've got a lot to do.

LUCAS HEDGES: (As Patrick) What about the boat?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) We'll talk to George about it. There's no use hanging onto it if no one's going to use it.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I'm going to use it.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) It's got to be maintained.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I'm maintaining it. I'm going to maintain it.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) You can't maintain it by yourself.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Why not? It's my boat now, isn't it?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Because you're a minor. You can't take it out alone. And I'm the trustee because I get to make the payments, I get to keep up the inspections.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) So what does trustee mean?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) It means I'm in charge of handling everything for you until you...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Does that mean you're allowed to sell the boat if I don't want you to?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) ...Turn 18. I don't know. I'll definitely consider it.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) No [expletive] way.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) You're so God-damned sure of yourself. There's no one to run it. You're 16 years old.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I get my license this year.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Doesn't matter, you're still a minor. You can't run a commercial vessel by yourself. Meanwhile, it's a big expense and I'm the one that's going to manage it and I'm not going to be here.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Who gives a [expletive] where you are?

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Patty (ph), I swear to God I'm going to knock your block off.

LONERGAN: (As Manchester Pedestrian) Great parenting.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) What? What'd you say?

LONERGAN: (As Manchester Pedestrian) I said great parenting.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) [Expletive] mind your business.

(CROSSTALK)

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, it's OK. It's OK. It's OK.

LONERGAN: (As Manchester Pedestrian) Smash me in the face? Come on, smash me in the face.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) Want me to smash your face?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. That's the bleeped version (laughter) of the scene.

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And that was Kenneth Lonergan as the stranger who walks by and says, great parenting.

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: In that scene we hear a lot of overlapping dialogue. The character that Casey Affleck plays and his nephew, they're talking over each other. And you do that intentionally, you know, I was looking at the script of your play "This Is Our Youth." And in the opening page you have a note about the script. It's a note on simultaneous dialogue. And I'd like to read what you wrote there.

You wrote, (reading) double dialogue laid out in side-by-side columns is meant to be spoken simultaneously i.e. the actors saying the dialogue in the righthand column is not to wait for the actor saying the dialogue in the lefthand column to finish, but to start speaking at exactly the same time. While in some cases absolute exactness is neither possible or unnecessary, in general, the more precisely the actors try to stick to this rule the better the simultaneous dialogue will work.

Did you do that side-by-side simultaneous dialogue in the screenplay for "Manchester"?

LONERGAN: Yeah. Yeah, I really like overlapping dialogue. I like the way it sounds. And it's fun to do and it's fun to listen to. And I think the actors like playing it. And, you know, that note was written after a few experiences that I'd had where it was just simply unclear to the actors when they were supposed to start talking. So when I hear it or read it back, it seems a bit overly controlling on my part. But the truth is when I write it down very carefully, I'm - when I'm thinking of it, I try to be loose and improvisatory about it by myself. But then I hear it pretty clearly and I write it down as carefully as I can.

And they're - actors sometimes are trained to ignore all stage directions and pauses and descriptions of whether they're smiling or serious, which is - which comes from a good place. They're trying to - the idea is not to follow the script as though it's a piece of literature, but to embody it and to feel their way through it. But occasionally, you have to respect the pauses because they're as meaningful as - you know, we don't just express ourselves with words. We express ourselves with silences and with difficulty in finding words. And so there's only one way to write that down.

And sometimes if you don't follow the two columns of dialogue fairly closely to the way they're written, the whole thing just falls apart and you find yourself saying things to something that has - answering a question that hasn't been asked because you got ahead of the other actor in your column. So without - you know, without being too nitpicky about it, it is a good idea to stick to it pretty closely. And it works pretty well, I think.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned actors don't like to necessarily read the stage directions because they want to embody the character themselves. You italicize words in your dialogue. Do the actors follow it, or do they resist that?

LONERGAN: It depends. I mean, I think for the most part they follow it. And sometimes I don't even want them to follow it. Like, I'll italicize something in the way I hear it and then someone will come along and do it in a different way that seems right. But other times, the italics are there - like in the case of my play "This Is Our Youth," the way those characters talk, they really love words. And they love hitting certain words. And they love the idea of - in a stoned kind of a way, they love to verbalize concepts.

So not to hit certain words with a certain emphasis is - just misshapes the thought in a way and misshapes the - well, it just throws the whole meaning and the whole sequence of the dialogue off in a way. Mamet, he does the same thing very beautifully in, you know, "Glengarry Glen Ross" or "Speed-The-Plow." And it's - you miss something.

There's one really neat sequence where he's - the character's on the phone and he's waiting for - to speak to this character - offstage character named Richard. And I think the script, it goes, Richard. Richard. Pause. Richard in italics, meaning that he's got him on the phone and the first two Richards are to someone who's not there. And then obviously, the guy picks up, and then he says, Richard. So if you just have three Richards, you could - it would work. I'm sure there's another way to make it work. But it's a very specific and kind of a funny way he writes it. And why not try it that way, at least for starters?

GROSS: Are there scenes where you feel like you learn in part what's happening in the scene by watching your actors in spite of all of the attention you've paid to scripting and to italicizing words and to your simultaneous dialogue? And here's the scene I'm thinking of. When I interviewed Casey Affleck a couple of weeks ago, he said in the morgue scene where he goes to see his deceased brother, you know, his character is kind of at the point where he's incapable of feeling emotion. And Casey Affleck, as I understand it, was supposed to, like, show up and say, yeah, that's him and stare at the body...

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And then leave. But he found himself, unplanned and unscripted, leaning over, kissing his dead brother's head and then just tearing up.

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So when you were directing that scene, were you surprised to see that? And what was your reaction?

LONERGAN: I was so surprised. And I was so happy. It was so beautiful. It was one of those great, great moments you have on a film set. And it is actually scripted that he leans over and hugs the body and kisses him on the cheek, but it's not scripted that he gets emotional. And I just - my admiration for Casey, which was already very high, just soared that day because he - you know, he just spontaneously started to cry just a little bit. But it was just beautiful. And he did - and the first - he did that on the very first take.

And it was - it's shot all in one. It's all - there's two cameras there, so it cuts back and forth between the two cameras a little bit in the editing. But it was shot in one - you know, in one, as they say. You know, all the action happens in one take, and then you do it again and you go through the whole action again. You don't - it's not chopped up. And it was just beautiful.

So we did it one more time, and he did the same thing again just as beautifully. And then what's really remarkable about Casey is I said, that's it. I think we've got it. It was so great. And he said, well, are you sure? Let's - why don't we do one where I don't have any emotional reaction because you might not want me to get this emotional this early in the story? And I said sure, but I'm sure I'm going to use one of those because they were just so beautiful. But absolutely.

And we did one and he hugged the body and kissed his brother with no feeling at all. And I didn't end up using it. But the fact that he was that vigilant about making sure I had all the choices I might need in the editing room for the story as it was written is really special. And just the - that's one of my favorite scenes to watch. It was certainly one of my favorite scenes to shoot. And I didn't expect it at all. And that's the biggest fun you can have out of doing this kind of work, is when the actors surprise you with something that you didn't think of but that fits in the story and also enhances it and makes it better.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ken Lonergan. And he wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea." He also wrote and directed "You Can Count On Me" and "Margaret." We're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea." He also wrote and directed the films "You Can Count On Me" and "Margaret." And he also wrote the play "This Is Our Youth," which was revived on Broadway in 2014.

You've written several roles for troubled teens in your work, certainly in "Margaret," which starred Anna Paquin in the troubled teen (laughter) role. And in your new film "Manchester By The Sea," Patrick, the nephew, who's 16 years old, you know, he's mourning the loss of his father. His mother - like, no one knows where his mother is because his parents separated years ago.

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And I don't think he's willing to acknowledge the pain that he's in. And so he's very abrasive and very sarcastic and cynical. And, you know, these characters are also in a period where they're having trouble with the adults in their lives.

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And then, of course, you wrote "This Is Our Youth," which is about people in their late teens and early 20s. But when you're writing the roles of teenagers, do you draw on your memories of your own teenage years or on teenagers who you know now?

LONERGAN: I think more the memories of my own teenage years because the teenagers I know now don't really talk to me.

(LAUGHTER)

LONERGAN: My daughter talks to me. She's 14. And some of her friends talk to me. But I mostly watch them talking to each other. They're not - some of her friends are extremely pleasant and nice to us and talk to us all the time, and some of them just say hello, you know, if you make them say hello. So I'm just very interested in teenagers, and I always have been. I remember those years very vividly.

And I - it's always interesting to listen to them talking to each other on the street or walking past a school or anything like that. I just find it to be a very dramatic time of life, for lack of a better word. And I remember what it felt like to be a teenager. And I also remember observing my friends and schoolmates at the time in a - kind of a funny way because I was one of them, but I was also watching and noticing this sort of extreme behavior combined with this, I don't know, really beautiful extra passion for everything that teenagers seem to have. And I find the combination to be endlessly fascinating.

GROSS: So you said you remember what it felt like to be a teenager. What did it feel like to you? What are some of those - yeah.

LONERGAN: Not great.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LONERGAN: I think - well, (laughter) but that's actually not true. I remember really - I remember this - you know, this intense and very - this intense fascination for things that was really at the ready. At the same time, I didn't feel too good socially. I had some close - I had a small group of close friends that got smaller and smaller as I got older. And I think that part wasn't so great. I didn't have a girlfriend in high school. That was a constant problem. And I didn't know what you were supposed to do, you know, in a situation with the opposite camp. And there was all sorts of difficulties in that regard. But there's something about the fecundity of a mind that age that I really think is - that I remember very well and wish I could carry a bit more of that with me as I get older.

GROSS: So I want to play another scene from the film. And this is a scene in which Patrick, the nephew, has band practice. And he doesn't have a driver's license, so Lee, the uncle, the Casey Affleck character, has to drive him around all over. So the nephew has two girlfriends. And Lee's taking him over to his other girlfriend's house, where he has band practice. She's in the band. She's the singer in the band.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANCHESTER BY THE SEA")

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) This the same girl that was over at the house?

HEDGES: (As Patrick) No, that was Silvie and this is Sandy. And they don't know about each other, so please don't say anything in case it comes up.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) I won't. Do you actually have sex with these girls?

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Well, we don't just play computer games.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) With both of them?

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Well, with Sandy's mom here, it's sort of strictly just, like, basement business.

AFFLECK: (As Lee Chandler) What does that mean?

HEDGES: (As Patrick) It means I'm working on it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: He's so annoying in that scene (laughter).

LONERGAN: I don't think so. I was just thinking how nice he was.

GROSS: (Laughter) Who, Patrick the nephew?

LONERGAN: Yeah, because he starts out with this kind of stupid bragging, and then he gets asked a couple of questions and he gives a pretty straight answer, which I think is - I don't know, I kind of like him for it.

GROSS: What does basement business mean? Is that your phrase?

LONERGAN: (Laughter) I just made it up.

GROSS: I've never heard it before. You made that up?

LONERGAN: It means they're stuck in the basement and the mom could knock on the door at any moment, so there's not too much they can do. But I invented that myself.

GROSS: But they're actually upstairs in her bedroom.

LONERGAN: Yeah, well, you know, sometimes you don't always get to shoot in the room you thought you were going to shoot in. And anyway, basement business is alliterative and upstairs room business is not.

GROSS: My guest is Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea." We'll listen to and talk about some of the beautiful music he uses in the film after a break, and John Powers will review a novel and a documentary about refugees. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea." Yesterday, it was named Best Film of the Year by the National Board of Review. As Variety reports, the film has earned some of the year's best reviews and is expected to dominate year-end awards. It stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, who has shut himself down emotionally but is called on to become the guardian of his nephew after his older brother dies. It's a role he doesn't want. Lonergan also wrote and directed the films "You Can Count On Me" and "Margaret" and wrote the plays "The Starry Messenger" and "This Is Our Youth."

You use music so beautifully in your films. And in "Manchester By The Sea," there's one scene in particular which I'm not going to describe because it's just - I want our listeners to be able to see the film for themselves and not have it all kind of told to them beforehand. But I'll just say it's a very, very emotional, life-changing scene. And it kind of - this scene is actually made up of several smaller scenes, but it's all held together by one piece of music that runs underneath the whole thing and sustains it.

And it's an adagio by Tomaso Albinoni. And I just want to play a little bit of this because I don't want to give away too much of the story and why the story is so sad. But I think this music can help convey some of the emotion that you convey in the film. So here's the beginning of that piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF TOMASO ALBINONI'S "ADAGIO PER ARCHI E ORGANO IN SOL MINORE")

GROSS: That was the London Philharmonic Orchestra. And that music is used in the soundtrack for "Manchester By The Sea." That is so moving, that music. And the bass line is like a heartbeat, almost like a heartbeat...

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...With a little bit of arrhythmia.

LONERGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And so tell me what this music means to you and why you chose it for the emotional focal point of the movie.

LONERGAN: Well, I think you put it very well. It is - it's incredibly moving. It's got this great sorrow to it. It's also got a certain size to it. There's a feeling of inevitability to it. And it's just this - these cascading chords coming down in this terribly tragic and inevitable way. It's also very human. And I don't know, it just - it does so much, this music. I have to say, though, you know, this music's been used a lot in movies. And I was very hesitant to sign off on using it for this one because it's so familiar, you know, particularly the one - the movie that I know it best from is "Gallipoli," which is this beautiful Peter Weir movie - I believe it's Peter Weir - which is a story of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

And I - so this music actually belongs on - in most - you know, it could be accused of being in the greatest hits of classical music category and, you know, with some justification. But I still had to use it because it was the only thing that really did the work that was needed for that section. It gave us the rhythm of the editing in that particular section, which is a scene where Lee is in a lawyer's office getting the news that he's going to become Patrick's guardian. And it's when he remembers the big central incident that drove him from his home town and changed and wrecked his whole life. And there's just a lot that happens. It's about 10 minutes' worth of music.

And we were a little bit stuck as to how to get into that section. And then I put this piece over the scenes, and immediately a rhythm developed and we found a way into the - into that - this whole central section of the film. And I always planned to replace it with something else because - but then I finally decided it was just right for it. And I couldn't help the fact that it was used in other movies. And, you know, that's just - it seemed like a less important consideration in the end.

GROSS: I want to play another piece of music that you use in "Manchester By The Sea." And this is from Handel's "Messiah." And this is used during the funeral scene for the main character's brother. And before we hear some of it, tell us why you chose to use this.

LONERGAN: Well, "The Messiah's" one of my favorite pieces of music. I've been going to hear it at the - with a group called Musica Sacra, which does it every year. And I think I've been going with my family, with my parents and brothers and sisters and whoever's around, since I was 18 years old. I don't - I think I've missed one or two years maybe. And I just fell in love with it the first time I heard it.

And this particular - it's - I guess it's technically a duet, even though the soprano and the alto don't sing together. First the alto sings and then the soprano. And it's just one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. And it just - it's one of those pieces that's simultaneously just so beautiful that you can't - that you're just reminded how gorgeous the world really is. But it's also - has this incredible melancholy to it.

And it just - again, it just felt right to put into the funeral sequence. And there's certain pieces that I'm always trying to get into a movie but they don't always fit, so there's a whole scat of rejects of pieces that I love that just are not right for a scene. And I always try to put them against the picture. And when they don't work, I have to leave them out. But this one I was very happy to find seemed to work really well.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear it. This is an excerpt of the music from Handel's "Messiah" that you use in "Manchester By The Sea."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICA SACRA CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF HANDEL'S "HE SHALL FEED HIS FLOCK LIKE A SHEPHERD COME UNTO HIM THE MESSIAH")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, with his arm. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, with his arm.

GROSS: That's an excerpt from Handel's "Messiah" that's used in the soundtrack of the film "Manchester By The Sea," which was written and directed by my guest, Kenneth Lonergan.

We've spoken before about how you're an atheist and basically were brought up by a Jewish mother and stepfather, but who also were not practicing Jews. But I'm wondering if there's a certain type of religious music that gets you into the type of contemplative state that religion might, but music can get you there without the religion part (laughter).

LONERGAN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that piece you just played is so beautiful. And one thing about it that occurred to me that I didn't mention when - when you were playing it is that your whole spine just relaxes when you hear those chords and you hear that singing. And also the text for that piece is so - if only you could believe in that. It's all about, you know, he shall feed his flock, and then the next one is come on to him all ye that are heavy laden, and he shall give you rest.

And this idea that God is going to take care of you and comfort you and relieve you of your burdens and relieve you of your sorrow is a wonderful, if imaginary, idea. But there is something in the world that does that. Sometimes it's nature and sometimes it's music and sometimes it's love from people who care about you, sometimes it's just quiet. I don't know what it is, but - so there are many things that are analogous to what I suppose is the religious feeling of being cared for by a supernatural entity in whom I don't believe.

But there's a human capacity for that, for giving that kind of care and for receiving it that is very truthfully and beautifully reflected in music like that. And in the context of the film, this is also a film about someone who's unable to feel comforted by anything because he's so heavy laden. So in a way the piece is a - in contrast to the main character's experience. And what happens in - under the - under that music in the movie is we see a funeral in slow motion and see the main character's isolation. And you see everyone else hugging and comforting each other, and he feels very much left out of the community that he's in.

GROSS: I think we need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you first. My guest is Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea." When we left off, we were talking about the main character, Lee, who can no longer connect emotionally because he's still overcome by guilt and grief after a tragedy.

So, as you've said, this character can no longer be comforted, and he can no longer allow himself to feel because his pain is too great. And he feels very guilty for something that we won't talk about. What he's experiencing is very close to just clinical depression, except with the addition of an incredible burden of guilt. But I'm wondering if in writing this character, in writing the movie, you were able to draw on a depression of your own that was not brought on by this kind of tragedy but was still, you know, resembling his experience because of depression.

LONERGAN: Well, I mean, you know, I've definitely dealt with depression on and off for most of my life, for all my life as an adult. And I think that - but I don't actually think of this character so much as being depressed as being - as grieving. And unfortunately, because he's responsible for what happened to him, that does add the element of feeling guilty and being unable to forgive himself and move on in any way.

And I - I don't - I do think there are things that happen to people that it's impossible to move on from. I read somewhere some very eloquent letter someone had sent. I don't even - I honestly don't remember where I read this, but it was - they made - the writer made the distinction of moving on and moving forward. And the idea of moving forward with - while carrying your sorrows with you and carrying the losses that you've suffered with you, and that I think is a much more apt and hopeful description in a way because I don't think people should expect to move on.

People don't want to move on from their feelings of loss, exactly. I mean, you know, my father passed away this year and my mother's not very well and my friend Patsy Broderick passed away over 10 years ago and I miss her all the time. And I - but you don't want to leave them behind. You don't want to get over it and feel great about it and, OK, I'm OK now.

You feel like you owe it to the people that you've lost to remember them and to carry that pain around with you in some form. You don't want it to debilitate you or cripple you as it has the main character in this film, but, you know, there's natural sorrow and there's the, you know, losing your parents and things that happen in the course of ordinary life and then there's real disasters, which is - and unfortunately for the character in this film, that's what - he suffers one of those. And I don't know how you move on from that.

GROSS: So one more question. I've seen "Manchester By The Sea" twice. I saw it once at a screening before interviewing Casey Affleck, and there were three people in the theater than - me, one of our producers and somebody representing the movie. And we were just all sitting there in just silence, you know, just watching this movie and watching it play out. And I saw it again with a large audience Thanksgiving weekend. And, you know, there's a lot of sarcasm in the film because, like, the nephew's really sarcastic and the Casey Affleck character has a pretty cutting wit. But yet they don't strike me exactly as, like, laugh lines because there's so much pain and so much anger, like, underlying all of the sarcasm. But the audience really actually laughed a lot during the film.

LONERGAN: Well, I'm glad. I think...

GROSS: Are you glad? Yeah, tell me why you're glad...

LONERGAN: Oh, yeah. Well, I think the movie's really funny. I mean, I think the characters have a good sense of humor and I have a good sense of humor. And I think that the movie has a good sense of humor and - as it should. I think it's - you know, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, too - I'm sure I've said it before, but I feel like humor and drama are not just different sides of the same coin. They're the same thing.

The really funny comedies to me are always the ones that are played the straightest or given the most emotional content. And when people start making faces and setting things up and commenting and winking at you, I don't find that to be very funny. A really good comedy, I think, is played as if it was real and it's the circumstances that make it amusing. And I think that the - the inverse or the reverse is true for drama.

I don't think there's a lot of life in anything that's humorless. There are some situations in life that are simply not funny and there's nothing funny about them, but they're rare and they don't last all that long. As soon as you get somewhere else, something else is happening that is probably somewhat amusing in some way. So to me, without humor the movie would be an arid dirge, and I don't want that.

And I don't want the film to be a punishing experience for people. And it's not even so much a question of providing comic relief as providing that side of life in the movie so that the movie resembles life and not just one narrow piece of it. There are some - there are a couple of laughs that I don't actually like or share, but you get used to that when you're a playwright or a filmmaker. You get used to the audience not always thinking the same thing is funny as what you do.

GROSS: Give me an example.

LONERGAN: Well, I don't - there's a line he has when Patrick is very, very upset because he has a - finally has a breakdown. His father - they can't bury the father right away because the ground is too hard, and the cemetery he's going to be buried in doesn't allow the use of heavy equipment. So they have to wait till spring to bury the father.

So that's - and the image of his father being frozen in the interim is very disturbing to Patrick. And he's been pretty stoical about the whole thing until he knocks some frozen chicken from the freezer onto the floor and he has a panic attack. And Lucas does the scene beautifully. He has this real breakdown and he's sobbing, and he's just terrified and upset by the sight of this frozen food because it's reminding him of his father being a body and not a person.

Then there's - and then he runs up to his room, he locks himself in and Casey's character insists on him opening the door. And then he kicks the door open when he won't - when the kid refuses to open the door, and he says to him - he says, I just don't like him being in the freezer. And Casey says, I understand that. You've expressed that very clearly. I don't like it either. There's nothing we can do about it. And if you're going to freak out every time you see a frozen chicken, I think we should take you to the hospital. I don't know anything about this.

Now, that line always gets a big laugh. And I think it's because the word chicken is a funny word. I don't actually find it to be particularly amusing. I think he's really trying to help out and he doesn't know what to do and he doesn't know what to say. And he's trying to point out to the kid that he's very upset and possibly to the point where maybe they should go see a doctor or something. But it always gets a laugh.

But I - it doesn't bother me at all really in the end because I think people are involved in the scene. And if there's something that suddenly comes out of left field as an odd phrase or a funny-sounding word, I just don't think it hurts the scene terribly. And that's the idea anyway, to get them involved.

GROSS: Kenneth Lonergan, thank you so much for your movies, and thank you for talking with us.

LONERGAN: Oh, thank you. It's such a pleasure.

GROSS: Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea."

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.