‘Manchester by the Sea’ Production Designer Relied on Authentic Locations

Sometimes a location is so specific and moving, it can seem like a character. Such is the case with the fishing village featured in “Manchester by the Sea. ”

After reading the script, production designer Ruth De Jong immediately recognized the importance of capturing the town’s unique New England realism.  Her research began with a trip to Massachusetts, the setting of the film’s story.

“The backdrop was grounded in real life,” says De Jong.  “To get the authenticity, I had to get to know the townspeople, to see where they lived, to go to their boats.”

The film, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and distributed by Roadside Attractions, stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. De Jong had to work within the constraints of its limited budget, which prohibited major builds (with the exception of a fully constructed house double). As a result, production design was dependent on finding the perfect locations.

During a six week scout, De Jong went in and out of houses, churches, and fishing vessels, and also visited a local nautical museum. She sent all her notes and findings to set decorator Florencia Martin, who joined De Jong to review the locations prior to defining the details that would make the working-class environment feel alive on the screen.

“Florencia is very hands-on and great with details, De Jong says. She finds the key elements that add life that won’t distract the viewer’s attention.”

While a tragedy lies at the film’s core, De Jong was careful to avoid palettes that would alter a viewer’s emotional state. Colors, textile textures, and furniture are all indicative of a young family starting out, as well as being true to the New England location.

Capturing a sense of time and place is a skill that De Jong has honed with her mentor, production designer Jack Fisk (“The Revenant”). She began her career as a PA, and rose through the ranks working with Fisk on such films as Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder.” She was the art director alongside production designer David Crank on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.”

Fisk, seeing De Jong’s potential to climb another rung up the ladder and become a production designer, encouraged her to spread her wings. He introduced her to director David Lynch, who hired her as production designer on his “Twin Peaks” reboot.

De Jong describes the experience with Lynch as “magical.” “David is a visionary,” she says. “He’s excited about details and nuance.”

De Jong says she can’t reveal more about the project, set to come to Showtime next year.

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