Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan returns to the Sundance Film Festival this week with “Manchester by the Sea,” his third feature film to date. It’s a homecoming of sorts, as he premiered his directorial debut, “You Can Count on Me,” at the fest in 2000. But the time in between has been incredibly taxing for the 53-year-old filmmaker. The saga of “Margaret” — a film written in the wake of 9/11, filmed in 2005, originally slated for a 2007 release, tied up in litigation over final cut for years and finally released by Fox Searchlight in 2011 — left quite the scar. He’s eager to shake off that trauma as he heads back to Park City with a hotly anticipated drama starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler.
How does it feel to finally have the ordeal of “Margaret” behind you?
It feels good to be further away from it. I don’t think it’s ever going to be completely behind me. The whole experience covered about eight years if you include the whole making of the movie and then problems with the movie and the saving of the movie. It was a big, big deal, so I don’t even feel like it’s entirely behind me yet. And I don’t know if I really want it to be, completely, because I still really like the movie. So much has happened since then that has nothing to do with the movie so it’s hard to answer that.
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Were you working on “Manchester by the Sea” during that whole headache?
I think I started working on “Manchester” around when the DVD of “Margaret” came out, when I was able to do the extended edition, which I was so happy to be able to do. It took about two and a half years to write, not steady work, but I did a few drafts of it before I was happy with it. So no, everything had calmed down and gotten better. The good part of the “Margaret” experience had started.
Was it difficult to get into the proper head space, having gone through all of that?
Yes, I think it was. I think that even though I feel good about the actual movie of “Margaret,” everything surrounding it was extremely daunting. I started to develop a feeling of — I’d get an idea and I’d think of how exhausting it would be to execute it, rather than how exciting it would be, which is how I had always been before. And now I’m starting to feel a little more like I used to. It took a while to get into “Manchester.” But one thing that’s good is once other people start to get involved, it gets easier. And when you have collaborators, like actors, for instance, it’s a whole different experience. Then when it turned out I was going to direct it, that became an easier experience as well. I think it became harder for me to work on my own. It had never been difficult for me to work on my own before.
I also wrote and directed two plays in 2009 and 2012, so I actually was working the whole time, I just don’t think of it that way, for some reason. But as far as movies go, yeah, the script was difficult to write, but once you start collaborating with a cast, it then becomes a job that you show up to and you can be responsive and you don’t have to generate everything by yourself and it doesn’t matter what mood you’re in, you have to show up and figure out what you’re doing. I never had any discipline about writing before, and I still don’t have any, I just used to like it a lot. I think I lost a bit of the fun of it because of all the bullshit that went on with “Margaret.”
I’m curious if any of that residue made its way into the new film.
Yeah, I think so. But in a transformed way. It’s a little hard to say, and it’s a sort of psychological question. I don’t know how interesting the answer is to anybody. The people in “Manchester,” their problems are a lot more serious than mine were, so it was partly a question of trying to find a truthful way of writing things that haven’t happened to me, which you often find yourself doing.
What kind of movie did you set out to make here? What theme was bouncing around inside your head?
I think I just was trying to get back to writing something that was truthful and specific. One thing that was different was it takes place in a totally different environment, up in Cape Ann and Manchester and Gloucester, so I had a good time researching that area and getting to know it a little bit. Writing “Margaret” was literally the easiest writing I’ve ever done, and this, I did a first draft I wasn’t very happy with. I restructured the entire movie and then I was able to write it with some enjoyment and freedom of creative action. I did maybe one more draft after that and the rest has been small revisions.
There was a time Matt Damon was going to star in this for you but he dropped back to a producer position in the end. What level of involvement did he have in that capacity?
It was a process because first he and John Krasinski came to me. The initial idea for the story was John Krasinski’s, and Matt was going to direct it and John was going to be in it. And then I wrote the script and by that time John was doing other things and Matt was going to be in it and direct. Then he decided he was just going to be in it and he didn’t want to direct it. And then his schedule just didn’t allow him to be in it, so he said, “Well, if I’m not going to be in it the only person I’d be comfortable having do the part would be Casey, otherwise I’d rather wait a couple years and do it later. But Casey wants to do it and Casey’s available.” And somewhere along the way he persuaded me to direct it, but it hadn’t started out that way.
I think it might have been written differently if I had known I was going to direct it. I don’t know how, it’s just a different mindset. There are things I didn’t worry about. I thought, “Well, they’ll figure that out in the editing. I’m not going to direct it so I don’t have to worry about that,” and then it turned out I was the one who had to figure it out and worry about it. So he pretty much guided the project from, I would say, a pretty close involvement in making it happen to a sort of overseeing position later on. He read all the drafts, he saw all the cuts. I got his input whenever I wanted it and needed it, but he wasn’t there on a day-to-day capacity. He was the ultimate authority to go to whenever we needed help or that kind of thing.
You’re returning to Sundance with it after premiering your debut feature, “You Can Count on Me,” there 16 years ago. How does it feel to be going back?
Casey says it’s like going to your senior prom when you’re 53 and expecting the kids to think you’re cool. [Laughs.] However, I’ve told that to a couple of people and they say, “No, no, it’s not.” I’m very happy to be going back, obviously. I went to a writers guild event recently where they asked Sundance veterans to go talk to people who were going for the first time about what the experience is like, but I’ve only gone once, so I don’t know what the experience is like. I just know what my experience was like, which was wonderful. I’m actually looking forward to it. We’ve been working hard to finish up the cut and this will be a nice way to celebrate, hopefully.
Speaking of “You Can Count on Me,” that was the film that introduced most of the world to Mark Ruffalo. You worked with him in the theater prior to that, of course, but what do you think of his career trajectory?
I have no right to this feeling but I’m as proud of him as if he were my own son or younger brother. I think he’s a wonderful actor and a wonderful person. I’m thrilled that he’s getting all the work he’s getting. He keeps getting better and better. Every time good things happen to him I’m just really happy.
Here he is with back-to-back Oscar nominations, too. Did you see “Foxcatcher” and “Spotlight?”
I saw “Foxcatcher.” I haven’t seen “Spotlight” yet because I’m not as good a friend as I sound. But I’ve also been mired. We’ve been working extremely long hours. It’s been kind of a busy season. But I’m looking forward to it. I love him. Whenever I see him it just cheers me up immensely. I’m really happy he’s getting all this recognition and I’m especially happy that he’s able to do things that are worthy of him and are really good parts in really good movies. I thought he was amazing in “Foxcatcher.”
You’ve told me in the past that your learning curve on “You Can Count on Me” was “perpendicular.” You added more experience and craft to your arsenal on “Margaret” and now we get a third effort. What did you learn on the first two films that you applied on this one?
Well, the learning curve on “Margaret” was more corkscrew-shaped than perpendicular, but that’s a good question. I think I’m better at leaving the actors alone than I used to be, just being more familiar with the process. I always like working with actors. It’s my favorite part of filmmaking. But this time one thing that was different was, the other two films, between the two of them — except for the teenagers in the school scenes in “Margaret” — I don’t think there were five actors I hadn’t worked with before, whose work I didn’t know really well, who weren’t connected to my social and professional contacts in the theater. This movie — Casey and I are friends and we’ve worked together before, and Michelle, slightly, and I knew her work really well. But almost everybody else, there were a lot of actors I had never met and whose work I didn’t know very well. That was a different experience for me and I wasn’t sure how that was going to go, but I think it went really well.
I’m sorry, it’s a real question, so I’m having a long answer. Bear with me for a second. I have a lot of trust in the actors generally, and I always have, but I think I took a further step this time in being one half of a collaboration. Let me put it another way. I think as you go along you realize how much they bring to it. I always have a very full idea of what’s going on with the scene and the characters, because if I don’t, I can’t get very far. I’m not trying to compliment myself. I know when it’s not any good, is what I mean, so I usually keep at it until it’s really full, and then I try to put people more or less in that ballpark. But working with Casey and Michelle and having worked with all the people who are in “Margaret” and “You Can Count on Me,” I just think I had a clearer feeling of how much the actors were going to bring to it and how much more leeway and crosstalk there could and should be in terms of figuring out the scenes. Michelle had a lot of ideas about her character that I didn’t have and I knew enough this time to really let her go. I also trusted that if something happened that I didn’t feel was right, that it would be OK and we would find mutually agreeable ground. And Casey and I had a very good and very extended dialogue about his character and what was going on with him every day we shot the film, and quite a long time beforehand. That was one of the most enjoyable parts of this movie, just how much thought and work he put into it. He’s very demanding and he really presses you. He really wants to know what’s going on. If you say one thing one week he’s going to remind you about it the following week and that, I found, in a very good way. That was really fun.