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Casey Affleck on ‘Manchester’ Melancholy, Scoring a Telluride Tribute

TELLURIDE, Colo. — “Oh, well, it’s about time,” Casey Affleck jokingly exclaims when asked about receiving a tribute from the Telluride Film Festival this year. In truth, he confides, it’s a bit embarrassing for him.

But he’s too modest. He’s actually a natural selection for the festival, which has a tendency to eschew “lifetime achievement” territory with some of its tributes, opting for artists who might be in the prime of their career, or even, at times, in its early stages.

Ostensibly, though, the celebration is an excuse to drum up attention for Affleck’s performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” a withdrawn, breathtakingly internalized piece of work that could land him his second Academy Award nomination to date.

On the eve of the festival, Affleck sat down to discuss the film with Variety.

***

You’ve collaborated with Kenneth Lonergan on a number of theater projects and now, finally, a film. How do you like working with him?

Oh my God, I love it. When you have a director that gives you direction that makes you much better than anything you could have done on your own, it’s just a gift. There are so many people who don’t do that.

What does he do? Like, you hear that about him a lot, his ability to dial actors in. What’s an example of something he would do to get you there?

Honestly, it’s just if you aren’t seeing the intention of a line or a possible intention of a line. He might just say, “What if you tried it like you were sort of really bored with the conversation?” And you go, “Wow,” and it unlocks the rest of the scene or something. He writes in a way that sounds so casual and off-the-cuff; it just sounds like people talking. But then it has all these layers and it’s really about something else, where no one is really saying what the thing is about or what’s really on their mind or really bothering them, ever, from beginning to end, but you understand what it is. He just has a pitch-perfect ear for conversation.

How about inhabiting the head space of your character in this film? It’s a dark place to be, given how guilt-ridden he is and that basically defines him. Was it hard to stay in that frame of mind, or are you someone who can slip quickly in and out of it?

Yeah, it sucked. It was hard. I’ve done some movies where the head space would be a terrible place to live, if you’re trying to inhabit the role in some way, just to go to work and do scenes every day where you’re, like, a violent person or you’re in a lot of pain or something. No matter what kind of an actor you are, I think that would get to you after a while. With this one, working with Kenny and all the conversations we had about it just sort of sunk me into it a bit. It was kind of a sad month or two months or whatever it was to shoot it. It was a hard place to be, because there aren’t many moments when [the character] sort of expresses the things that he’s feeling in the movie, which would give you some sense of release. He really holds onto it. And I can understand that sometimes. You feel like you want to punish yourself with the feeling. You don’t deserve to go around blubbering about something because it’s your fault, and just holding onto the pain. And then it will just come out suddenly as the dam breaks. But Kenny was very good about keeping the dam up.

Did you do anything external to help? Did you, like, I don’t know, listen to melancholy music or something? Did you go to the house every night and listen to Radiohead?

[Laughs.] I guess you do whatever you can. I mean, honestly, it wasn’t a great time in my life. So it wasn’t hard to feel really far away from my family. They weren’t with me. And it was just a very hard shoot, technically. There was no money, and Kenny had something very specific that he wanted. There was a lot of conflict and chaos. I think if you asked anyone on this movie what the experience was like, I doubt that you would get anyone describing it as pleasant in any way. We didn’t need Radiohead. It was just good timing, I guess, in my life. There was an intersection between the work I was trying to do and my own life. A lot of it is about the pain you cause your kids, and in some ways that’s what the movie is about, just guilt and pain.

I imagine the location was key in some ways. Because — when did you shoot it? Like, what time of year?

It was very late winter.

So it was cold.

Yeah, it was cold.

That helps.

Yeah. And he wanted it cold. Kenny had all these really smart ideas about the cold. Some of the first stuff he described is what happens to the boats in the harbor in winter. They’re all cocooned up. And what happens to the harbor itself, it’s like totally frozen over, and then at first there’s a spiderweb crack, and how the area thaws out. It was just really pretty. And he wrote some of it into the script, even. Just really simple things. Like he doesn’t write, “EXT. MANCHESTER – NIGHT.” He writes, you know — I won’t do it justice — but it’s like “A COLD, STARRY NIGHT IN MANCHESTER.” It gives you a different picture. And when I saw the movie, I could see that. That translated to not a dreary, cold, shitty night, but a beautiful night on the water with these stars, despite all the tragedy that’s happening in these people’s lives in their homes. He’s just really good about those little, tiny things. But some of the winter stuff didn’t totally — we got there at the end of the snowiest, coldest winter in the history of Massachusetts. Literally, it was like a hundred inches of snow that year, and we arrived, and missed all of it! By the time we got to actually shooting, it was like the very last four inches was falling. And then it melted into springtime. So some of his great ideas about the season change were lost.

Let’s talk about Michelle Williams a bit. I’m curious what the dynamic was like off-camera. You hear, sometimes, about actors trying to maintain what’s happening in the story with each other between takes, essentially, to stay there. What was that relationship like for the two of you?

It was really loving and she was really supportive. What you’re describing happens to me on any good movie that I’m doing. I don’t know what it is. I have no idea. It’s part of the mystery of it. Like, the relationships you have in the movie end up being the relationships that you have with those actors. Things that you’re going through in the movie end up being things you’re going through as you try to make the movie. It might just be that you’re absorbing the relationships that are in the script because you’re thinking about it all the time, or it might just be that you’re well cast, and the other people are well cast, and the chemistry just doesn’t line up for the people in the story, but it really does happen. I saw a clip of that movie “Gerry” that I did a long time ago, and that’s just the best, simplest example of it, how we sort of blindly wandered into making that movie, naively thinking this would be an easy, fun thing. In the same way these two characters just got out of their car on a road trip and were like, “Let’s go see that roadside attraction that’s, like, three miles off the road,” and got lost and had a super hard time trying to find their way back.

To say the least!

[Laughs.] And that’s exactly what happened making the movie. We got lost and the number of times we gave up on the script and then rewrote it and fought and had to change locations and countries three times. It’s great. I love when that happens.

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