The Sundance sensation “Manchester by the Sea,” which sold for $10 million to Amazon Studios last January, had a long road to the big screen. Matt Damon originally was going to direct the picture, which would star John Krasinski. But as they waited for Kenneth Lonergan to finish a script, schedules shifted. Damon was going to direct and star. Then Damon was going to star, with Lonergan in the directing chair. In the end, the script found its way to Casey Affleck, who is generating Oscar buzz for playing Lee, a lonely janitor who moves home to the North Shore of Massachusetts after a family tragedy.

For this week’s cover story, Variety chronicled Affleck’s dedication to the role and his decades-long struggle to find strong material in Hollywood. As a life-long friend and producer of “Manchester by the Sea,” Damon also talked to Variety about the project, Affleck, and changes in the independent film business.

How did you come up with the idea for “Manchester by the Sea”?
Matt Damon: John and I knew we wanted to work on something together. We were at dinner, and John pitched me this idea of a guy having to return to his town. We had some stuff laid out by the time we went to Kenny. The original kernel came from John.

Who was going to star in the film?
At the time, it was John to star, and me to direct. Kenny was so bogged down. He had other stuff and he had deadlines. John and I went off and wrote another movie [2012’s “Promised Land”]. And this came back around, and John was on to other stuff. At that point, I was going to either direct it or star in it, or direct and have Casey star in it. Once I read it, it was clear that Kenny had to direct it. Ultimately, that was the larger goal — to get Kenny working and directing again, because he had such a bad experience with “Margaret.” None of his friends wanted that to be the last word on his film directing career. I’m still proud of the movie. Kenny’s cut is beautiful. But it was so fraught with these horrible experiences and mired in a lawsuit. And so everybody in his life wanted him to get back on the horse.

What happened when you read the script?
The first thing he sent to [producer] Chris Moore and me was 150 pages. It was meandering, but it was beautiful. He did the second pass. And when I read that, I said, “Kenny you have to direct this movie.” We got it set up at OddLot. By the time we got the money in place, we had five weeks of pre-production. Chris and I had a conversation: “Now we’re putting Kenny in a position not to succeed.” We would be borderline irresponsible. I looked at my schedule, and it was one of those weird stretches. My next window was in two years, which would have been February of this year. I said, “The only person I would be willing to give this up to is Casey. Let’s see if we can get it set up with Casey.”

For a few reasons. One, the part was so good, I wasn’t interested in producing it for another actor, unless it was someone I grew up with and loved dearly. I knew he would be able to do it in a way where I wouldn’t regret giving it to him. He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever met. The question mark was if anybody would have the courage to do it with Casey. These movies are so hard to get set up nowadays. We didn’t know if anybody would be willing to give us the money without a bigger name attached, though we knew the movie would be spectacular with Casey. That’s when Kim Steward came in [and financed the $8 million project with her company K Period Media]. 

How has the movie business changed?  
This movie, we could get it set up anywhere in a heartbeat 20 years ago. In that sense, I’m worried. We still did get it made. There are still people like Kim and Megan Ellison. And then there’s this whole TV side. I believe there’s still an appetite for really wonderful small things. We’re just trying to figure out how to get them done. When we did “Behind the Candelabra,” that was my first wake-up call. Steven [Soderbergh], Michael [Douglas], and I couldn’t get $23 million from any studio to make that movie. We got the money from HBO. Steven said if we were making “The Informant!” today, we’d be at HBO. The market for that size movie, that’s our bread-and-butter as actors, is gone. That worries me a lot. But I do feel like good stories will find an audience somehow. The Amazons are starting to move into this space, and really trying to brand themselves with these prestige projects. It’s good news for off of us, because it means we’ll have a job.

What did you think when you first saw “Manchester by the Sea”?
I was just floored. It was everything I wanted it to be. What Kenny does so well, he has a deep understanding of every single one of his characters. I felt really proud of all the actors in it. I was a puddle by the end of it. I never made it through the script without openly weeping. It’s a really devastating piece. On a personal level, I was really happy for Kenny and Casey and Michelle [Williams]. These are people I had friendships with, and I was happy for them all. I knew this was going to be a big thing in their lives.

Do you think “Manchester by the Sea” is going to finally change Casey Affleck’s career?
I hope so. That was the hope going in. I know every director will take note of this. The question is, what will studios let him do? And that’s the larger question about the movie business in general. I don’t know what the studios will let me do. They wouldn’t let me do “Behind the Candelabra.”