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‘Manchester by the Sea’ Crew Had Specific Moods to Relate on Film

For editor Jennifer Lame, reading Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” met her high expectations. “I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and went in with such high hopes, which always leads to some amount of disappointment, but after reading it, it met them and more. I loved it.”

After receiving news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, Lee (Casey Affleck) takes leave from his job as a janitor in Boston to return to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea where he finds out he’s become the sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and is forced to confront the past that separated him from his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and the town he left behind.

When we first meet Lee it’s not clear why his demeanor is rather stoic, unapologetic, and somewhat poignant. His personal tragedy is revealed through a parallel story of chronological flashbacks that informs viewers about his reluctance to return to the community where he was born and raised. “The structure is interesting because you don’t find out what happens to Lee until halfway through the film,” says the editor. “The flashbacks made this story so unique and different [that] I was nervous [about] how they would translate on screen because they were so beautifully written.”

Instead of using a visual device to cue the audience when the narrative was weaving from past to present, they moved in and out without notice. “The whole idea that everything has to be explained ad nauseam can wreck your material,” says Lonergan, who also directed the film. “I’m not interested in creating mystery or confusion for its own sake, but you have to follow your instincts on what has resonance and assume the audience is going to go along with you.”

Lame played scenes typically longer than normal to create uneasiness around Lee. It rooted a subtle authenticity to his character. “As an editor you want to move things along so the audience doesn’t get bored, but the unorthodox pacing in the beginning of this movie serves the second half so well. We were fine-tuning and carefully crafting each scene so that every moment would impact the story. Showing Lee in these spaces like this allows the audience to see him interacting in a slightly off way.”

To create the dynamics between Lee and Randi, the editor used a less-is-more approach. “Everything to them is extremely painful,” Lame says. “One of my favorite parts in the script is when Randi says she should burn in hell for what she said to Lee. A lot of this movie is what you see and don’t see and we don’t get to see what happens after their separation. I can’t imagine what went down between the two of them and how awful it was, but when she says that line it makes me realize it all in that one line.”

Sound influenced the story by building an aesthetic that was an extension of the characters and their environments. “Kenny didn’t want a movie that was going to have abstract tones and tonal palettes that weren’t directly rooted in reality,” says Jacob Ribicoff, who served as the sound editor, designer, and re-recording mixer. “He wanted to craft a soundscape down to each detail. If we were in the interior of the house, he wanted to feel the cold of the room or the wind on the second floor in the bedrooms. He would step in to say you wouldn’t hear that bird in winter or would want to hear more of the neighborhood while we’re inside

Lee’s Boston apartment. Kenny had a specific sense of what he wanted to hear and I think it was all a function of the story and how the characters were feeling.”
For composer Lesley Barber, “Kenny and I talked a lot about what it’s like for Lee, for someone who doesn’t magically bounce back after tragedy and trauma. I recorded each piece with a very fine-tuned approach to space, weather and atmosphere and exactly how the instruments were being performed.”

The piece “Plymouth Chorale” plays during Lee’s drive to Manchester and also while Patrick walks to his father’s funeral, and Lonergan admits the music elevated those scenes in a strange yet good way. “It’s hard to talk about music because of what it does. It skips your brain and goes straight to your emotions. Lesley composed a lot of music and when we dropped that song in it had an almost angelic quality. A simple melody with complicated harmonies — it’s the aural equivalent of including the sky in a shot. You see a street and you tilt up to reveal this big sky over it. Music does that. It changes the perspective and adds color.”

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