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Playback: Kenneth Lonergan on ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and Writing Himself Into Corners

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

On today’s show, Jenelle Riley and I discuss last weekend’s BAFTA Awards, which may have offered a few clues about some of the year’s more ambiguous Oscar races. We also preview the next turns in the circuit, including this weekend’s Writers Guild Awards.

Later on (21:03) I’m talking to “Manchester by the Sea” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. Among other things it’s a deep dive into process with the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright and screenwriter, who was trained as a writer at Wesleyan University and NYU. But even having a formal education on technique didn’t instill any rigidity into his craft.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

“I find the academic approach to playwriting and analyzing films and plays to be antithetical to writing them,” Lonergan says. “I think most techniques for breaking down dramatic writing are analytical and not utilitarian. It may be that every movie has a three-act structure, but I never for one minute worry about whether there’s one act, two acts, three acts, 20 acts — I don’t even know what it means. It may be that every movie has exposition, development, resolution and a coda, but it’s a description of what’s happened after the work has been done. It’s not really a program for getting the work done.

“I was taught, and developed, more of an inside-out approach, trying to let the material dictate the structure, trying to find the right shape for the feeling of the piece. Any technique I have is geared toward turning the analytical part of my mind off and letting the material write itself.”

Manchester by the Sea” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival over a year ago and it’s been a long haul ever since, all the way through awards season. The film scored six Oscar nominations including best director and best original screenplay for Lonergan. It’s the second time he’s premiered a film in Park City and seen it all the way through the year into the kudos circuit: “You Can Count On Me,” his directorial debut, ran through a similar grinder in 2000. But “the season” was a very different thing then.

“It feels like that was a lot more modest,” Lonergan says. “For one thing it was being distributed by Paramount Classics, which had a much more contained mandate for their releases. They only spent a certain amount of money and they only expected to make a certain profit, so the film never went into a wide release. It was only released on a hundred screens at its height. I don’t remember quite such a dense circuit as now, but it was a real novelty, I guess. It was also a heady time for me because I had been hired to do rewrites on ‘Gangs of New York.’ This has been a little bit more like a campaign. There’s so much to do now, and Amazon’s distributing the movie and they’re doing absolutely everything you want your distributor to do.”

Hear about all of that and more, including the corners Lonergan wrote himself into before he knew he’d be directing “Manchester” and ideas he had for telling the story visually, via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Kenneth Lonergan photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety
Kenneth Lonergan photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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