×

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

More Film

  • J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church

    SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius'

    Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist “religion” founded by some Texans actually caught fire among hipsters in the 1980s, influencing some [...]

  • 'Roll Red Roll' Review: Piercing Documentary

    Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll'

    “Roll Red Roll” is a piercingly relevant and disturbing documentary about an infamous high school rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,600), on Aug. 11, 2012. Steubenville, the sort of Friday-night-lights small town that boasts signs that read “Kick off for Jesus,” is a place that’s good at keeping secrets. When the [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild, Hollywood Agents Negotiate With Deadline Looming

    The Writers Guild of America and Hollywood agents have held a sixth negotiating session with a deadline for a new deal 16 days away — and it’s uncertain whether progress is being made. The Association of Talent Agents made counter-proposals at Thursday’s session that contain provisions for more accountability and transparency by agencies for clients [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Fox Layoffs Leave Staffers Stunned and Saddened

    Fox employees knew this day was coming. For over a year, the men and women who work at the Century City lot have talked of little else but severance packages and job searches. They knew that when Disney wrapped up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets, thousands [...]

  • Alan Horn Disney

    Disney Clarifies Film Leadership After Harrowing Day of Fox Layoffs

    Following the dismissal of top executives in distribution, marketing and strategy on Thursday, new 20th Century Fox owner Disney has clarified its new top leadership. Five distinct Fox labels and a portion of their leadership have been welcomed into the Disney fold, the company said. This includes Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Family, Fox Searchlight Pictures, [...]

  • Janelle Monae

    Film News Roundup: Janelle Monae to Star in Film From Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

    In today’s film news roundup, Janelle Monae will star in a Lionsgate movie, Bill Nighy joins “Emma,” and documentaries on surfer Bethany Hamilton and Asbury Park are dated. CASTINGS Janelle Monae will star in an untitled Lionsgate movie directed by the duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The film will be produced by QC Entertainment’s Ray [...]

  • Blair Rich Marketing Summit

    Studio Marketing Chiefs Discuss the Theatrical vs. Netflix Oscars Debate

    On a day where a large part of the Fox marketing department was wiped out in the aftermath of the Disney merger, a group of marketing chiefs from other studios and streamers sat down at the Variety Entertainment Marketing Summit presented by Deloitte “to discuss the issues shaping the feature marketing landscape today, including the theatrical [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content