×

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

  • Florence Pugh, O. T. Fagbenle, Rachel

    'Black Widow': Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh Go Head-to-Head in First Footage

    Marvel’s “Black Widow” has only been in production for a month, but studio president Kevin Feige still delivered the goods for fans at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. Filmmakers brought an intense sizzle reel of on-location shots, kicked off by a dazzling and bone-crushing fight sequence between lead Scarlett Johansson and her on-screen sister Florence [...]

  • Natalie Portman Thor

    Natalie Portman Returns for 'Thor: Love and Thunder' as Female Thor

    Natalie Portman is coming back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but she’s no one’s love interest this time around. The Oscar winner will play a female god of thunder in the fourth film from the Chris Hemsworth series, titled “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Portman hit the stage at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday to great [...]

  • Fantastic Four

    New 'Fantastic Four' Movie in Development at Marvel

    Marvel is going back to the Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced that a new movie based on the superhero group is in the works at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. Further details, however, including a release date, were not revealed. It marks the first Fox property for Disney to mine since the [...]

  • Mahershala AliMarvel Studios panel, Comic-Con International,

    Mahershala Ali to Star in Marvel's 'Blade' Reboot

    Marvel is rebooting the “Blade” series, and has cast Mahershala Ali to star. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced the news at Comic-Con on Saturday as the panel’s big ending surprise. Ali also took the stage at the announcement to massive applause, donning the Blade baseball cap. Wesley Snipes previously played the half-vampire superhero in [...]

  • Doctor Strange

    'Doctor Strange' Sequel Billed as First MCU Horror Film at Comic-Con

    A sequel to “Doctor Strange” was announced as expected on Saturday at Marvel’s Comic-Con panel — what we didn’t see coming was the tone. Director Scott Derrickson said the film, titled “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” will mine the original comics and play up “the gothic, the horror.” Derrickson said it will lead [...]

  • Simu Liu Shang-Chi

    Marvel's 'Shang-Chi' Finds Its Lead

    Marvel has found its next superhero. The studio announced that Simu Liu has been tapped to star in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” during its Hall H presentation at Comic Con, joining cast member Awkwafina, who was also announced during the presentation. Additionally, Veteran actor Tony Leung has joined the film as [...]

  • Angelina Jolie The Kept

    Marvel Reveals Cast and Plot Details for 'The Eternals'

    “The Eternals” have arrived. The first film announced at Marvel’s San Diego Comic-Con presentation on Saturday, unarguably the hottest ticket of the weekend, confirmed months of speculation by unveiling its cast: Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff and Don Lee will star as 35,000 -year-old aliens. “This movie [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content