Manchester by the Sea: Kenneth Lonergan’s Tale of Love, Family and Loss

In Manchester by the Sea, the latest film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, centers on a solitary Boston janitor, whose life is transformed when he returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew.


The story of the Chandlers, a working-class family living in a Massachusetts fishing village for generations, Manchester by the Sea is a poignant, unexpectedly funny exploration of the power of familial love, community, sacrifice and hope.

After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking leave of his job, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a spirited 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised.  Bonded by the man who held their family together, Lee and Patrick struggle to adjust to a world without him.

In his first film since 2011’s acclaimed Margaret, which sadly was barely seen, Lonergan again proves himself a powerful and visionary storyteller as he weaves past and present together, crafting a tension-filled tale that deftly eschews sentimentality in favor of emotional insight and deeply affecting human relationships.


For the past two decades, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, director and playwright Lonergan has built a reputation as one of the most original voices in contemporary American filmmaking, crafting exquisitely emotional movies like You Can Count on Me and Margaret that have garnered rave reviews and multiple awards.

Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan’s third effort, earned universal praise when it world premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Fest, where Amazon grabbed theatrical rights for the huge amount of $10 million.

How the Idea Originated?

The idea for the movie originated on the set of the 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau, where actor Matt Damon and his frequent collaborator, producer Chris Moore, were brainstorming possible projects for Damon’s directing debut.  Actor John Krasinski was also on set and the three spent evenings kicking around story ideas that eventually yielded the seed for what would become Manchester by the Sea.

From the beginning, Damon was an advocate for the story of a man whose life has been decimated by a single moment of unsteady judgment. He signed on as producer and made plans to both direct and star in the film.

Matt Damon’s Role

“Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful movie about a man who has to take care of his nephew after his brother dies,” says Damon. “The problem is that coming back to his hometown means he has to face the greatest tragedy of his life.”

It was Damon who proposed approaching Lonergan to write the script. The two first met when the actor starred in the 2002 London production of the writer’s play, “This is Our Youth.”

“Kenny’s writing is peerless,” says Damon, himself an Oscar-winning screenwriter, for the 1997 Good Will Hunting. “Saying those words night after night gave me an appreciation for how perfectly they were crafted.”


Intrigued by the premise, Lonergan spent the next two years exploring and expanding the initial events, themes and characters into an original story of his own. The screenplay that emerged is a complex, intricately layered tale that centers on Lee Chandler, who has grown up with his brother Joe, fishing the northeastern Massachusetts coastline and repairing the yachts of their wealthier neighbors.

Joe has built a healthy business for himself and his son Patrick, but at the time the story begins Lee has fled Manchester to live in a Boston neighborhood where he ekes out a solitary existence as a custodian for a group of small working-class apartment buildings. A reliable and dedicated worker, Lee unblocks drains and takes out trash, letting off steam in local pubs (and occasional bar fights.). His strict routine allows him to interact with other people as infrequently as possible.

Series of Flashbacks

Lonergan’s screenplay slips skillfully through time in a series of flashbacks that gradually reveal the secrets of Lee’s past, building to the shattering moment that drove him away from his home. As the truth gradually emerges, the reasons for Lee’s self-imposed exile begin to take shape.

When Damon’s jam-packed schedule forced him to bow out as the film’s star and director, Lonergan took over the helm.  Still, Damon’s continued support for the project was crucial to getting it produced, says Moore. “This is true auteur filmmaking. We all backed Kenny’s vision and let a great storyteller tell his story the way he wanted to.”

Producer Kimberly Steward of K Period Media chose this film as the debut production of her new company based on the power of Lonergan’s script. “Kenny’s language is amazing and his ability to portray darkness, while still maintaining humor and wit, is something I haven’t really seen before,” she says. “We all had so much love and respect for Kenny. He’s decisive, confident, and has the ability to get his point across quite eloquently.”

Honesty and Authenticity

The screenplay moved producer Kevin J. Walsh to tears. “I cried many times reading this,” he says. “I was really touched by the script’s honesty and authenticity, because in real life things are not always neatly buttoned up. To be able to work on a movie like this even once in my life makes me really happy.” One thing everyone involved with the movie agrees on is that Lonergan is one of the most powerful screenwriters working today. Deeply empathetic and often scathingly witty, Manchester by the Sea captures the lives and the language of working-class New Englanders with startling accuracy. “This is a movie that will stay with people,” says Damon. “His characters are so deeply and richly drawn, with such great detail, that you believe in them. A lot of movie characters are pencil sketches. But Kenny’s really resonate because they feel like real life. With actors and writing of this caliber and Kenny’s direction, the movie is unforgettable.”

Bringing Humor to Difficult Situations

Lonergan’s unique writing style will be recognized as the voice of a generation, in Moore’s opinion. “But he’s not just a great writer. He’s a masterful director as well. I don’t think anybody could direct his material the way he does. It is so subtle and nuanced, so carefully crafted, that only he can do it justice. Kenny did a great job of bringing humor and life to a difficult situation. I was blown away by the emotional spectrum — its authenticity, its warmth and also its rawness.”

Lonergan is able to make audiences care about his fictional characters as if they were people they have known their whole lives, observes Moore. “He writes human drama and dialogue better than anyone I’ve ever seen. As a director, he has a real sense of who the actor should be, what the performances should be. It’s a hard film to label because it’s complex and elusive and even grand. Kenny writes in such a way that you can’t be sure what’s going to happen next. Two characters collide and that collision changes them both. Audiences will feel like they have seen real people and they’re going to root for these characters.”

Based on the acclaim for Lonergan’s two previous films, Moore believes audiences will be drawn to Manchester by the Sea to see what the director has come up with next. “It’s been a long time since Kenny has directed,” he continues. “I think there’s a pent-up demand for his work. He’s an artist who captures real life on the screen and examines relationships in an honest way.”

There are no easy answers or convenient conclusions in Lonergan’s films, just as there are none in real life, according to Walsh. “Things don’t always end neatly,” he says. “There are hard knocks that come. At any moment, anyone can be disrupted, anything can happen. We are all just players in the greater scheme.”


Manchester By the Sea is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret).

The film stars Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, My Week with Marilyn), Kyle Chandler (“Friday Night Lights,” Zero Dark Thirty), Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel), Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page, Rounders) and C.J. Wilson (The Intern, “The Americans”).

Producers are Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, the Bourne franchise), Kimberly Steward (Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People), Chris Moore (The Adjustment Bureau, Good Will Hunting), Lauren Beck (Junkyard Dogs, From the Future with Love) and Kevin J. Walsh (The Way Way Back, War of the Worlds).

Director of photography is Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck, Martha Marcy May Marlene).

Editor is Jennifer Lame (Mistress America, Paper Towns).

Composer is Lesley Barber (The Moth Diaries, You Can Count on Me).

Production designer is Ruth De Jong (The Master, The Tree of Life). Costume designer is Melissa Toth (Adventureland, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

Executive producers are Josh Godfrey (Transcendence, Mirror Mirror), John Krasinski (“The Office,” The Hollars), Declan Baldwin (Still Alice, Captain Fantastic) and Bill Migliore (Leaves of Grass, Thanks for Sharing).

Co-producer is Ryan H. Stowell (Puncture, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”).

Associate producer is Katie Pastore (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Bourne Ultimatum).