Kenneth Lonergan, a screenwriter, playwright, and film director best known for his films Manchester by the Sea (2016), Gangs of New York (2002), and You Can Count on Me (2000), came to FIT to discuss his work with Associate Professor of American History Daniel Levinson Wilk and to answer questions from students.
Lonergan considers himself primarily a writer. He went into directing as a way “to have the script survive the filmmaking process intact.” He learned this the hard way, after writing the screenplay for Analyze This—the 1999 comedy starring Robert De Niro he wrote on spec to break into screenwriting. He said that 14 editors rewrote it so thoroughly he decided never to watch the film.
One of the characters in Lonergan’s 1996 play This Is Our Youth is an FIT student. He explained that he wanted her to be doing something unconventional for her peer group and not be sure she was on the right path. For him, it was one of many details that enhanced the play’s verisimilitude.
Much of Lonergan’s work revolves around characters in the service industry; Casey Affleck’s character in Manchester by the Sea is a residential janitor and handyman. Lonergan has worked as a backstage doorman for the Shubert Organization, a delivery manager for a liquor store, and a bartender on the Upper West Side. “These jobs are no fun, but it’s always interesting to see a piece of the world, no matter what it is,” he said.
He talked at length about the necessity of great casting. For his 2011 film Margaret, he narrowed the lead role down to three actors who all had the right “front-foot” energy: Christina Ricci, Lindsay Lohan, and Anna Paquin. Ricci had played too many adults to be believable as a teenager, and he was afraid Lohan’s burgeoning star power might attract the wrong kind of attention to the film (ultimately, she found another project and wasn’t available). Paquin won the role.
Lonergan said his favorite part of the job is “when the work seems to be writing itself—like you’re hearing people talking and are writing it down.”
Then he added, “It’s a beautiful feeling when people connect to what you did.”