In Manchester by the Sea, a grieving janitor (Casey Affleck) returns to the small Massachusetts fishing village where his life fell apart in order to care for his recently deceased brother’s teenage son.
It’s my favorite film of the year, yet when I’ve recommended the movie to people, I’ve found myself invariably attaching a caveat. “It’s great, but I feel like I have to warn you—it’s sad. No, I mean really sad. Like you’ll need a 30-minute walk to get your shit together afterward sad.”
So how did editor Jennifer Lame survive sitting with the emotionally traumatizing Manchester by the Sea for months on end?
“It’s funny, everyone keeps asking me that,” says Lame, whose resume includes three films with director Noah Baumbach. “I think if the movie didn’t have any humor I would’ve had a really hard time, but there are moments that are so light and funny. So if I was editing a tough scene, I knew those moments would be waiting for me at the end of the road.”
With Manchester by the Sea now out in wide theatrical release, Lame spoke to MovieMaker about the phone interview that landed her the gig, grappling with the film’s flashback structure, and making director Kenneth Lonergan cry.
And go check out the movie. It’s great, but I feel like I have to warn you—it’s sad.
Matt Mulcahey, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You landed the job on Manchester by the Sea via a phone interview, during which you told director Kenneth Lonergan that his latest draft of the script dropped scenes that he should’ve kept. That definitely sounds like a roll of the dice.
Jennifer Lame (JL): I got the interview really last minute, and I was in L.A. and Kenny wouldn’t FaceTime. The movie was like three weeks out from production and Kenny was interviewing people with a lot more experience than me because of the whole drama with Margaret. [Ed. Note: Lonergan’s previous film Margaret featured a protracted battle with its distributor over which cut of the movie to release.] We had been on the phone for maybe 20 minutes and Kenny had done most of the talking and I hadn’t really said much, and I just thought, “Why would he hire me after this interview?” So I said to him, “I’ve read a couple earlier drafts of the script and I noticed that in the latest draft you cut a couple scenes out that I actually really loved. I was just curious why you did that because I think they’re really important scenes.” I was nervous to bring it up. I was scared he would say, “What are you talking about?” or that he might even be mad that I’d read previous drafts of the script. It was a total crapshoot. But Kenny said, “It’s so funny that you mention that. I was just talking to Casey and he said the same thing. I’m definitely going to put those scenes back.” After that the interview totally shifted into what felt like a really great conversation instead of an awkward phone interview between two people who didn’t know each other at all.
MM: Is it unusual for you in that stage of the process to have read so many versions of a script?
JL: It was actually kind of a fluke—a combination of luck and hard work. By no means do I read that many drafts of the script for every job I pursue. But I really love Kenny’s work, so I was stalking the project a little bit. I got one early draft from my agent after I said I was interested in the project. I think I might’ve gotten a draft of the script from my husband, who knew someone that was working on the movie. And then when I got the interview I was sent the latest draft, which I got the morning of the interview. And luckily I read it. I was busy on another job that day so I could’ve easily decided that I didn’t need to read the new draft. But for some reason I read it and right after I got off the phone with Kenny I had this moment where I was like, “Thank God I read that draft.”
MM: Did you start working on a cut during principal photography?
JL: Yeah, the day they started shooting was the day I went into my new office in New York. But I never met Kenny until after production wrapped. When I got to New York he’d already gone off to Boston [for the shoot]. And I didn’t have much contact with Kenny while they were shooting. It was a lot of material to cover in the amount of time they had so Kenny didn’t really have time to talk to me at night about dailies. He was too busy worrying about what they were going to shoot the next day.
MM: When you’re doing your first assembly, do you just use the circled “select” takes on the script supervisor’s notes in order to quickly get a version together?
JL: No, I watch everything. The script supervisor on Manchester by the Sea was great, but you can’t just trust the circle takes. So I went through everything. And also, because this was a new working relationship with Kenny, I wanted to already know the movie in and out when Kenny came in [to start editing]. So my main focus for that first assembly was just to familiarize myself with all the footage, pick all the selects I liked, and organize everything. A lot of my work as a full-on editor has been with Noah Baumbach and he’s very meticulous and it makes him trust me more to see how well I know the footage. So I felt in order to gain Kenny’s trust I needed to do the same thing.
MM: Is there a scene from Manchester by the Sea that you miss that hit the cutting room floor?
JL: There’s actually no scene that we shot that I miss. There were some things in the script that they didn’t get to shoot that I miss—some scenes between Lucas Hedges [who plays Affleck’s nephew, Patrick] and Casey. The movie is fine without those scenes, but I just love Kenny’s writing. I’m such a huge fan of Kenny’s cut of Margaret. I would watch a four-hour cut of that movie [laughs]. So there were a couple scenes that he wrote that were more comedic between Lucas and Casey that were cut before they even shot them, and that I was a little sad about.
But everything that we shot that was cut out, I felt very confident that it needed to be taken out—things like flashbacks that were so sad they felt like too much. There’s a fine line of making it just unbearable for the audience to the point where they check out. We really ride that line as it is. You want the audience to feel what Lee went through and feel Lee’s pain, but you don’t want it to be so intense that the audience is like, “I can’t deal with this anymore.” So we cut some flashbacks out that were pretty painful.
MM: The movie actually opens with a flashback that shows Casey laughing and happy on his brother’s boat. Did that scene always open the film?
JL: The script actually started with Lee in the present day doing his janitorial duties. Moving that scene to the head of the film was all Kenny. He knows how to use Avid, and one day before a screening he put that at the beginning of the movie and it’s brilliant.
MM: It definitely changes the trajectory of the film to know at the outset that in the recent past Affleck was so full of life.
JL: Yeah, and I think it unconsciously sets a tone for the flashbacks and the way that we decided we wanted to do them, which was with no real cue or visual trick or chyron that says “Five years earlier.” We decided that we just wanted to cut to the flashbacks when we felt like it was emotionally right. I think by putting that scene early on it helped establish that style for the audience.
MM: Does the order of the other flashbacks adhere pretty closely to their placement in the script?
JL: We moved them around. Not a lot—they’re generally in the same area that they were written in—but we definitely moved them around a bit. The flashbacks are kind of chronologically sequential and we never messed with that, but we did tweak where they landed in the edit.
MM: You mentioned Kenny using Avid and I believe that’s what you cut the film on as well. In my work as a Digital Imaging Technician, when I hear a job is going to be cut on Avid, I always cringe a bit because I know I’m going to have to transcode everything into MXF files so the media will get along nicely with Avid. What is it about Avid that makes it your preference?
JL: It’s not, actually. I came up in Final Cut, but I just felt like everyone wanted to cut on Avid and—this might be totally irrational—that being a Final Cut Pro person made me seem less professional. Because whenever I would ask for it people would be like, “Really?” So I just taught myself Avid. But yeah the MXF stuff is so annoying and unfortunately Apple kind of stopped supporting Final Cut so now a lot of people are using Premiere.
MM: Did you jump ship on Final Cut when they went to the X version?
JL: Yeah, when they went to Final Cut X I would still work on the previous version, 7. I cut Noah’s While We’re Young on Final Cut 7.
MM: Casey Affleck seems like he’s an actor who likes to do a lot of takes. How does it affect your job to have so many choices for a scene?
JL: It makes my job both harder and a lot more interesting. It’s fun to me. I guess I’m a nerd like that. I like watching three takes that are very similar and being able to tell the slight differences. That’s exciting for me. I also came from a director in Noah who likes to shoot a lot of takes. I worked on a movie with him where they did 52 takes for one set-up. And with Noah you have to be able to say which 20 are your favorites and why you like each. So I would actually be more bummed if I got six takes that were all wildly different and it was really obvious which one I should pick. I would find that kind of boring.
MM: There are two key scenes in the film—a flashback to a tragic fire and the present day wake and funeral of Lee’s brother—in which the only audio is classical music. Tell me about constructing those scenes.
JL: I put together an assembly for the fire scene before I had spoken with Kenny, and I was nervous when I showed it to him because it’s such a big part of the movie. Kenny has this thing that he does all the time where he’s like, “This is all wrong.” It’s kind of his reaction to everything, even his own work [laughs]. So that was his initial reaction, but then the next day he came in and said, “Actually, I really think this part is working and this part is working.” Ultimately I think we used a lot of my assembly framework. Then Kenny picked that music, the Tomaso Albinoni piece, and we both kept playing with the scene. Kenny can edit in Avid on his laptop and we would send different cuts of that scene to each other. It was really fun. We would both work late at night and email each other versions and we’d come in the next day and talk about them. I swear we must have done hundreds of versions until we finally worked it out. There was just a lot of fine tweaking. I can’t tell you how many times we changed a few frames of a shot and it would mess the music edit up because we wanted certain notes to land on certain moments, like Lee dropping the diapers.
For the funeral and the wake, it was shot in slow motion and I had the thought, “What if I cut it like it’s not slow motion? What if I treat it like a regular scene?” And when I did that, everything connected. Previous to that we had cut it like a montage, but when I changed the approach I started to find all these little amazing moments. Like I found a take where Lucas looks over at Casey and then Casey looks at Michelle William’s new husband for an uncomfortably long time. It had this affect that was kind of devastating. I’m very proud of that scene. When I showed it to Kenny he said, “This is amazing,” and it made him cry. Well, Kenny cried all the time [laughs]. Every time we watched the scene of Casey and Michelle running into each other on the street, Kenny cried.
MM: Let’s talk about that scene. Did you have options in Casey’s performance? Were there takes where he was more guarded and then others where he broke down more?
JL: The takes we used were the takes where he got the most upset and emotional. That scene was so good. When I first got that footage, I was sobbing while I watched it. I just kind of cut it together based on how I was feeling in that moment and I cut it pretty quickly. When I first showed that cut of the scene to Kenny, he liked what I’d done. We had a screening for the producers and they loved that scene. Then as Kenny and I kept editing, every time we came to that scene we were like, “Oh, we can make it better,” and we would tweak it. Then we would have another screening and everyone would say, “What did you do to that scene! Put it back!” Every time we tried to tweak it, people would say “Put it back!” So we never really changed it. MM
Manchester by the Sea is in theaters now, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.