Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in "Manchester By the Sea"

Interview: Editor Jen Lame on Cutting to the Quick with “Manchester By the Sea”

At the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Jen Lame was having the kind of moment that most filmmakers wait their entire careers for. After lobbying hard to work as an editor on Kenneth Lonergan’s latest drama “Manchester By the Sea,” standing ovations awaited the film she and the writer/director had spent so much time at the editing bay scrutinizing, and as if that weren’t enough, people couldn’t stop talking about “Christine,” the film that her husband Craig Shilowich spent the off-hours writing for years to perfect. It was the kind of buzz that would follow the couple back home to New York, for better or worse.

“It’s been a long year, and almost a hard year,” Lame says now, ten months later, laughing at the incongruity of seeing all the success of their work and the desire just to get back to it, clearly not wanting to sound ungrateful. “It’s just like a lot. We both have these movies that went to Sundance and they’ve had various degrees of success and praise. Our friends are like, ‘Oh my God, you guys, this is such a great year for you,’ but me and my husband are behind-the-scenes people, so this stuff, even though it’s been nice because people have gotten to see the movies, it’s been a challenge for us.”

One wouldn’t have known this without asking, and if anyone is uniquely suited to turn chaos into something something brilliant and poetic, it’s Lame, who after three dazzling collaborations with Noah Baumbach on “Frances Ha,” “Mistress America,” and “When We’re Young,” in which she could be counted on to put an extra bit of pep in Greta Gerwig’s step or some additional sting in a punchline, goes for a literal change of pace in “Manchester By the Sea,” giving the room to Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler and his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) the space to grieve, following the death of Patrick’s father Joe (Kyle Chandler). Creating a lilting rhythm akin to the calming of the tide just after a storm on the New England coastline where “Manchester” is set, Lame’s judicious cuts create space for her characters in a world that constantly feels as if it’s closing in on them as their daily routine puts them in constant confrontation with what they’ve lost. The film displays an elegance and grace that remains out of reach for Lee and Patrick for much of it, but allows their grief and the beauty of the strength required to carry on to slip under the skin so smoothly that they can be fully understood.

The compassion shown in Lonergan’s writing and direction extends to Lame’s delicate handling of the film’s deceptively simple story, which moves back and forth in time without obvious demarcation and generously gives all who appear in front of the camera their due, but carefully piecing together “Manchester By the Sea” was likely only slightly less difficult than the process Lee and Patrick must go through to get emotional catharsis. As the film begins to open around the country, Lame spoke about convincing Lonergan to take a chance on her and how she took chances with the film, resulting in one of the more indelible cinematic experiences of the year.

How did “Manchester By the Sea” come about for you?

I was in L.A. working on a movie and I’d been hearing about it for a while so I just stalked the project by getting a bunch of drafts of the script and reading them. I couldn’t seem to get an interview because I think they were looking for someone with a bit more experience than me because of “Margaret.” But he didn’t end up hiring anyone and through my agent and my husband, who works in the film industry, I got a phone interview. It was not a very interesting interview, but but because I had read all these drafts of the script, after we’d been talking for 10 or 15 minutes, I decided to tell him about these two scenes that he cut out that I was bummed out about. I figured if he agreed, that would be good for me and if he didn’t, I probably shouldn’t work on the movie anyway.

After I told him, [Lonergan] was like, “Oh my God, I was just talking to Casey and he was bummed I cut those two and I’m going to put them back. I can’t believe you knew that. How did you know that?” I think he liked the fact that I was really into it before I had gotten hired, so the next day I got a call from the producers, who I think were like, “Who are you?” [laughs] But we talked and I tried to make them feel comfortable and they asked me back to New York to start work on the movie. I didn’t actually meet Kenny [at that time] because he had to leave to go to Boston [to shoot], so I started working on the movie [without having] met him in person, but when he came in, we gave each other a big hug because we had never met.

Are you at liberty to say which are the two scenes that you fought for? [SPOILERS AHEAD]

One of them was the scene after Joe’s funeral where they go to Jeanine and George’s house for the wake – [Lonergan] had cut that [because] I think production gets a hold of the script and there was only one scene there and they figured “let’s get rid of it” because it’s going to be expensive [to create a set for a single scene], but it made me sad because Patrick could end up with George and Jeanine and she and George have a little funny thing [going throughout the film], but it’s the only time you really hear Jeanine talk, and you feel good about the fact that those are the people at the end he could end up with. And Kenny was like, “You’re so right because one of my things in everything I write is that every character has to be so important. That’s why I put in that scene initially because I want every character to feel well-rounded and you feel like you get to know them.” I felt that scene was important for Jeanine and George, and you see their house, so he put that back in.

The other scene – and this was kind of crazy, but I think I just read a draft [where] he played around with cutting it out – was where Lee is in the police station and tells the police officers what happens [in the tragic accident]. He tried thinking if it would work if you actually saw what happened, and I was so bummed because that scene made me cry. I thought it was such a bold move as a writer to have the character sit and tell two people what he did. Even if I never got hired, I know that scene would’ve ended up back in the movie because Casey loved that scene too, but I think [Lonergan] was happy that I loved that scene too because those kind of things are important to Kenny and it made him feel that I would respect the material and that I understood it.

Because of what happened with “Margaret,” I think he felt a little bit safe when I said all those things. I love “Margaret,” [particularly] his cut of “Margaret” and the first 20 minutes of our interview he talked to me about what he was trying to accomplish with “Margaret” and I wanted to make sure his vision was preserved in the editing process.

One scene that seems to be an incredible feat of editing is the scene in the hospital after Lee returns home and he’s with George to discuss what to do now that Joe’s died. You see it from so many different angles and with the distance between characters expressed so beautifully – what was that like to cut together?

Yeah, that hospital scene is one of the more challenging scenes we had in the movie – there was a lot of coverage and that was one of the first scenes they shot too – and we went back to it a lot of times. That scene was just so important on so many levels – this guy [Lee] is finding out his brother has died, so you’d expect him to be upset, but obviously, something’s wrong with him, so we wanted to show he is upset, but he’s not going to cry and show a typical reaction, and we also had to show everyone’s reaction to Lee because they all know what happened to him, unlike the audience, so they’re all going to be a little weird with Lee, but also not so much because they know what happened, and it was just so important to get it right so the audience could start to figure out what was going on. It’s one of the more cutty scenes in the movie, but it was just to disorient the audience and clue them into this being not your typical guy comes into a hospital after his brother dies scenes – like something’s going on here and it was trying to convey that mystery.

Were the rhythms of this built into the screenplay, like how the past and the present are so both so immediate, or were those conversations you had later in post-production?

When I read the script, I saw all the jumps in time, obviously as an editor, I was like oh God, I don’t want to mess this up. [laughs] Because it worked so well on the page, but anyone who knows movies well knows that can always be a disaster. Kenny wrote them all in order, so I like to think of it as another movie playing along at the same time and we didn’t like to think of them as flashbacks or memories – we didn’t even want to have it a sound cue or [suggest] Lee is thinking about this right now. We cut to whole scenes, not an image, so it felt like we were revealing to the audience the mystery of Lee and then [the past and present] end up meeting in time. It was important not to think of [the scenes of Lee’s past] as secondary. It was just as important as the present and we didn’t want to minimize that using some sort of visual or audio technique to say they were less than.

For a while, we [asked ourselves], do we need [to put something] in [to signify] when we cut back in time? Do we always need to cut to leave space? Do we need to use a sound? And it just never felt organic and emotionally right. The most important thing is you want the audience to understand [what’s going on], so there was the fear that we don’t want to lose the audience by cutting back and forth in between time, but once we realized the audience was smart enough to get it and the movie was much more powerful without any kind of consistent trick or device, it was so freeing. The movie just really locked in and we could just cut when we felt it was emotionally appropriate and not try to find a closeup with Lee or something like that.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Lonergan’s films also is how you’ll often have sound, usually a conversation, carry over from one scene to the next, or you’ll linger on the person listening rather than talking. What’s it like getting to work with that?

During the fire section, we did play a lot with sound – sound bleeds over from the past to the present and when you start hearing them play ping pong over Lee in the lawyer’s office, I think we were doing that less to use it as a cue to marry the [past and present] and if anything, we did it to be jarring to make people a little like, “errrr…” at what’s happening because watching the past is always uncomfortable in that way. It was more just emotionally [that] by the time he gets to the lawyer’s office, we’re reviewing what happened, the sound bleeds in because – it sounds corny – but this is just Lee’s life. He can never think about killing his children. It’s with him every moment of every day, especially when he’s in the lawyer’s office, talking about potentially having to stay in this town, so it’s overwhelming. I don’t know how often we do it – I think it’s one of the few times we do. But in that scene, it’s like all bets are off. When we reveal the fire, we played a lot with sound and cutting back and forth because it’s that climactic moment, but then moving forward, I think we do more hard cuts.

You also always get such a great sense of place in this film – it doesn’t seem like there’s random B-roll you cut together to establish a setting. How do those introductions come together?

We didn’t have a wealth of B-roll, but we had enough and Kenny knew what kind of B-Roll he wanted. Like in “Margaret,” he has those long shots where you see the landscape of New York City outside that pan all the way around – he did some of those [for “Manchester”], that were very much orchestrated, capturing the outside world as much as the inside world of what’s going on with Lee and the characters because I think the ocean and the town and everyone else [there] because their lives are just as important to Kenny. So it was a combination of shots he definitely orchestrated and then some B-Roll he told people to go get, like the harbor.

There’s been some chatter online about some edits done after Sundance, though having seen the film there and seeing it more recently, I couldn’t tell the difference. Did the film change?

We did some changes, but they were probably things no one would notice but us, like a cut that we thought was a little jarring or weird that we didn’t like. It was subtle. Kenny’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and I think he could recut “Manchester” forever. He always wants to be better and sees how things could be better. That’s what I love about him. Every movie I’ve ever worked on, I’m like shit, that could’ve been better or maybe if we tried this, who knows? And I think Kenny is similar, but you have to stop tweaking at some point and I think Kenny decided because we didn’t want to ruin the movie and make it worse. It played so well at Sundance and we loved the movie at Sundance, so we were good about stopping, which is really hard.

“Manchester By the Sea” is now in theaters.

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