My two co-writers and I decided to read a screenplay and have a discussion on it. One of them selected 'Manchester by the Sea' and we had a very fulfilling three-hour discussion last week.
It is impossible to cover the entire discussion in a blog post, but I decided to write about the best points that were made and debated upon. There is so much to learn here, from this Oscar-winning script but the following will make more sense to you if you have recently watched the film or read the screenplay. And, of course, there are SPOILERS AHEAD.
Lee, the protagonist, is extremely relatable because of the pain he has gone through. Suffering from guilt of the worst kind, he is mostly quiet and may come across as a passive character who has given up. However, in our discussion we realized that the writer has used him as a very active, decisive, motivated character in almost every scene. He is working hard, answering back to people, picking up fights, constantly driving the car with some short-term agenda, taking important decisions, and so on. What this does is wonderful. Every scene is dramatically rich and well-structured while overall we have a feeling that ours is a passive protagonist. This is a big lesson for me. The next not-so-motivated character I create can remain active at the smallest level, throughout the film, without appearing heroic.
Also, it is important to note that in the flashbacks, before the tragedy, Lee is often seen casually defending himself - that he knows how to take care of his children. The theme of being or appearing (ir)responsible and taking responsibility runs throughout the film.
We could summarize the film as follows: The death of his elder brother forces Lee to take up responsibilities he had run away from and giving him the opportunity to start healing the wounds of his past. The writer has decided to have a very realistic, life-like structure for the film, purposefully staying away from a well-defined and easy-to-figure plot. There are eight pages of character-building and zero plot before the inciting incident kicks in. There are three acts, but the act breaks have been very effectively hidden (refer to Billy Wilder's 10 tips of screenwriting). There is a climax and a resolution, but it is not built like one.
The location plays a very important role in the film. This story has to be set in a small town, the gossip-rich and unambitious life of its people giving the perfect socio-cultural milieu to the story. Plus it is 'by the sea' and the boat of our characters and the activity of fishing has emotional and narrative importance. The location also gives a visual uniqueness to the film that could have been otherwise set in any small town.
The generous use of flashbacks does not hurt because they don't look like a lazy and easy tool for exposition in this film. Rather, they are brought in for emotional reasons alone and end up improving the emotional impact of the film. In fact, each flashback sevres more than the function of exposition: it throws light on the present, it increases our curiosity in Lee, and it often breaks our heart.
Also, every time you feel nothing is happening in the story, something dramatic happens. Or we simply cut to a point ahead in time, with a sense of momentum. This makes sure that despite a relaxed, life-like pacing, the script remains engaging.
The unsentimental tone of the script, despite dealing with such intense crises in the characters' lives, is beautiful. There is enough humor there as well, in the way some of the characters speak, but that only enhances the life-like tone. Nothing is done for the laughs, or for the tears. And still, it is such a powerful script, emotionally speaking.
Characters speak in a way only they can. For example, very early in the film, Lee is fixing pipes in a woman's bathroom.
"Well, we could turn on the shower and see if it drips downstairs..." Lee says.
The woman replies. "You want me to take a shower while you stand there watching, to see if the water drips down into Friedrich's apartment?"
Now, only this woman knows that the apartment below hers belongs to some Friedrich. She is talking in a way only she can. Not Lee.
The most remarkable thing about the script, though, is its use of dual dialogue. Characters' lines overlap throughout, and their overlapping has been meticulously designed and timed. It is as if the director is editing the film while writing. This is something no writer should do while writing for someone else. If you are writing to direct, I would still not advise this on the script level because then you are micro-managing your actors and leaving very small room for error. But the final realism that this film has, thanks to its overlapping dialogue, is something all of us may strive to achieve.
In the end, it is not a play. Nor a novel. And not life. It is a screenplay. And hence economy is extremely important. Economy of pages, scenes, even events, lines, and what we see from the rich backstory and what we don't. In the now famous apology scene that comes toward the end, for example, Randi says something to Lee that very succinctly explains all that must have happened between them since the terrible accident until today. Instead of showing various events or stages that must have pulled them apart, we only have Randi say this:
"I said a lotta terrible things to you."
And just a second later she says: "I said things that I should -- I should fuckin' burn in hell for what I said."
In that moment we fill in the gaps in our head, without losing our emotional involvement with the characters. It's super smart.
Lee and a young Patrick are having fun on their boat in the sea, being steered by Lee's elder brother, Joe. We all know how important the opening image of a film can be. Here, we not only introduce the three most important characters of the film, the boat that connects them and represents Joe after his death and causes conflict between Lee and Patrick, we also see the sea and the activity of fishing that introduces the setting to us. But most importantly, we see Sam steering the ship, just as he will steer the story, even after his death, while his brother and his son will engage and find support in each other.
The First Ten Pages
After the short scene mentioned above, we have eight pages of Lee's life in Boston. We see him working at different households as a janitor. Each scene has interesting characters, and the scenes get increasingly more and more conflicted. Since the story is not moving forward at all (and rightly so, to establish the monotony of Lee's life), it is important that these pages are written very well. And since some big news is about to reach Lee, forming the Inciting Incident of the film, this wait is justified even more.
Some Specific Observations
It has never been stated explicitly, but Lee is an alcoholic. In one of the flashbacks, he tells his wife that they didn't run out of beer and that they were 'temperate'. There are very evident signs suggesting that he needs to cut down. He gets into drunken brawls. He keeps sipping on beer whenever we see him alone. And, of course, the biggest tragedy of his life is caused by his craving for more alcohol when he had had enough.
Throughout the film, we see Lee trying to shrug off the responsibility of Patrick. We first thought it is because he doesn't want to shift to Manchester. But during our discussion we wondered if this is because subconsciously he thinks of himself as a poor guardian, after what happened to his kids. And the way he opposes Patrick's choice of his mom as his guardian, and note that she too is an alcoholic, not a druggie or something, perhaps Lee blames his alcoholism for everything. And still cannot give it up.
There is one scene toward the end when a secondary character, we have never seen him before in the story, is telling Lee the story of his father's death.
"My father passed away in 1959. A young man. Worked on a tuna boat. Went out one morning, little bit of weather, nothing dramatic... And he never returned. No signal. No Mayday. No one ever knew what happened."
I feel the story of this man's father suggests a suicide. Look at the portions I have underlined above. And perhaps with this scene, the writer is teasing us. Will Lee, after suffering from grief for so long, finally take his own life? Of course, he doesn't. I don't remember how this scene has been treated in the film. But that, perhaps, can explain its need two pages before the end.