MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
MANCHESTER BY THE 3
Ken Lonergan's “Manchester By The Sea” has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards and is about the relationship between a screw up Uncle and his Nephew - similar to his earlier “You Can Count On Me” (2000)... only this time both characters are older but no more wiser. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman for a handful of apartment buildings in Boston where he plunges a lot of toilets and deals with people at their worst – when things are broken. He lives in what looks like a converted storage area in one of the buildings and when he's not working he's drinking and picking fights in bars. He's a complete screw up. But when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has a massive heart attack and dies, Lee ends up the guardian for his 16 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and has to quit his job and return to the town where he grew up: Manchester. He doesn't want to be responsible for *anyone*, and is trying to find someone else to take Patrick off his hands so that he can get the hell out of this town he once escaped. Patrick's mother Elise (Gretchel Mol) is a drunk who has been MIA for years – nobody knows where she lives or if she even has a place to live, so she's out of the running. Lee has an Aunt and Uncle who now live in Minnetonka, Minnesota... maybe they will take Patrick?
ONE: SPECIFICS IN DIALOGUE
A great method to create realistic sounding dialogue is by using specifics... and then having people get things slightly wrong. This happens frequently in real life, so when someone does it in *reel life* the audience recognizes it as how people really speak. Like using Confusion, it's all about finding a less linear way to get from point A to B in conversation through what we might call “controlled meandering”. Real conversation often wanders around before it gets to the point, but on screen we really don't have much time to waste... so we have to create the appearance of not getting directly to the point. When we use Confusion, we have a line that has at least two different meanings and the character responds to the wrong meaning and is corrected. With Specifics we are going to have a character say something very specific and have the other character get it wrong, and then be corrected.
In “Manchester By The Sea” the name of the town where the Aunt & Uncle live gets mangled by everyone except the protagonist. The script could have left out the specific location of the Aunt and Uncle, except using the exact location not only adds verisimilitude, it is a funny place to say... and throughout the story people keep getting it wrong and Lee corrects them. Which is what happens in real dialogue – people get little details wrong all the time. Sometimes they get corrected, sometimes they don't. But real dialogue is not perfect – people make mistakes. Now, the audience won't know if someone has made a mistake unless they know what they were supposed to say... and that requires specifics. The audience either needs to have that knowledge themselves or the story needs to give them that information so that they know the character is making a mistake.
In "Manchester By The Sea" once we know the name of that town, other people start screwing it up, beginning with Wes the lawyer who gets the state wrong and thinks it's Wisconsin... and Lee corrects him. Patrick calls it "Wonkatonka, Minnesota" and Lee corrects him. And it happens several more times in the story where characters just can't remember the exact name of the town the Aunt and Uncle live in, screw up the name and Lee has to correct them. It becomes almost a running gag of sorts, but it also makes the dialogue seem very realistic because these characters get details wrong – just as real humans do. If everyone says everything perfectly correct all of the time, that's just not realistic. People make mistakes! So having people make simple mistakes like this in dialogue makes that dialogue more real. More believable. The film is just over 2 hours long and there are a handful of times where people get this one detail wrong, but that makes all of the rest of the dialogue seem more realistic. This is a great tool!
Of course, the other way specifics helps to create realism in dialogue is to add texture and color. You can have a character say, "I'm going to the grocery store" but why not use a specific grocery chain to add some flavor and realism? "I'm going to the Piggly-Wiggly" is different than, "I'm going to Safeway" which is different than, "I'm going to Whole Foods" which is different than, "I'm going to the Seven-Eleven" which is different than, "I'm going to Kroeger Groceries" which is different than, "I'm going to Price Chopper". I just went on Wiki and looked up supermarket chains and there are *hundreds* of them, many with interesting names that may not only tell us something about the region the story takes place in (adding color) but tells us about the character and what kind of food they eat. In Los Angeles there are a bunch of national grocery chains plus some smaller chains that cater to different segments of the population from the wealthy to vegans to all kinds of ethnic markets that specialize in foods just like mother used to make. I often shop at Vallarta Market which has all kinds of Hispanic food items... and is usually less expensive than the big chains. Even if you have never heard of Vallarta Market, it's that more fun for a character to say than just "grocery store"? This is kind of like Minnetonka, Minnesota – fun words for an actor to say that also make dialogue more realistic by being more specific.
TWO: CHARACTER MYSTERY
The second great lesson from “Manchester By The Sea” is the use of mystery when dealing with the protagonist. Lee Chandler is living in Boston and does not want to go back to Manchester... though we don’t know why until much later in the story. We don’t have to know *everything* about the protagonist up front, in fact it’s better (and more realistic) if they have some secrets that we will learn about later. We *do* need to know enough about the protagonist to have a good idea of who they are, and “Manchester” does this marvelously at the very beginning of the movie. Lee is a handyman for several apartment buildings owned by the same company, and we see him doing a variety of awful tasks - shoveling snow, cramming trash into the dumpster, getting yelled at by a tenant because her shower doesn’t work and she has places to be, and plunging a toilet that is *really clogged* (the film allows us to use our imagination about this, but the tenant apologizes in such a way to trigger the very worst that we can imagine). All of this makes us feel for Lee. He must have the worst job in the world. He is hard working and polite to the angry tenant - these small conflicts bring out his character so that we have a pretty good idea of who he is.
Three other things give us clues to his character: when we see the apartment he gets free of rent, it looks like a converted storage room or maybe a large walk in closet - it’s tiny and spartan. Not much room, not much in there. The second thing is strange: the woman who’s toilet he is plunging makes a pass at him, and he ignores it. Though he’s just been dealing with her poo, which may not be a turn on; she’s a very attractive woman. Why did he turn her down? The third character thing is when we see him drinking alone in a neighborhood bar after work... and then he *starts a fight* with a couple of other bar patrons who beat the crap out of him. What’s that all about?
So we have this mix of good traits and a bad one, and that gives us a pretty well rounded character. We know this guy... but we don’t know *why* he is the way he is. That mystery is what the story is really about. After Lee’s brother dies and he takes off the least amount of time possible to go to Manchester and deal with the funeral arrangements because he *hates* the town where he grew up, we begin to wonder *why*.
Once he finds out he will have to raise his nephew Patrick (at least until he finds someone else better suited), Lee realizes he will need some sort of job in town. Now we get another series of brief scenes, like the handyman scenes, that give us a bunch of concentrated information... the main one being the scene at the real estate office where the Owner says they have no jobs, and as soon as Lee leaves a Woman comes in from the next room and says she never wants to see Lee in the office again. Wait, so not only does Lee hate Manchester, the people of Manchester seem to hate Lee. Why? By setting up the mystery, the audience wants to know - and that’s what drives the story.
As Lee interacts with townspeople, some treat him as a pariah and others treat him with pity, building the mystery while the story of Lee trying to figure out how to raise a teenage boy plays out in the foreground.
Because we know and like Lee from that opening sequence where he’s doing his job as a handyman, we care about him and wonder what happened to him in this town. Not only do some people hate him, the bar fight shows us that he hates himself. He has a powerful “ghost”, which is a mystery... and we get a clue every now and then throughout the story so that we can try to piece it together and we feel like the story is making progress.
Soon after we are introduced to Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and they have the most awkward conversation in screen history, we get a flashback that solves the mystery and shows us the big moment in Lee’s life that made him who he is today. That moment is *more shocking* than anything the audience could have imagined. It’s important to exceed the audience’s expectations any time you reveal information that has been simmering for most of the movie. Every character has secrets, and using them to create a mystery about that character involves the audience in the story. We want to know why a nice guy like Lee gets into these bar fights he has no chance of winning. Why returning to Manchester is such a big deal to him.
THREE: PROBLEM SOLVES PROTAGONIST
I always say that at the end of a story the protagonist solves the problem, or the problem solves the protagonist. Either way, there is a solution - an ending. Though Ted Talley (“Silence Of The Lambs”) says, "There's almost never been a movie made that couldn't benefit from its ending being a tentative affirmation. Anything more than that feels too pat", we still need a *decisive* ending where the story’s main problem has been resolved. There may be some subplots left unresolved, but the audience feels satisfied that story is over and knows they can grab their coats and leave the cinema. In “Silence Of The Lambs”, the serial killer Buffalo Bill is shot dead by Clarice (decisive ending to the main conflict), but Hannibal Lecter escapes and is out there somewhere (leaving a subplot unresolved). This adds realism to the ending of the story.
In “Manchester By The Sea” we get a different kind of solution to the main conflict... an unusual type of solution in American movies. The problem solves the protagonist - the conflict “wins”. The story is a tragedy, and instead of everyone living happily ever after - they don’t. That is another piece of realism in this story.
Though the event that brings Lee back to Manchester is the death of his brother and the need for someone to raise his nephew, the story is really about Lee’s character. Every story is secretly about the protagonist, and the conflict is designed to bring that character to the surface; and that happens here. We learn more and more about Lee as deals with his past in Manchester - that conflict exposes the conflict within. But this is a “character study” and is more about Lee than it is about having to raise 16 year old Patrick. The Patrick story ends up a subplot designed to focus the story on our main plot: the tragedy of Lee.
Every screenwriting book I have ever read focuses on the protagonist solving the problem, but in a tragedy the problem wins. Hamlet never does get his act together - though Hamlet does fight Polonius’s son Laertes is a duel to the death by swords, each is mortally wounded. Hamlet’s cheating mom Gertrude drinks poisoned wine and dies, and Hamlet realizes his uncle Claudius was behind everything from his father’s murder to that duel with Laertes, and kills him... the whole story was about Hamlet growing a pair and taking responsibility for the Kingdom... and he fails miserably at that! Norway’s army attacks Denmark and kills anyone not yet dead and takes over. So, obviously Hamlet doesn’t really solve the problem, the problem solves Hamlet. With an ending like this, the subplot story needs to be resolved by the protagonist in some way so that their failure at solving the main plot is more palatable.
In “Manchester” Lee finds someone to raise Patrick, and gets the heck out of town. Manchester *wins* against Lee. He leaves in defeat. This is not the typical ending for a Hollywood film, not even the typical ending for a story from anywhere. But as long as the audience knows that Patrick will be well taken care of, they will allow Lee to *lose* the battle with his “ghost” (symbolized by the town) and drag himself away in defeat. A story like this is the opposite of “Silence Of The Lambs”, the main conflict is never resolved but all of the subplot conflicts *are* resolved. A perfectly acceptable way to end a story.
“Manchester By The Sea” uses these three methods to create a sense of realism in its story, as well as several more. Even if you are writing a genre story instead of a straight drama, these are great tools to use when constructing your characters and writing your dialogue and coming up with a completely unusual and unexpected ending.
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