How Decisions in the DI Theater Helped Create a Look That Serves Story, Performance, and Intense Emotions

If there's one thing that's important to know about Manchester by the Sea, it's that it is a sad movie. In an emotionally fraught but carefully controlled performance, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a quiet Boston handyman whose life is turned upside-down by the death of his brother. Summoned by to Manchester-By-The-Sea, MA, the hometown he fled some years earlier under tragic circumstances, to arrange the funeral services, Lee finds himself unexpectedly charged with the guardianship of his nephew, an unwanted role he steadfastly resists.

After photography wrapped on the project, which was shot with the ARRI Alexa by DP Jody Lee Lipes, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brought the film to Technicolor PostWorks in New York. There, he was reunited with colorist Jack Lewars, who worked with him on the director's cut of his previous project, the barely released but critically praised Margaret. Lewars worked with Lonergan on an uncommonly relaxed timetable that had them working through an initial color grade in time for the film to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, then returning to the film later in the year to revisit the look of a slightly recut version before its general theatrical release.


It's Always Sunny in Massachusetts

The extended schedule gave Lonergan and Lewars breathing room — time to experiment with different looks and ensure they were making choices that would serve the story without diluting the emotions of Lonergan's script or distracting from the film's highly praised performances. One of those decisions was to keep the film sunny and bright in both exteriors and interiors, despite the emotional burdens borne by its protagonist.

"Sometimes color can be a little heavy-handed," Lewars notes, remembering projects where sadness was conveyed on screen through an almost reflexive darkening of the image. "This time, we just left everything bright. [Lonergan] kept saying that he wanted things bright so people couldn't hide from their emotions. The spotlight was on, and you weren't going to be able to hide behind your surroundings and settings. We kept everything as it would be in life."

Much of the film takes place in winter, which meant that the ground is often blanketed in snow. That infused the film with a certain chill, but it did nothing to dim the color palette. "A very typical thing to do is to make a scene cooler [in color temperature] if it's supposed to be colder," Lewars explains. "But we were actually keeping out whites very clean. You are still getting reflections of the bright sun off the snow. It felt cold, but we weren't skewing it to a different color to make you feel that way. We were trying to keep the images as clean as possible, and as true to life as possible."

The philosophy extended to interiors, as well. For example, scenes set in the hospital where Lee's brother dies are well lit rather than grimly institutional and, if anything, they were pushed to be even brighter. Lewars says the approach short-circuited conventional wisdom about conveying emotions in the color grade. "Even when I first saw the film for myself, before I got any input from the creatives, I had ideas for ominous scenes and making things darker, for sure," he recalls. "You just have certain stereotypical things that you're kind of an auto-trigger for. And [Lonergan] comes in, and he says, 'That's not what I was thinking.' And you realize, 'Oh, this is nice. We're going for something here.' It was great, and so simple, too — a light touch."


The Audience Can Figure It Out

Another decision that flies in the face of conventional wisdom has to do with the film's treatment of flashbacks — that is, it doesn't treat them differently at all. The first half of a film unfolds on a decidedly nonlinear timeline, moving backward and forward in Lee's life until a key scene finally explains the depths and origins of his sadness. The idea of giving those flashbacks a different look, and perhaps making it easier for audiences to follow the story without moments of confusion, was considered but rejected.

"There were discussions in the beginning, when we were first sitting down and discussing and setting looks," Lewars says. "But [Lonergan] decided he didn't want people to know until the reveal what was or wasn't a flashback. We were timing everything as if it were a unified piece, not flashing around [in time], just not to take away from the story."

Unsurprisingly, Lewars says he and Lonergan spent a lot of time on a crucial scene in the film's final reel featuring a carefully scripted and performed conversation between Lee (Affleck) and Randi (Michelle Williams). For one thing, the scene was an exterior, so a lot of time went in to making sure shots of Williams speaking, which were captured after cloud cover moved in, matched the earlier shots of Affleck as close as they could. But that was also a scene that took place during the change of seasons from winter to spring, and color adjustments helped get a transitional look to match the timeframe.

"We played a lot with making it warmer and making it cooler, adding saturation and desaturating it," Lewars says. "We came up with an in-between look for it, not too cool and not too warm. When you watch it now, it doesn't seem like we went though that much effort to get it where it is."

Asked if there was any debate about how a given scene or shot should be treated, Lewards says it was minimal. "Debate was cut out because we really went through and tried a bunch of things," he explains. "We tried things really dark and we tried things really bright, and it all kind of evened out. It was definitely a new experience to me because of how much time we had. It was a luxury, for sure. But there were no specific scenes where we created a new atmosphere."

Breathing Room

But the film has a certain well-defined mood — it's reflective but not oppressive. There are intermittent breaks in the narrative where exterior shots appear while classical music plays on the soundtrack, providing a kind of respite from the emotional intensity. Lewars says those moments are tied to the film's strong sense of geographical place. "We spent a lot of time on the outside shots, the beauty shots," he says. "A lot of shots transition between seasons, and you don't realize it's happening. As you're watching the movie, sometimes you question whether you're in the present or the past, until you get to that middle point where the reveal happens. And I think the beauty shots in between try to give you a refreshing breath, just so everybody can have a second."

That's just another decision among many, from the screenwriting process through photography and into editorial and post, that help give Manchester by the Sea its special, carefully modulated tone. The result is a story that elicits powerful feelings without feeling manipulative, that cuts through metaphorical darkness with literal and lyrical brightness. It's an intense experience, but not an utterly despairing one.