MANCHESTER BY THE SEA:
Tests, Flashbacks & Characters That Don’t Change
We’re used to seeing character driven movies that are about characters going through great personal changes. We’re used to watching these kind of family stories, especially dysfunctional family stories. We’re used to watching stories about families coming together.
That’s because most movies are built around a very simple principle, which is the principle of change– the idea that characters are undergoing this journey so that they can change. Normally we think of this as a change for the better.
One of the interesting things about Manchester By the Sea’s structure is that this character, Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, is a character that wants to change but simply cannot.
This is a movie about a character who wants to change but can’t, failing to overcome his demons.
So this week, we’re going to talk about movies where the character does not change.
There are a couple of different kinds of these movies, but Manchester By the Sea falls into a very specific category of them. This is a movie that I call a Test Movie.
You can almost think of it as the other side of the coin from a Change Movie.
For most movies, the structure exists for a very simple purpose; take a character who starts at point A and move them to Z.
So, if you have a character who’s extraordinarily kind, we might move that character to a place of selfishness. If we have a character who is incredibly selfish we might move that character through a place of kindness.
Now, some Change Movies work like a circle.
For example, if you think of a movie like The Wrestler, it starts with a character whose life revolves around wrestling, and we move him the furthest we can move him from there, which is to a place of actually integrating with society. We get him a girlfriend and a relationship with his daughter. He gets a job at a deli that he loves, making him feel like he once did in the ring.
Then what we do in the second half is take everything away. We take away his daughter, the job and the girlfriend and we ended back where we started.
In these Circular Change Movies, a character doesn’t go back to where they started it in the same way; they go back in a different way.
The Wrestler is not the same person he was at the beginning, even though he’s changed and then changed back.
But most movies and TV shows based on a Change Structure take a more A-Z approach to change.
For example: Breaking Bad: A mild-mannered professor turns into cold-blooded meth dealing killer and guess what—he loves it!
Another example is American Beauty. The character starts off afraid to stand up to his wife and be himself, goes through a total nervous breakdown while he is lustfully pursuing his 16-year-old daughter’s best friend, and somehow transforms himself into a person who’s at peace with his universe.
These are the standard change movies we’re used to seeing.
Then we have test movies, and there are lots of them.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a test movie. It’s a story about a character who does not change. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is the same at the beginning as he is in the end. Nothing changes, but he does get tested.
He gets tested in his desire to pursue the Ark of the Covenant.
Any normal, reasonable human being tested in the way that Indiana Jones is tested would simply decided “Screw this Ark. I’m going to go back to teaching where it’s nice and safe,” but Indiana Jones consistently makes the opposite decision.
He doesn’t change but he does get tested: Is he willing to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend in order to get this Ark? Is he willing to stand up to this scary Nazi with the burn in his hand or confront his fear of snakes in order to get this Ark? Is he willing to confront the power of the Nazi Army to get this Ark? Is he willing to confront the face of G-d in order to get this Ark? Is he willing to confront the meaninglessness of his work, when that Ark ends up in the basement of the museum? Indiana Jones doesn’t change; he gets tested.
The way we test him is we put him in situations where any other character would change, but that character refuses to change.
Forrest Gump is an example of a test movie. Forrest Gump doesn’t change. Forrest Gump maintains his innocence in the face of the historical events of the 60’s that made all of America change. So, Forrest Gump living through the horror of the sixties, living through a world where people die and get shot for no reason, horrible things happen; your best friend dies, your Lieutenant Dan that you look up to becomes a bitter, suicidal veteran, your mother dies, Jenny doesn’t love you and Jenny’s dying. In the face of political upheaval, Forrest Gump holds onto his innocence in the face of everything that would have changed us.
To go to the darker side, a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth is a test movie; a story of a little girl who believes she is the inheritor of a fairy kingdom– who’s been banished from that fairy kingdom and forced to live in the world of men.
The world of men she lives in is an ugly world. Her beautiful mother has married a Fascist Captain, a high-up in the Spanish army during the Spanish Civil War, and she is now literally eating at the table of Fascism. Fascism is protecting her, feeding her, giving her clothes…
And all she wants is to return to that fairy Kingdom. She meets a Faun in the woods that offers a way to rescue herself from this fate, and all she has to do for her dream to come true is three tests that the Faun has created for her.
What happens is, she gets tested in pursuing the tests. In her refusal to blindly listen to the Faun, or to the temptations of her desire, and in doing so, she holds onto her pure heart.
So, her mother gets sick and she chooses not to do the test. She’s asked finally for one drop of her brother’s blood and she chooses not to do the tests. There’s one little moment where she wavers a little bit. There’s a moment where she eats a grape from a table she’s been forbidden, but for the most part the character doesn’t change.
What happens is even in the face of the opportunity to inherit her fairy kingdom, have everything she ever wants in the world, this character hold on to her purity. She holds on to her innocence– and of course this is a story about Fascism, right? This is a story about what do you do in the face of fascism? Do you let it change you, or do you refuse to change?
And what’s really beautiful about this movie, without ruining it for you, is that she is both rewarded and punished. She suffers both the ultimate horror of Fascism and also the ultimate beauty of holding on to who she really is.
So these are all examples of test movies in really big budget commercial films.
We don’t see these Test Movie structures as often in character driven movies, particularly in family driven movies.
That’s because, for one thing, this is not the story we normally want to see about our family. We want to feel like our family is going to change, like things are going to get better, like the dysfunctions are going to go away, like some day we will finally hear each other and listen to each other.
And when we fall in love with characters, we want to believe that they’re going to become better people today than they were yesterday, because we want to believe that we’re going to be better people than we were yesterday.
So, usually, in these kind of Sundance-y films– in these independent films– if you think of Me Earl and The Dying Girl, for example, if you think of a movie like The Celebration, if you think of a movie like Margot At The Wedding, if you think about a movie like Secrets and Lies, if you think of a movie like Junebug, if think of any of these little independent films– character driven films– usually what we’re used to watching is characters going through a huge changes in relation to their family: coming together with their family, breaking away from their family, somehow reconciling the problems of family.
And so, let’s set aside for a moment its strengths and weaknesses, because Manchester By The Sea has a lot of both.
What is most interesting to me about Manchester By The Sea is the emergence of a less seen kind of family drama– a movie about a character who doesn’t change.
So if you think of the character of Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, this is a character who has a very difficult past.
There are some spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the movie…
Lee Chandler’s backstory is that a long time ago, he was in a beautiful and broken relationship with a woman he truly loved and who truly loved him. And he wasn’t a perfect husband and she wasn’t a perfect wife. She had a drug problem. He had a partying problem. He had an irresponsibility problem. He was a very difficult man for her to be with. He was not the best father to ever live, but you can see they loved each other, that there was a genuine love between them.
And then one day, he’s having a big party with his friends, he’s high on cocaine, his wife comes down and kicks everyone out, he throws a couple of logs on the fire, goes to buy some more beer, and by the time he gets back, his house has burned to the ground and his children are dead.
The only one to survive is his wife and, of course, they end up broken up.
So this is the past, this is the backstory of the character. In this movie we find out about the backstory, but oftentimes the backstory isn’t even important.
Whenever your character has a really strong backstory, one of the questions you need to ask yourself is: Does the movie take place then or does the movie take place now? Is this a movie about the present or a movie about the past? Or is it truly about both.
Flashbacks work best when the most interesting part of the story takes place in the story between the past and the present.
When two powerful stories are in dialogue with each other. And they work least the most interesting part of story is the stuff that’s happening in the past, or when the flashbacks exist to explain things to the audience, rather than to allow the character to wrestle with them himself.
So, if we think of Lee’s back story, if the writer had felt that the most interesting thing in the movie was the story that happened in the past with his wife, then the truth of the matter is he wouldn’t want to be flashing back and forth. He would want to be locking into that period of time.
The flashbacks in Manchester By The Sea succeed because this writer, Kenneth Lonergan, finds a way to make the past present.
What does it mean to make the past present?
He finds a way to make the crisis of the past, that this character has still not dealt with, come back in the present to force the character to come to terms with it in some way, to force the character to wrestle with the unfinished business again.
So at the beginning of the movie, we see Lee in his routine; he is a janitor in Boston. He is a janitor, his life is pretty bleak and unimportant and pretty lonely. He spends his days cleaning, fixing, tending to all these different apartments, getting treated badly. He spends his nights in bars alone. He’s got a penchant for fistfights when he’s feeling
frustrated. He’s not happiest man in life, and there’s not a lot going on for him at home.
And then he finds out that his brother, Joe, is dying.
There’s an interesting editing choice, that I probably would not have made if it had been my movie, that happens here, which is that the writer/director chooses to show the entire road trip.
Most likely, he’s trying to create the feeling of how hard it was to get there and why Lee can’t get there before his brother dies. But the effect, like many other directorial choices, on the movie, is that it slows down the pace.
The truth is, there are a lot of sequences like that, which means this isn’t happening by accident, this is happening on purpose.
But you do need to be aware, as you’re writing, that if you’re not showing things that are particularly exciting for a really long time, it does have a profound effect on the pace of your movie. And for the people who did not respond to Manchester By The Sea, a big part of that was often about the pacing.
But anyway, regardless of the pacing issues…
Lee jumps in a car, puts his life on hold, gets someone to cover for him and heads to Manchester to see his brother before he dies.
He gets there too late, and then he finds out that his brother’s will has named him the guardian of his brother’s son Patrick.
The wife is out of picture. She’s got some psychological problems of her own. There’s a best friend whose kids are grown up and starting to leave the house and the last thing that he wants is another child. There’s no one to do this except for Lee.
And what this does is take the problem that Lee didn’t deal with from the past and put it back in the present of his life.
He has to once again be a father and he doesn’t want to be a father.
And one of the reasons that the flashbacks work so well, the same way the flashbacks in Sophie’s Choice work so well, is that the experiences of the present are forcing Lee to wrestle of the memories of the past.
So rather than existing for exposition for the audience to go “Hey! By the way did I tell you, he has a really bad backstory!”– instead, we feel like we’re flashing back through the perspective of the main character.
We’re seeing two things as we flash back.
First, we’re seeing a prolonged sequence on the boat, that we keep coming back to, with Lee and his brother and Patrick. We’re seeing a genuine love between Lee and Patrick.
We’re seeing Lee’s desire for Patrick to hang out with him more, to spend more time
with him in the days before all of this loss happened. We’re seeing Lee’s memories of his love for the child.
And this is really important, because in the present Lee is mostly a total asshole to this child. Lee is not the standard, caring supportive uncle, “Oh my god, your father’s dead I feel so sad for you.” Lee is hard on him. Lee is rough on him. Lee doesn’t listen to him. Lee doesn’t ask him questions.
In a situation where any of us would let go of our hard veneer, Lee keeps that hard veneer firmly in place. In anything, he probably makes it harder.
So these flashbacks are very important, because this is Lee flashing back to his memories of how much he once loved this child. And they’re important structurally for us as the audience, because they tell us the secret we wouldn’t know otherwise, the secret that there’s a part of Lee that secretly wants to be Patrick’s father– the part that he’s not showing.
It is this part that’s being tested; the part of him that loved his children, the part of him that loves Patrick, the part of him that he could not show in the past, the part of him that he is struggling to show in the present.
He’s in a situation where any of us would feel we had no choice but find a way to face that demon and find a way to be kind, loving and supporting to this child.
But, Lee makes a different choice; he chooses to be consumed by the past, rather than changed by it.
So we have this flashback. The one pull in Lee that we will never see him fully act on. The pull towards being a father, the pull that made him fall in love with his wife, the pull that made him have children in the first place, the pull of what his life could be if he could just get over his past.
And then on the other side, we have a more structural series of flashbacks.
And what I mean by structural is this:
Movies move. And when flashbacks are still, they slow down a movie in the same way that your pace slows down when you show an entire road trip where no big choices happen.
A movie’s structure is about choices.
In Change Movies, they’re about choices that change us. And, in Test Movies, they’re about choices that don’t. They’re about the choices where we refuse to change.
So we have one flashback sequence that does not have structure to it. It is simply an emotional pull that all takes place on one boat. It doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. It is more of a tonal moment, a nostalgic moment, that one moment of beauty that you remember that gives you a picture of what the future of your life might someday be.
The other flashback sequence is much more structural. What that means is that it happens in an order, it happens happens with multiple acts.
This flashback sequence is the story of the dissolution of his marriage, about his downward spiral, even before his children’s death. This is a story about the house fire. This is a story about trying to pick up the pieces after the house fire.
And, in one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, this is the story of Lee showing up at the police station in the wake of his children’s deaths, and wanting to be punished, admitting he was on cocaine, wanting them to throw him in jail and, instead, being turned free, wanting a punishment and that punishment is not coming.
This is the story of him grabbing a cop’s pistol and putting it to his own head, trying to kill himself before finally being subdued by a whole mob of cops. This is the story of man’s descent.
So, usually when we see a character driven movie and we have a bunch of flashbacks about a descent towards suicide, the events that led him to this deeply compromised life he’s living in Boston, this sequence, this structure, that led to the choice to let go of his love for pretty much everyone, to isolate himself from his family, to pull away from Patrick, this boy he loved, from his brother, to only show up when his brother is dying or his brother is sick.
Usually when we see a journey like that in the past, what we expect is a different journey in the present.
If in the past it’s a journey towards suicide, we expect in the present it’s going to be a
journey away from it. If in the past it’s a journey away from wife, away from family, away from love, away from children, we expect in the present to see a journey back towards them, a reintegration.
This would be a change movie.
But what happens in Manchester by the Sea is the character gets tested, and he gets tested on every thread that was ever important to him.
He gets tested first in his relationship to Patrick. From the moment he shows up, there’s really no time that he sits down with Patrick and allows Patrick to express his emotions to him. He spends most of the movie trying to get out of his responsibility to Patrick, punishing Patrick for being left to him, insisting that he’s going to pull Patrick out of his life, trying to pawn him off on someone else, trying to convince the best friend to take him, and even allowing the thing that he wants least in the world, which is for Patrick’s crazy abusive mother to have another shot at this kid.
And when all of those things don’t work out, we expect that finally Lee is going to pass the test, but once again Lee chooses not to change.
Now what’s really beautiful and what makes this really powerful is that, despite their total inability to connect, despite his gruffness, despite his lack of appreciation for what this boy has gone through, despite all the problems between them, we are actually seeing the two of them grow closer. We are actually seeing Lee start to become a father figure to this child and we’re starting to see this child become a son to him.
We even return to the boat where we see the two of these characters together in the boat, reminiscent of that moment that we keep flashing back to, that moment again becoming present.
These are the signs that make us think that change is possible, that change is going to happen. These are the signs that keep the test movie from feeling flat, by giving these little opportunities to change.
So this is the first thing I want you to think about is that if you’re building a Test Movie: the opportunity to change must exist.
You must crack open the door, because if you don’t crack open the door, the only thing we see is a victim story. And when we only see a victim story, when we only see a story about “Life sucks, life’s unfair”, when we don’t ever see the opportunity to change, yes, it is devastating, but we cannot, as an audience, take anything from it.
We can’t teach ourselves anything. We can’t root for someone who never has a chance. We can only pity them.
We can never see ourselves in someone who never has a chance, we can only feel sorry for them.
There is a distance that occurs between you and someone who never has a chance where you say “Aw, that’s so sad”, and you say it in the way that so many of us say “Man, it’s so sad what’s going on with those children in Africa” or “It’s so sad what’s going on with those immigrants trying to get into America.”
It’s hard to see ourselves when the character’s themselves have no opportunity for change through their own choices.
But when you bring that opportunity for change out there, you create a devastating effect in the audience, and that devastating effect is looking at the character’s life and saying “Where are the places where I could change and don’t? What are the decisions where I’m letting my past get in the way of my future? Where are those places where I’m letting my guilt or my fear or my shame cut me off from those who need me and cut me off from the things that really matter to me?”
So if you’re going to tell a movie that’s a Test Movie, you want to make sure an opportunity for change exists. The stronger that opportunity becomes, the more we feel the loss, the most devastating the loss becomes, the further the character falls.
The next thing that’s really interesting about Manchester By The Sea is that this character is tested on every level.
He is tested in his relationship with the boy, he is tested in his relationship with the boy’s mother, his family friend, his town, his sex drive, his brother’s memory and, most importantly, he is tested in his relationship with his ex-wife.
There’s a moment where these two people come back together. There’s a moment where his wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams– who is now remarried, who is now once again pregnant, who, throughout the film keeps on showing up– wants to come to the funeral with her new husband.
Everytime she shows up, Lee has to see her pregnant, see her moving on, even though he’s not. So he’s been tested throughout the movie by the spectre of his ex, by what he’s done to her, by her hatred for him, by the feeling that what he’s done is unforgivable and that she will never ever ever forgive him.
And then, in the final act of the movie, they come across each other in the street, and she tells him she loves him, she tells him she was unfair to him, she asks for him to go to lunch.
This is yet another test, and there’s a moment when we think maybe something’s actually going to happen between these two, maybe a friendship, maybe a moment of peace, maybe even a new chance at love.
And once again Lee chooses not to change. He chooses not to reintegrate, not to get over the past, by turning her down.
And we see this with other women as well. It seems that wherever he goes, there’s some woman trying to connect with him, someone trying to fall in love with him, someone trying to connect with him, someone trying to bring him closer.
And again, and again and again this character chooses not to get closer.
Until there’s a moment at the very end of the film where we believe the reconciliation is going to happen…
Only to find out that the best friend’s given up and is going to take the child, and that Lee’s going to go back to Boston to live his life, that Lee is not going to change.
And even in that moment, we can feel that Lee has changed a little, because even though this is a test movie, like most successful test movies, it does have moments of change.
We do feel the connection that’s built between the two of them, we do know that there’s at least going to be a couch where Patrick can come and sleep. We do know that a tiny relationship has been built even if it wasn’t the big one we’ve expected.
This is not a radical notion, but it’s, nevertheless an unusual notion.
It’s an unusual notion in independent films and it’s an unusual notion in Hollywood films.
Usually, whether it’s a Hollywood feature or a Sundance tiny little indie film, the goal is to change the character as much as possible.
In a classic Test Movie, the goal is to not change the character as much as possible, but to keep the character from changing at all.
But in this form of Test Movie, the goal is to not move the character from A to Z, but to move the character from A, maybe halfway to B.
To give that tiny little piece of movement that gives us the hope that maybe in the future that change could still happen.
But the important thing to understand, whether you’re telling a Test Movie, a Change Movie, a Circular Change Movie or one of these little A to B Test Movies, the important thing to understand is that the fundamental engine of structure is still change, whether the character is still changing or not.
And that’s why it’s so important, whether your character is going to not change at all, change from A to B, or change from A to Z, the potential for that A to Z must be there.
Whatever the obstacle that is holding them back, you want to take that past and make it present, you want to test the character, not just with the bad, but also with the good. You want to show the journey that the character could have taken.
The reason that this is so important is that this is what makes fictional stories human. This is what makes us fall in love with characters, because this is what allows us to see ourselves in characters.
The one thing that every writer, every audience member, every producer, every agent, every manager, every studio executive, every Hollywood star, everybody has in common is this one, simple thing. Every single one of us wants to change.
Every single one of us has dreams that we are not chasing.
Every single one of us has a past that we are afraid to overcome. Every single one of us has choices that we know we need to make that we are afraid of making.
So whether your change is an A to B thing, whether your change is an A to Z thing or whether your change is to hold on to who you are in the face of all the obstacles that want to change you, I hope you make the choices that leads you to your dreams, whether they’re artistic or structural.