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Manchester By the Sea Wouldn’t Exist If Matt Damon Wasn’t Such a Nice Guy

It’s easy to mock Matt Damon right now. His new movie, The Great Wall, is the worst-reviewed of his career. Its lazy white savior narrative inspired the sarcastic #ThankYouMattDamon trend last week. The truly bizarre accent-of-indeterminant-origin he chose to go with in the film instantly resulted in a hilarious Reddit thread where users attempted to one-up each other with funny names for the accent, such as “PhoningItIn” and “ThisMovieIsGoingToBuyMeABiggerHouse.”

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Contrast that with a year ago when Damon was a regular on the awards circuit for The Martian, using one of his acceptance speeches to gush about how nice it felt to actually be liked and star in a movie people really wanted to see.

And, dangit, I really like Matt Damon, have ever since School Ties, Courage Under Fire, The Rainmaker and, obviously, Good Will Hunting.

So, in the interest of putting something positive about Damon out into the world right now here is the story of how he gave Manchester By the Sea to Kenneth Lonergan as a kindness. As Damon himself recently put it, “Someday, I’m going to be able to say to my children, ‘When your dad had any bit of leverage in Hollywood, this is what he helped to do.'”

It all started over dinner with, oddly enough, John Krasinski, The Office star-turned writer-director who actually grew up mere blocks from Damon. They would eventually work together as writers and actors on 2012’s little-seen Gus Van Sant drama Promised Land, but that was still a couple of years ago away when Damon was busy filming The Adjustment Bureau with Krasinski’s wife Emily Blunt. At some point during the shoot, Damon and Krasinski met for a dinner, and Krasinski pitched his idea for a movie about a Massachusetts janitor forced to return home to care for his teenage nephew.

Damon described the process from that point forward rather matter-of-factly in a recent THR interview:

John Krasinski had this idea and talked to me about it over dinner. We decided I would direct and he would act. I had done a play of [Kenneth Lonergan’s] in London in 2002, so we pitched it to him [to write]. He loved the idea but was busy, so we had to go to the back of the line. That was fine because Kenny wanted to do it. A few years later this script arrived. It was rough, it was long, it was meandering, and it was absolutely brilliant. His next draft was essentially the one we ended up shooting. At that point, I had this heart-to-heart with Kenny and said: “You have to direct this. This clearly got its claws into you. Why don’t I star and you direct?” Then, because of my schedule, we had to push, and I didn’t have an opening for another two years. Kenny was ready to go, so we decided on Casey Affleck to star.

What he left out, though, is that Manchester was going to be his directorial debut. To simply let it go like that says a lot about his ego or lack thereof . Plus, he had done more than simply star in a Lonergan play; he had also starred in Lonergan’s Margaret, which had become embroiled in one of the more notorious post-filming legal squabbles in recent memory.

margaret_009-550wThe battle had taken a lot out of Lonergan and sent him into a deep depression, although he’s been quick to point out it was likely no worse a depression that what he normally feels. THR explained what really happened after that:

This particular depression was in 2011, and Lonergan indeed was sitting at home when Matt Damon paid a visit and offered him a writing job. At the time, Lonergan was in the midst of a pitched legal battle over the last film he’d made with Damon, Margaret, a searing two-and-a-half-hour family drama that many critics since have described as a little-seen masterpiece — but which back then was being held up from release by a lawsuit filed by producer Gary Gilbert, who was demanding a shortened re-edit that Lonergan was refusing to make. Damon, concerned about Lonergan’s “horrible limbo,” wanted to do something nice for his friend. So he sat in Lonergan’s Manhattan apartment and pitched him an idea for a script about a New England handyman who ends up with custody of his dead brother’s teen son — a story Damon thought would be right up Lonergan’s dark alley.

The story ended up being the perfect vessel for Lonergan to work through his grief. He recognized that no one was going to feel sympathy for him if he made his next script a semi-autobiographical tale of an artist struggling to rediscover his balance after having his movie taken away from him, but he could channel those feelings into this story of a man who has lost his family.

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Damon stepped down as director and actor, but he stayed attached as a producer, still looking out for the project and Lonergan and desperately searching for funding until Kimberly Steward, wealthy daughter of a tech billionaire, agreed to front the $8.5 million budget. She had one caveat – due to Lonergan’s damaged reputation after Margaret she wanted Damon to have final cut approval, not Lonergan. They agreed to that, but it ended up being unnecessary since neither Damon nor Steward asked for any re-edits of Lonergan’s original 2 hour, 15 minute cut.

The result is that with Manchester’s Best Picture nomination Damon now has his first Oscar nomination as a producer, and Lonergan’s career has been revived, lifted up from a very low place when a friend threw him a bone. In this case, we can very genuinely say #ThankYouMattDamon.

Sources: THR

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About Kelly Konda (1734 Articles)
Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

10 Comments on Manchester By the Sea Wouldn’t Exist If Matt Damon Wasn’t Such a Nice Guy

  1. I actually do like Matt Damon, no matter how much I’m willing to make fun of him. He’s made some serious missteps in the past year. Bourne was a bust ,and then Great Wall just after. I am happy that he got his first Oscar nom, tho’. My only problem is that it stars Casey Affleck, about whom we’ve heard such awful things. His presence makes me uncomfortable watching the movie.

    • I know. Poor Matt has had some definite missteps lately. Despite how much money it made, that new Bourne movie didn’t really seem to please anyone, and The Great Wall will likely forever be regarded as an unfortunate white savior incident and paycheck gig. And to think that a year ago his stock was running pretty high with The Martian. However, ever since his white mansplaining incident to the black producer on Project Greenlight there has been this sense that Damon can now be pointed to as an example of just how endemic racism and white, male privilege is in the industry, i.e., that someone you’d least expect it from turns out to be guilty of it albeit obliviously so. So, add that to The Great Wall and it’s easy to make fun of him. The funny thing you pointed out, which I didn’t, is that even if Manchester is a case of Damon’s redemption, an example of his nice-guy attitude behind the scenes, it has its own baggage with Affleck. Beyond Affleck’s sexual harassment issues in the past, he’s also not overly pleasant to work with, a perfectionist to a fault from the sounds of things. For example, he argued with Lonergan on the Manchester set so often over such things as whether his character should ender a room and say his line or say his from another room and then enter the room that Michelle Williams told THR eventually she would start to think, “Just trust him, Casey. He’s Kenny Lonergan!”

  2. Great story! Loved Manchester so hard. I hope Affleck wins for acting. I still really need to see Margaret.

  3. I watched Margaret! I really enjoyed it – my wife didn’t. It was about 20-25 minutes too long, but I really dug it. Anna Paquin was great and I think it was a very realistic portrayal of how a teenager would react in that sort of situation.

    • 20-25 minutes too long. Imagine how many times Kenneth Lonergan must have heard that during his, let’s call it, custody battle over the movie.

      I still haven’t seen it. Out of curiosity, where did you get it from?

      • From what I’ve read…Lonergan wanted a 3 hour cut, but the studio said it could be no longer than 2.5 hours! This movie really could’ve been done in 2hrs or maybe even 130-140 minutes. I got the DVD (not bluray) from Netflix’s DVD service. Not sure if it’s available digitally or not…

      • The studio probably had a point. Unless it’s godfather or maybe a lord if the rings movie making something 3 hours long is going to be hard to justify.

      • I totally agree. Esp for an indie drama. (Reason why I still haven’t seen “Blue is the Warmest Color” yet. I was interested in it…but 3 hours….OOF)

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