Manchester By The Sea is a masterful film, a devastating and heartbreaking drama. When his older brother dies, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) travels back to his hometown and discovers he has been named legal guardian of his nephew Joe. His return means Lee must face the gut-wrenching past he left behind, as well as cope with the emotional upheaval that erupts between himself and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).
Named Best Picture by the National Board of Review, the film also won Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Kenneth Lonergan and Michelle Williams respectively.
I recently caught up with Production Designer Ruth De Jong about how she made essential connections with the residents of a small Massachusetts town to help Lonergan create the authentic look we see in the film.
Awards Daily: What’s your process when you start working?
Ruth De Jong: Usually, I’ll start talking with the director about where they see it. In this case, we are a small, independent film going to Cape Ann in Massachusetts, this community. It was written for this place, so I had to do a lot of research because I’m from Los Angeles and I’ve spent a lot of time on the East Coast, but every place has their thing that their make-up comes from. I got there, and I wanted to embrace the town and meet these people. These characters that Kenneth wrote, though imaginary, I was looking for guys that fish, and guys who go fishing for a living. It was so interesting as I went around the town and they just rallied behind us, and really wanted to help me and my team. They would tell me to meet this person so I could see people and what they wore, how they live, what they do, what their kids are like, and then developing from there.
We scouted tons of homes and picked up all the details and extracted it from the area, and then put it into our film.
AD: With this, you’re working on location with a lot of exterior shots, how did that work for you as you’re not building a set?
RDJ: I went around for weeks location scouting, then I’d director scout. In the art department, I had a massive wall and I broke down all the sets and their names, like the docks, the fisherman’s wharf, or Lee’s house. I’d go through my imagery, and I’d go out and shoot docu-style, as they were. I’d put out what made sense to me. We’d then go in and re-dress them. Some elements worked, some didn’t. We shot around town, around people’s houses, but there were no prop houses.
We really used the town to help make the film, which really helped make it so authentic. My goal was to make the backdrop of the town be a character in itself, and help define Lee’s character.
I found a bunch of guys, I’d ask them if I could ride in their truck and I did the whole thing to go to their boat. I’d ask if they wanted to work with Casey, and they were on board. It was just organic.
AD: That’s wonderful that everyone was so co-operative.
RDJ: Traditionally, I have a whole team and we’re doing everything from scratch and the world is coming out of our mind. I scrapped all that because we didn’t have money to build anything. I did build the house we burnt, from the ground up, but other than that, I knew we had to find the film in the town. I had to go and make friends. [laughs]. They’re so sweet because they will still text me and invite me back. Some of them have really gorgeous houses, but we didn’t shoot in any of those. It’s a beautiful little place.
AD: What did you and Kenneth discuss?
RDJ: A lot of it was about the character. I’d ask about the character’s family, their emotion. I’d ask a lot of things that helped define who they were, why they’d live in that type of home, and why they’d drive that car. We really just geeked out on who these people were. I remember figuring out Lee’s car and that it would be a Jeep and why it was a Jeep. I can’t even remember. I’d go around in circles about it, and it’s stuff you look at in a film and you’d don’t even think about. For us to get there, it was two weeks of back and forth. I found a used car dealer, and I went to his lot. We talked about color with the camera and tonally about what the film would look like. Kenneth said, “Ruth, this is a very sad film, but it’s still beautiful outside. They’re going to wear bright colors sometimes. You don’t wear black and gray.” He didn’t want me designing it for the dialogue or the mood. He wanted to be honest and real, and that was the biggest thing.
It’s such a cliche as all production designers will say that, but we didn’t try to contrive anything or try to make it beautiful. We just wanted to say, “This is Manchester. This is the high school, these are the kids, this is the garage.” Yes, we did dress everything, but it was all based on what we saw, and a compilation of going in and out of houses and photographers.
AD: What about that scene with Michelle and Casey, another exterior scene, but very important, and you’re dealing with nature.
RDJ: We deliberated over that a lot. We wanted it to be authentic. We wondered and talked about what would be the right place. We let it marinate. We talked about several different places, but then we decided she was out walking, and he’s going here, and you would just run into someone in a town like that. It’s this park in town where every kid plays baseball, and that’s what she’d want to do, she’s got this baby, and she wants to get out of the house.
We didn’t force it at all.
AD: What’s next for you?
RDJ: I’m in conversations with a few directors. Right now, I’m actually on commercials, about to embark on a big campaign for Nike. It’s a really exciting spot. I was set to start Blonde in July, but that hasn’t happened yet. After Manchester, I did do Twin Peaks.
AD: That was iconic.
RDJ: YAY! I’m just doing fun things until I start the feature.
AD: So, what in Manchester should we pay attention to. Do you put anything in like a little thing?
RDJ: I don’t have anything for this really. I think mainly it’s all about the attention to detail. That’s such a good one, I should think about that, it’s a fun nod. It’s so hilarious [laughs].
We had this running joke that there were a lot of ducks up there, and we actually found a taxidermy duck and brass ducks. We’d pass the ducks around, and we took that into Twin Peaks as well. I think there’s one in Manchester too, but it’s such an inside thing, but I don’t stick a duck in every movie.
AD: It could be.
RDJ: [laughs] That’s funny. I’ll think about it.