It’s been a year since Manchester By The Sea was first screened at Sundance. Since then the film has been called “One of the best of the year” and has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Casey Affleck has won numerous awards for his performance as Lee Chandler, a man forced to confront his tragic past when he returns to his hometown after his brother passes away. Producer Kimberley Steward earned her first Oscar nomination last week when the critically acclaimed film was nominated for Best Picture.
I caught up with Steward just before she left Sundance for a brief chat about producing the film.
Congratulations. It’s been a full year, and you’re in Sundance again. How does it feel to be back there?
It’s like coming full circle. I’m leaving today and this is where it all began. To be with my team, watching films when we heard about the nomination was very surreal and very exciting.
Manchester By The Sea has been so well received and has had great success since then, but tell us how you got involved.
We were working on another project with Kevin Walsh who is one of the co-producers on Manchester. He sent the script over to Josh Godfrey who’s our head of Development. He was so moved by the script, he told me to drop everything that I was doing. I had moved from NY to LA, and I sat on the bathroom floor and read it in an hour and a half. I called my team back and told them it was something we absolutely had to do it. I was crazy sure about it. You could totally see the movie on the pages.
What was it that struck you about the script?
For it to be such a dramatic movie, there were real beats that were so human. Parts of the film are so human and witty because he (Kenneth Lonergan) really drills down on what life would be after such a tragic situation, not everything is what people perceive things to be. We still have to pour cereal in the morning and do regular things, and he shapes it in a way that draws you into each character. There are not a lot of movies that give you that human experience.
What did you and Kenneth discuss?
For Kenny, it was important for him to connect with the actors prior to us going into production to make sure they had a good understanding of their characters and what they as actors wanted to bring to the story. That pre-development really helped us. It was important for him to have several discussions before the scene and he had this magic to get those idiosyncrasies that humans have in a way we react to different things.
That’s something people love about Manchester. You might not be able to understand the decisions in story, but you can understand the subtext.
Matt Damon was meant to come on board as an actor, but then Casey Affleck stepped in.
Matt is a rock star. He’s been so supportive and came up with this general idea. We came on board and Casey was already attached. I actually have a list, and he was on my list. [laughs]. Nothing excited me more than to work with him on our first film.
The film gets released, and your company name is on the credits. What was that feeling like?
When they put the finishing touches on the film, my producing partner knows so much about post and color correction and all the details. I said I was going to take time to understand this process and got to see them put it together for the first screening.
I started bawling and crawling. It wasn’t about seeing my name, it was about seeing how beautiful it looked on screen. I remembered that moment, being in Massachusetts and remembering how important it was for Kenneth to capture how beautiful this town was.
To see people from that area watching the film, and hearing them say, “This captures it in a way that most people don’t even see it.” That level of authenticity and to get that feedback was awesome. It was awesome for Kenny too as he did everything to keep the integrity of the visuals and to show people something deeper into that area.
I had seen the first cut in late summer after I saw it I knew we had a good film. I was so confident in his vision. He was so excited about what he had created. That’s when I knew that we had something that people would connect to and respond to.
This is your first foray into feature film. What can we expect next?
We’re supporting more auteurs. We have a few projects we’re involved with right now that range from development to pre-producing. We’re working on something with Amazon and that’s out soon.
It’s been really good as far as the response we’ve had from other filmmakers, writers and it’s excited people we’ve wanted to connect with. I think people have been hungry to see this type of film.
I joke with my producing partner that he cries every time we watch that scene. It’s funny to hear our department heads, you get so drawn into the film. Our First AD said he never responds to a movie after because he watches them so much, he said, “I cried my eyes out, Kimberly.” That feels so good.
Massive congratulations on the Oscar nomination.
It’s still so surreal. So surreal and great.