NEW YORK (AP) — The filmmaker and playwright Kenneth Lonergan, a self-described "ultra-naturalist" whose eloquently empathic stories tremble with the richness of daily life, began his writing career, surprisingly, awash in science fiction.
He was (and still is) a die-hard Trekkie. He has seen "2001: A Space Odyssey" more than 50 times, he estimates. One of his early plays (unproduced so far) is about two spacemen spinning through the universe for years after their ship was disintegrated. Lonergan would lead Matthew Broderick, his best friend since high-school, from their Upper West Side neighborhood to the Ziegfeld Theatre to see "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." ''He liked to sit about two or three rows back and just get blasted by it," recalls Broderick.
Lonergan's plays and films, talky and naturalistic, employ nothing like Spielbergian grandeur. But they can nevertheless, on a purely human scale, just as surely overpower in their fullness of life, in their warm, melancholic intimacy.
"Life is full of very interesting, small details that usually get skipped over for the sake of economy," Lonergan, rumpled and genial, said in a recent interview in Soho, not far from where he lives with his wife, the actress J. Smith-Cameron and their 10-year-old daughter. "And those little details dictate all sorts of things in life. When I skip over them, there's not much left."
That sensitive eye has made Lonergan, 54, one of the most celebrated playwrights of his generation, and a figure of cultish ardor for his first two films: the luminous sibling drama "You Can Count on Me" and the ambitious New York masterwork "Margaret." The latter was embroiled for years in a law suit and disagreements with the distributor, Fox Searchlight, and received only the scantest of theatrical releases. Lonergan's favored longer edit has steadily gained in stature.
Now, cinematic redemption is at hand. Lonergan's new film, "Manchester by the Sea" (in theaters Friday), is already one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, roundly pegged as an Oscar favorite. It stars Casey Affleck as a janitor whose brother's death returns him to his Massachusetts fishing village hometown, a homecoming that resurfaces a trauma from the past. His brother's will names him guardian of a teenage son.
The film, toggling between the past and present, runs on two rails at once, leading to a heartbreaking portrait of a tragedy's long, unshakable shadow.
"I was a little chagrined to work on it because these things have happened to real people, and worse, and you sometimes wonder if you have any right to be making it into a fun story for people to compliment you on," says Lonergan with a chuckle. "Then I figured why not, it's worth talking about, it's worth trying to look at and be truthful about and respectful of."
The idea of the film was first brought to Lonergan by Matt Damon (who co-stars in "Margaret") and John Krasinski. They hoped Lonergan would write it and Damon would direct and star. Time passed and schedules got complicated, and ultimately Lonergan took up directing, too, with Damon (now a producer) handing the role to his longtime friend, Affleck. It was, to a certain extent, a lifeline out of the debilitating saga — the "unrelenting difficulties," Lonergan says — of "Margaret."
"I certainly saw the value in giving him a good job, but my motives were probably far more selfish than that," says Damon. "He's my favorite writer."
"Manchester by the Sea" drew raves at its Sundance Film Festival premiere, where Amazon plunked down $10 million for distribution rights. Being the toast of Hollywood would put some in the mood for celebration. Not Lonergan.
"He's a curmudgeon, as everyone says," says Broderick. "Kenny said, 'I don't know if I feel good because I improved myself and I feel better or if it's because everyone's telling me I'm great.' That definitely doesn't hurt. As we get older, you can really appreciate this is a wonderful time for him and he should enjoy it. And he should use it to make whatever he wants."
Affleck, who starred in a London production of Lonergan's "Youth in Revolt," describes Lonergan as allergic to sentimentality and artificial convention.
"He talks about the characters like they're friends of yours you've known your whole life," says Affleck. "It just seems like human beings and at the end you're sobbing and you're not sure why because people have just been fighting about whether to order pizza or not. It's a magic trick."
Lonergan, though, is less mystical about his process. When he gets stuck, he says, he tries to think pragmatically about his characters, the way an actor might. Did she have dinner yet? Would she have needed to make that phone call? Some of the scenes in "Manchester by the Sea" came out of Lonergan simply driving up and down Cape Ann to figure out how his characters would have gotten around.
"I've always just tried as hard as I could to do whatever was necessary to access whatever secrets that I didn't know about that were inside of me," says Lonergan. "You do certain steering of that. But mostly what I hope is you're like: 'That would be cool.' And you don't know why and you don't ask why."
How does he steer himself? Lonergan smiles. "I don't know. I've forgotten how."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP