Academy award-winning director Lonergan speaks at Pomona

Award-winning screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan came to speak at the Hive’s Humanities Studio Nov 1. (Photo Courtesy of the Pomona College Humanities Studio)

“There are some exceptions –– but the general Hollywood process is to make scripts into mincemeat.”

Kenneth Lonergan is a filmmaker with a distinct voice. He knows what he likes and he knows what he doesn’t; he knows what he’s capable of and what he isn’t; he tries to pursue and preserve what feels right.

To meet him is to want to get to know him deeper, because what he has to offer can’t be said in a few words; like his films, it must be felt. His answers function on a case-by-case basis and don’t pretend to tell blanket truths.

Lonergan, director and screenwriter of the Oscar-winning film “Manchester by the Sea” and several other films critically acclaimed as masterpieces, came to Pomona College for a public discussion with novelist and professor Jonathan Lethem and, later, with students.

The event was presented under the Humanities Studio’s theme this year, “fail better.” The theme wasn’t directly addressed beyond a brief mention, but it never seemed far from the discussion. My impression is that failure, like so many other experiences Lonergan’s films touch on, is so integrated into his intuition that it hardly seems necessary to clarify an explicit stance. Guilt and grief run as undercurrents through his films.

In “Manchester by the Sea,” the protagonist forgets to put the screen up on the fireplace. The house burns down with his children, and he and his wife subsequently separate. The film takes place later, when his brother dies and leaves the protagonist guardianship of his nephew. The film ruminates on the management of practicalities during grief. It highlights the strange rituals we do, like smalltalk and condolence handshakes, by withdrawing the protagonist from those rituals.

Though Lonergan’s films are sorrowful, they are, as Lethem articulated, yieldingly so. Committed to honesty, they leave the impression of something distinctly human. Rather than joyless, they are secretly joyful. Lonergan’s films, I feel, simultaneously tempted yet hesitant to say, fail better, because they deal so affectionately with failure.

Lonergan said that he hopes his own psychology will lead him to things that are of general interest. “If I satisfy my own standards, I assume an audience will come along,” he said.

Occasionally during the discussion, Lonergan alluded to his frustrations as a screenwriter. “If you want to make films, be a producer or something else where you have creative control,” he said.

Lonergan described the Hollywood scriptwriting process as a chimerical beast of barely-preserved voices in which writers are hired to “write dialogue,” “change stuff,” “write jokes,” “and then you’re fired.”

“In Hollywood,” he said, “the ritual is the more people writing it the better –– in reality it’s the opposite.” Lonergan came into the director’s seat, he explains, because he wanted real artistic control over the things he cared about.

“The main thing I try to do is not make it like a movie…Follow your interests and write what’s right to you, because if you follow writerly exercises, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said.

Hearing from Lonergan is like hearing from an alligator renowned for its ability to catch fowl –– its trick: listening and waiting for the fowl to come. What he means to tell you seems to be to stop asking him for advice and to go out and do your own thing. He seemed to usher us out of the room, to say that putting your voice out there is solely a matter of going ahead, writing, and making.

Blake Plante PO ’19 is an English major. He is most commonly spotted scribbling into an all-weather notebook at all events.

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