I first saw Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester By The Sea during Sundance ’16. As everyone knows by now the central tragedy in that film is a late-night house fire, caused by fireplace embers and the failure of Casey Affleck‘s soused character to properly contain them. The fire causes the death of Affleck and Michelle Williams‘ three children — two small daughters and an infant son.
It hit me during the summer of ’16 that a similar real-life tragedy that happened on 12.25.11 in Stamford, Connecticut and extinguished the lives of three small children, may have inspired the Manchester author to engage in a little borrowing.
The Stamford home, owned by divorced advertising executive Madonna Badger, burned to the ground due to mishandled fireplace embers, apparently due to careless actions by either Badger or her boyfriend at the time, the late Michael Borcina. The fire resulted in the death of Badger’s three small daughters as well as her parents.
It’s been reported that the initial idea of a grief-struck handyman was pitched by Matt Damon and John Krasinski sometime after the release of Margaret. Lonergan worked on the Manchester script for about three years, finishing it sometime in ’14. Even if the New York-based writer had begun work in the fall of ’11, or not long after the release of Margaret and a few weeks before the Christmas Stamford tragedy, it would have been a natural enough thing for him to have read about it, etc.
If Lonergan cooked up the idea of a family house fire all on his own, fine. But it’s quite a coincidence. The details are awfully similar.
I naturally didn’t bring up the similarities during Manchester‘s award-season push, and there was always the chance that spoiler whiners would beat me up if I mentioned it in the wake of the 2017 Oscar telecast, during which Lonergan won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and Affleck won for Best Actor.
I was particular struck by a quote in 12.26.11 N.Y. Times story about the Stamford tragedy (co-authored by Kristin Hussey and Sarah Maslin Nir) from a neighbor of Badger’s. “’It’s just a big hole, just rubble,’ said Tina Williams, who lives on the same street as Ms. Badger. ‘That poor woman is going to lose her mind.'”
Manchester by the Sea is about many family issues and responsibilities, but as far as Affleck’s character is concerned it’s precisely and completely about that one idea — that a person responsible for such a tragedy might well lose their mind, or at the very least be emotionally shackled to that horror for the rest of their lives, and that there’s no closure, no parole, no recovering, no getting past it or “beating” it.