Tuesday, July 17, 2018
  • Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017
Production Designer Ruth De Jong Takes Us To "Manchester by the Sea"
Ruth De Jong
Film marks her 1st collaboration with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan

For Ruth De Jong, production designers “are very much researchers and journalists in a sense. So much of our design influence comes from a heavy amount of research no matter what period, what time frame a film calls for--unless it’s some completely fantastical world that doesn’t exist anywhere. Otherwise, though, you have to ground your design in reality.”

Taking that definition of her occupation to heart and mind, production designer De Jong became a student of the coastal towns of Massachusetts and their residents for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios). De Jong connected with locals to gain insights into their communities. She immersed herself in the towns to zero in on locations that would help advance the story, which introduces us to Lee Chandler (portrayed by Casey Affleck). A janitor in Boston, Chandler returns to his home, Manchester, Mass., upon the death of his older brother, Joe. Affleck’s character will have to stay there longer than he had planned upon learning that he’s now the sole guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). There Lee Chandler is forced to confront a past tragedy which still remains very much of his present-day psyche. It’s a past that separated him not only from his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), but also the community where he was born and raised. Lonergan has created in his narrative a moving mix of anger, isolation, humor and the struggle to somehow try to cope with profound grief.

“The backdrop was a character in and of itself,” observed De Jong, noting that the protagonists are shaped in part by where they come from, the environment in which they live. 

It’s this philosophy that helped De Jong earn the opportunity to design Manchester by the Sea, her first collaboration with Lonergan. “Kenny asked me about my design process, how I want to work. He embraced that, my desire to scout and scout and scout, to photograph a town, to start to develop these characters and do justice to them through scouting and visiting the library, researching, diving into the history of the community, which helps form the backbone for who these characters might be.”

Helping to get De Jong the gig to begin with was Kenneth J. Walsh, a producer on Manchester by the Sea. “Kevin and I met on The Master [for which De Jong served as an assistant art director, working with production designers Jack Fisk and David Crank]. Kevin is close with Paul Thomas Anderson [who directed The Master], and knew I had been art directing for production designer Jack Fisk for years. Kevin also knew that I was now designing. He told me he was producing for Kenny and wanted me to see his script. At the same time my agent sent me the script. It was beautiful, powerful. I cried reading it which I don’t normally do at all. I then met Kenny and we were on our way.”

That journey carried its fair share of challenges, including the weather. Heavy snowing delayed scouting and production. “I remember telling Kenny that we have to embrace snow as a character,” said De Jong. Ironically as they warmed to that idea, warmer weather caused the snow to diminish. “At one point, there was too much snow, we couldn’t see anything. Then later we were losing the snow quickly, to the point where in the opening snow shoveling scene, we had to bring some snow in.”

Without giving away storyline, another major challenge entailed scenes calling for a fire to ravage a residential house. Ultimately De Jong and her colleagues opted to build in a farmland area a replica of a hero house they found in town. “We connected with,” said De Jong, “a wonderful family with a huge farm, enough land to allow us to build a house, burn it and just shoot it all, cheating to look like we were still in town.”

Also pivotal were flashback scenes which did not have the conventional flashback vibe. There was no device to separate the flashbacks from the present. The flashbacks instead tell a concurrent story of what happened to Affleck’s character before we were introduced to him. These events are still very real and present for him. They aren’t flashes of memory but rather an all consuming tragedy which he continues to experience and live with. It’s a present-day reality which also starts out as a mystery that eventually unfolds for the audience.

Still, De Jong had to subtly show an earlier time in the atypical flashback scenes. In the house of Joe Chandler [Lee’s late brother], for example, De Jong showed a woman’s touch years ago when she still lived there before she and Joe divorced. By contrast the present day home was devoid of that feminine feel with two guys living there. “Ultimately we had to be nuanced, not have the flashbacks jarring since they are very much a present-day reality for Affleck’s character,” explained De Jong. “We did not want heavy, noticeable production design or set decoration. We just wanted to show certain elements that were there at one time but have since just fallen away. We needed things to be there but not be there.”

Mentor and colleague
Certainly there for De Jong over the years has been production designer Fisk, an Oscar nominee for There Will Be Blood and The Revenant. De Jong served on Fisk’s art direction team for 10-plus years as part of a gratifying collaborative relationship spanning films for such directors as Anderson (The Master, There Will Be Blood), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, To The Wonder, Knight of Cups) and Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants). 

Fisk also encouraged De Jong to extend her creative/artistic reach into production design. She took on some small indie projects as a production designer, including Swedish Auto starring January Jones and Lucas Haas, and Dead Man’s Burden, a Jared Moshe-directed western set in the 1870s.

In 2014 De Jong and her brothers launched De Jong and Co, an interior design and handcrafted furniture company. Her involvement in this business venture and her move into production design led to a bittersweet decision--to turn down an invite to work with Fisk in an art director capacity on The Revenant. “Jack and I still remain very close,” affirmed De Jong. “He’s been very supportive. We get on so great as colleagues and friends.”

Reflecting that strong bond, Fisk--who was unavailable to production design his childhood friend David Lynch’s new Twin Peaks--recommended De Jong for the Showtime series. De Jong took on the show which is slated to premiere this year. Also scheduled for rollout in 2017 is director Malick’s feature Song To Song (recently retitled from Weightless) for which Fisk and De Jong served as production designer and art director, respectively. Song To Song is slated to open this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

Today, De Jong finds herself in the Oscar conversation for her production design on Manchester by the Sea. An Academy Award nomination, if realized, would be her first. 

Earlier this month, Manchester by the Sea earned De Jong her second career nomination for an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award. The first came in 2015 when De Jong as an art director (working with production designer Crank) was part of the ensemble nominated for the ADG honor on the basis of director Anderson’s Inherent Vice.

This is the 10th of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards. The Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

"Manchester by the Sea" written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Jody Lee Lipes, cinematographer; Jen Lame, editor; Ruth De Jong, production designer.