Aspen Film Academy Screenings: ‘Manchester by the Sea’ producer Kimberly Steward’s auspicious debut
If You Go …
What: ‘Manchester by the Sea’ at Academy Screenings
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, Dec. 30, 8 p.m.
How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
A year ago, Kimberly Steward was preparing to produce her first feature film. These days she’s getting her first twirl around the awards season tornado along with that film, “Manchester by the Sea,” which plays Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings today. Moving to Los Angeles and breaking into the business doesn’t usually work this way. But most producers also don’t work the way Steward and her K Period Media do.
Steward, 35, started K Period aiming to bankroll the kinds of great, daring movies that have been squeezed out of Hollywood in the superhero age. With a background in philanthropy and publishing and a degree in broadcast journalism, Steward — the daughter of World Wide Technology founder David L. Steward — arrived in Hollywood three years ago.
“I knew I had the ability to support creatives,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I had a fascination with storytelling. This is the sum of all parts of things that, hopefully, I’m good at doing.”
She sought advice from producers like Oscar-nominated Alix Madigan (“Winter’s Bone”) and Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman and started reading scripts.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s story of family, grief and a New England man who is emotionally crippled by regret struck her as an ideal project to produce.
“We basically chased after it and two months later we were in the freezing cold in Massachusetts in February,” she said with a laugh.
In an industry that’s increasingly risk averse, Steward wants to support risky material and visionary directors. But she was never going to write a check and walk way — she wants to be a part of the creative process. Along with funding the $8 million production, she and her upstart production company kept a hand in the creative process.
“We want to redefine what the financing producer looks like,” she said. “We want to be engaged, to be on the ground, to roll up our sleeves and work hard. But we also want to be able to develop projects outside of the studio model and take different kinds of risks.”
Longergan had clashed with producers on last film, 2011’s “Margaret,” sparking a contentious and litigious post-production process that delayed the film’s release for five years. This had made the brilliant playwright and filmmaker something of a toxic asset in Hollywood.
But what scared others away from Lonergan attracted Steward and her company. She was excited to see what he would do with “Manchester by the Sea” given the creative freedom to make it how he wanted to make it.
“His story was set in realism and the characters were so beautiful, and I felt the story he created would related to everyone — people from all walks of life have suffered from grief,” Steward said.
It was clear from the start to Steward — shivering on the docks in Gloucester, Massachusetts, with Casey Affleck playing the film’s lead — that they were doing the right thing.
“I cried during Casey’s first scene on the first day we were shooting,” she said. “We knew we had something special.”
The powerhouse of a film includes transcendent performances from Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges — all earning multiple awards from critics this fall, along with Screen Actors Guild nominations and Golden Globe nods for Affleck and Williams.
“I’m spoiled now, because I’ve worked with the best,” she said. “(Lonergan) loves actors so much and had a deep relationship with them and a great respect for them. He allows them to talk through their characters, to make suggestions and talk about the psychology behind their performances. He’s so open. It’s a partnership working on these characters.”
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a loner handyman who, when his brother ,Kyle Chandler, dies, is called on to care for his teenage nephew (Hedges) and return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he has to confront a painful past. It’s a masterfully made film that’s earned universal praise for its performances, its use of music, its patient pacing and non-linear storytelling.
What’s gotten less attention is how witty and funny “Manchester by the Sea” is — it may be a tearjerker, but it’s also full of Masshole ball-busting and sarcasm and subtle humor, which undercuts how heavy the drama is and makes it feel all the more true to life.
As one of the most acclaimed films of 2016, “Manchester By the Sea” is poised to receive many Oscar nominations (the odds-making website GoldDerby.com places only “La La Land” ahead of it in the Best Picture race). If the film is nominated for Best Picture, Steward would become the second African-American woman to get an Oscar nod as a producer. Oprah Winfrey was the first, nominated for producing “Selma” last year.
“I would be humbled and overwhelmed and honored to even be considered in any circle of Oprah’s,” Steward said.
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