Ruth De Jong designs real life in Manchester by the Sea

Western Albemarle High School graduate Ruth De Jong spent several months exploring the New England coast for her production design work on Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Courtesy subject Western Albemarle High School graduate Ruth De Jong spent several months exploring the New England coast for her production design work on Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Courtesy subject

While on a scouting excursion for Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea, Ruth De Jong walked into a coastal Massachusetts shop selling GPS systems for boats.

“I’ve been here for 45 years!” the shop owner exclaimed, showing De Jong his office. The room was packed from floor to ceiling with papers—stacks of receipts, notes, manuals and who knows what else covered every surface, including the well-used desk and parts of the floor—and De Jong knew immediately it was the perfect location for a short scene in which stoic apartment building handyman and main character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is reprimanded by his boss for having a bad attitude.

“You can’t recreate that,” says De Jong. “Well, you can, but it was so perfect, what this human had created.”

As a production designer, De Jong leads a film’s design team in creating the environment that actors step into to perform—taking a script and bringing it to life through sets, props and costumes. She came into the craft after her family moved to Virginia, where her parents still live, in her teens, and she met Schuyler Fisk. Their friendship led to an introduction to Jack Fisk, Schuyler’s dad and one of the film industry’s most sought-after production designers and art directors.

De Jong thought she might pursue a life as a painter before Fisk brought her onto his team for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood in 2005. She worked directly with Fisk for about 10 years on films like Anderson’s The Master and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups and the forthcoming Song to Song, before striking out on her own.

Oscar noms

Manchester by the Sea has been nominated for six Academy Awards:

• Best Picture

• Writing (Original Screenplay)

• Directing

• Actor in a Leading Role (Casey Affleck)

• Actress in a Supporting Role (Michelle Williams)

• Actor in a Supporting Role (Lucas Hedges)

In Manchester by the Sea, Lee returns home in the wake of his brother’s death to care for his grieving teenage nephew, Patrick. Lee, still consumed by a tragedy from his past, must settle his fisherman brother’s estate and decide what’s next for Patrick. It’s an extraordinary look at ordinary people.

For months, De Jong roamed Cape Ann, the rocky coastal promontory about 30 miles northeast of Boston where the film is set. She visited libraries and museums, she struck up conversations with shop owners and customers who, in turn, introduced her to their neighbors, to local fishermen, hockey coaches and funeral home directors.

She visited more than a dozen wharfs, noting where the sun rose and set; she rode boats, visited schools and police stations. Through all of this, “you learn who these people are,” De Jong says, and these real people informed every moment of Manchester by the Sea, from how the characters talked, to the cars they drove, the clothes they wore, the pictures on their dressers and the placemats on their kitchen tables.

Ruth De Jong built storyboards and put together sample houses, half a dozen or so per character, per location, and they’d whittle the options down before arriving at the final iteration. Courtesy Roadside Attractions

De Jong built storyboards and put together sample houses, half a dozen or so per character, per location, and they’d whittle the options down before arriving at the final iteration of Lee’s sparse basement apartment; or before deciding that Joe’s kitchen would be stuck in the 1970s, with brown wood cabinets, floral wallpaper, faux stone vinyl flooring and a pale yellow salt and pepper shaker set sitting on a simple, worn wooden table.

“You don’t always think about your everyday surroundings” and what they bring to bear on your daily life, says De Jong. But when you do, “it makes you realize that we all have subtleties, nuances to how we live in any given day. We’re all characters in a sense.”

De Jong borrowed everything from cars, boats, furniture and lamps to knickknacks and personal belongings. They painted and put wallpaper in houses when necessary, then “either leave it if the owner likes it or put it back to whatever they want,” says De Jong.

Making the scene

You can also see Ruth De Jong’s work in Inherent Vice, The Master, Knight of Cups, The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood, Dead Man’s Burden, Swedish Auto, Terrence Malick’s upcoming film, Song to Song, and the return of the TV show “Twin Peaks” for a limited series in May.

The police station is a former schoolhouse and the actual home of the Beverly Police Department. The hospital nurses’ station required a full dressing; it’s only visible for a couple of seconds, but none of the paperwork-stuffed manila folders, stethoscopes or computers were there. Small details—like baby clothes and nursing pillows strewn about a bedroom or a dirty dish left in the kitchen sink—make sets feel real.

De Jong and Lonergan designed not to the sad tone of the script but to the reality of everyday life, “meaning, there’s death, there’s pain…but certain things (like the weather) don’t change given grief or happiness.”

“That scene where Lee and Patrick have left the funeral home and get into an argument over finding the car, and it’s really sunny out—it was great, because it was just another day, but they’re dealing with all of this drama and grief and frustration and pain,” De Jong points out.

Manchester by the Sea is closely shot, and much of what De Jong put together isn’t visible in the final cut. But shooting on location lent an unmatched authenticity and true texture. “It really gave the truest sense of this place. You were able to fall into this world because you didn’t think twice about it—it’s like you’re there,” she says, because, quite simply, you are there.