How A Black Woman Funded The Year’s Best Movie About White Men

Photo: Amanda Edwards/WireImage.
Right now, Kimberly Steward is one for one. Manchester by the Sea, the first narrative feature film she's ever produced, was a Sundance standout this year, and — for any young producer in Hollywood — that's a pretty good record. For a Black woman producer, it's practically unheard of. But she saw something when she first picked up the script for Manchester that made her want to help bring it to screen, so she helped Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, and director Kenneth Lonergan make it happen. That turned out to be a fortuitous move, and the proof is in the Oscar buzz.

You can recognize a true New England movie when you see it. On screen, the region has become notorious for Boston gangsters or genius janitors, but Lonergan's film is without much in the way of theatrics. It's a movie about death that's more concerned with mundane details of what happens after the fact: Namely, after Lee Chandler's (Affleck) older brother dies, he is tasked with the guardianship of his teenage nephew, as well as with making all the arrangements for life without his brother.

There's something broken about Lee's silence and the way he shuffles around the city like a ghost. He had a happy life in the town once, but a tragedy burned it down. Now, he wants to be tender, but he's not sure how — and he's not convinced that he deserves another chance. That's first thing I noticed about Manchester when I saw it: the brutality embedded in the way men engage with one another that belies a hidden vulnerability.

Manchester by the Sea got it exactly right. We spoke with Steward about the movie's success — and how Hollywood can help support women working behind the lens.

Kenneth Lonergan, Matt Damon, and Casey Affleck all have a long history of being friends and working together. What was it like for you as a new addition to their group?
"It was awesome. That familiarity helped us. It's hard getting through a film, especially a film in Massachusetts in the middle of the winter [laughs]. We read the script in December and got on the ground in February. Those pre-standing relationships were helpful.

"I was able to establish my own individual relationships with each one of them. Matt walked alongside of us as a producing partner. Casey was our star, so I saw him everyday on set. With Kenny, we all wanted to make sure that we're doing everything we can to support him."
Photo: Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios/Photofest.
Kenneth Lonergan had a really wounding experience with his most recent film Margaret, which was plagued by recuts and legal battles over its release. Lonergan told Variety that, as a producer, you were "never too permissive." What was working with him like for you?
"I had to get to know him quickly, but I got to know him so much through his writing. His ideas about the movie were really on the page, in the script. So from there, it was just like the blueprint to what his vision was gonna be. I understood how connected he was as a writer and director. I knew he would nail it if we were supportive. I didn't really look too much in his past experience. I know that sounds crazy. You hear things, sure. But you have to give the opportunity to establish your own relationship with them."

Manchester by the Sea
has performed so well at festivals and is getting lots of Oscar buzz. How does that feel, especially since this is an early project in your producing career?
"I'm thrilled. I can't ask for anything else right now, but it would be amazing for Michelle [Williams] and Kenny and Casey. They're all so deserving."

What's your personal connection to the material, particularly as a Black woman producing a portrait about this very white, masculine small town?
"It all started with just loving the project. Manchester is really representative of the town and the people who live in that area, but these ideas about loss and family are everywhere. With that, I think it's important to be able to see diversity in front of the camera, but also behind it. On this particular project, I'm representative of that."

Where do you think Hollywood can improve with putting more women in powerful positions behind the camera?
"It's all about opportunity. I'm running a mini studio, if you will, but I don't have distribution. The distributors have to get involved and partner with smaller studios who give opportunities to talented directors and DPs and writers. It's key to create partnerships between distributors and studios and talent. That's something that is really important to learn."
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Photo: Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios/Photofest.
Before you started producing, you worked in fashion and event planning. How did those experiences help you as a producer?
"When you're really running through a production, it requires all those various jobs that I've been involved in. It becomes easier to be able to communicate with people and see how you can support them. I'm not saying that I'm Scott Rudin yet, but it definitely has helped. From working on set design, I already have an idea of how to support the camera team and everyone else, because ultimately we're all there because we believe in the director's vision."

Where do you think your company, K Period, fits into the indie film industry? What's your greatest ambition for the company?
"My goal is to back auteurs. We're interested in running with films that a lot of studios haven't jumped on. Newer models like Manchester's Amazon deal are exciting — these streaming services have a lot of bandwidth for creatives. Together, we can really diversify what we're going to see in the future."
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