EXCLUSIVE: 'Manchester by the Sea' Director Kenneth Lonergan on Mel Gibson and the 'Special' Year of Movies

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"It's a very happy day for us."

Director Kenneth Lonergan says it with a slight sigh and a chuckle that betrays just how big of an understatement it is. His movie, Manchester by the Sea, racked up six Oscar nominations on Tuesday morning, including Casey Affleck for Best Actor, Lucas Hedges for Best Supporting Actor and Michelle Williams for Best Supporting Actress, not to mention Best Picture.

"The fact that I got nominated for Best Director is great," Lonergan, who also wrote the film and earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination for it, told ET by phone. "But then, look at Lucas, getting his first nomination! Or Casey, getting the recognition he's getting for this incredible performance. You start trying to say that one is more special than the other and then you just go down the line until you get to Michelle and come back around and it's just all good."

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Lonergan, who's been Oscar-nominated twice before for You Can Count on Me in 2001 and Gangs of New York in 2003, got the news while helping his 14-year-old daughter get ready for school. ("I'll tell her when she gets home," he joked. "She ran out the door before she let me talk to her.") A few hours later, he says the feeling is still overwhelming.

"It's kind of like New Year's Eve, but not New Year's Eve," the director attempted to put into words. "I don't know what it's like. It's, it's, it's-- Great." He laughed. "I think it will sink in in about a year."

Amid the excitement and press of the morning, Lonergan hadn't had a chance to call up any of his cast yet -- "Casey is on a movie set in Vancouver," he also noted. "Michelle has got her daughter to deal with, and I think she's shooting a movie. Lucas is in rehearsal." -- or any of his team of producers, which includes the likes of Matt Damon and John Krasinski.

"Everyone's been swapping emails and texts excitedly all morning. I think Matt is out of the country. I emailed him, but he hasn't emailed me, which tells me he's in another time zone, because he's much better at that kind of thing than I am," he considered. Of the congratulatory messages, he added, "I'm not sure how interesting they are to anyone else, but they're nice for me."

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While La La Land has proven to be something of a juggernaut this awards season, the races remain tight. In the Best Director field alone, Lonergan faces Moonlight's Barry Jenkins, La La Land's Damien Chazelle, Arrival's Denis Villeneuve and Hacksaw Ridge's Mel Gibson, the latter proving controversial in light of Gibson's well-documented history.

"I sometimes think that Hollywood is the last community to be talking about controversy in any intelligent way. But I don't know what they are saying, so, I wouldn't exactly know how to comment about it," Lonergan acknowledged when asked about Gibson's nomination and whether Academy recognition marks the wayward star's official comeback. "He's made several films in the last few years, so I'm not sure how far away he was."

On a more positive note, Lonergan can't help but gush over how "special" the entire crop of movies is -- those listed above, as well as fellow Best Picture nominees Lion, Fences, Hell or High Water and Hidden Figures -- and how this year's Oscar contenders are representative of the movie community as a whole.

"You don't want to think -- and it's not true -- that your movie or somebody else's movie is better or worse than the other movies," he stated. "For instance, one of my favorite films of the year was Silence. That's just a great master who none of us are in his league. I am just proud to be in a movie theater with Martin Scorsese, let alone to be nominated alongside Barry Jenkins. I think the movie community, we're always congratulating ourselves, I guess, but I think there's a lot to be proud of this year."