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Award Season Coverage : Stillwater / Q&A with Matt Damon and Co-writer-Director Tom McCarthy

Matt Damon has become one of Hollywood’s leading A-list actors in part due to his portrayal of several globe-trotting characters who bend the law to fit their purposes, most notably the title protagonist in the Jason Bourne series, as well as Linus Caldwell in the Ocean‘s trilogy. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker’s latest character who travels abroad and doesn’t follow government rules, in an effort to protect the life he holds dear, is the complex anti-hero of Bill Baker in this summer’s critically acclaimed crime drama, Stillwater.

The politically-driven thriller, which powerfully utilizes class and cultural divisions within both American and European societies to drive the character development and overall plot, was stunningly directed and produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker, Tom McCarthy. The helmer-producer also co-scribed the movie’s script with one of France’s top screenwriters, Thomas Bidegain, and his writing partner, Noé Debré, as well as Marcus Hinchey.

Stillwater, which is in part inspired by the Amanda Knox case, follows Bill as he fights to save his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). She’s currently serving her fifth year of a nine-year sentence for the murder of her French Arab girlfriend, Lina, who she met while attending college in Marseille. He flies to the French city as often as he can, in order to support and pray for his daughter, even though their relationship is strained. Allison is still upset with her father for not always being there for her when she was a child, before he went to rehab to treat his alcohol and drug use.

When he arrives in Marseille, Bill discovers that Allison has learned new information about the case, which implicates a young man named Akim (Idir Azougli) as the person who actually killed Lina. But when Allison’s lawyer, Leparq (Anne Le Ny), declines to reopen the case after receiving the information, Bill makes it his mission to find Akim himself, so that he can prove himself to his daughter.

Since Bill doesn’t speak French or understand how the different social strata of Marseille work, he seeks help from his neighbor at the hotel he’s staying at in France, theater actress and single mother, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her eight-year-old daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). As the trio subsequently form a close-knit family dynamic that Bill never had with Allison, Bill relies on the mother and her young daughter to not only help free his own daughter, but also better understand and connect with her along the way.

Damon and McCarthy generously took the time this past weekend to promote the film during a Q&A at Cinema 123 by Angelika in New York City. Stillwater is now available on VOD, Blu-Ray and DVD, courtesy of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Q: What was the process like of creating this character of Bill Baker, and finding the building blocks for, and complexities in, him?

TM: This movie was a long journey; I started [working on] it over 10 years ago with another writer. We worked on it for about a year, and created this character, who went abroad to help his daughter, who was in a bad situation.

But we just couldn’t get the script right. It was a straight thriller, and I didn’t love it. So at the end, we mutually decided to shelve it.

I then went back to it about six or seven years later. I engaged these two French writers, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, whose work I greatly admire…and we set out to work on it.

It was then that I started traveling to Oklahoma and digging into this guy of Bill Baker. At the time, he was more of a generic blue-collar guy who was working in construction.

But as soon as I got to Oklahoma, I zeroed in on the roughneck culture, and what that meant. That’s what really opened up the character to me.

I started interviewing roughnecks from the local area for over a year. I met with their families and started going to work with them, so that I could get to know that culture in a deeper way.

That was really significant to me as I started building Bill Baker. It helped me put him on the page and create his journey, as well as his relationship with his daughter, which is obviously quite dysfunctional.

Then we were fortunate enough to get Matt on board, and that was one of the first stops we made. At that point, I had relationships with some roughnecks, so Matt and I spent three or four days in Oklahoma with those guys and their families.

Q: Matt, one of the most notable things about your characters of Bill Baker is the dichotomy in him that he doesn’t see. Other people see it in him, though, and recognize another side of him. He sees himself as a basic guy, but other people see a lot that’s going on in him. What was the process like of figuring that balance out as a performer?

MD: When I first read the script, I had no understanding or knowledge of the roughneck community down in Oklahoma and Texas. But the script kind of worked without that level of detail.

You think of him as this blue-collar guy who’s in this smaller world, but by the end, he’s in this completely different place. He has a totally different understanding of the world [by the end of the movie]. So going there was key; all that detail filled in everything [in the script].

It was these guys who gave us access to their lives, really generously…[The character’s] name wasn’t originally Bill Baker; we changed the last name. There was this one roughneck, Kenny Baker, who was really helpful [to us], so Tom changed the character’s last name, as a nod to Kenny.

That really unlocked everything for me. These guys are really different than my Cambridge, Massachusetts [upbringing]. But I found a lot of it really relatable. It’s like a lot of things in this country; when you strip away what makes us divided, you find a lot more common ground than what you would have originally believed was there.

Q: By the time audiences meet Bill, he’s in-between all of these different worlds. He’s going back and forth to Marseille, and is accepting of his daughter’s life and the life he’s not used to…But there are complex levels that he doesn’t recognize.

MD: Yes, definitely. All of that’s informed by the things that have happened to him…There are things he did in his past that he’s not proud of, but he acknowledges them, and the fact that he’s made mistakes.

Q: We, as the audience, hear about his past, including his drinking, which has affected Allison. But we also see the better self that he’s working towards. That comes out in many different ways, some of which are very subtle. Was the process of creating those ways, particularly the subtleties, difficult?

TM: Yes, in some ways. I also have to credit the dance between Matt’s character and Abigail Breslin’s character. Abigail’s work is amazing; she did a  lot of heavy lifting. A lot of the things Allison is working through at this point in her life are a result of her upbringing.

Matt’s character also has to carry that. When we first meet [Bill], he’s well-pressed and well-meaning. What I appreciate about this character is that he owns all of the mistakes he has made in his life…He also doesn’t make excuses for himself. There’s something incredibly straight-forward and beautiful about that.

That’s something I learned from spending time with these guys; it came out of conversations I had with them…They’re not concerned about money-they’re concerned about their families.

There was something so straight-forward about this guy, so one of the things I love the most about Matt’s performance is his restraint. It’s very difficult to hold a movie like that. That just comes with experience and confidence.

MD: There’s one moment in the movie that I really like-you’re seeing this dynamic between a father and daughter that’s a continuation of this life-long dynamic that [the audience isn’t] privy to. He had a drinking or drug problem, but you don’t really see that; you see him try to keep it together. He’s doing his best to do his best.

Q: Bill is working hard to keep himself together and his rage in check, until something something pushes him over the edge.

MD: That makes Abi’s character make sense. You think, I bet she’s seen a lot of that.

Q: The physicality is also an important part of Bill’s character arc throughout the film. Throughout the first half of the film, for instance, he’s always wearing his sunglasses. There’s one scene where Bill and Virginie are in a car, and there’s a lot of exposition going on about what Bill’s inner life is like, and you did all of that without your eyes, Matt, as you’re wearing the sunglasses. There’s a gesture of your head, and pauses that take a second or two longer than you’d expect as a viewer. Acting without your eyes must be a tricky thing, right?

MD: Yes, I talked a lot about this with Tom and Masanobu Takayanagi, who was the DP (director of photography). I said, “With these guys, the sunglasses are part of the uniform,” which they gave me, and really helped me. There’s this type of jeans that’s fire retardant, and there are also Red Wing boots, which go along with the sunglasses. That uniform really helped the physicality and how I walked.

The wraparound sunglasses and the hat really helped me. When you go out there on the rigs, you better have those wraparound sunglasses, or you’re going to burn your eyes. They then go up on the hat when you’re not using them.

But anytime I’m asked to wear a hat in a film…the DP is always going to ask me to raise the rim a little bit. We talked about how during certain parts of this performance, the hat and sunglasses are about accessibility-I was going to have the shades on and the hat down in certain moments, and in other moments, the sunglasses were off, but the hat was still down.

I’ve never had a director like Tom say, “We’re with you enough that we can know who you are, even when we can’t see your face.” That really helped.

There are a 1,000 little details that when we’re watching them, we don’t know why we believe something about Bill or why we don’t. For every time I raised the hat and made concessions, I gave away the story. (Damon laughs.) But Tom didn’t ask me to make any of those concessions.

That scene in the car was the last thing we shot (in France). That was a smart decision, as we went through that whole experience together first. We lived together in Marseille while we made the film.

After we shot [the majority of the film there], we left our French crew, and [came back to America] and shot with our Oklahoma crew. [We shot the last scene in the film] on the very last morning of the very last day, with the sun coming up. We weren’t doing anything, but we were reflecting on the journey Bill has been on.

Q: Speaking of Marseille, how did the city not only inform and affect the character of Bill Baker, but also the story itself?

TM: Again, I started going there about 10 or 11 years ago and fell in love with it. I was so invested in the city and knew it so well because I knew 90 percent of the film was going to be set in France and a very realistic French culture.

We weren’t just an American movie dropping in there and using the city as a backdrop; we were living it, so I really had to know it. That’s why I brought in my co-writers, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, onto the project.

When I sent them the script, the two things I told them I wanted to hold onto was Bill and going to Marseille to have him go to the prison there. But they pushed back on the idea because Marseille, like New York City, is so played so much cinematicaly in France, and comes with a lot of baggage.

They were insistent that we shoot somewhere else. So I gave in for a minute and told them to look for a better place. We went through all of these places in France, but came back to Marseille.

I told them, “Why don’t you guys go to Paris? I know it’s scary, but why don’t you go to Marseille and see what happens.” They spent four days there and came back and said, “Okay, we’ll do it there.”

I think they needed to see it through my eyes a little bit. We also needed to figure out a way to tell this story there without it feeling a little overplayed.

So that sent us on this really interesting journey of going through this city and trying to figure out how to portray it in a way that didn’t feel like a backdrop or postcard. We were living the life of this French actress who left Paris and set up shop in Marseille with her daughter.

Before Bill meets Virginie, every time he goes (to Marseille), he goes from the hotel to the prison and then home. But this series of events pushes him off his tracks, to tragic consequences.

Bill’s now forced to live in a more meaningful way in the city. As an American director, I needed to really understand that, and find a way to make it really realistic.

The entire crew really helped me get there. It was exciting to work with an entirely French crew there, and some of our key actors are also French. We really collaborated together to make this movie realistic.

Q: Further speaking about your scenes with Camille, Matt, besides working from the script, there was also a natural free flow that you two had. Your characters are two people who are from different cultures, but are trying to find common ground. There are misunderstandings and miscommunications, but you two work to try to figure things out. How did those scenes come about, and what was it like working with her on them?

MD: [Camille’s] just great, and anytime you work with a great actor, it’s pretty easy. We didn’t have any of the communication problems that the characters have, which helped. Her English is also good, so we really rehearsed the scenes.

What’s interesting with her is that we had scenes together, and also with Lilou, who played Maya. This character of Maya is obviously a big part of the movie, but Lilou was a non-actor.

So in the scenes that Camille and I had together were straight-forward. But then watching her with Lilou was great. [Camille’s] just a very generous artist, so I knew those days with them both was just getting the best out of this seven-year-old kid. [Camille] made that so normal.

TM: Yes, Lilou was seven, but she had the soul of a 42-year-old, and you can see that in the movie. (Audience laughs.) There was only so much I could direct her…because she has one of those souls that made her feel as though she isn’t a kid at all.

Q: Virginie is a self-actualized actress who’s taking control of her career and motherhood, and knows exactly who she is. They’re totally different people, but Bill also knows exactly who he is, and they accept that. That must have been fun to watch, Tom.

TM: The natural aspects of those scenes feels so right. When they’re put in this difficult situation, they find common ground and a connection.

Q: Contrastingly, the scenes between you, Matt, and Abigail feature an immediate friction that arises from a lifetime of baggage that they have to get through in order to connect again. How did you and Abigail handle those moments-was it in the writing?

MD: Yes, it was all in the dialogue-all the shame and regret that he was carrying. He’s trying to overcome that with the limited tool kit he has.

I thought [Abigail] had a really tough job on this one because all of the scenes were difficult. We worked together for a few weeks, and she had these massive scenes everyday, and she had to cry in a lot of them.

The movie relies on that emotion. We would never say that out loud, but I think everyone was thinking it, and I’m sure she knew it. It was a really tough job for an actor to come in and do. It was also really intense, but more-so for her than me. I think she did a wonderful job.

TM: She made so many smart choices. I remember the first scene we shot in the prison was even really intense.

We were in there for about two weeks, and it was beautiful weather during the whole shoot, except when we went in that prison-it just poured while we were there, which made it really intense.

The first time Allison sees her father, she gives him a hug, and then sort of backs off. So I went to Abigail between takes and said, “You haven’t seen him in a year, and he’s your dad.”

She said, “No, it’s too much right now, and I know what I need him for,” and she explained exactly how she would hug him. I was like, “Good enough, let’s go again.” (Audience laughs.)

She tought it through more than I did; she really came prepared, and you could see it.

Some of my actor friends brought up that it’s a really tight rope that Allison’s walking; sometimes she’s mature, but sometimes she’s bratty and defiant or vulnerable. All of that was bouncing off of his guy, who’s a shield, in an interesting way. So that was a really interesting dynamic.

Here’s the trailer of the film.

Karen Benardello
Karen Benardello
As a life-long fan of films and television shows, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic in 2008. Karen has since been working in the press in New York City, including interviewing film and television casts and crews, writing movie and television news articles and reviewing films and televisions series. Some of her highlights include attending such local events as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and New York Comic-Con, as well as traveling across North America to attend such festivals as the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW and the Toronto International Film Festival. She has been a member of the Women Film Critics Circle since 2012, and the New York Film Critics Online since 2019.


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