In “Stillwater”, Matt Damon unites Oklahoma and France

The premise of Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater” sounds very Liam Neeson.

Matt Damon plays a strict Oklahoma father who travels to Marseille, France, to visit his imprisoned daughter (Abigail Breslin) for her role in a scandalous Amanda Knox-style murder case. Damon’s character, a tough working-class ruffian, stays behind to seek justice for his daughter and find a mysterious man who may have been the real murderer.

McCarthy, the director of “Spotlight,” “Win Win,” and “The Station Agent,” had long sought Damon to work. in one of his movies. In “Stillwater,” he knew audiences would expect to see him as an essentially American hero.

“I have a very specific skill set,” Damon jokes, making his Neeson more serious, while sitting next to McCarthy in an interview.

Stillwater, however, is more than meets the eye. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and hits theaters in the United States on July 30, is an anomaly: an American-European hybrid set off the coast of Cannes, but one of the most important American films. of the festival this year. As the film progresses, it takes its premise in unpredictable directions, putting an entirely new spin on the American thriller abroad.

“It’s a movie that owes as much to American storytelling as it does to European storytelling,” says McCarthy.

“It’s not the fish out of water story you’d expect from Hollywood,” adds Damon. “It’s like the opposite of (Jason) Bourne.”

Intrigued by making a Mediterranean noir film, McCarthy first wrote a simpler version of the film 10 years ago. He resumed the script in late 2016, close to the presidential election of Donald Trump. Damon’s character does not say definitively that he is a Trump supporter, but it is implied. But McCarthy wanted to broaden the horizons of the film; brought in a couple of French screenwriters, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, to mix it up in a more authentic way with France.

In Marseille, Damon’s character Bill befriends a local single mother (played by French actress Camille Cottin from “Call My Agent!”) And her young daughter Maya (played by Lilou Siauvaud), and slowly and reluctantly he begins to adapt and perhaps expand his ethnocentric perspective. The film’s subtle question: Can a closed-minded, nationalistic American change? Oui ou non?

The production itself was not that different. It was filmed largely in Marseille with a primarily local crew. Shortly after its premiere in Cannes, they returned to Marseille to give a show there.

“Too many times American movies pitch their tent,” says McCarthy. “Thank you Pedro. Thanks, Francoise. Stay there ”.

“Stillwater” could be seen as a Hollywood version of a profile published in an American interior newspaper, the kind that is written a lot during election seasons. But the filmmakers strove to go beyond the clichés. Before filming the movie, Damon and McCarthy took a pre-production trip to Oklahoma to, as McCarthy puts it, spend “three days in a truck and eat a lot of barbecue” as well as get a taste of the character of the region. They both came back with a new understanding.

“It was a time when we were super polarized. My French co-writers used to say, ‘You were so mad when we wrote this,’ “says McCarthy. “Even when I started going (to Oklahoma) I thought, ‘What am I going to get?’ And those guys were just great. When I came back, I was so mad at the politicians. “

“The movie has enormous empathy for Bill, and so do we,” says Damon. “Every time you play a role you have to have a deep understanding of why your character does what he does. I really feel like we got it from our time there. I saw it as: it’s a beautiful life and culture. They live completely different from guys who live in New York and the way I grew up in Boston. “

Damon had his own fish-out-of-water experience in the early days of the pandemic, when he and his family stayed in a small coastal town in Ireland. The locals became charmingly protective of the star that was among them.

“Any community I land in takes care of me a lot more than Bill,” says Damon. “People tend to be very nice, open and caring.”

Marseille, a bustling and multicultural port city, also delighted Damon. If he were younger and lived in France, he would move there, he says. But how well does Damon speak French? Better than Bill? In the movie, Bill barely speaks a few words in French. “Hey ça va,” he says with a strong Oklahoma accent.

“Maybe mine is worse,” Damon says sheepishly.

“Much worse, actually,” McCarthy laughs.

“Stillwater” received rave reviews upon its Cannes premiere and Oscar rumors began to surface for Damon. Produced by Participant Media and distributed by Focus Features, the film will seek to generate interest as an attractive film for both Democratic and Republican states, American and European moviegoers. It is an increasingly rare type of film: an adult drama starring an astro with an original idea made for the big screen.

At the premiere, Damon was moved to tears simply by being in a packed theater.

“It was totally overwhelming,” says the actor. “It was a very powerful reminder to see everything on the small screen in my house, what it is like to sit with thousands of strangers and watch something together, and why we do it. Why is it so different from everything else. You are seeing the same ‘content’ in quotes, but it is not the same. It is a form of worship. It’s like going to church and I had forgotten what that felt like. “

But making “Stillwater” wasn’t easy. When the production budget was raised, McCarthy had to downsize the crew during filming. Their department heads asked why their teams were getting smaller and smaller.

“On one of the calls, someone said, ‘It feels like we’re making an independent movie,'” says McCarthy. “I said, ‘No, we are making a European film.’


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