For all the time he has spent traveling the globe making and promoting movies throughout his career, Matt Damon is sad to report that his linguistic abilities are sorely limited.
"I've spent so much time in Italy, in Hungary, in France, in Jordan, and I've got nothing to show for any of it," Damon said recently over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. "I speak some Spanish but that's about it. Unfortunately, when you're in production you're just lighting money on fire, and they don't have time for you to sit there and learn a language. It ain't about your experience and your growth."
When it came to his latest film — the dramatic thriller "Stillwater," released in theaters Friday — that proved a strange kind of asset. Originally slated for release in November 2020 and delayed due to the pandemic, the film is in part an exploration of the stereotype of the "ugly American," throwing elbows on the world's stage, blind to other points of view. "My ignorance definitely helped my performance," Damon said.
Directed by Tom McCarthy ("Spotlight"), "Stillwater" stars Damon as an Oklahoma roughneck named Bill Baker who travels to the French port city of Marseille to attempt to free his estranged daughter (Abigail Breslin) from prison for a murder she insists she didn't commit. Struggling to navigate a culture that is completely alien to him, Baker enlists the help of a sympathetic local single mother named Virginie (Camille Cottin), and the two form an unlikely bond, even as Baker goes outside the law in pursuit of what he believes to be justice.
At first glance, "Stillwater" appears to have the trappings of an action thriller, a la Liam Neeson's "Taken," refracted through a fictional twist on the real-life saga of Amanda Knox. But, collaborating with French screenwriters Thomas Bidegain and Noe DeBre, McCarthy sought to make something deeper, mining themes of intolerance, forgiveness and morality that he hope will resonate with audiences after the turbulence of the Trump era.
Aiming to deliver his take on a Mediterranean noir, McCarthy started working on the film a decade ago but feeling dissatisfied with the script, put it away in a drawer. "I really didn't have any intention of going back to it," said McCarthy, who went on to earn Oscars for best picture and original screenplay for 2015's "Spotlight," along with a directing nod. "While the setup was good, it just wasn't fully realized."
But the idea for "Stillwater" stuck in the back of McCarthy's mind and six years after setting it aside he brought it to Bidegain and DeBre, who collaborated on films such as Jacques Audiard's 2015 crime drama "Dheepan." Over the next 18 months, the three rewrote the script, deepening the characters and pushing the story toward a cross-cultural fusion of American and French cinematic styles.
"The film upsets expectations, and I think that's the beauty of this great American screenwriter and these two great French screenwriters coming together," Damon said. "You think it's going to be: 'Give me back my daughter! I have a very particular set of skills.' And it's like, no, Bill Baker doesn't have any of those skills. But he loves his kid and he's doing the best he can in a world that he doesn't quite understand at all."
Even as McCarthy, Bidegain and DeBre reworked the script, perceptions of Americans abroad were rapidly changing in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. It was inevitable that those shifting political currents made their way into the script. "It's not an overtly political movie but there is certainly politics in the DNA," McCarthy said. "Writing this in 2016 and 2017, how could there not be?"
"Tom was really eager to talk about the moral authority of America," Bidegain said. "At the time, the new administration was taking America out of international things. It was a weird time for us in the relationship with America."