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How Matt Damon's 'Stillwater' explores 'ugly Americans' in the post-Trump era

Josh Rottenberg, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Along with politics, the three discussed their mutual love of long-form true-crime podcasts like "Serial" and "S-Town." "We talked about how these podcasts moved beyond the crime and into the world of character," McCarthy said. "We thought, let's start reaching for that cinematically. Let's try to sort of mirror that in our writing and ultimately, in our filmmaking. It really gave us a sort of guiding principle."

To play the role of Virginie, McCarthy cast Cottin, who is well known in her native France but has only recently earned wider recognition in Hollywood due to the international success of the French comedy series "Call My Agent!" on Netflix.

"Tom knew nothing about me," said Cottin, who will be seen later this year in Ridley Scott's crime drama "House of Gucci." "It was nice because it was just the work and the character as I proposed it and as we built it together, that made his choice."

Shooting on location in Marseille with an almost entirely French crew, McCarthy steered away from the gauzy, picture-postcard depiction one might expect in an American film. Rather than romanticize the port city, he tried to capture both its beauty and vibrancy as well as its grittier side, highlighting tensions over issues of race and immigration that in many ways mirror those in American society.

"The way Tom filmed Marseille, it's so true to what the city really is," Cottin said. "Marseille is one of the most violent cities in France, and even if it's not something that is fully depicted, it is there and it is talked about. I was quite struck by the veracity of it."

In crafting Damon's character as well, the goal was to capture nuance rather than cliche. A proud gun-owning oil worker from middle America, Baker is almost a caricature in the eyes of those he meets in Marseille. (Asked at one point if he voted for Trump, Baker says no but only because he had felonies that made him ineligible to vote.) But as the film progresses those preconceptions start to break down.

"The kind of work we've done in our films is to take people that are usually mocked or that some people would look down to and then make them the heroes," said Bidegain. "If you take a guy like Bill and he changes five degrees in the right direction, that gives you faith in the entire humanity."

 

While Damon's liberal political leanings are well known, he tried to create an empathetic, three-dimensional portrait of Baker, informed by real-life roughnecks he and McCarthy got to know during a research trip to Oklahoma before shooting.

"They were naturally and completely justifiably wary at first, like, 'What's going on here? Are you going to have a go at us?'" Damon said. "But once they saw what the movie was, they wanted me to get it right. It didn't mean we were ever going to agree politically about anything. But they gave us incredible access to their lives, and that's what we needed to leave with, a real understanding of this guy."

As deep as the divisions in American society are — and as morally murky as "Stillwater" may be in the end — Damon said his experience in Oklahoma gathering details to build his character left him feeling optimistic.

"I always leave those research trips with the exact same takeaway, which is that the things that bind us are so much greater than the things that divide us," Damon said. "You leave really pissed off at politicians for stoking those divides. Yeah, we have political differences but the guys we hung out with were really good people with beautiful families. The idea that we're so different that we couldn't possibly sit down and have a cup of coffee together is crazy."

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