Tom McCarthy on ‘Stillwater’, cast of Matt Damon, essay by Amanda Knox
In his new film “Stillwater”, co-writer / director Tom McCarthy wanted to present the image of an American hero – then overturn it. The film, now in theaters, stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, a thug from the titular Oklahoma city who travels to Marseille, France, to visit his imprisoned daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin. ) A stranger in a strange land where he doesn’t. speak the language or really understand the dynamics, Bill’s only company is a single mother (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter (played by first-time actor Lilou Siauvaud, a local find.)
McCarthy, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Spotlight,” a film he directed for Best Picture, worked with co-writers Marcus Hinchey, as well as collaborating French writers Thomas Bidegain and NoÃ© DebrÃ©. frequently with Jacques Audiard. The film premiered with a warm response – and a five-minute standing ovation – at the Cannes Film Festival last month. One person who has yet to see the film is Amanda Knox, the woman who spent almost four years in an Italian prison before being acquitted of the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. The way the initial trial was handled raised questions about how the investigation was conducted and how Knox was unfairly portrayed in the media. (Rudy Guede was ultimately convicted of Kercher’s 2008 murder.) Knox, now host of “The Truth About True Crime” podcast, wrote a Twitter thread / essay and spoke to Variety, challenging what she felt to be elements of “Stillwater” reflecting her own story.
McCarthy spoke with Variety about Knox, the impact of long-running podcasts on their structure, and the people of Oklahoma who helped bring “Stillwater” to life.
What was the initial inspiration for âStillwaterâ?
With all my stories, I’m a bit of a magpie. I joke that my 8 year old daughter is a magpie because she picks up whatever she finds on the street and turns it into something. And I feel like that’s what I do with a story. I pick up pieces that I’m starting to accumulate and I’m like, âOh, this is interesting. Sometimes it’s a character, or an idea of ââa character, sometimes it’s a story point or a theme. One of my inspirations was a parent of mine who had a conflicted relationship with his father; I asked her if she bothered to tell me about it.
As a writer, do the people in your life know that anything they tell you could end in a movie? Has your family ever told you something and then said, âHey, don’t use this! “
I’ve had people tell me that – I guess jokingly. But not really because every movie I’ve done outside of âSpotlightâ has been fictionalized. So usually by the time it gets on screen and because of the magpie’s approach to collecting pieces, these stories aren’t really identifiable in any particular way.
I’m sure you know Amanda Knox took issue with the movie, saying it’s too close to its own story. What is your answer ?
I deeply sympathize with Amanda and what she went through. She was rightfully declared innocent and acquitted in the Meredith Kercher case. It has platforms to speak its truth and engage with the media, and it exercises its absolute right to do so. But, according to her own account, she hasn’t seen “Stillwater” and what she seems to be lifting seems a long way from the movie we actually made. âStillwaterâ is a work of fiction and not about his life experience. It takes aspects of real life events, like many movies, but “Stillwater” is about Bill Baker’s journey, his relationship with his daughter Allison and a French woman and young daughter he meets in the process. road. The questions the film asks about American identity and moral authority are what prompted me to make this film. But I think good movies spark conversation in and around the story and I welcome the audience’s engagement in that.
In retrospect, would you have liked to have spoken to him before making the movie or was it important for you to keep it fictional?
Years ago I made a movie about real events called “Spotlight” and in this case we did extensive research and worked closely with real life subjects and used real names and events in the film. This was not the case with “Stillwater”, since it is a work of fiction. There were a few entry points that sparked the narrative, including aspects of actual events, but the story and characters in my last movie are all made up.
An entry point for script writing, for example, is the relationship one of my relatives had with her absent and addictive father. I had a series of phone conversations with her as she painstakingly exposed the painful dynamics and dysfunction of their relationship and those conversations were at the heart of Bill’s relationship with his daughter Allison and the movie.
Likewise, Abigail Breslin, who plays Allison Baker, spoke with two loved ones who were both incarcerated to explore how they coped with their situations and how they relied on their spirituality to support them.
I mean your amazing cast, obviously starting with Matt Damon. He’s a little bit against the grain here, was that intentional?
I mean, part of the reason I wanted Matt in this role is because it’s Bill Baker’s story, isn’t it? I knew I was going to have to pull this character off and ultimately with the writers we wanted to overthrow the iconic hero. He’s a guy who’s going to help save his daughter. And in America in 2016 the world had changed and we wanted to reverse that kind of cinematic stereotype like maybe a thriller would. “Stillwater” is far from a thriller – it has some thrilling, mysterious, and suspenseful moments – but it is a deeply felt human drama and a story focused on the characters of Bill Baker and his relationship with his daughter and this French woman and her daughter whom he meets. In this way, it’s really one of my films. I keep coming back to the theme of the families we form.
I needed an actor who could wear this hero character in the movie and Matt has it. And because of his previous work, people expect a certain integrity. And we would challenge audiences, challenge perceptions of what this movie is really about. So I needed an actor who wasn’t just a great actor, but who could bring a bit of that character into the movie that we could then overthrow. As you know the movie takes place in unexpected places and it challenges our perception of what cinematic structure should be.
I don’t want to spoil anything but the character goes to dark places and I know some people were surprised or even upset by the third act.
Some people want a certain thing from a movie or think or know what a movie should be. Sometimes it’s based on a trailer or their own preconception. And we wanted to play on it. Back then, the writers and I would listen to those great long podcasts like âSerialâ and âS-Townâ and noticed how the stories took really unexpected journeys and had moments that came out of nowhere. And we also liked to be challenged by the characters we spent time with, we had to follow them on their journey. We used that as a kind of a model and said let’s let Bill Baker take us wherever it takes us. And that really freed us up in terms of form and structure.
A lot of people say Bill Baker is a supporter of Trump, even though he says in the movie that he did not vote. Is this an exact guess or did you intend to leave it open?
How people talk about a movie and how they talk about a character really reflects these people, doesn’t it? Whether it is the public or the critics. They see a movie through their particular prism, and then will feel and talk about that movie through that particular prism. So that’s the cinema, and I think good films should evoke it. So it’s not my job to gauge. If someone said, âWhere do you think Bill is in the political arena? I would say he’s probably a Republican. It is one of the redder states in the Union, and most oil companies vote Republicans. In fact, in conversations with them, a guy said to me, âYou know, I didn’t hate Hillary that much, but she told me she was going to stop oil and fracking, what if she the fact, I can’t put food on my table. That’s how he heard it. And that made sense to me. I could understand and relate to it. So how do people refer to the characters or any element of the movie? Or how do they see or talk about the movie once they see it? Like, it’s all fair game.
When the movie title is a city, you want the vibe to be right. I think you and Matt spent some time in Oklahoma with some real thugs getting ready?
The Roughnecks are an iconic type of character on the Oklahoma scene, they are everywhere. And these are guys who work on oil rigs. When I started this script in 2011, I chose Stillwater as the location almost circling it on a map. In 2016, I started going there for good. And as soon as I landed I saw how a thug was a specific thing. In many ways, Bill’s entire character focused on the kind of myth and reality of thugs and how hard they live, what their life is like, and how hard they work. I did all of these interviews when I was there and I would meet people and record them, film them, hang out with them and hear their stories, incorporating it all into Bill Baker. I passed all of this on to my co-writers and they were fascinated by the culture. And the final piece brought Matt in. There were three people I specifically wanted Matt to meet: Ryan Stewart, Kenny Baker, and Davey Porter. They were crucial for Oklahoma and for what you see on screen.
Were they excited to meet Matt Damon?
You know, impressed at first, but they worked really fast. They are used to working with all types and all they are interested in is work and do it.
Some of them have come to the premiere recently, haven’t they?
Yes, Kenny Baker and Davey Porter came over and the day before we had pizza night at my house in Brooklyn. And I was very nervous to hear their reaction to the film. Kenny Baker was pretty calm at the premiere and a few days later he texted me and said, “Hey Tom, we need to talk.” I called him and he said, “I went to ‘Stillwater’ last night to see him again.” And he said he really felt it and took the movie in a deeper way and had all kinds of thoughts and feelings about it.
Their reaction, mixed with that of Cannes, must have been reassuring.
i was talking with [producer] Jonathan King on that, because I feel like the two big boxes that we checked with this film were the French reaction and the Oklahoma reaction. Because in Cannes, they will tell you if they don’t like the film. So the response was wonderful, we were like, âOkay, we got it right. And the other was Oklahoma. And it was really exciting to hear their response.