This weekend, Matt Damon opened Tom McCarthy’s drama “Stillwater” to a respectable $5 million on 2,531 screens. For the amount of attention that’s currently being paid to the film, it might as well have been released in a church basement. Damon, however, is now a human lightning rod in the face of his own father-daughter drama thanks to a recent revealing interview with The Times of London.
When Damon admitted that one of his daughters recently schooled him on not using the epithet “f****t,” the social media backlash was fierce. The Times story went viral because it revealed something many of us already knew from Damon’s faceoff with producer Effie Brown on “Project Greenlight”: the Boston native is often unconscious of his own biases.
On August 2, Damon’s PR reps responded with a statement from the actor (which they provided to IndieWire).
During a recent interview, I recalled a discussion I had with my daughter where I attempted to contextualize for her the progress that has been made – though by no means completed – since I was growing up in Boston and, as a child, heard the word ‘f*g’ used on the street before I knew what it even referred to. I explained that that word was used constantly and casually and was even a line of dialogue in a movie of mine as recently as 2003; she in turn expressed incredulity that there could ever have been a time where that word was used unthinkingly. To my admiration and pride, she was extremely articulate about the extent to which that word would have been painful to someone in the LGBTQ+ community regardless of how culturally normalized it was. I not only agreed with her but thrilled at her passion, values and desire for social justice.
I have never called anyone ‘f****t’ in my personal life and this conversation with my daughter was not a personal awakening. I do not use slurs of any kind. I have learned that eradicating prejudice requires active movement toward justice rather than finding passive comfort in imagining myself ‘one of the good guys.’ And given that open hostility against the LGBTQ+ community is still not uncommon, I understand why my statement led many to assume the worst. To be as clear as I can be, I stand with the LGBTQ+ community.
Now, the chatter around “Stillwater” is no longer about the critical praise Damon received out of the film’s Cannes premiere for his challenging everyman role in a risky original movie from the Oscar-winning writer-director of “Spotlight.” Instead, Damon is fending off accusations of homophobia; his reps clearly hope this polished response will make a dent in the hostility.
Damon is a movie star, one of the few surviving names above the title who can still put butts in seats, but this explosion of negativity won’t help week two of “Stillwater.” For his next film, it remains to be seen: would-be Oscar contender “The Last Duel” (October 15, Disney).
In this fact-based medieval drama written by Damon, co-star Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, he’s part of an ensemble. Director Ridley Scott and the period action should be big draws. If the movie is great, he stands a good shot at a nomination — just as Ben’s brother Casey Affleck was nominated, and won, for the 2016 Damon-produced drama “Manchester By the Sea,” even while embroiled in a scandal for his behavior while directing “I’m Not Here.” While the Academy has increased its diversity over the last five years, it’s still largely male — and while few would admit it in public, many of them are tired of what they perceive as cancel culture.
Michael Buckner for PMC
I spoke to Damon before the Times interview broke and shortly after watching him react to the “Stillwater” premiere at Cannes, his first live screening in 18 months. Talk to Damon and you still see that enthusiastic 27-year-old kid who jumped onstage at the 1998 Oscars with his best friend Affleck to accept their first Oscar for writing “Good Will Hunting.”
Damon’s no longer a kid, which is one reason why his discussion of homophobic epithets hasn’t found much sympathy. At 50, he’s received three acting nominations and one for Best Picture (for producing “Manchester by the Sea”). He juggles the big movies with the small, writes and produces, and still embraces the love of the game. But he’s now getting a turn in the media hot seat that has dogged pal Affleck ever since his first go-round with current girlfriend Jennifer Lopez. Damon has studiously avoided that limelight, keeping his media focus on his work.
In the decades since “Good Will Hunting” propelled Affleck and Damon to stardom, the actor has always picked smart projects, juggling a couple of studio franchises (Paul Greengrass’s “Bourne” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Oceans” series) that fueled his career while he took long shots on roles such as Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” (earning a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), Soderbergh’s predictive virus thriller “Contagion,” and Gus Van Sant’s micro-budget desert drama “Gerry,” opposite Casey Affleck, whose career is still scarred in the aftermath of #MeToo.
20th Century Studios
“Stillwater” is the rarest of birds: An original screenplay that doesn’t hew to a clear genre. Inspired in part by Amanda Knox — a detail that inspired its own share of consternation — the story follows a volatile Oklahoma roughneck trying to rescue his daughter (Abigail Breslin) from a prison in Marseille. It’s a mainstream family drama with heartland appeal that Hollywood considers a must-to-avoid (and critics don’t always admire). “It’s not like any other movie I’ve seen,” Damon said. “I love that! It scares some people: ‘I don’t understand what genre this is.’ Well, you’re the ones clamoring for original movies. Just go with it!”
Damon worried that Focus is selling it as a thriller (CinemaScore: B-). “As a thriller, it could be a failure,” he said. “It’s a drama, right? It’s got thriller elements. It’s a dramatic thriller. It’s very hard to get movies made like ‘Stillwater.’ Here’s Focus and Participant — how many people did it take to get this thing made?”
Damon didn’t take on Oklahoma everyman in “Stillwater” for a big payday. He enjoyed the challenge of playing a taciturn loner with “the suggestion of violence beneath the surface,” he said, “a guy who the coastal elite look down their nose on and make assumptions about. I hope people feel empathy for Bill by the end of the movie. He goes on one hell of a journey and ends up in an incredible place. But we didn’t want that to be a Hollywood journey, we wanted it to be a real one.”
Written by McCarthy, Marcus Henchey, and Jacques Audiard regulars Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, the script avoids conventional Hollywood tropes when it throws the badly educated Bill Baker into the exotic port town where his daughter is stuck in prison, convicted of a crime she says she did not commit. Her father wants to help her and turns to a local actress and single mother (“Call My Agent” breakout Camille Cottin) to provide translating services, and later, a place to live.
“When Bill parachutes into her life, and the world she and her daughter have together, it’s not a Hollywood romance,” said Damon. “It’s a surprise. I love that the movie looks past their superficial experience: they help each other and enjoy each other. It goes to an unexpected deeper place for both of them.”
McCarthy counted on Damon to pull in moviegoers. “He comes in with so much of his own cinematic baggage,” said McCarthy. “He’s not always the smartest guy. But he’s always a guy who knows exactly what he is doing. And we were putting Bill Baker into situations where he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t even know what to make of some situations. He doesn’t know the best way to handle it. That’s something we can all relate to in some way. It doesn’t matter who Bill voted for or what his thoughts are about guns. There’s other issues that connect us.”
As juicy character roles decline in films, Damon’s producing (“Manchester by the Sea”) and writing (“The Last Duel,” “Promised Land”) and recognizing that when Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” can only be made on HBO, the movie business has changed forever.
“It remains to be seen how the business has been cannibalized by this pandemic,” said Damon, whose production company insists on including an inclusion rider to ensure gender and racial equality for their productions. “As a producer, I want to make things that are challenging and unique and interesting and are good cinema. How hard is that going to get? It’s a lot harder than it was 20 years ago.”
Which is why Damon still regrets turning down James Cameron’s offer of 10 percent of the gross on “Avatar” in order to honor his “Bourne” and “Oceans” commitments. The role went to Sam Worthington and, while Damon hopes he will get to work with Cameron, the opportunity will never come back.
“The deals are totally different,” Damon said. “If you get any kind of back ends, it would be a cash break which is so far in the middle distance. The deals that were around in the ’80s, first-dollar gross, that’s gone. Forever. And I still should have done ‘Avatar.’ The business has changed forever. No one will ever get another deal close to that.”
He and his agent Patrick Whitesell, he added, “are officially the two biggest dumbasses who ever existed in Hollywood.”