EXCLUSIVE: Tomorrow night’s Cannes premiere of Stillwater marks the end of a long odyssey for co-writer/director Tom McCarthy, who put down the script almost a decade ago, and moved on to win an Oscar for co-writing and directing Best Picture winner Spotlight and get nominated for co-writing the Best Animated Film Oscar winner Up. Stillwater stars Matt Damon as an Oklahoma roughneck with a shoddy past as a father who heads to Marseille hellbent on freeing his daughter (Abigail Breslin), an exchange student imprisoned for murdering her girlfriend, a crime she says she didn’t commit. He’s the proverbial fish out of water who finds an ally in a local single mother (Camille Cottin) and her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud). A script that took its early shape and inspiration from the imprisonment and eventual acquittal of Amanda Knox, benefited from years in a drawer, the influence of French co-writers Thomas Bidegain & Noe Debre, and by a forced post-production hiatus due to the Covid pandemic. McCarthy believes the delays made possible the best version of an elevated thriller that Focus Features releases theatrically July 30.
DEADLINE: Stillwater was supposed to be released last Thanksgiving for awards season, but was among many delayed by the Covid shutdown. When did you finish?
TOM McCARTHY: We were finishing editing the movie in March 2020, when it all shut down. The studio saw the movie and was really happy with it and was initially just like, we want this in theaters. We think people need to have that experience, and I couldn’t agree more. I was thrilled that they thought that way. Yeah, it was hard to sit on it. I’m really proud of the movie and I can’t wait to share it, but I was really in favor of holding onto it and giving people the opportunity to see it in theaters, which now, they will have. So we literally sat on it for most of the year, and then opened up the edit again in August of last year. We finished in April.
DEADLINE: Many directors spent the pandemic editing remotely through Zoom calls…
McCARTHY: We had to shut down and wait for the sound because we had to do the final mix. I really wanted to do it in the studio, with the people I made the movie with, my cinematographer, my editor. You could do it remotely, but I don’t like doing that. I want to be in a real sound stage. I wanted to be on a real screen when I was color correcting it. So we just were kind of patient, and started thinking that Cannes would be a nice way to introduce the movie. And the studio circled this July 30 date as a way to release the movie, knowing that it was counter-programming, in a sense. Everything was all so messed up from the last year, and this felt like the right time.
DEADLINE: When you put down a film for six months you thought was nearly finished, do you change it much after time for reflection?
McCARTHY: Yeah. I changed it, not a ton, probably a few minutes, toward the shape and the propulsion and trajectory of the movie. We have some unexpected turns, and I don’t just mean in terms of story and plot, but also in terms of tone, and pace and rhythm. And there are moments where you’re asking the audience, hey, slow down. We’re going to spend some time over here and experience this part of their lives. And yet you have to keep the whole thing on track and moving. It’s probably one of my more complex movies and was one of the more difficult ones to find the right balance. Both Matt and I felt like the time was valuable. Certain scenes, we were like, we don’t need this. We’ve seen this before. And this cut adds a little bit more momentum, propulsion, direction to the movie and to the story. I wouldn’t call it cutting as much as shaving, which is more nuanced. But there was one montage, three quarters through the movie, without giving it away, that we could not crack, until two weeks before finishing where we literally had a moment and found something fresh. You’re happy but you go, a year and 14 months later, and it takes this break for us to suddenly get it. Why does this take so long? It’s like writing in that way. You’ll be writing on a script for a year and a half and like, what is this scene about anyway? Then, suddenly, it crystallizes. So, yeah, I won’t necessarily say worth the wait, because it was a long wait, but it made the movie better, finally.
DEADLINE: Matt Damon’s character initially gives of a vibe of ‘get out of the way, I’m an American’ hubris. Was there some residual influence from the polarizing Trump Administration?
McCARTHY: Yeah, but we could zoom out more. Globally, there’s been this move towards nationalism, which I think some people would pin on the Trump administration and a couple other administrations around the world right now that are pretty prominent, a couple other countries specifically, and the idea of like what that means globally. One of the ramifications of that, early on, when I re-approached this script with Thomas and Noe, we talked about inverting the idea of the American hero. We’re conditioned in these movies to just think that, I’m going to do whatever I can, and I’m going to do what’s best for me and my family and I’m going to go for it.
We really wanted to examine the consequences of that kind of thinking. So, maybe distilling that sort of ‘me first’ ideology into a character, and then, sort of saying well, is that best? I think if it was a pure thriller, yeah. I’m going to go get my child no matter what and this is a little bit more of a…I think it’s a more nuanced approach to that question of what happens when we put your needs or your family needs above all else. Is that always the best thing? And what are the consequences?
And we see, by the end, there are real human consequences to that. We felt like that was really worth examining. It’s that inversion of the hero stereotype, specifically the American cinematic stereotype of the hero, and that in large part is why I really wanted Matt for the role. He has built a career on being a guy that we trust, that we believe in, who has great integrity and does the right thing. We wanted to push on that.
DEADLINE: Your first crack at the screenplay was influenced by the Amanda Knox ordeal, a student in Italy held several years and finally acquitted of a murder whose circumstances are similar to the one in your movie. What stopped you from making this back then?
McCARTHY: There was an influence that was really linked to that Amanda Knox case. I followed it really closely, early on. So, there was some real inspiration from that. Then we took a stab at the script, and it lacked dimension. It lacked scope and it lacked humanity, in my mind. It was more of a pure thriller, but I didn’t think it amounted to enough. My films can be very different, but there’s a common beam in what’s beneath the floorboards. There’s a certain element of humanity to these pictures and I feel like I was still playing with the genre. I don’t think I was at a point in my career where I had totally nailed it.
So, as a director, I looked at the draft. I thought, it’s good. It’s not ready and it’s not something I want to direct right now and I went from that to Spotlight and made that movie. But when I came back to it, six or seven years later, I thought, man, the premise is there, but I still feel how I feel about the [limitations of the] script. I really wanted to start from scratch with the story, and that’s when I reached out to Thomas and Noe, the two writers who I knew of but didn’t know. I blindly tracked down their information, sent them a script and got on a Zoom with them, and said, what did you guys think? They were honest and quite critical of the script but in a way that really spoke to me. I think they really identified what I was trying to do and what I hadn’t achieved and…
DEADLINE: What were they critical of?
McCARTHY: They felt the set up was a human drama, and that script just kind of became a two-dimensional thriller. I sort of agreed with them. They said, let’s create a movie that has this set up and a deeper character in Bill Baker, and let’s carry that dimension through the movie, so it just doesn’t become a genre movie. Let’s make something that includes the thrill and suspense of genre, but has other lanes to it that challenge. And I think that’s where we ended up.
For me, that’s what’s exciting about movies right now. We’ve seen it all. The movies that are kind of like really standing out right now are movies that challenge that. Get Out challenged our idea of what a horror movie is, and I think that’s why that movie is so brilliant, because it moved beyond those bounds. This is a very different movie than that, but I think that’s worth talking about. Like let’s press on that. Let’s open up the scope of this movie, so that it has real character story, real humanity, and real relationships and has a point of view. And I feel like, you know, all those years later, I was really ready to hear that, and I was just a better writer. I was ready to take it on.
DEADLINE: It does go to a dark genre place. So you instead made Spotlight, a dark horse contender that came out of Toronto and won Best Picture. Spotlight had a complex tapestry, with empathy, anger, an element of expose. How did that experience open you to the idea to tear apart this movie you wrote and make it more than two-dimensional?
McCARTHY: I think of all my movies as part of a journey, and hopefully, you learn and grow from every one. If you look at my movies you see them widening and broadening. It’s difficult to tell a good story. It’s difficult to make a good movie. I love my early movies when I started out, but this represents the next level. More story lines, more dimension, thematically broader in some ways in terms of the scope.
So, what did I take away from Spotlight? You know, it’s difficult for me to quantify. Maybe what it gave me was the confidence to keep pressing on, taking a look at the material. Like, when I sat with those [screenwriters]. If what Thomas and Noe said to me about the existing script just didn’t make sense, I just would have gone another direction, but it really resonated. It did, and we spent the next year and a half re-breaking and re-writing the script.
I’m hugely influenced by European world cinema, and working with two writers that talented, at this point, and see them really press on a lot of sort preconceived ideas where I thought scenes and stories should go, really challenged me. I hope they would say vice versa. The back and forth, we could feel us finding this middle ground between American and European cinema, specifically French. That was just so exciting to me. We shot 90 percent of it in Marseilles. I think we all felt it, including Matt. He said to me a few times, just having the chance to dig into a character like this and go so deep, he hadn’t had this in a while. He said, it feels fortunate. And that’s a guy who’s got a hell of a lot of opportunity.
DEADLINE: How hard is it to get Matt Damon to sign on?
McCARTHY: Probably me offering about every other movie I made, and him saying no for a good seven, eight years until he finally said yes. That’s literally what happened. I’ve been courting him for a while, been a fan of his work and heard great things about working with him. He’s just an actor that I felt I would connect with. This was just the right script at the right time. I remember I ran into Matt, who’s as you know, a pretty self-effacing, at one of the awards things around Spotlight, when he was there with The Martian, a terrific movie. I had approached him about Spotlight, we’d talked about it, and he just wasn’t in the space to hear the movie at that time. But he said, you keep sending me great scripts, I’ll keep saying no, you go make a great movie, and then, I’ll regret it, and then, we’ll just rinse and repeat. I said, I will.
I sent him Stillwater. He read and liked it, called me and said, I want to do this. We met for coffee in LA three days later, talked about it and that was it. It was really that quick. I think he just connected with it and saw in the script and in the story, a chance to do something he hadn’t done before. I can’t speak for Matt but I think most good actors, that’s what they’re looking for. Soon after, we were in Oklahoma together hanging out with roughnecks, eating a lot of barbecue, driving around to a lot of different cities and just sort of soaking it in, and talking through the movie. I think Matt’s work started there, that early, just understanding the physicality, the approach to character. He’s a quick study. He’s a smart guy and when we got to set and we got into rehearsals in France a few months later, I was like, boy, he paid attention. He’s ready.
DEADLINE: The opening shot of Matt in the movie, I thought it was Josh Brolin, another 50-ish actor who wears his mileage well. Matt looked like he could have played on the offensive line for Alabama back in the day…
McCARTHY: Yeah. Josh is a great actor, so Matt would take that as a compliment. But you’re right. Not a lot of people have seen the movie but almost to the one, they’ve been like, Matt is great, but I didn’t recognize him. He literally vanishes in this role in a way that’s subtle, not showy. It’s just really deep work, really specific, really rounded. You could tell from day one, on set. I was like, oh, this works. We always thought of this [character] as being really rooted to the ground, who digs holes for a living. These roughnecks we met, I don’t care if they weigh 120 pounds, 220 or 320, they are strong, not from lifting weights and working out, but from just hard work on the oil rigs. Matt and I were with them one day and I’m asking one of them about a piece of equipment, what is thing thing? He picks it up and puts it down and Matt goes over and picks it up, and I couldn’t move the thing. That guy lifted it like it was nothing. Matt got that, bulked up in a really natural way, not cut or jacked.
DEADLINE: The French port city of Marseilles seems a character in the film. You shot there before?
McCARTHY: I started visiting Marseilles 10 years ago when I was thinking about this project, and my first visit there and I was just totally smitten. When we engaged with the French writers on the idea, they pushed back a little bit. It was like, Marseilles comes with a lot of baggage for France, all the way back to The French Connection and a lot of other movies. They said we got to really think about this. I said, I’m open. Do you have a better city? We just kept coming back to Marseilles. I knew as a director, visually, it was just really difficult to beat. [The character] is a local who lays low, does his work, doesn’t do a lot but suddenly gets on a plane and not only travels to Marseilles but has to get to know that city intimately, for me, it was immediately compelling. There were obstacles to shooting there, number one being money and time. Thankfully, I had a studio who ultimately got behind me, saw the sense in it and I think they’re happy they did because you can really see it in the film.
DEADLINE: Camille Cottin was an interesting match for Damon, acting as his guide and translator. He goes to Marseille to redeem his history as a lousy dad, and by the end he has a chance for a life there with this woman and her adorable daughter. But of course it can never be that easy.
McCARTHY: That went back to the script with the French writers who were like, how can we take this in an unexpected way that still feels organic, and push beyond the genre and dimension of this film and this story? The Amanda Knox case as a true crime story was interesting, and the human toll that happens on the other side of that. When Bill goes there and stays out of blind devotion to his daughter, it opens him up and provides him with this path to redemption, but also a liberation from a life where he just felt stuck. The singular relationship with his daughter is very dysfunctional. And then he has this opportunity to be there, and just connects with this woman and her daughter, which begins as friendship, blossoms into a friendship, and then much more and something much deeper. Like, I think capturing that and allowing that to happen was really exciting to me, as a filmmaker and storyteller. But navigating that in large part falls not just on the writers but on the actors. Having Cami come in and be so believable as this actress who transplanted from Paris, a single mom with her daughter who meets this guy…she’s one of those people, if she sees a stray dog, she takes that dog in and that dog, in this case, is Bill Baker. He needs her, and she understands that, and she can’t help herself. Her friend says it to her. Is this you new thing? Cami ties the two worlds together so believably, Bill the Oklahoma roughneck and his daughter on one side and her and life in France with her daughter on the other.
DEADLINE: This film was green lit pre-pandemic, before the theatrical business found itself in great crisis and streaming boomed. What concerns you most about the future of non-formulaic adult dramas made for theatrical as the business tries to rebound after the pandemic?
McCARTHY: My biggest fear is for original movies, and movies that challenge us and make us think and don’t give us what we expect. That is exactly what we were trying to do with Stillwater. But even Spotlight had a cinematic predecessor, All the President’s Men, some other journalism movies that were quite good. So, there’s a genre for that. I think Stillwater sits in its own bay. I think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite, these are real movies where you say okay, I didn’t expect that. I don’t know where we’re going. I love that. I love walking into a movie and not knowing what to expect, and I feel like when cinemas at its strongest when that happened. It’s what’s different than serialized television where you get to know and grow the characters. Forget the world and grow. There’s something really great about that but like, I think cinema should challenge you, should push boundaries. It should make us think. It should make us question. It should defy expectation, and I think that’s what we were trying to do with Stillwater. Not as an end but just part of the storytelling that we enjoy.