Most A-list movie stars employ a driver, but Matthew McConaughey prefers to be in the front seat. “I love to drive myself,” he says. McConaughey is on his way to work on a freeway in Louisiana, where he’s shooting the Civil War film “The Free State of Jones” and chatting with a reporter on his cell phone. (“I’m breaking the law,” he jokes, before adding, “I have a hands-free headset.”) Production wraps in three weeks, but McConaughey is taking the weekend off to jet to the Cannes Film Festival for the Saturday premiere of “Sea of Trees.”
The drama, directed by Gus Van Sant, teams McConaughey with Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts. The screenplay focuses on a man (McConaughey) who journeys into Japan’s Suicide Forest to end his life, only to encounter surprises along the way. “Sea of Trees” was shot in Massachusetts and Japan on a $25 million budget, and Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions picked up U.S. distribution this week. (Critics booed the film at a screening on Friday night.)
McConaughey was in the South of France last year pitching the project to international buyers, and he acknowledges that it takes some hustling to get financing for mid-range budget films. McConaughey spoke to Variety about “Sea of Trees,” his secret talks with Marvel and the changing realities of the movie business.
You talked about this project last year. You said that you and Gus Van Sant had always wanted to work together.
I like a lot of his work and we just came together on this one. It’s hands down an exceptional script. It moved me. Rarely do I stand up and have to walk around and yell at a script on the page as I read it. I cried at this script. I was mad at it. I was screaming. That doesn’t happen very often.
What’s Gus like?
He’s a sweet-souled voyeur. He doesn’t say a lot. But he knows; he’s watching everything. On this shoot, he’d pick a shot by rolling the dice on a scene. And the dice would give him random coordinates of latitude and longitude. He’d find two spots, set up cameras from those two spots and shoot the scene just to see it from a random perspective. Sometimes the cameras would end up way in a wire up in a tree.
Had you seen anything like that before?
No, it was wild.
How did you prepare?
A lot of it was trying to define that relationship with the Naomi character and my character. So a point of reference was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That was valuable as far as an example of their relationship. I spent time with some different marriage counselors who deal with these co-dependent relationships. That kind of thing.
Is it difficult to get a mid-budget drama financed now?
A year ago, they asked, “Will you come over, you and Gus, and present ‘Sea of Trees’ [to buyers]? Your passion will really help foreign sales.” And it did. What would have happened if Gus and I couldn’t go over there last year? Would we still sell a lot of foreign sales? Maybe. As many territories. I don’t know. It’s not carte blanche, let’s write the check. You have to work the street, hop on a plane. Even at this juncture, after the film is made, there’s value in us going over to Cannes. These kinds of films need those extra legs.
Why doesn’t Hollywood make these kinds of movies anymore?
Lets go through it. You have the huge tentpole action: Marvel, DC Comics, “Avengers,” “Iron Man,” etc. After that, what do you got? At the bottom of that, you’ve got a “Dallas Buyers Club,” where you don’t even have $5 million to do it. You’ve got to do it in 27 days. The films I’ve been making are mid-budget or low-budget dramas. There are no superheroes. There are no franchises. Those were early to get made in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Robert Zemeckis and I met a few months ago, and he was like, “You could never make ‘Contact’ again today, because no studio will budget it.”
Would you ever consider being in a superhero movie?
I’ve read some Marvel and DC scripts and I’ve talked about working with them on some scripts, none of which I’ll share with with you what they are — or were. Yeah, I’ve circled some of those. Nothing has been right for me yet. But I’m sure open to it.
What would convince you?
It’s very simple for me. I look at the script. Is the opportunity exciting? Is the money that comes with it exciting? Sure. Is it the possibility of going, “Hey you can get on a train and it can be a franchise and you could do 3, 4, 5, and have a great time as some kind of superhero or anti-hero.” But I would also look at something like that and say, “Hey, in success that means you are on the train for a while.” Contractually, you’re going to return to the character over and over. It’s something I asked myself is it something I’d want to return to. Would I be excited to go back and put the shoes on the character again? Going and doing the press tour with that group of people again? I always ask myself those questions again. It starts with the story and character.
Why didn’t you star in “Magic Mike 2?” Was it scheduling?
No. Part of it was scheduling. I did the first one. Dallas was Dallas. He’s a lightning rod. I didn’t see how he would or should return. I never could crack that nut. And so I wanted to make it work, but it just didn’t work out.
Where do you keep your Oscar?
It’s at our house on a rafter. It was on the island bar in the living room. It may still be there. A year ago, I was talking to my son about the tsunami. He was saying, “What if one came here?” I told him, if it came here, we’d need to get out of here, and we’d take the dogs and things like that. And he said, “We’d got to take your Oscar, right?” I laughed and said, “You grab that for me, buddy.”