In his new film “Stillwater,” co-writer/director Tom McCarthy wanted to present the image of an American hero – and then turn it on its head. The film, now in theaters, stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, a roughneck from the titular town in Oklahoma 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 truly 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 discovery.)
McCarthy, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Spotlight,” a film he directed to a best picture win, worked with co-writers Marcus Hinchey, along with French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, who frequently collaborate with Jacques Audiard. The film premiered to 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 murdering her roommate Meredith Kercher. The way the initial trial was handled raised questions about how the investigation was conducted and how Knox was portrayed unfairly in the media. (Rudy Guede was eventually convicted of Kercher’s murder in 2008.) Knox, now host of the podcast “The Truth About True Crime,” penned a Twitter thread/essay and spoke to Variety, taking issue with what she felt were elements of “Stillwater” mirroring her own story.
McCarthy talked with Variety about Knox, how longform podcasts affected their structure, and the people of Oklahoma who helped bring “Stillwater” to life.
What was the initial inspiration behind “Stillwater”?
With all my stories, I’m a bit of a magpie. I joke about my 8-year-old daughter being a magpie because she picks up everything 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 bits and pieces that I start to accumulate and thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Sometimes it’s a character, or an idea of a character, sometimes it’s a story point or a theme. One inspiration was a relative of mine who had a fractious relationship with her father; I asked if she minded talking to me about it.
As a writer, do people in your life know that whatever they tell you might end up in a movie? Does your family ever tell you something and then say, “Hey, don’t use that!”
I’ve had people say that to me — I believe jokingly. But not really because every movie I’ve made outside of “Spotlight” has been fictionalized. So usually by the time it gets to screen and because of magpie approach about collecting bits and pieces, those stories aren’t really identifiable in a particular way.
I’m sure you’re aware Amanda Knox has taken issue with the film, saying it’s based too closely to her own story. What’s your response?
I deeply empathize with Amanda and what she went through. She was rightfully found innocent and acquitted in the Meredith Kercher case. She has platforms to speak her truth and engage with the media and she is exercising her absolute right to do so. But, by her own account, she has not seen “Stillwater” and what she seems to be raising feels very removed from the film we actually made. “Stillwater” is a work of fiction and not about her life experience. It does take from aspects of true life events, like many films, but “Stillwater” is about Bill Baker’s journey, his relationship with his estranged daughter Allison and a French woman and her young daughter he meets along the way. The questions the movie poses about American identity and moral authority are what compelled me to make this film. But I do think good films spark conversation in and around the story and I welcome audiences’ engagement in that.
In retrospect, do you wish you had spoken with her prior to making the film or was it important to you to keep it fictional?
Years ago, I made a film about real-life events called “Spotlight,” and, in that instance, we thoroughly researched and worked closely with the real-life subjects and used real names and events within the film. That 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 real-life events but the story and characters within my latest film are all invented.
One entry point for the screenwriting, for example, is the relationship that a relative of mine had with her father who was absent and struggled with addiction. I had a series of phone interviews with her as she carefully laid out the painful dynamic and dysfunction of their relationship and those conversations were core to the relationship between Bill and his daughter Allison and the film.
Similarly, Abigail Breslin, who plays Allison Baker, spoke with two relatives who were both incarcerated to explore how they coped with their situations and how they leaned on their spirituality to sustain them.
I want to talk about your amazing cast, obviously starting with Matt Damon. He’s cast somewhat against type here, was that intentional?
I mean, part of the reason I wanted Matt in this role is because it’s Bill Baker’s story, right? I knew I was going to have to get that character right and ultimately with the writers, we wanted to subvert the iconic hero. It’s a guy going over to help save his daughter. And in America in 2016, the world had changed and we wanted to invert that sort of cinematic stereotype in a way that maybe a thriller would. “Stillwater” is far from a thriller – it has thrilling, mysterious, suspenseful moments – but it’s a deeply felt human drama and a character-driven story about Bill Baker and his relationships with his daughter and this French woman and her daughter that he meets. In that way, it’s very much one of my movies. I am constantly returning to the theme of the families we make.
I needed an actor who could carry that hero persona into the film and Matt has that. And because of his previous work, people expect a certain amount of integrity. And we would challenge the audience, challenge perceptions of what this film is really about. So I needed an actor who was not only a great actor, but who could bring a bit of that persona in the movie that we could then subvert. As you know, the film goes in unexpected places and it challenges our perception of what a film structure should be.
I don’t want to spoil anything but the character goes to some dark places and I know some people have been surprised or even upset by the third act.
Some people want a certain thing out of a movie or they go in thinking or knowing what a movie should be. Sometimes it’s based on a trailer or their own preconceived notion. And we wanted to play on that. At the time, the writers and I were listening to these great longform podcasts like “Serial” and “S-Town” and noticed how the stories took really unexpected journeys and had moments that came out of nowhere. And we also liked being challenged by the characters we were spending time with, we were compelled to follow them on their journey. We used that as kind of a template and said let’s allow Bill Baker to take us wherever it leads. And that really liberated us in terms of form and structure.
Many people say Bill Baker is a Trump supporter, even though he says in the film he didn’t vote. Is that an accurate assumption or was it your intention to leave it open-ended?
How people talk about a movie and how they talk about a character is really a reflection of those people, right? Whether that’s audience or critics. They’re seeing a movie through their particular prism, and then will feel and talk about that movie through that particular prism. So that’s filmmaking, and I think good films should evoke that. So it’s not my job to gauge. If someone said, “Where do you think Bill lies in the political spectrum?” I would say he’s probably a Republican. It’s one of the reddest states in the union, and most oil guys are voting Republican. In fact, in conversations with them, one guy said to me, “You know, I didn’t dislike Hillary that much, but she told me she was going to shut down oil and fracking, and if she does that, 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 with that. So how people refer to characters or to any element of the movie? Or how they see or talk about the movie once they’ve seen it? Like, that’s all fair game.
When the title of the movie is a town, you want the feel of it right. I believe both you and Matt spent time in Oklahoma with real roughnecks to prepare?
Roughnecks are an iconic kind of character on the Oklahoma scene, they’re everywhere. And they’re guys who work oil rigs. When I started this script back in 2011, I choose Stillwater as the location almost by circling it on a map. In 2016, I started going there in earnest. And as soon as I landed, I saw what a specific thing a roughneck was. In many ways, Bill’s whole character came into focus based on the kind of myth and reality of roughnecks and how hard they live and what their lives are like, and how hard they work. I set up all these interviews when I was there and I would meet people and record them, film them, spend time with them and hear their stories, incorporating all of this back into Bill Baker. I would relay this all back to my co-writers and they were fascinated by the culture. And the final piece was bringing Matt into it. There were three people specifically I wanted Matt to meet: Ryan Stewart, Kenny Baker and Davey Porter. They were crucial to Oklahoma and to what you see on the screen.
Were they excited to meet Matt Damon?
You know, impressed at first, but they worked through it really quickly. They’re used to working with all types and all they care about is the work and getting it done.
Some of them came to the premiere recently, correct?
Yes,, Kenny Baker and Davey Porter came and the night before we had a pizza night at my house in Brooklyn. And I was very nervous to hear their reaction to the movie. Kenny Baker was kind of quiet at the premiere and a couple days later he texts me and says, “Hey Tom, we got to talk.” I called him and he said, “I went to ‘Stillwater’ last night to watch it again.” And he was saying that he really felt it and took the movie in in a deeper way and had all kinds of thoughts and feelings on it.
Their reaction, mixed with the Cannes response, must have been reassuring.
I was talking with [producer] Jonathan King about this, because I feel like two big boxes we checked with this film was the French reaction and the Oklahoma reaction. Because at Cannes, they’ll let you know if they don’t like the movie. So the response was wonderful, we felt like, “Okay, we got that right.” And the other was Oklahoma. And it was really exciting to hear their response.