CANNES, France — The set-up of Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater” sounds very Liam Neeson.
Matt Damon stars as a tough, terse Oklahoma father who travels to Marseille, France, to visit his jailed daughter (Abigail Breslin), who has been imprisoned for her role in a scandalous Amanda Knox-styled murder case. Damon, a gruff, working-class roughneck, sticks around to seek justice for his daughter and find a mystery man who may have been the real killer.
McCarthy, the director of “Spotlight,” “Win Win” and “The Station Agent,” had long pursued Damon for one of his movies. In “Stillwater,” he knew audiences would come in expecting Damon as a quintessentially American hero.
“I have a very specific set of skills,” Damon, doing his most gravelly Neeson, jokes while sitting alongside McCarthy in an interview.
“Stillwater,” though, is more than it might appear. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will open in North American theaters on July 30, is an anomaly — a U.S.-Euro hybrid set just down the coast from Cannes yet one of the biggest American films at this year’s festival. As “Stillwater” progresses, it takes its premise in unpredictable directions, turning the American-abroad thriller on its head.
“It’s a movie that owes as much to American storytelling as it does to European storytelling,” McCarthy said.
“It’s not the fish-out-of-water story that you’d expect from Hollywood,” Damon said. “He’s like the opposite of Bourne.”
Intrigued at making a Mediterranean noir, McCarthy first wrote a simpler version of the movie ten years ago. He returned to the script in the fall of 2016 around the election of Donald Trump. Damon’s character doesn’t definitively say he’s a Trump supporter, but it’s implied, but McCarthy wanted to expand the movie’s horizons. He brought in a pair of French writers — Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré — to blend the movie more authentically with France.
In Marseille, Damon’s character, Bill, befriends a local single mother (played by the French actress Camille Cottin, star of “Call My Agent” and her young daughter Maya played by Lilou Siauvaud) and slowly, reluctantly begins to adapt and, maybe, expand his very ethnocentric perspective. The movie’s subtle question: Can a nationalistic, narrow-minded American change his ways? Oui or non?
The production, itself, wasn’t so different. It was largely shot in Marseille with a mostly local crew. Shortly after premiering the film in Cannes, they returned to Marseille to screen it.
“Too many times American movies pitch their tent,” McCarthy said. “Thank you, Pedro. Thank you, Francoise. Stay over there.”
“Stillwater” could be seen as Hollywood’s version of a Middle America newspaper profile, the kind that gets written a lot during election seasons. But the filmmakers made an effort to get beyond clichés. Before shooting the movie, Damon and McCarthy took a pre-production trip to Oklahoma for, as McCarthy says, “three days in a truck and a lot of barbeque” to get a sense of the region’s character. Both came back with a new understanding.
“It was coming at a time where we were super polarized. My French co-writers used to say: You were so angry when we were writing this,” McCarthy says. “Even when I started going (to Oklahoma) thought: ‘What am I going to get?’ And these guys were just great. When I got back, I was so angry at politicians.”
“The movie has tremendous empathy for Bill, and so do we,” says Damon. “Anytime you play a role, you have to have a deep understanding of why your character does what they do. I really feel like we got that from our time down there. I looked at it like: This is a beautiful life and culture. They live entirely different from (Damon gestures to himself and McCarthy) guys who live in New York and the way I grew up in Boston.”
Damon had his own fish-out-water experience in the early days of the pandemic, when he and his family stayed in a small coastal Irish village. The townspeople became charmingly protective of the star in their midst.
“I’m much more taken care of than Bill by any community I parachute into,” says Damon. “People tend to just be really nice and open and helpful.”
Marseille, a bustling and multicultural port city, also infatuated Damon. If he were younger and living in France, he’d move there, he says. But is Damon’s French any better than Bill’s? In the movie, Bill rarely gets more than a few French words out. “Hell yeah, ça va,” he says with a strong Oklahoman accent.
“It’s maybe worse,” Damon says sheepishly.
“Actually much worse,” laughs McCarthy.
“Stillwater” debuted to strong reviews at Cannes and early Oscar nominations speculation for Damon’s lead performance. Produced by Participant Media and distributed by Focus Features, it will try to stoke interest as a theatrical release that appeals to both blue states and red, American moviegoers and European ones. It’s an increasingly uncommon kind of movie: a star-fronted drama for adults from an original idea, made for theaters.
At the premiere, Damon was moved to tears at simply being back in a full movie theater.
“It was completely overwhelming,” Damon says. “It was a really powerful reminder of watching things on the little screen in my house, what the experience is of sitting with a thousand people who are strangers and watching this thing and taking it together — and why we do that, and why it’s so unlike the other thing. You’re looking at the same quote-unquote ‘content,’ but it’s not the same. It’s a form of worship. It’s like church. And I forgot how great that felt.”
However, getting “Stillwater” made wasn’t easy. When the production budget went higher than expected, McCarthy had to pull back on the crew size during shooting. His department heads asked why their teams were getting smaller.
“On one of the calls, someone said, ‘It feels like we’re making an independent movie,’” says McCarthy. “I was like: ‘No, we’re making a European movie.’”