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Matt Damon did nothing to shatter his “Hollywood’s nicest guy” image when he recently jumped on the phone with us at Rotten Tomatoes to talk about his five favorite films. Like many celebrities who get on these calls – part of a rotation of “phoners” with usually dozens of journalists they complete in one sitting – he hadn’t quite been briefed that we were going to be discussing his favorite movies. That usually leads to bit of an awkward back-and-forth and ends with us abandoning the “Five Favorite Films” idea and doing a straightforward interview about the star’s current project. But Damon was game, and on the spot decided to “take a run at them,” politely apologizing along the way for taking his time. We think when you see his classics-stuffed list below – Scorsese! Spielberg! Kubrick! – you’ll be as glad as we were that he decided to give it a go.
That “current project” of Damon’s we mentioned may well end up on other people’s favorite movies lists in time. Stillwater is director Tom McCarthy’s follow-up to Oscar-winner Spotlight, and sees Damon playing Oklahoma “roughneck” (slang for oil rig worker) Bill Baker, whose daughter is in a French prison in Marseilles after being convicted of killing her girlfriend there five years ago. When his daughter supplies him with a new lead in her case, Bill – a fish out of water in the sprawling port city – finds himself drawn into the local underworld and connecting with a mother and her young daughter whom he enlists for help. The movie was one of the most talked-about premieres of the recent Cannes Film Festival (where it received the now almost obligatory five-minute standing ovation) and critics are saying Damon is as good as he’s ever been as a clenched-up American abroad fighting for his daughter’s freedom and contending with the past that’s led her to doubt he will succeed.
Ahead of the movie’s release in theaters, Damon spoke to us about his favorite films – “this is tough, man!” he said quietly as he pondered which Spielberg film to include – as well as building the character of Bill, a process that involved an invaluable three-day trip to spend time with real “roughnecks.”
The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Well, I’ve always said Godfather 2. I think that movie’s pretty near perfect. It’s an impossible thing to answer, your five favorite movies, but I would put that one, just for its direction, its writing, and its acting, its production value. I mean, it’s really amazing.
I remember talking to Scorsese on The Departed and saying, “Hey, Marty: Godfather 1, or Godfather 2?” And he instantly said, “Godfather 2.” And I said, “Why?” And he goes, “He had more money.”
If I come across it on my Direct TV… I literally try not to, because if I turn it on, I can’t turn it off. It’s just that great. I mean, it just ages so perfectly. It just gets better with age. Again, it’s the direction, the writing, the acting. It’s just brilliant. And I mean, it’s long, but it doesn’t feel long. It’s just relentless.
Midnight Run (1988)
I’m going to put a comedy in there and say Midnight Run. That was a movie that in college and in high school, my friends and I could quote probably every line of that movie. So, I haven’t seen it in a few years now, but that was definitely a favorite. It’s not just a one-off, either – you watch it again and again and again. My friends in college, we’re now in our fifties, but we can come up with obscure lines out of that movie and instantly crack each other up through texts. It’s just a beautifully acted movie and still makes me laugh.
Rotten Tomatoes: I take it from your choices so far, big De Niro fan?
Yes, yeah, I guess so: I put three of his movies in there! I didn’t do that on purpose. I am a huge fan of his, though, and I love him a lot.
That’s a terrifying, perfect movie. It’s simple and kind of perfect and beautiful. It’s early Spielberg, and it just shows … I mean, I know it was a mistake that the shark wasn’t ready, but the idea of not seeing the shark is just absolutely brilliant. It tapped into the most primal and terrifying aspects of swimming in the ocean. And the acting is great, all the characters are great. And it’s almost impossible to shoot on a boat, and yet he did it with such unbelievable mastery.
It’s like when Hemingway writes, I always go, “I know all those words. I just never thought to put them in that order.” So, there’s nothing that Steven’s doing that’s a trick. He’s got the same equipment everyone else has. He’s just better at telling a visual story.
That’s another good comedy, and a Kubrick movie, so it ticks a couple of boxes for me. It sticks out to me for Peter Sellers, actually. Sellers, I mean, he’s so brilliant in that movie. And I was sitting there wondering, should I go for Being There? Should I go for another Sellers movie? I just wanted Sellers on this list, because he was so great. And that’s a movie where he’s as dynamic as he ever was. He played, however many… three or four different people… and they’re all just totally different and totally great. That guy was just absolutely brilliant and terribly funny.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: You clearly know your directors, and Tom McCarthy is so incredible and was just coming off Spotlight when Stillwater was coming together. Was Tom a big part of the reason that you wanted to make this project?
Matt Damon: That was the main draw. I’ve been hoping to work with him for a while. And then I thought the script was just beautiful and totally unique and not like any movie I’ve seen before, but really had a lot of humanity. I thought the story was heartbreaking and beautiful and I really believe the dynamic between the characters, and that was before I even started researching these roughnecks and really understood the specificity of that world and how that would be brought to bear on the movie.
Leaving out the fact that he was a roughneck, it’s just that dynamically, the script just really worked between the characters. I just totally believed this relationship with the father and the daughter; the father is carrying all this pain and grief and shame and regret for the ways in which he’s failed her and feels some level of responsibility for the life that she finds herself living and the trouble that she’s in. And the terror of waking up out of years of addiction and realizing that you entirely failed this person who doesn’t even count on you anymore and how heartbreaking that is.
Then, getting into the specificity of that, of the roughneck thing, and going there and meeting those guys. Everything about the physicality of that character comes from these guys and this research that we did. And they could not have been more helpful, and they just gave us unbelievable access and let us parachute into their lives for a little while and look at how they live. That’s really how we built the character.
Rotten Tomatoes: I wanted to ask about that trip to Oklahoma to hang out with the roughnecks, because as a journalist, sometimes I know it can be awkward to cold-approach subjects and ask them questions about their lives they’re not used to answering. How was that trip to see the roughnecks and talk about their lives? Was there any nervousness?
Damon: Yeah. It was very much like being journalist. I mean, it’s the same research trips that you do. And they were wary of us, like, “You guys are making a movie about roughnecks. You Hollywood liberals are? What are your intentions? What’s this movie about? Are you making fun of us?” Because these are the kind of guys that normally get caricatured or stereotyped in Hollywood movies, or that the cultural elite would look down their nose at. And they know that, and they’re like, “Well … ”
They had to decide help us. And I think it was when they talked to us about what we were trying to do [that they opened up], when they realized that our intentions were pure and that this was a story that had incredible empathy and compassion for Bill’s character. We just wanted to get the roughneck stuff right.
(Photo by Jessica Forde / Focus Features)
And then once they realized that, they just were great. They were just so incredibly helpful. And all of the physicality of this character came directly from those guys.
Rotten Tomatoes: One last thing: Your character, like myself sometimes, has a particular taste for Subway sandwiches and is in this amazing city, Marseilles, but keeps getting Subway. Is there something American or comforting that you seek out when you’re overseas, like a go-to thing that reminds you of home?
Damon: Well, I think in Bill’s cases, it’s more that he’s got a routine that he’s figured out that works for him. And so then he doesn’t have to go and order something in French, it’s a safe routine. And so, he just goes and gets a Subway sandwich.
I can definitely relate to that, being overseas and being overwhelmed by the idea of going out to try to rustle up a meal for myself when I don’t speak the language. It’s challenging. It can be really challenging. So, it was kind of a nod to that.
Stillwater is in theaters from Friday July 30, 2021.
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