TORONTO — After many hours of being interviewed about “The Martian” at the Toronto International Film Festival, Matt Damon still looked thrilled to talk about the movie, even its early reviews.
“I’ve heard they’re good,” he said, grinning.
More like great.
Critics had managed their expectations for the film, after director Ridley Scott’s more recent sci-fi takes — including “Prometheus” — perplexed fans despite being visual stunners. But when “The Martian” had its big premiere at the start of the festival, the movie was almost universally adored.
Variety called it an “epic homage to the nerd.” The Wrap wrote, “it’s hard to deny filmmaking this adept and this thrilling.” Most critics praised Damon, who anchors the film as Mark Watney, a cocky astronaut who is stranded on Mars after his crew unintentionally abandons him when it appears he’s died in a dust storm. The movie, which opens theatrically on Friday, is adapted from the best-selling novel “The Martian” by Andy Weir, whose Watney is a modern-day MacGyver who uses his NASA intelligence and botany degree to sustain his life day by day.
“Andy said, when he wrote the book, he kind of started with that proposition of ‘All right, could one person who is really highly trained — and got somewhat lucky as well — could they actually survive?’ And then he said he let the science tell the story,” Damon said. “Basically, the guy’s gotta figure out air, water, and food, and keep it coming. If he can do that, he can make it.”
Damon says the project was a labor of love from the start. Filmmakers adored the book, which started out as a self-published hit. The tale was more of a western and, at times, a comedy than a philosophical space odyssey, setting it apart from hits such as “Gravity” and another Damon film, “Interstellar.”
“The writer of the screenplay, Drew Goddard, I don’t think he even had the rights — he read the book and he just started writing the screenplay because he loved it so much. When I met with him originally about it, he said he wanted it to be a love letter to science.”
“The Martian” represents what Damon is looking for as an actor, now that the film industry has changed and it’s harder to make a “Good Will Hunting.” Movies are either superhero-size or tiny.
“It’s just that the movies that really were my bread and butter aren’t getting made anymore,” Damon said of the state of film and why he hasn’t found his own project to direct. “There’s not the $25 million to $60 million movie about people talking to each other. They’re just gone.”
Damon uses “Behind the Candelabra” as his lesson. The 2013 HBO hit, in which Michael Douglas and Damon star as Liberace and his longtime partner Scott Thorson, was adored by critics. Damon said it was movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, executive producer of “Good Will Hunting,” who explained why a project like that now winds up on cable.
“He was really gracious about ‘Behind the Candelabra’ — he loved it,” Damon said of Weinstein. “And I said, ‘Well, why didn’t you buy it, man? Like why didn’t you fund it? It would have been great to put the band back together and do this.’ And he really kind of calmly walked me through the numbers. . . . He goes, look, if I spent $25 million . . . if I make it for that, I have to put that much in to market it. Now it’s at $50 [million]. Now I gotta split my money with the exhibitor, so do I think this movie about this relationship kind of falling apart is going to make $100 million so that I can break even? It’s just a brutal business.”
That hasn’t stopped Damon from trying to create his own opportunities. He looks for big films that will also be good. The next Jason Bourne movie will team him again with director Paul Greengrass. Damon credits fans with getting the film made.
“It was a real factor in doing it — that people really wanted to see it. . . . Building an audience that’s really loyal and really loves it — that’s nothing to kind of turn your nose up at.”
Weir, who said he was thrilled when Damon signed on to play Watney, says Damon brings integrity to these blockbusters. “People think of him as an action-movie star. People forget that he’s a really good actor.”
Damon also has Pearl Street Films, the production company he founded with Ben Affleck. Under Pearl Street, Damon co-wrote the drama “Promised Land” with John Krasinski, and produced the locally made “Manchester-by-the-Sea,” starring Casey Affleck, which is due out next year.
They have also revived the “Project Greenlight” series, now on HBO, which follows a new filmmaker on the road to production. Damon has so far been the controversial figure on the show. After the first episode aired — hours after Damon concluded his press interviews for “The Martian” — he was criticized for cutting off “Dear White People” producer Effie Brown while she was talking about the diversity of filmmakers competing on the show. Damon told her that diversity is handled in the casting of the winning film, not in the selection of the winning filmmaker. He later released an apology.
Damon’s career has been largely devoid of controversy, but the actor has occasionally found himself answering questions about Affleck, whose fitful personal life sometimes overshadows his work on screen.
“As his friend and as somebody who was not only his friend but his writing partner, I knew intimately how talented Ben was and is, and I felt like I was defending him. . . . At press junkets, I spent a lot of time trying to set that record straight, which of course you can never really do. Ultimately, he just did it himself by doing such wonderful work, and now it’s just kind of accepted that he’s wonderful and talented and all the things I know him to be.”
Lately, there have been questions about Affleck and his divorce from wife Jennifer Garner, which was announced in June.
“People’s ideas of what they’re owed is kind of incredible,” Damon said, referring to reporters and fans who have more access to celebrities because of social media.
Damon and Affleck faced questions together when they announced their intention to make a movie about James “Whitey” Bulger. The project appears up in the air since the release of director Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass.” Damon wouldn’t reveal much about the film he and Affleck hoped to make, but said their narrative about the infamous Boston gangster would be different from the film starring Johnny Depp.
“Ben and I had an idea that we would do it more like ‘Unforgiven’ — which was the anti-western. We wanted to do the anti-gangster movie. I got a letter from somebody — from a writer in South Boston when [Bulger] got caught and we announced that we were going to do this story. He sent me this letter and he was like, ‘Don’t glorify this guy anymore. Just stop. Please. He caused so much damage to so many people.’
And so it didn’t sit well with me. And then as I thought more about it, and Ben and I talked about it, what we realized was there was a way to do a movie that really explored all of our complicity in the raising up of this guy. . . . And, look, I was in ‘The Departed,’ so I’m not knocking anybody. I’m just saying what our way in was going to be, and I think it’s very different than anything that’s been done before and I was really excited about it.”
Despite obstacles, Damon seems to do what he wants. Maybe that’s why he had no problem talking about the project in the present tense.
“If we make it about our own complicity — like why do we celebrate this sociopathy,” he said, “then that’s a place that hasn’t been mined . . . and it’s really interesting.”