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Tom McCarthy on cracking the case of ‘Stillwater’

In his latest, the ‘Spotlight’ director takes a new approach to the investigative thriller

Tom McCarthy, director of "Stillwater," earlier this month at the Cannes Film Festival.
Tom McCarthy, director of "Stillwater," earlier this month at the Cannes Film Festival.Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Nearly a decade ago, Tom McCarthy began work on a script based loosely on the infamous Amanda Knox case. He decided it didn’t work just yet, and put it down to make “Spotlight” (2015), which won two Oscars, for best picture and McCarthy’s script. With a new perspective on the story, and the opportunity to cast Matt Damon in the lead role, the Boston College graduate turned his previous script into the genre-bending “Stillwater.”

Directed by McCarthy and co-written alongside Marcus Hinchey and French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, “Stillwater” follows oil worker Bill Baker (Damon) as he relocates from Oklahoma to Marseille, where his estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is in prison for the murder of her college girlfriend — a crime he says she didn’t commit. Bill confronts language barriers, a complex legal system, and his own demons while stopping at nothing to have Allison freed. In theaters July 30, the film also stars Camille Cottin (“Call My Agent”) and newcomer Lilou Siauvaud as Bill’s unlikely French famille.

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Reached recently by Zoom, McCarthy discussed the pain and privilege of editing over a two-year period, casting the American hero, lessons learned from “Spotlight,” and more.

Camille Cottin, left, Matt Damon, and Lilou Siauvaud in "Stillwater."
Camille Cottin, left, Matt Damon, and Lilou Siauvaud in "Stillwater."Jessica Forde/Focus Features

Q. You shot most of “Stillwater” in Marseille. How did it feel to return to the south of France and bring this film to Cannes, the first major festival since the pandemic?

A. I had never been to Cannes — it’s a festival I’ve waited my whole life to bring a film to. I’ve been deeply influenced by the filmmakers who have repeatedly shown their movies there. To go in with our soft side up after a year and a half of working from home, it was a lot to take in. But to share the movie with a French-European audience, in that very iconic theater, to have that reaction … as a filmmaker, you can just feel it when the audience is connecting with your film, and I felt it then. We also went to Marseille and did a screening there — Matt turned to me at one point and said, “Is it just me, or is this all super emotional?” Although it’s somewhat exhausting, I think it’s a good thing we’re feeling all this at once.

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Q. Rather than forge ahead with the edit in spring of 2020, you decided to delay for a theatrical release. What was it like to put the film down and return to the edit many months later?

A. It was completely unprecedented. A lot of time studios are [saying] finish your movie, you’ve been editing for eight or nine months, and it costs money! But creatively, my editor, Tom McArdle, and I know that if we can look away for a moment it’s going to help. And this time, that separation was mandatory. We were very close to finishing in March of last year, and when the shutdown happened, the studio had just seen a cut and said, “People have got to see this movie in theaters.” As a filmmaker, I was thrilled about that, and I agreed — so we waited. Tom and I edited in my basement in August for another six or seven weeks, until we had to stop again because I couldn’t color correct or mix the movie in a way that I thought was appropriate. When we picked the film back up in February-March [2021], it was flat-out strange. When I finish a movie, I never revisit it. There was a little creative trauma of having to reengage and remember why we made these choices. All those editorial decisions that you make [in an edit] are very process-driven — a lot of that process was lost in the fire, so to speak. But ultimately, once we got over that trauma and chaos of it all, it was really exciting. We made some really smart choices in those final three weeks. There was one montage sequence about three-quarters of the way through the movie that we could not crack, and suddenly, boom, we could see. It was a humbling process, but I felt a lot of that made the movie better.

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Matt Damon, left, and Tom McCarthy at the Cannes Film Festival on July 8.
Matt Damon, left, and Tom McCarthy at the Cannes Film Festival on July 8.Vadim Ghirda/AP

Q. What about Matt Damon as an actor made you think he’d be right for Bill?

A. Early on in [the writing process], in 2016 and 2017, there was a real discussion happening about America’s place in the world — America’s moral authority. That’s often personified in the American hero in cinema. The man on a mission, a man abroad, getting the job done — and [the writers and I] wanted to subvert that. We wanted to challenge and unpack that a bit more, and have a conversation about the consequences of that character, which thrillers never do. We needed an actor who would [make] audiences think, “Oh, he’s the hero. He’s the guy here we’re going to follow on this mission.” When you start to think about the actors who really have that, the list is very small. And Matt was always at the top of that list for us.

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Tom McCarthy accepting the best original screenplay Oscar at the 88th Academy Awards.
Tom McCarthy accepting the best original screenplay Oscar at the 88th Academy Awards.REUTERS

Q. You began work on this script prior to “Spotlight.” What brought you back to this story? Did “Spotlight” change your perspective on what “Stillwater” might be?

A. Working on “Spotlight” cemented something for me. I was talking to a lot of journalists then, and learning something about process. I realized, “Oh, my approach [to filmmaking] is sort of journalistic.” I’m always searching for authenticity and trying to get the facts right, even when I’m [writing] fiction, it’s always important to me. So I think that was something I took — how do I keep doing this in a way that feels authentic to whatever story I’m telling? But “Spotlight” was a pure procedural, there was such a machine to it that there was very little opportunity to explore character and emotional dimensions beyond the already powerful subject matter. To that end, I’m glad I waited until after “Spotlight” to make “Stillwater.” The script I had before Spotlight wasn’t a movie I wanted to direct — it was a straight-up thriller, and it didn’t have a point of view. So I remember calling [“Spotlight” co-writer] Josh Singer in his early research days and being like hey, I’m coming up to Boston with you, this isn’t a movie I want to make right now. And he was like, “Great!” [laughs]

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After we made “Spotlight,” two things happened: One, [when] you make a movie like that and win an Oscar, people trust you a little bit more, and they give you an opportunity to take big swings. I think “Stillwater” is a big swing. And two, it’s a very complicated movie, and probably one I wasn’t ready to make [back then]. Yes, it has procedural elements to it, an investigative element to it — it also has thriller, mystery, suspense, love . . . it has all these different threads I think I was more prepared to weave together at exactly this moment in my career, if I’m being honest.

Q. I was going to ask about genre, because this film plays with conventions across the board, but doesn’t fall into any one category.

A. I have to give a lot of credit to the collaboration with my French co-writers on that, just how they approach cinema and storytelling. I also think a marker for [these complex stories] is long-form podcasts like “S-Town” and “Serial,” which were really hitting critical mass in this country and abroad [while we were writing]. What was exciting about these podcasts is that they weren’t just one thing, they were many things, from a murder mystery to a love story to a philosophical discussion of time and more. There’s so much to unpack, and I find that if [the creators] can keep the tone consistent, as they did with those podcasts and I hope we did with “Stillwater,” audiences will go on the journey with a character they want to spend time with. They will journey beyond genre, and they will journey beyond what they expect.

Interview was edited and condensed. Cassidy Olsen can be reached at me@cassidyolsen.com.









Director Tom McCarthy, left, and Matt Damon earlier this month at the Cannes Film Festival.
Director Tom McCarthy, left, and Matt Damon earlier this month at the Cannes Film Festival.Vianney Le Caer/Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP