It took awhile — 24 years, in fact — but Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have finally collaborated on another movie, their first since winning the Oscar for best original screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.”
But “The Last Duel,” which opens in theaters Oct. 15, bears no resemblance to the 1997 drama that catapulted the Cambridge homies into Hollywood’s uppermost echelon. “Good Will Hunting,” directed by indie auteur Gus Van Sant, was a sweet, low-stakes story of a janitor with an aptitude for advanced math, and “The Last Duel,” well, it’s not that.
The movie, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name, is ostensibly an epic about France’s final, officially-sanctioned fight to the death. (The blood-soaked scrum took place in 1386.) But, really, “The Last Duel” is a sprawling medieval soap opera about the rape of a noblewoman, Marguerite de Carrouges, played by English actress Jodie Comer (“Free Guy”), and the ensuing trial by combat between Marguerite’s husband, a brutish knight played by Damon, and the charismatic perpetrator, played by Adam Driver.
Directed by Ridley Scott, who may be the antithesis of indie, having helmed such blockbusters as “Alien,” “Gladiator,” and “The Martian” (which starred Damon), the story of “The Last Duel” is told from three points of view: those of the male adversaries and Marguerite. In interviews before the movie’s release, Damon said he and Affleck set out to write “The Last Duel” themselves, but soon concluded that the sensitivity of the story demanded a woman be involved, especially to handle the narrative from Marguerite’s perspective. Damon and Affleck enlisted the aid of Nicole Holofcener, a highly respected writer and director whose screenplay for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018) earned her an Academy Award nomination.
“We begged Nicole to come join, and she did, and that was it,” Damon said in a recent Zoom press conference. “We were kind of off to the races.”
Slowly at first, though. While Jager’s meticulously-researched book includes plenty of detailed information about the two combatants — Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris — it contains no insight at all about the attributes or impulses of the real-life Marguerite.
“Ben and I were adapting a book, but Nicole was really writing an original screenplay,” Damon said. “There were very fastidious notes about what [the men] were all up to. But they didn’t record what the women were doing then, so Nicole really had to create Marguerite’s world out of whole cloth.”
Holofcener said she did some reading about the customs and social codes of women in 14th-century France in an effort to understand not only how they spoke and acted, but also what fears and desires they harbored. Still, she said, a certain amount of guesswork was involved.
“I don’t know, I just started writing … I would send pages to [Damon and Affleck] and we’d sit down together and work,” Holofcener said during the press conference. “We’d work on each other’s scenes. I basically wrote the third act, but they also had a hand in it, because it had to be a part of the whole movie.”
Comer, who’s best known for her role as the enchanting assassin Villanelle in the British TV series “Killing Eve,” said she appreciated the care Holofcener took in creating Marguerite’s character.
“Especially in regards to the rape scenes, they couldn’t be gratuitous. They had to be moving the story forward,” Comer said. “That was always at the front of everybody’s minds because, you know, there are going to be many people who watch this film and relate to it in some way.”
Finished before the pandemic, the writing was relatively painless and took far less time than the screenplay for “Good Will Hunting,” which Damon said he and Affleck worked on “literally for years,” in part because, young and unemployed, they could.
“It was so time-consuming the first time because we didn’t know what we were doing. … We wrote thousands and thousands of pages that we basically scrunched into a 130-page screenplay,” Damon said. “I think by doing movies for 25 years, kind of by osmosis, we figured out structure, so it turned out to be a really efficient process.”
Mindful that much has changed over the past eight centuries, the writing team also worked with a medievalist, who steered them away from anachronistic language — contractions, for example, weren’t a thing in the 14th century — and made sure that even the minutiae of the movie’s ceremonies and court proceedings are historically accurate.
But it was a balancing act to make a movie that is both honest and accessible. Affleck, who plays the contemptible Count Pierre d’Alençon, an ally of Driver’s depraved character, said there was little to recommend life in the Middle Ages, especially for women, and that posed a problem for the writers.
“The value system, in truth, was so much more abhorrent than even we represented, but we felt like if we got too far down the road of what it was truly like, it’s going to be so repugnant,” Affleck said. “So we tried to mitigate that without compromising the basic, essential truth.”
Aside from telling the story of this final savage fight, the writers — and actors — said an impetus for making “The Last Duel” was the opportunity to work with Scott, who lived up to his reputation for working fast.
“You can have your agent negotiate for a trailer, but you’re never going to go there except to put your clothes on in the morning,” said Damon. “The amount of momentum you get [with Scott]. … It’s really exciting.”