Tom McCarthy, Oscar-winning director of Spotlight, is among those enduring an odd edition of the Cannes film festival. He is getting tested for Covid every two days. Masks are being worn, even within the auditoriums. But he wasn’t going to miss the chance of premiering his new film on the Riviera.
Stillwater stars Matt Damon as a blue-collar American adrift in the city of Marseille. That robust port is a very different place to the air-kissy resort where he currently is. But it's all the south of France.
“It is actually nice to be here,” McCarthy says. “It’s a little strange. But having a chance to screen that movie with that French audience was amazing. So that was worth the trip. My wife even bailed on me, to be quite frank. Ha ha! But I will remember that night.”
Stillwater makes terrific use of the location. Damon plays an oil worker – from Trump-friendly Oklahoma – struggling to support a daughter who, a student in Marseille, has been arrested for murder. We get a great sense of the streets, the culture and the chatter. One scene takes place in the fervour of Olympique de Marseille’s football stadium.
“It forced us to lean into the French way of making movies,” McCarthy says. “It was all hands on deck, which I think really helps the movie. My one concern was American movies don’t often come over here and try and embrace the backdrop in a realistic way – Marseille in this case. I was very nervous about getting it right.”
Well, McCarthy is nothing if not versatile. He is best known as a film director. His debut, The Station Agent, a wry comedy of rural New Jersey, was a critical hit in 2003. Four years later, The Visitor secured a best actor Oscar nomination for Richard Jenkins. In 2016, Spotlight, a searing examination of the campaign to expose clerical abuse in Boston, won best picture and, for McCarthy and Josh Singer, best screenplay. But he has also ran a parallel career as an actor. You can see him in Meet the Parents and Good Night, and Good Luck. He started out doing stand-up comedy.
“Ha ha! As you’re laying out my life, I’m thinking oh, yeah, I’ve got to get my s**t together and figure this out,” he says. “Look, I came from a conservative Irish Catholic family in New Jersey. I didn’t know anyone who did any of this. Nothing even close. I graduated college with a degree in philosophy. Then I sort of fell into improvisational comedy and sketch writing.”
He feels he has much in common with the star of his current film.
“Yeah, Matt and I were just talking and comparing our starts. I ended up doing comedy for a couple years. Then I went back to Yale drama school. I’m classically trained as an actor and that really shaped my direction.”
McCarthy has mentioned life as an Irish-American in New Jersey. He was one of five sons of Carol and Eugene McCarthy. His dad worked in the textile industry. Young Tom made his way from Boston College to Yale drama and then on to live performance in Minneapolis and Chicago.
“I came from a big Irish-American family and I think we talked about it proudly,” he says. “My dad grew up in Rhode Island and we’d go up there a lot and get together with these massive families. Before my dad passed away, he and my brothers all went back to Ireland and played some golf – pretty badly – but they were really there just to hang out and spend some time in Ireland. I have been there a lot. I love it down by Cahirsiveen.”
After that odd start, McCarthy firmed up his reputation as a director. But it's not clear what sort of films he makes. The Station Agent and The Visitor fitted reasonably neatly into the indie boom that kicked off in the 1990s. His one real misfire, The Cobbler, from 2014, is an Adam Sandler project of unclassifiable oddness. Spotlight and Stillwater seem old-fashioned in a good way. That is to say they are serious mainstream pictures about important social or political issues.
Are those films harder to make now? It seems that way.
“I think so. But I think every film I’ve ever made has been difficult to get made,” he says. “I think the market is shrinking in a way – especially for theatrical. As a film-maker, I appreciate that I get a chance to make a movie like Stillwater – in part because of the success of Spotlight.”
And because of the Oscars. I feel a particular affection for the 2016 Academy Awards as, thanks to the success of Irish films such as Room and Brooklyn, I got to attend the event and stare up the stars’ noses when they emerged into the press room. There was a real buzz among the hacks as McCarthy’s film came from behind to beat the marginally more fancied The Revenant. I assume that really helps in the industry. Now they’ll make your maddest project.
“I’m not the kind of guy to go off and do something mad and crazy,” he says. “I just wanted to go back to work after Spotlight. I was so proud and happy with that. There was a lot of time spent just putting that movie out there. So I was just really happy to get back into my basement and get back to work. You can tell by the movies I make that I am all over the place. But the Oscar maybe did afford me more confidence and capital.”
You wouldn’t call Stillwater “mad and crazy”, but McCarthy has taken some interesting decisions here. This is a rare Hollywood movie that empathises with a Trump-adjacent protagonist – Damon’s character didn’t vote, but we get a fair sense that he is within The Donald’s wider cohorts. Does McCarthy worry this might alienate some of his natural audience?
“I am happy to challenge an audience in that way,” he says. “He is almost certainly a Republican. Most everyone in Oklahoma was. I did meet one roughneck who was a Democrat. They couldn’t wait to introduce me to him. ‘You’ve got to meet this guy.’ That was pretty funny. I talked to a few guys who said: ‘Look, I don’t like the guy [Trump]. He is from New York or something, but he’s in favour of oil.’”
He goes on to talk about the number of people in states like Oklahoma who have felt left behind by America. I imagine they certainly feel left behind by Hollywood. And they would be right to think that. Wouldn’t they? The entertainment business doesn’t much busy itself with protagonists from Trump-supporting demographics.
“I don’t think so. Not just in Hollywood. There is a legitimate issue there that needs to be addressed. And it’s not just America. I think it’s wherever you find populism and nationalism. There is a mood that’s easy for a politician to exploit – almost like low-hanging fruit for them. It’s easy to exploit that anger and parlay it into political power.”
Another interesting strand in Stillwater is its apparent connections with the Meredith Kercher case. Amanda Knox, an American student, was charged with the murder of that British student in Italy 14 years ago. There are few parallels with the precise legal complications – Knox was subsequently acquitted at a "second-level" trial – but the hero's efforts to support a daughter imprisoned overseas remind us of Knox's family.
“I was interested in that case when it was playing out many years ago,” he says. “But I was just thinking about a woman being in jail. I sort of left the case. I didn’t want to tell that story. I felt like it was overtold. It was so sensationalised that people lost track that at the heart of it was Meredith Kercher’s murder.”
And on Tom marches. There are few people who have had this sort of career. We haven't mentioned that his first Oscar nomination was for co-writing Pixar's beloved Up. He played reporter Scott Templeton in 10 episodes of The Wire. The industry isn't comfortable with that degree of flexibility. It needs a clean definition of "what someone does".
“Yeah, you’re right. People do want to package you,” he says. “I feel incredibly fortunate for the opportunities. They can try to package it when I’m gone.”
Stillwater opens on August 6th