Matt Damon: ‘Ben came over for dinner, then called me at 7am the next day and said, Let’s do this’

Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener on making their film The Last Duel with Ridley Scott

Matt Damon as a knight in The Last Duel, which he also cowrote. Photograph: Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios

Matt Damon as a knight in The Last Duel, which he also cowrote. Photograph: Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios

 

It’s nearly 25 years since Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote and starred in Good Will Hunting, and cemented the kind of Hollywood partnership where one name is rarely spoken without the other.

But for their first writing reunion since then, The Last Duel, the men didn’t want just another version of The Matt and Ben Show. What they did want for this historical drama about a woman who was raped, and the men who refuse to believe her, was a female collaborator. And so they sought out the writer and director Nicole Holofcener, celebrated for her nuanced observations of thorny contemporary women in movies like Enough Said and Friends with Money.

The Last Duel, directed by Ridley Scott, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book, and in cinemas on October 15th, depicts France’s final officially sanctioned trial by combat.

Filming began in Ireland in 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In the end, Matt Damon and his family stayed in the seaside suburb of Dalkey for three months

In 1386, Jean de Carrouges, a knight, and his friend-turned-rival, Jacques Le Gris, a squire, are ordered to fight to the death after Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite, accuses Le Gris of raping her, and he denies it. Whoever survives will be proclaimed the winner as a sign of divine providence. Should Carrouges lose, Marguerite will be burned at the stake for perjury.

Filming began in Ireland in 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In the end, Damon and his family stayed in the seaside suburb of Dalkey for three months.

The film, set amid the brutality of the Hundred Years’ War, is divided into three chapters – the “truth” according to Carrouges (played by Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver) and, finally, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Damon and Affleck wrote the male perspectives, while Holofcener wrote Marguerite’s.

“The heaviest lift in the architecture of this screenplay was the third act, because that world of women had to be almost invented and imagined out of whole cloth,” Damon says. “The men were very fastidious about taking notes about what they were up to at the time. But nobody was really talking about what was happening with the women, because they didn’t even have personhood.”

“This is an adaptation of a book that we read,” he adds, “but Nicole’s part is kind of an original screenplay.”

Ben Affleck, Nicole Holofcener and Matt Damon. Photographs: Magdalena Wosinska/NYT, Dan MacMedan/Getty and Elizabeth Weinberg/NYT
Ben Affleck, Nicole Holofcener and Matt Damon. Photographs: Magdalena Wosinska/NYT, Dan MacMedan/Getty and Elizabeth Weinberg/NYT

On a spirited video call – Damon in Brooklyn, Affleck and Holofcener in Los Angeles – the three discuss the intricacies of their collaboration and of portraying sexual assault during a violent period when women were little more than chattel. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Let’s start at the beginning. Matt, it’s December 2018 and you’ve just read Jager’s book. What happened next?

Matt Damon:
Ridley and I had been looking for something to do together since The Martian, and we’d had a few near misses. So I sent it to Ridley, and he loved it. In March 2019 Ben came over for dinner, and he took the book that night and called me at seven the next morning and said, “Let’s do this.” And that was how we set off to writing. But very quickly, through a bunch of different conversations we were having with a bunch of people, we decided that it would serve the story best if we found the best female writer we could to write the female perspective.

Nicole Holofcener: [Dryly] Plus, Ridley and I have been looking for something to do together for years.

Damon: [laughs] Oh, now I’m an [expletive]. Oh, God.

Holofcener: No – no. Am I making fun of you? I didn’t mean that. I was just thinking about how different my sensibility is from Ridley’s. That’s all.

Damon: Yeah, yeah. Well, Nicole was our dream writer and our first choice. And thank God she said yes. And she said yes in large part because Ben, behind my back, sent her about 10 or 15 pages that we hadn’t shown anybody. And I was so embarrassed, like professionally embarrassed, that he sent them to Nicole Holofcener.

Holofcener: They weren’t good, but they were good enough for me to say, “I want to work with these guys.”

Damon: I think they were bad enough that she was like, “Oh, these guys need help.”

Holofcener: Bad enough so that I wasn’t intimidated to be able to write for medieval language, at least in English. But they’re so talented, and I was immediately very flattered. The only hesitation I had was, “Can I come out of my own little world and write about something like this?” And as soon as I started and I got their support, I found that I could do it.

Jodie Comer as Marguerite Carrouges who accuses a squire of raping her. Photograph: Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios
Jodie Comer as Marguerite Carrouges in the Last Duel. Photograph: Patrick Redmond/20th Century Studios

So why three chapters?

Ben Affleck:
Very quickly, we recognised that the film has a clear point of view on who’s telling the truth. And that this incredibly heroic character, Marguerite de Carrouges, had this story that deserved to be told. It was evident that it was going to be an exploration of the dynamics of power, roots of misogyny and survival in medieval France. It had all the elements of what makes a story really great to tell – the idea of an unreliable narrator, a second unreliable narrator and then a kind of reveal of what happened through the eyes of a character who was both the hero and whose humanity was denied and ignored.

Holofcener: But also, you get the fact that it wasn’t black and white to the men, and it was so black and white to the woman about what happened. So, the male point of views offer this perspective of male delusion.

Nicole, Marguerite wasn’t nearly as fleshed out in the book. How did you go about creating her world?

Holofcener:
I did research about what women were like then and what they had to put up with. I gave her a friend to be able to talk to. I knew that she would have to take over the estate when he was away fighting. So I read up, “Well, what did they do?” Took care of the animals and the horses and the harvesting. And I really tried to imagine just how awful it was for her and how she dealt with the awfulness. Her life was pretty bad being married to Jean de Carrouges and so when she was violated, she had nothing to lose, really. I mean, she was going to suffer. She had the potential of suffering dearly and dying, but at that point she was just tired of having no voice.

How do three writers keep things straight?

Affleck:
Once the script got close to a completed stage, then it got passed around, emailed. In fact, one of the biggest challenges was the maddening technological aspects of keeping up with various versions – that they had included everyone else’s changes.

Holofcener: We kept working off the wrong drafts. It was, like, “Wait a minute. I took that line out two months ago. Why is it still there?” We’re not the most technically savvy.

Damon: We had one of those moments where I think we’d done half a day on one of these things and we’re realising, “Oh no, this is the wrong draft,” and then you have to try to go through and figure out what you’ve done.

Holofcener: Matt doesn’t even have a laptop. So don’t get me started.

How did you make sure you were portraying Marguerite’s rape accurately without exploiting it?

Affleck:
We were especially sensitive and careful to really listen and do research, whether it was consulting with RAINN [an organisation that helps victims of rape, abuse and incest], survivors of assault, historical experts, women’s groups, and trying to allow all of those other experiences to inform the story and make it as authentic as possible.

Holofcener: I think that those organisations really, really wanted to make sure we were making it clear what the truth was – that this is not “he said, she said.” This is not ambivalent.

Affleck: We had questions like, “Are we whitewashing if we don’t show the emotional toll and the severity of this? To what extent does it become too much? And where do you feel the bounds of tastes are?”

Holofcener: A lot of it was about how often do we see the rape and how long is it? How long do we have to suffer through this? That was a topic of conversation. And so we took their notes seriously and did a lot of trimming. We had to show some scenes twice, but it was necessary. We had to see the rape twice, as disturbing as it was to watch.

Matt Damon and Jodie Comer in The Last Duel. Photograph: 20th Century Studios
Matt Damon and Jodie Comer in The Last Duel. Photograph: 20th Century Studios

What choices did you make to either stick with or depart from the book?

Damon:
The biggest departure is the rape scene. Marguerite de Carrouges, what she said in court and over and over again to an ever-widening group of people, and eventually all of France, was that Jacques Le Gris entered her home with another man, Adam Louvel. We have in the movie Louvel coming in, but then Le Gris tells him to leave. In Marguerite’s actual testimony, the rape was much more brutal. She was tied down and gagged. She almost choked to death. And Louvel was in the room.

Holofcener: [Le Gris] told himself he loved her.

Affleck: What was fascinating was the degree to which this behaviour and attitude toward women was so thorough and pervasive, and the vestigial aspects that are still with us today. That’s really powerful. What we have hoped is people will look at it and go, “Have I always understood how my actions were being perceived by others? Have I always recognised other people’s reality, truth, perspective, in the course of my behaviour?” And maybe reflect on that.

Ben, I understood that you were originally going to portray Le Gris. And then you decided to play the libertine Count Pierre d’Alençon instead of facing off against Matt onscreen. Why?

Holofcene
r: He came to his senses.

Affleck: What happened truly is that...

Damon: ...We heard Adam Driver was interested. [Everyone laughs.] – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.