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Director Tom McCarthy, left, and Matt Damon at the 74th international film festival Cannes in southern France on July 11, 2021.

Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

Once in a blessed while, there are interviews with filmmakers that I never, ever want to end. Even if I’m not a fan of the work being discussed. Such was the case last week when I got on a camera-less Zoom session with Tom McCarthy, director of the new legal drama/domestic rom-com/whodunnit thriller Stillwater, one of the most compelling and baffling films of the season.

Matt Damon thriller Stillwater is wonderfully compelling before becoming completely baffling

While I don’t think that the Matt Damon-starring movie is successful, exactly, it is endlessly interesting. Inspired by the tabloid saga of American student Amanda Knox, who was convicted (and later acquitted) for the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher while abroad in Italy, Stillwater switches locales to Marseille and opens long after the trial of Knox stand-in Allison (Abigail Breslin). That character isn’t even Stillwater’s focus, with the movie instead looking at her Red State father Bill (Damon) and his efforts to navigate France’s legal system – when he’s not slowly cozying up to local actor Virginie (Camille Cottin).

There are so many elements of Stillwater worthy of discussion – including its whiplash-inducing finale, which I won’t dive into here – that I could’ve gently interrogated the filmmaker for hours. But with a polite 15 minutes at my disposal, I managed to lob a few queries to McCarthy, best known for directing Oscar-winner Spotlight, about how his most unusual movie came to be.

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The idea for this film began long before Spotlight, but also I assume before Michael Winterbottom’s Amanda Knox-inspired film, 2014′s The Face of an Angel?

I started this about 10 years ago with a writer named Marcus Hinchey, and we were both taken with the Knox case. But we didn’t want to tell a true-crime story, so we wrote a script based on this relationship between a father and daughter. But after a year, we had a draft that I wasn’t prepared to move forward on: It was a more straight-up thriller, man-on-a-mission story that lacked an emotional and human dimension. Six years later, I had a break, and took the script out again. I loved the set-up, just not the movie beyond that.

And so you made the unusual step of reaching out, cold, to French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré?

I was thinking, what French films do I admire? I liked Jacques Audiard’s work, so I tracked down the two guys who worked with him extensively. This was 2016, a tumultuous time in this country. Suddenly I was eager to explore what was driving Bill. Who is this guy from Oklahoma? He wasn’t an oil-worker roughneck then, just a blue-collar worker. So I travelled to Oklahoma to meet people there and it grew from that point on.

An Oklahoma-by-way-of-France film.

Everything I was reporting back to the French writers felt like we were heading in the right direction. What I liked most was the new majority of the movie was happening in Marseilles, which is a great lens to examine America. A vantage point that is far away, not so politically charged. Travel frees us up to think about our place in the world. It felt like all the pieces were coming together.

Is that not an unusual collaboration process?

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We had this initial awkward Zoom where they said, “We like the idea but not the script. Are you willing to start from page one?” I came to Paris for a week, and we hit it off. The back and forth over e-mail afterward went on for six or seven months. Every movie takes time, but this one benefited from stepping away and reapproaching it and giving it time.

And it gave us a lot of time to talk about what America is right now. What does that country mean to the rest of the world? We discussed America’s moral authority in the world. Are we the beacon on the hill? Do we have a moral imperative, and what does that mean in terms of Bill? When we started to swim in those waters, it felt compelling and relevant.

There’s that moment in the film where Bill sidesteps the question of whether or not he voted for Trump. He says he couldn’t vote because of his criminal record. Were you concerned that if you had your lead character explicitly supporting Trump, that it would alienate your audience?

Fair question. You know, we got to a point in the movie where we had the elephant in the room. I felt like every time I went to Europe, people would just finally say, “What is it like in your country? What is going on?” There was a fervent interest and fascination. So we felt like there was a moment in the movie, but like we do often in the movie, we try to subvert expectations of how a scene is going to play.

We decided that Virginie’s friend, she can’t help herself asking Bill the question. Maybe Virginie would, maybe not. So that felt right. The other part of the conversation was coming out of research. The truth of the matter is Bill probably would’ve voted for Trump. He’s an oil guy. They vote where they eat. Republicans said they’re going to drill forever. Trump went to Oklahoma. Roughnecks might not like Trump, but they’re going to vote for him. I get that. I might not agree, but as a husband and a father and a provider, I get it.

Stillwater opens July 30 in theatres across Canada.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

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