Matt Damon knows a thing or two about talent. An Oscar-nominated actor and Oscar winning screenwriter, he’s worked with many of our finest directors—Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, Terry Gilliam, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott—over the course of nearly three decades in Hollywood.
But he clearly has a special place in his heart for Kenneth Lonergan, whom he’s known personally and professionally since 2002. In fact, he regards him as both a genius and a friend. And, according to several people in a position to know, Damon actually played a crucial role in getting Lonergan back into the director’s chair recently—a seat Lonergan was no doubt leery about stepping into again, following the lengthy and excruciating legal battles over the release of Margaret. Damon and actor John Krasinski had an idea for a film and pitched Lonergan on writing the screenplay, knowing that it was his kind of story—and that he needed to work, both artistically and financially. “He needed money, but he couldn’t write—it was this horrible limbo,” Damon told The New Yorker recently. “We got Kenny paid to write a draft.” After Lonergan spent nearly two years writing and honing the script, Damon told me it was clear to him that this was “a Kenny Lonergan film through and through,” and set about convincing him to direct it. “He was in love with those characters…so at that point I think we had him.”
Damon was originally set to play the lead role in the film, but was forced to step aside due to scheduling conflicts, turning the role over to his good friend, Casey Affleck. But he stayed on board as a producer, and couldn’t be more proud of how the film turned out. Recently, on the eve of Manchester by the Sea’s release—which has already garnered nearly universal acclaim and a handful of festival awards—Damon took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us for a bit about Lonergan, Manchester, and his memories of working on (and fighting for) Margaret.
I know you’re doing a lot of current things lately, but we’re actually looking to talk with you about something you did a long time ago.
Matt Damon: Yes, a ten year old movie.
Yeah, we thought we’d try to be really timely and relevant and put out an entire issue on a movie made in 2006. (laughs)
(laughs) Well, I haven’t seen it in a couple of years, but I have pretty good recall of it. I was making The Good Shepherd at the same time, and could only do Margaret on the weekends, so I was working seven days a week while I was working with Kenny on this thing.
Had he offered you the part directly?
Yeah, Kenny gave me the script and said there’s a small part in here for you, and obviously I wanted to be in it. I knew the lead was going to be Anna Paquin, and this was before Anna Paquin was really Anna Paquin—I mean of course she’d won an Academy Award when she was 6 years old or something, but it was before all the huge successes she’s had in the last decade—and I think a lot of his friends, all of us knew that if we could fill out the rest of these parts, we could help get the financing and get the movie made, and we just all really wanted to get it made. But yeah, I remember the script being about 180 pages—a normal script is usually about 120—and I remember that I just thought it was absolutely brilliant. I mean, it was a Kenny Lonergan movie.
You’d done a West End production of his play, This is Our Youth, back around 2002 or so, right?
I did, yeah. Casey Affleck and I did it together.
Was he directly involved in that production at all?
That was where I first met him. We were a replacement cast—it’s kind of a long drawn out story—but Madonna was coming over to do a play and the guy who had directed the version of the play that we were replacing went over to direct her instead. So we suddenly had no director! Then Kenny came over, which was great, to have the playwright actually come out and be part of it. He was very involved, and so we really got to know him over there, and had always stayed in touch after that. I just really think as a writer, I don’t envy a lot of people, but I definitely envy Kenny. He’s just so brilliant.
That’s definitely the thing I’m hearing most in these interviews, from just about everybody. We talked to Tony Kushner last week, who’s one of the very best writers alive, and he said basically the exact same thing, that he envies the writing. And you know, when Tony Kushner’s saying that about you…
That means you’re pretty good!
So as a writer yourself, and an actor as well, what is it about his writing that appeals to you?
It’s just that “I don’t know if I can quite describe it. It’s like when you read someone like Hemingway or Salinger, and you go “I know all of those words, but I never thought to put them in that order.” (laughs) You know what I mean? Or you hear a song that just really gets you in a deep way and you sort of go “All those notes have been around forever, but nobody ever put them together in that way until now.”
That’s a great way of putting it.
And I guess that’s just how I feel about Kenny’s writing.
We’re not too interested in getting into all the legal battles that surrounded the film, but just on your end, were you aware of all that was going on? Did you get involved in any of that?
Yeah, I mean I knew it was in trouble and I was talking to him a lot through all of that. And I was definitely involved in the whole thing—I mean, it was a real mess. I just remember back in 2008 spending hours and hours on the phone with Fox Searchlight and a lot of email exchanges back and forth and all that. And then the whole regime at Searchlight changed and a whole new regime came on—and this all went on for years. Eventually I tried to go around Searchlight to Tom Rothman directly, who was running Fox, because he was an old friend of mine. That was when they had the idea to have Marty come in and do an edit, and who wouldn’t want that? You know what I mean? Hey guys, Marty Scorsese has final cut—I wish I could get that deal on all my movies!
But then they didn’t even end up releasing that version—to this day nobody has seen it!
I know, I know. The whole thing was just completely nuts. But I remember Tom calling me back and saying to me “This is the second conversation I’m having about this. I’ve already spoken to Marty and now I’m talking to you, because I’m going to be deposed and I want to be very clear about what I’ve said and who I’ve said it to. I’m having precisely two conversations about this and then I’m not talking about it again.” Which all wound up being true, we all were deposed eventually and it was a big ugly lawsuit.
Oh wow, I didn’t realize it got that far – so you were actually deposed?
Oh yeah, yeah. In fact, here’s a great story: At Sundance this year, right before the screening of Manchester by the Sea, I’m sitting with my wife and I’m suddenly aware of this figure looming over me. I look up and it’s Matt Rosengart, Kenny’s lawyer, who I haven’t seen since he had to depose me for the lawsuit with Kenny. He looks at me and says “It is really good to see you here.” And I look back and I go “Man, it is really good to see you here. This is more of how we should be meeting up!” (laughs)
Well it certainly seems like Manchester by the Sea is having a much easier time of things, in terms of getting released.
And you were originally going to direct that, right?
I was, yeah. Well at least that’s what I told Kenny! And then once I read his script it was just so clear that he had to be the one to do it. And you know, he put up a little fight, but not much. I think by that point the characters kind of had their claws in him and he was in love with those characters. Which is the mark of all his movies really, he knows his characters so well and knows exactly what they’d say or do in any situation. So at that point I think we had him, and we knew he’d direct it.
So it wasn’t too much of a battle to get him to come on board?
He put up, like, a pretend fight for a couple minutes. But I ground him down pretty quickly.
Getting back to Margaret though, you play Mr. Aaron, a high school teacher. Looking over your filmography, I think that’s the only time you’ve played a teacher, right?
Yeah, actually. I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s right.
And what was it like working with Anna Paquin? What does she give you to work with as an actor?
Oh, she was brilliant. She was just great. This was all before her big explosion, and she’s obviously done well subsequently. It was odd to have somebody that young be that centered—she would really meet you in a scene on the front foot and just be so wonderful and truthful.
It’s a very, very difficult role, particularly for a young actress. But it’s also a fantastic role, and it needed her. I remember Kenny talking about it—because he’s very meticulous in his casting—and he was just so excited about Anna, because the whole thing hinges on a young actress being able to do all that she does, and we both thought she was just brilliant.
It’s really difficult imagining another actress being able to pull it off.
I watched the theatrical cut and the extended version back to back again recently, and your character comes off a bit differently in the two versions. Some of your scenes get cut down in a way that ends up leaving a lot more unclear or ambiguous about your character’s motivations, even about what actually happens, like if you and Anna Paquin’s character even sleep together—
Yeah, it sort of cuts out of the scene as she starts to move her head toward your lap – you didn’t know that? (laughs)
No, no, I’ve only seen Kenny’s cut. I never saw the theatrical cut—I had the inside baseball. (laughs) But I didn’t know that they’d cut it down and made that unclear.
Yeah, so when she comes up to him near the end and tells him she had an abortion, the audience isn’t exactly sure if that really happened, or if she’s just trying to shock or embarrass him—since it was never made directly clear if they’d even slept together.
Well, my question was going to be about what you thought of the difference between the two, but I guess never mind?
Yeah, no, I didn’t know any of that.
Just to the character of Mr. Aaron though, morally, the character is obviously behaving in a way that a teacher absolutely shouldn’t. So I was wondering what your thoughts were on his journey through the film?
I mean what I love most about Kenny is that he really does love all of his characters. And there’s something that Mr. Aaron does at the end there when she confronts him with this—you know, look, it’s about this girl who’s going through that moment in life where she realizes she has this power and she’s kind of reckless with it and, you know, in that moment what he does is he says “You need to tell whoever you need to tell.” And he completely owns it.
So he tries to behave nobly after behaving ignobly. And even though she was kind of the instigator and catalyst for all of it, he does know better, because he’s the adult—so he’s carrying all this guilt. And hopefully, if the scene works, then you see that in his face when he realizes that he’s done this damage and he owns it. But then she realizes that she’s going to ruin his life and so she kind of begs off and lets him off the hook. Which I always thought was really beautiful.
(Editor’s Note: this interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity)