Oscar-winning Spotlight filmmaker Tom McCarthy introduces his buzzy new thriller.

By Lauren Huff
May 10, 2021 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Matt Damon is a father on a mission in this exclusive first look at his new film Stillwater.

The dramatic thriller stars Damon as Bill Baker, an oil rig worker (known as a roughneck) from Stillwater, Okla., who travels to Marseille, France, to exonerate his daughter, who has been arrested for a murder she says she didn't commit.

"He's a guy that's had a difficult life, he's struggled, but he sort of tried to make amends and do what's right, I think, when we meet him," co-writer and director Tom McCarthy tells EW. As for his daughter, Allison (played by Abigail Breslin), McCarthy says they have a "very fractured relationship." The crime in question occurred when she took a year off from school at Oklahoma State University to study abroad in Marseille. While there, she meets a woman with whom she has a relationship, and the crime that occurs involves this woman.

STILLWATER
Matt Damon as Bill Baker in 'Stillwater'
| Credit: Jessica Forde / Focus Features

McCarthy, who won an Oscar with Josh Singer for their Spotlight script, says to prepare for the film — which was filmed on location in Oklahoma and Marseille — he and Damon spent time with career roughnecks. "Matt and I started going [to Oklahoma] early on to get a taste of the place and the people and spending time with roughnecks, in particular," he recalls. "They really opened up their lives to us, and their worlds and their families. They were incredibly instrumental in helping us shape the story."

Also helping to shape the story were the multinational crew — largely consisting of people from France, Canada, and the U.S. — and his co-writers, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré. "It was just exciting," McCarthy says. "You could feel the collaboration, and I think we all learned a lot from each other. We all really united behind the movie, and behind Matt's performance, which is, I think, stunning."

Stillwater was initially slated to hit theaters last fall, but in a refrain that has been repeated ad nauseam at this point, the coronavirus pandemic changed those plans. Perhaps surprisingly, McCarthy was okay with that.

"It can be a very intimate movie and a very character-driven story, but there's also a lot of scope to it," he says. "It's a beautiful film shot in a beautiful place, and I think [Focus Features] felt strongly that people should see it in movie theaters, and I was in agreement with that. I'm in no rush — the movie will play as well this year as it would have last year."

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While in Marseille, Bill meets Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her 8-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud, in her debut acting role) and they strike up an unlikely friendship as they help Bill navigate the language barriers and cultural differences in France.
| Credit: Jessica Forde/Focus Features

Plus, the pandemic gave the filmmaker a lot of extra time with the project, which he says ultimately was a good thing. "We shut [post-production] down and put it down, revisited it, shut it down again, and then opened it up about a month ago," he says. "Whenever you can get away from a film like that, and you approach it with fresh eyes, you have the ability to make positive changes to it. I think we made a number of changes to it, which really impacted the movie, but it feels done. It feels baked now."

McCarthy is cagey on further details about the film, insisting that he wants audiences to experience its mysteries for themselves, together, in a movie theater at long last. For instance, when asked if maybe the film's simple title might have more meaning than just being a reference to the Oklahoma city, he takes a long pause. "There is," he says. "And I will leave it at that. You've got to buy a ticket."

Stillwater hits theaters July 30.

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