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In 'Stillwater,' An American Oil-Rig Worker Crosses The Sea To Exonerate His Daughter

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's a familiar story. The stereotypical American goes abroad, crass and brutally honest but with a heart of gold who breaks all kinds of rules to save the day. But while the new movie "Stillwater" may wink at this formula, it has its own story to tell about America's place in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STILLWATER")

MATT DAMON: (As Bill) You're innocent. That's why we got to keep fighting.

ABIGAIL BRESLIN: (As Allison) It doesn't matter that I'm innocent, dad. It's not about justice. It's about finding peace.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Matt Damon as Bill Baker, a former oil rig worker who travels to Marseilles, France, to see his estranged daughter, Allison, played by Abigail Breslin. She's in prison, accused of the murder of a local French Arab girl, but claims to be innocent. And Baker struggles with the unfamiliar language, culture and legal system as he attempts to free her. The movie is out now in theaters. And its director is Tom McCarthy, who won the Academy Award for best original screenplay for "Spotlight" in 2016. I began by asking him if the real-life case of the murder of Meredith Kercher, which sent American Amanda Knox to an Italian prison in 2007 before she was eventually acquitted, inspired this film.

TOM MCCARTHY: I would say the seed was there when I started the script 10 years ago, really. And I was sort of fascinated with that case, particularly the idea of an American student being in prison and then ultimately focusing on the relationship between, as you point out, her and her estranged father. So it started there. And I worked on this first draft of the script with another writer. And I just got to a place where it just was a straight up thriller. I just felt it lacked dimension and maybe authenticity. And I sort of put it down. I made the decision as director not to pursue it. I put it in a drawer for about six or seven years, and I picked it up again. And I reapproached it sort of from page one with two new French writers. And we really talked right off the bat with Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre about exploring the sort of, you know, all the dimensions of this story, the human dimension of it, the thriller dimension, the suspense, the mystery, and really pursuing all of these elements.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk a little bit about Bill Baker and indeed, you know, the really astonishing performance by Matt Damon. I mean, when you see his character at first, he is sort of all the stereotypes of the American abroad. He's got his cap. He's got his dark sunglasses, his tattoos. He doesn't seem to be interested in the language or the culture that he's in, but that quickly changes. Tell me why you wanted to sort of upend that stereotype of who we imagined to be the American abroad?

MCCARTHY: I think specifically and thematically, I was very interested in this idea of America's moral authority in the world. You know, that was a lot of discussion about that in 2016, '17, '18, sort of where we as a country sacrificing that or even interested in that anymore. Did we care to be the beacon of light, justice, equality, egality, all these things? It's part of the reason I want to cast Matt. Not only as an incredible actor, but I needed a guy that audiences were going to walk into like, oh, it's Matt Damon. It's Jason Bourne. It's this guy. He's going to get it done. He knows what to do. And we don't live in that world anymore. You know, I feel like we're all fumbling up, what do we do? And Bill just personified that.

I will say finally, you know, he's a roughneck from Oklahoma. These are oil rig workers. These are guys that work hard. They know how to get it done. They're tough. They're, you know, they're wily. They are a lot of things. And it's a very specific subculture in Oklahoma and almost mythic subculture in Oklahoma, in oil country. And that provided a lot of real deep character and story specificity for Bill Baker and gave Matt a lot to chew on and a lot to sort of get lost in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Race is very much an issue as well, I mean, within the city of Marseilles itself but also in terms of this story. Why did you want to make that something that really came, you know, became so central to the story?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, I think it's just unavoidable, right? Like, I mean, Marseilles in some ways reminds me of New York City, right? Marseilles is sort of - unlike Paris or the suburbs, the projects are 20 miles outside the main center of the city. Like, Marseilles is sort of hemmed in by the mountains and the sea. And everyone is just on top of each other. And it's a port city. It has been receiving immigrants for 2,000 years, you know? And so you can just feel those layers and those textures in the city. And they're constantly, I mean, probably no better place, and when you go to a football match, which we actually shoot a live football match in Marseilles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to also bring up Bill's daughter, because, you know, there is a big disconnect between them, too. I mean, she is college educated. She was off in France on a year abroad when this happened to her. She's not rich, but she is American. And an American abroad is de facto seen as more privileged than perhaps someone else might be. What contrast were you hoping to draw between her background and those of the local students?

MCCARTHY: Again, just that perception, right? What is the perception of the American abroad? How different is it, especially in this world where, you know, there's more similarities, you know, between class and race in these cities than maybe we even realize, although the discussion around them is incredibly different. The movie isn't by any means a discourse on race or class. It's just unavoidable in the journey of this guy. And also in his daughter's journey, as you point out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't want to give too much away because it is ultimately a sort of journey that you go on and many things are revealed, but you did make a choice at a certain point to have, you know, the main character, Bill Baker, really kind of try to be a vigilante. Why, if you're trying to upend the stereotype?

MCCARTHY: Well, because what we knew we were also going to do in doing that was do something that stereotypes and by that I mean, tropes, movies, cinematic tropes don't usually do in those circumstances, which have a discussion about consequences. We wanted to feel what happens not just to the people around it, but to the people themselves, Bill Baker and his daughter, Allison. We wanted to have that discussion and talk about our place in the world that way. So to us, it was crucial that we leaned into that at points and that - you know, I think there is this idea of this sort of, we sort of embrace our own fiction in a way. I think Bill Baker's doing that. He keeps saying this is all I care about. But he really - his heart tells him differently. And I think the end of the movie really reflects that. And I think there is where the real tragedy is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Tom McCarthy, director of the new thriller "Stillwater."

Thank you very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After we did this interview, Amanda Knox, the American whom McCarthy said inspired the film, wrote a lengthy statement on Medium criticizing the use of her story without her consent or consultation in "Stillwater" and for invoking her name in its promotion for profit. She wrote, quote, "my story and trauma was and is endlessly recycled for entertainment" and that, quote, "Tom McCarthy's fictionalized version of me is just the tabloid conspiracy guiltier version of me." Knox was acquitted after spending four years in an Italian prison. And the person who actually murdered her roommate was eventually imprisoned. Representatives for Tom McCarthy tell NPR that the filmmakers are not releasing a statement in response at this time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.