“An American Hero In A French Movie” Tom McCarthy, Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré Talk ‘Stillwater’: (This interview contains mild spoilers)
Stillwater was one of the few original films released this year and audiences are better off for it. Matt Damon (playing Bill Baker) and Abigail Breslin (playing his daughter Allison) were on board early in the process to play the leads in the movie. This certainly helped to get the film made. It’s a father and daughter story set in both Stillwater, Oklahoma and Marseilles, France allowing for cultural breadth and specificity in its storytelling. Three-fourths of Stillwater’s screenwriters Tom McCarthy (Station Agent, Million Dollar Arm) and New York based French screenwriters Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone) and Noé Debré (Dheepan) spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about the long journey they took in getting this touching story to the big screen.
Tom McCarthy initially began working on the idea of a man who travels to France to visit his imprisoned daughter with fellow screenwriter, Marcus Hinchey (also credited as a writer on Stillwater) about a decade ago. “He gets very involved in figuring out the true nature of the crime and trying to free her,” said McCarthy. They worked on this idea for about a year, but McCarthy wasn’t satisfied with it. “It lacked dimension and it was more of a straight up thriller. I couldn’t see the movie.” He set it aside for about six years. When he revisited it with fresh eyes and renewed enthusiasm, he realized how much he liked the premise.
At that point, he reached out to Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré for their take on Stillwater. Their French background was useful in writing the scenes set in France. They saw the strengths and flaws of the idea and eventually signed on as co-writers. The trio met in Paris, France to commence a page one rewrite on a premise they all agreed was viable. This stage of the collaboration lasted for almost two years “to let the story unfold as organically as possible.”
This was in 2016 when America experienced a seismic shift both politically, culturally, and socially. Many people felt lost and anxious. “Our need to understand each other was paramount in exploring Bill’s trip to France,” continued McCarthy.
Thomas and Noé are big fans of the action thriller genre and categorize the films into A movies and B movies. To them, McCarthy’s draft felt more of a B movie. “We believe A movies focus more on the restoration of the main character,” articulated Bidegain, while B movies focus more on the plot. “We wanted Stillwater to be a combination of both A and B movies.”
Debré focused on the realism of the world rather than an overly-stylized Hollywood blockbuster. They were also guided by listening to a host of crime podcasts during the writing process. “Podcasts don’t rely on the narrative to simply set up the structure,” he continued. “We didn’t want Stillwater to be a ‘paint-by-numbers’ script.”
Noé and Thomas were also attracted to how certain podcasts direct the story and then change its direction as it unfolded into a deeper, more human story. “It feels like life. All of it doesn’t make total sense,” stated Noé.
A Sense Of Place
Stillwater is set in two places that couldn’t be more different. The French factor was always part of the story. “We were always concerned about the American point of view of Marseilles,” added Thomas. (Marseilles elicits different opinions even from the French). As it turns out, Tom knew the character of Marseilles better than Thomas and Noé. Ironically, Tom felt Thomas and Noé knew Oklahoma better than him.
“Tom had a clear vision of the city,” continued Debré. Being a New Yorker, Marseilles holds a special familiarity to McCarthy. “Both places are by the sea. Some areas are marvelous… and some aren’t,” elaborated Noé. “I visited Marseilles for a decade to familiarize myself with it,” said McCarthy. “Like New York, it’s a city that speaks to you when you walk the streets. I researched the city through talking to its people.”
Physically visiting both places complemented the research. “I initially wrote Bill Baker as a generic Oklahoman blue-collar worker,” recalled McCarthy. “After I visited, I realized he had to be a roughneck working the oil rigs.” (He actually worked on a rig for about a year as part of his research). Once the writing trio did a deep dive into roughneck culture, it transformed the characters in Stillwater. “Not just a character’s life experience, but the generational life experience,” exclaimed McCarthy. “We suddenly had a lot to draw on, as did our actors.”
Noé’s first reaction to using Marseilles as a location was that, “It didn’t feel alien and exotic enough for Bill to disconnect from Oklahoma. The U.S and France are different, but not that different.” He suggested different locations to highlight the fish out of water story of a character visiting a place he didn’t fully understand. “Tom insisted Marseilles was different enough from Oklahoma.”
Stillwater wasn’t ostensibly written by French and American writers, each bringing their cultural specificities to the story. “There was a lot of intermingling,” said McCarthy. “We were all trying to find the truth and understand it from each other’s perspective.” Although their writing aesthetics were aligned, their expression of ideas was sometimes radically different. “We all spoke about race, class, poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse. We would all have different ideas about the reality of these ideas.”
Audiences can sense the tension in these opposing viewpoints. “This is especially true for people who don’t travel a lot. Even to the French, Marseilles can be a bit vexing because it has a distinct culture different from the rest of France.” Marseilles has its own film culture so the local audience were also skeptical of allowing an American (Tom McCarthy) to depict their city on film. Ultimately, they were impressed with the movie.
- Tom was making an action movie and we were making a French movie – Thomas Bidegain
Good Or Bad?
There was considerable debate on whether Allison is a good person or not. The same issue was raised with Bill. “This was a real French-American thing. We couldn’t reach a definite moral conclusion,” said Noé. At one point, Allison asks “Am I a monster?”
- “We also wanted to explore the guilt within each character,” especially Bill and Allison, said Thomas.
Stillwater is a slow-burn thriller which poses a massive moral question at the end, something many action thriller movies avoid. “Genre doesn’t have much examination of consequence or life outside the case. We believed in the commitment to the explore the humanity and character of the movie… and that meant taking time,” expounded McCarthy. “We wanted the audience to invest in the relationship with Virginie (Camille Cottin) and Maya (Lilou Slauvaud)… to invest in his little room in Virginie’s apartment… to invest in the world Bill built for himself.”
By investing in these aspects of the story, the case of Allison’s guilt or innocence would be revisited later with higher stakes since Bill was laying roots in France. Maintaining the tone was a challenge because it had to feel like both character and action are in the same movie throughout. “We constantly ask, how far we can push this and then bring the audience back into the fold,” explained McCarthy.
“Stillwater is driven by the belief that things aren’t what they appear to be both for the characters and the plot,” said Bidegain. The film begins with a father who wanted to get his daughter out of jail, then it became a family drama, then a love story. This genre switching keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.”
Although Stillwater has four main characters, McCarthy considers Bill to be the protagonist. “He’s our way into the story. You’re going on a journey with him because there’s something that you connect with. We needed the other characters because the burden would be too great for Bill to carry the entire movie on his own.” Bill Baker isn’t a perfect being, nor is he an entirely honest or reliable narrator. “In some ways he’s an anti-hero… both protagonist and antagonist on some level. That speaks to the gray moral area of the film.”
- Bill’s not just a bad or broken guy. He’s a human – Tom McCarthy
Noé describes the process of more than falling in love with a flawed character. “We have to understand Bill and Allison fully in order to empathize with him in light of the tremendous damage he’s done to his daughter and his redemption.”
Prior to commencing the writing process with Noé and Thomas, Tom gave them each a copy of Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a novel about the Tea Party movement in Louisiana, to help shape Bill’s character. “It asks how a college professor from Berkeley could understand why people feel the way they do without judging them. He had to climb the wall of empathy and build a bridge.”
In conclusion, the writers agree the curiosity is the thing that all screenwriters should have to better their craft. If you want to become a better screenwriter, ask questions about the world.
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