Duel Perspectives: How Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener teamed up for The Last Duel
Not for goodwill, but for a project that would reteam them as writers. Hollywood, however, had other plans for them. After winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1997's Good Will Hunting, Damon, now 50, and Affleck, now 49, embarked on parallel careers as leading men. Their return to writing together would have to wait...and wait.
Now they've finally reunited—this time alongside acclaimed indie filmmaker and writer Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), 61.
Together, the trio penned The Last Duel (out Oct. 15), based on the actual events of 14th-century figure Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) and the final sanctioned duel in French history. When Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) is accused of raping Marguerite, justice is settled in a fight to the death arranged by Count Pierre d'Alençon (Affleck) and waged between Le Gris and Marguerite's husband, Jean (Damon).
Based on a book by Eric Jager and directed by Ridley Scott, the story examines timely themes: power, toxic masculinity, and believing women. EW gathered the writing team to discuss how they brought their different perspectives to the script, without drawing swords.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Matt and Ben, this is the first time in almost 25 years you've written together. Why the long gap?
MATT DAMON: I would attribute a lot of it to the fact that Good Will Hunting took us so long to write because we didn't really know what we were doing.
BEN AFFLECK: We also had nothing else to do.
DAMON: We had no deadline; it's not like anyone was waiting for it. We were unemployed. We hadn't ever taken a class on how to structure a screenplay, so structure was definitely not our strong suit. What we really understood were the characters, so we ended up writing thousands of pages of scenes where we'd just make up a scene idea. We'd write that scene and then we crammed it all together into something that looked like a screenplay. Both of us thought it would be so consuming to write together again, we just didn't bother.
NICOLE HOLOFCENER: It's not always like that.
DAMON: We didn't realize. We thought that is what our process would be. When we decided to do this, having been making movies for 25 years and telling two hour stories in three acts for all that time, we got the hang of structure, so it went a lot faster. And we actually outlined it this time.
AFFLECK: From the outside, it's like, "Oh these guys worked together a long time ago and there's this big time gap." But Matt's one of the few people I really trust and believe has my best interests at heart and gives good feedback. We've often talked about movies and collaborated in that way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to bring Nicole on board?
AFFLECK: Nicole was the best writer we knew, so we wanted her to help us make it good. Part of the story involves revealing a previously unseen world of women, and we thought a woman would do that better than we would and would offer insight and understanding that we didn't have. So we put together our most desperate pitch, which I think we delivered in a pretty ham-fisted way but nonetheless we managed to convince her.
HOLOFCENER: It took a minute. At first, I thought it was a joke. I got the email, "Do you want to write this swordfight movie with us?" I thought that they were kidding, or that I couldn't do it. It was so far away from the stuff I write. But I wanted to work with them immediately, and they convinced me they could do it by showing me their crappy writing [laughs].
AFFLECK: It's got to be better than this!
HOLOFCENER: It was like, "Okay if they're winging it, I can wing it."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Matt and Ben, you are both in extremely different places in your lives now than you were with Good Will Hunting…
DAMON: Meaning like, we actually have our own places. [Laughs]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was this experience of writing together different?
AFFLECK: Good Will Hunting was, in large part, was an effort to just get it made so we would have an acting reel, so we would get hired as actors. It was inspired by DIY filmmakers like Spike Lee. This was not an effort to further our acting careers since we cast ourselves as ultimately villainous people.
DAMON: In The Last Duel, you mean.
HOLOFCENER: I was going to say you end up being a really good guy.
AFFLECK: What do you mean, end up? I start out a nice guy in Good Will Hunting.
DAMON: The point is if you juxtapose those two roles against the two roles in this one, they're very different.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is based on a novel told by one narrator. What made you decide to open it up and have three distinct perspectives?
DAMON: When I saw the book title, I immediately thought of Ridley because of his first movie, The Duellists. Like 10 pages in it, I was just struck by how these guys were so barbaric, and I didn't feel like you could root for any of them. I was going to toss the book down, but I kept reading until this woman emerged and it was this incredible story of heroism and what she did and what she was up against. Initially, we had thought of Drew Goddard [The Martian] to write it because his actual hobby is medieval France. In a series of emails, we broke out the structure about this idea of perspective. But he ended up not being able to do it.
Ben and I were having dinner, and he asked if I had anything going on, and I explained this idea. We talked about it in the way that Unforgiven is an anti-Western Western, making this an anti-chivalry chivalry movie. Ben took the book home, read it overnight, and was like, "We should write this." As we started writing, we had outlined it and written about 15 pages of — as Nicole said — pretty crappy dialogue.
HOLOFCENER: I'm kidding.
DAMON: No, it was. The backstory to that is I didn't know Nicole, I just really admired her. But Ben knew her and they were friendly. When we asked if she'd do it, Ben unbeknownst to me sent these pages.
AFFLECK: I said, "Matt wrote this, it's dogs---."
DAMON: He goes, "By the way we're going to meet with Nicole to try to talk her into this thing and I sent her those pages." And I'm like, "You did what?! Please don't tell me you sent Nicole Holofcener that s--t we wrote." But oddly enough, in a weird backward way that was what I think convinced you, you could do it.
AFFLECK: "They clearly need help."
HOLOFCENER: We all helped each other along the way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Nicole, how did the writing process work?
HOLOFCENER: They sent me two pieces they had written together. And they said, "You're only going to work on this for the month of July, don't worry." Because I had other projects going on.
AFFLECK: That's called the bait and switch.
DAMON: We were like, "You'll be done so quickly."
HOLOFCENER: They said, "It's one month, you've just got to write 35 pages of this," and a year and a half later, we were still working on it. I would send my scenes to them to make sure I was on the right track. I did research and read books about women [from] that time and put together details of her life.
AFFLECK: It did start off as, "Okay, we're each responsible for these things." There was stuff Nicole created that we didn't anticipate, and it was thrilling because it was like, "Yes, this is the movie we're doing, and we're also being surprised by what's happening." It really did feel like these separate realities that all became part of one piece. Once we all individually wrote, we started sharing stuff and giving one another feedback and refining it. Then, it was this really lovely group effort, which was why it became very clear that Nicole's role in this was so vital, and she should be a producer, and it wasn't going to be a month, sorry.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you each started with your distinct point of view, but would you say by the end you don't know whose fingerprints exactly were where?
AFFLECK: The actors gave us a lot of good feedback and had really interesting points of view. Jodie and Adam were really helpful.
DAMON: You fall in love with them as a writer because you're so grateful.
AFFLECK: The hardest two parts to play were Jodie's, principally, and Adam's. We fooled with that stuff endlessly, tinkering and talking about it and trying to massage it and worried about it. Then here show up these two actors who just make it work.
DAMON: I sat with Adam for hours, and I'd go, "What does it feel like you should say here?" If something's not working for you, usually a really dialed in actor will be able to go, "It feels like this," and give us something that we can take back and tinker with. They're definitely a part of the process too.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Matt has compared The Last Duel to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Was that an influence while you were writing it?
AFFLECK: No, Rashomon is very different. Like the rest of the world, [we've become] more and more aware of the disparity between the number of stories told about men and the number of stories told about women. Reading this book was like striking gold. This is a spectacular hero, overcoming insurmountable odds at great expense to herself, and it's true. The problem is that recorded history paid so much more attention to what men were doing than to what women were doing, which is part of the thrust of the movie. We knew that we could rely on this historical record, but we also knew that in any true story, you have what you know happened from history and then you have things you have to imagine. The easy stuff is what's from history; the hard stuff is what you have to make up.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've all mostly worked in contemporary-set films. What was it like writing a period piece?
HOLOFCENER: I remember being very surprised walking on to the sets. I pictured it a certain way and probably pictured it more contemporary, so that was a surprise to me. I'd seen pictures. I'd done research. I knew in my head what it looked like. But walking into Carrouges' house and [seeing] how barren and how depressing it was when he was a squire and a knight. That did surprise me.
DAMON: Eric did a really great job in his book with detail to set the stage for his readers. We leaned heavily on that. There was one sequence where Ben and I wrote, "Carrouges rides into Paris at the beginning of 1386," and we took some sequence from Eric's book talking about beggars and all these different things he would see and then we just wrote, "Have fun, Ridley" underneath it.
AFFLECK: Because we knew Ridley was extraordinary at it. He deserves a massive amount of credit for creating that. He brought up, what was the Peter O'Toole movie?
DAMON: The Lion in Winter.
AFFLECK: His frame of reference was not just about the grandeur people think of, the monarchy or whatever, but the actual closeness to the ground people were living, the day-to-day survival aspect.
HOLOFCENER: Walking through the set when they're not rolling, you felt like you were there at that time; the detail is so specific.
AFFLECK: There was a lot of in-camera creating the environment and the world in a way that made it feel more real to everyone performing.
DAMON: We also talked a lot when we wrote about it being set in winter. You are living close to the earth. They weren't insulated from nature as much as we are today. Eric even wrote about it in his book how that particular winter they called it like an evil or hard winter or something like that.
AFFLECK: Because it would kill people. If winter was too cold, a lot more people would die. Now that's still the case in some places where there's extreme poverty. But the average middle class American life, in terms of healthcare, food, etc., they lived better than the King of France did.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Something I appreciate here is that unlike many period pieces set in Europe, you all just speak in a more natural dialect. Who made the creative decision to not have you all speaking in French or British accents?
AFFLECK: Tim Monich really deserves credit for that. He's just the best dialect coach. Tim is brilliant with language, etymology, and he looked at an accent that's not British, it's not contemporary American, but it seems distant enough to be apart from our reality. But also one which is accessible to contemporary audiences.
DAMON: Which is what we asked him for. We said there needs to be an otherness about it that doesn't feel modern and American. They can't speak with British accents because they're at war with the British, and they talk about that. Constantly. Tim really designed the sound for everybody.
AFFLECK: There is a kind of American notion that in the past we all spoke with British accents. It's like Game of Thrones they all have British accents.
DAMON: The real goal is you don't want the audience to be taken out of the movie. You want the accents to disappear so it's not something you're thinking about.
AFFLECK: Also just being contemporary actors, an unfortunate byproduct of being an actor is people know a lot about your life anyway, and it makes it harder to suspend their disbelief and really believe you as a person in this life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Ben, originally you were going to play Le Gris, Adam Driver's character. Why did you decide to take the step back?
AFFLECK: One of the main things was honestly that I was doing another movie and another movie right after. Also, knowing that Matt and I are friends, and that we've worked together, pitting us against each other as the Matt-versus-Ben movie is a distraction from what we were more interested in.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This story is from the 14th century, but it's very timely in how it tackles believing victims and the consequences of male pride. Were you looking for places to make that resonate with a modern audience?
HOLOFCENER: This story happens to have many parallels to our culture today, but we were just trying to tell a good story about this woman and these men. If you're trying to send a message, the audience feels it. I don't think we feel comfortable saying this movie is important because of what's happening today. But it was very important to get it right, to be very clear whose side we're on in this movie — and who's guilty and who's not guilty.
AFFLECK: The most important thing was: This is her story and this is the truth. There's no equivocation; there's no both sides. What it is is an examination of the way the culture reinforced this misogyny, this patriarchy. It was more and more evident how many vestigial aspects of that remain in society today. It wasn't necessarily our job to indicate that. We think audiences will be smart enough and aware enough...
HOLOFCENER: ...and sad enough...
AFFLECK: ...to recognize that.
DAMON: The first two stories you hear are the male stories and they're discordant. The idea was we've become so acculturated to hearing these stories in this way that maybe the audience won't realize as they're being lured into this false choice between these two competing male narratives. We loved the idea that in the third act, this third narrative comes in, which is this world of women that has been entirely ignored — not only in cinema, but in our movie for the first two acts — and we didn't notice. What does that say about the fact that we were sitting here trying to figure out which guy was telling the truth? Isn't that interesting to look at it as how we've all become acculturated to watch movies?
AFFLECK: The challenge was to both maintain the integrity and the certainty and the commitment to the clarity of what we think is quite obvious took place and the ways in which, everyone's the hero in their own story. People see the same experience somewhat differently from the prism of their own lens and that lens is informed by their history, their acculturation, their cultural norms, their education, their values, their parents, their trauma. Yet there can only be one truth. Reconciling those things was interesting to us. Hopefully, it's a story that is really moving. The story of Marguerite de Carrouges is phenomenal. It's a classic hero story, and this is a spectacular historical Ridley Scott epic that takes you to another world in an authentic way.
DAMON: And there are lots of sword fights.
HOLOFCENER: And blood and stuff.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Would you all collaborate again?
AFFLECK: This whole thing was actually an effort to get Nicole to cast me in a movie. And that's failed, so I don't know what I have to do.
HOLOFCENER: The day is young.