It’s been almost 25 years since Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote and starred in “Good Will Hunting,” and cemented the kind of Hollywood partnership where one name is rarely spoken without the other.
But for their first writing reunion since then, “The Last Duel,” the men didn’t just want another version of The Matt and Ben Show. What they wanted for this historic drama about a woman who was raped and the men who refuse to believe her was a collaborator. And so they searched for writer-director Nicole Holofcener, famous for her nuanced observations of prickly contemporary women in films like “Enough Said” and “Friends With Money.”
“The Last Duel”, directed by Ridley Scott, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book and in theaters on October 15, depicts France’s last officially sanctioned trial in combat: in 1386, Jean de Carrouges, a knight , and his friend turned rival, Jacques Le Gris, a squire, is ordered to fight to death after Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite, accuses Le Gris of having raped her, and he denies it. He who survives will be proclaimed the winner as a sign of divine providence. If Carrouges loses, Marguerite will be burned at the stake for perjury.
The film, which takes place amid the brutality of the Hundred Years’ War, is divided into three chapters – the “truth” according to Carrouges (played by Damon), The Gray (Adam Driver) and finally, Marguerite (Jodie Comer) . Damon and Affleck wrote the Male Perspectives, while Holofcener wrote Marguerite’s.
“The heaviest elevator in the architecture of this scenario was the third act, because this world of women must have been almost invented and imagined from scratch,” Damon said. “The men were very demanding to take notes on what they were doing at the time. But no one really talked about what was going on with women, because they didn’t even have personalities.
“It’s an adaptation of a book we’ve read,” he added, “but Nicole’s role is kind of an original screenplay.”
During an animated video call in late August – Damon in Brooklyn, Affleck and Holofcener in Los Angeles – the three discussed the intricacies of their collaboration and the portrayal of sexual assault during a time of violence where women were little more than good. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Let’s start with the beginning. Matt, it’s December 2018 and you’ve just read Jager’s book. What happened next ?
MATT DAMON Ridley and I had been looking for something to do together since “The Martian,” and we had had a few near misses. So I sent it to Ridley, and he loved it. In March 2019, Ben came over for dinner, and he picked up the book that night and called me at 7 am the next morning and said, “Let’s do this. And that’s how we got down to writing. But very quickly, through a bunch of different conversations we had with a bunch of people, we decided that it would serve the story better if we found the best female writer possible to write the female perspective.
NICOLE HOLOFCENER [Dryly] Plus, Ridley and I have been looking for something to do together for years.
DAMON [Laughs] Oh, now I’m a [expletive]. Oh my God.
HOLOFCENER No – no. Am I making fun of you? I did not mean that. I was just thinking about the difference between my sensitivity and Ridley’s. That’s all.
DAMON Yeah yeah. Well, Nicole was our dream writer and our number one choice. And thank goodness she said yes. And she said yes largely because Ben, behind my back, sent her about 10 or 15 pages that we hadn’t shown to anyone. And I was so embarrassed, as professionally, that he sent them to Nicole Holofcener.
HOLOFCENER They weren’t good, but they were good enough that I said, “I want to work with these guys. “
DAMON I think they were bad enough that she said, “Oh, these guys need help.”
HOLOFCENER Bad enough that I wouldn’t be intimidated that I could write for the medieval language, at least in English. But they are so talented, and I was immediately very flattered. The only hesitation I had was, “Can I get out of my little world and write on something like this?” And as soon as I started and got their support, I found out I could do it.
So why three chapters?
BEN AFFLECK Very quickly, it was recognized that the film has a clear point of view on who is telling the truth. And that this incredibly heroic character, Marguerite de Carrouges, had this story that deserved to be told. It was obvious that this would be an exploration of the dynamics of power, the roots of misogyny and survival in medieval France. There were all the elements of what makes a really great story to tell – the idea of an unreliable narrator, an unreliable second narrator, and then some sort of revelation of what happened through the eyes of ‘a character who was both the hero and whose humanity was denied and ignored.
HOLOFCENER But also you get the fact that it wasn’t black and white for men, and it was so black and white to the woman about what happened. So the male point of view offers this perspective of male illusion.
Nicole, Marguerite was not as fleshed out in the book. How did you go about creating his universe?
HOLOFCENER I researched what women were back then and what they had to put up with. I gave her a friend to talk to. I knew she would have to take over the estate when he was gone to fight. So I read, “Well, what did they do? »Take care of the animals and horses and the harvest. And I really tried to imagine how horrible it was for her and how she dealt with the horror. Her life was bad enough to be married to Jean de Carrouges and so when she was raped she really had nothing to lose. I mean, she was going to be in pain. She had the potential to suffer deeply and die, but by then she was just tired of having no voice.
How do three writers put things right?
AFFLECK Once the script approached a completed stage, it was released, emailed. In fact, one of the biggest challenges was the maddening technological aspects of keeping track of different versions – whether they included everyone’s changes.
HOLOFCENER We continued to work on the bad drafts. It was like, “Wait a minute. I removed this line two months ago. Why is he still there? We are not the most technically savvy.
DAMON We had one of those times where I think we had done half a day on one of these things and we realize, “Oh no, this is not the right draft”, and then you have to try. to understand and understand what you have done.
HOLOFCENER Matt doesn’t even have a laptop. So don’t get me started.
How did you make sure you accurately portray Marguerite’s rape without exploiting it?
AFFLECK We have been particularly responsive and attentive to really listening and researching, whether by consulting RAINN [an organization that helps victims of rape, abuse and incest], assault survivors, history experts, women’s groups, and trying to allow all of these other experiences to inform history and make it as authentic as possible.
HOLOFCENER I think those organizations really, really wanted to make sure that we made it clear what the truth was – that it wasn’t “he said, she said.” It is not ambivalent.
AFFLECK We had questions like, “Are we bleaching if we don’t show the emotional toll and the seriousness of it?” How much is it getting too much? And where do you feel the limits of tastes?
HOLOFCENER Much of it was about how often do we see rape and how long does it last? How long do we have to go through this? It was a topic of conversation. And so we took their notes seriously and did a lot of trimming. We had to show some scenes twice, but it was necessary. We must have seen the rape twice, disturbing as it is to watch.
What choices have you made to stick with the book or stay away from it?
DAMON The biggest departure is the rape scene. Marguerite de Carrouges, what she said in court and repeatedly to a growing group of people and ultimately to all of France, is that Jacques Le Gris entered her home with another man, Adam Louvel. We have in the movie Louvel coming up, but then Le Gris tells him to go. In Marguerite’s actual testimony, the rape was much more brutal. She was tied up and gagged. She almost died of suffocation. And Louvel was in the room.
HOLOFCENER [Le Gris] thought he loved her.
AFFLECK What was fascinating was how this behavior and attitude towards women was so deep and pervasive, and the vestigial aspects that are still with us today. It’s really powerful. What we hoped is that people will look at it and say, “Have I always understood how my actions were viewed by others? Have I always recognized the reality, the truth, the perspective of others in my behavior? And maybe think about it.
Well, I understood that originally you had to play Le Gris. And then you decided to play the libertine count Pierre d’Alençon instead of facing Matt on the screen. Why?
HOLOFCENER He came to his senses.
AFFLECK What really happened was that –
DAMON We heard Adam Driver was interested. [Everyone laughs.]