Matt Damon The Bourne Ultimatum Interview, by Tim Nasson
A decade ago, the now thirty-seven year old Cambridge, Massachusetts native, Matt Damon – who recently quit smoking – received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and won the Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting – a film – shot in and around Boston – in which he plays the title character, a janitor at MIT with a gift for mathematics, and a whole lot of emotional problems.
A month before that film’s release, I sat separately with Damon, his co-stars Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver and Robin Williams, and the film’s director, Gus van Sant, at the five star Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a place that Damon and Affleck walked by almost every day of their lives, never thinking that a movie studio would be footing the bill for them to not only stay there, but eat, drink and be merry there for a full weekend, too.
It was apparent then, as it is now, that Damon was the more professional one, the one who would stand the test of time. He walked into a suite in The Charles Hotel dressed in khakis, a button up shirt, with tie, polished shoes and a spiffy new haircut.
Perhaps that is one reason why he has been chosen one of People Magazine’s Top 50 Sexiest Alive, numerous times.
About an hour later, Ben Affleck walks into the same suite at the same hotel, yet wearing a track suit, sneakers, and a mop of messy hair, laughing and joking as if he were on some sort of school field trip, rather than promoting a movie he allegedly co-wrote, and that would go on to become one of that year’s highest grossing movies and most nominated films at the Academy Awards.
Although Ben Affleck has been in the spotlight a lot more than Damon, it is Damon whose checks have had a lot more zeros at their ends lately. And when was the last time you heard any word on Damon’s ‘private’ life? Not even a photograph has appeared in any of the tabloids with him walking in or out of a restaurant with an alleged significant other, nor a blot of ink. Read the August “GQ” and you’ll find more in this interview than you will in the glossy mag’s story.
It is Damon who seems to have not let the superstardom affect his personality, nor interfere with his life – as it surely has with the camera mugging Affleck, who happens to be Damon’s best friend. (Well, the two did grow up practically next door to each other in Cambridge, Massachusetts and co-wrote, if you believe it, Good Will Hunting – rumors abound that multi Oscar winning screenwriter William Goldman polished the script as a ghost writer, pocketing a sizeable chunk of change for his zipped lips.)
It was nearly ten years before Good Will Hunting, though, that Damon made his big screen debut – opposite Julia Roberts, no less, in Mystic Pizza.
Damon laughs when recalling the moment where his one line, (where he and his family are sitting at the dinner table, “Can you pass some more of the green stuff?”), is captured on film for the world to see. “A far less memorable line than ‘How do you like them apples?” he chuckles, referring to the infamous line in Good Will Hunting.
He would wait nearly four years before his big break, which was a movie full of muscular, athletic boys, as himself – School Ties.
I visited the set of School Ties, with a friend of mine, who was, at the time, (now retired), a driver for the Teamster’s Union in Massachusetts, and whom I have and continue to visit many local sets with.
The film was being shot in an old warehouse, doubling for a school, if I recall correctly, in the woods of Concord, MA. It was lunchtime when we arrived and everyone was busy making their own sandwiches, taking advantage of the down time. Brendan Frasier, Chris O’Donnell, Cole Hauser, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp, and so on and so forth. However, as most of the boys wrestled with each other, told dirty jokes and called each other names, Damon was the only one I recall sitting outside, under a tree, going over his script that was sitting in his lap, with a pen in one hand, sandwich in the other.
While Damon may be an acting veteran, and the most well behaved of his peers, he has not, while getting great parts, been nominated for an Academy Award since Good Will Hunting.
Nearly twenty years on the big screen, yet only one Best Actor nomination. Was that a fluke?
“The movies I have been in before and since Good Will,” says Damon, “are, in my opinion, quality films,” – The Bourne saga, The Ocean’s films, The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc. – “but which don’t seem to have resonated with the Academy voters. Would I give up any of the roles to have made an ‘Oscar’ movie? No way. There have surely been some mistakes in the three dozen or so films I have chosen to make,” – he doesn’t refer to any specifically – “But I don’t regret having passed on any movie just because it may have been an Award winner.
“Actually,” he continues, candidly, “I think my performance in Courage Under Fire was worth at least an Oscar nomination but you don’t make movies thinking you’re going to get a nomination or win an award. You make them based on your intuition. Is the movie a quality picture on page? Do you think it’s going to transfer well to the screen?”
“Funny thing,” he continues, “speaking of Oscar worthy roles. I auditioned for To Die For, and lost out to Joaquin Phoenix. While I wasn’t happy I lost out on that part – if I hadn’t auditioned for it, I doubt I ever would have met Gus van Sant (who went on to direct Good Will Hunting) – I think it was a horrible mistake that Joaquin wasn’t nominated for his role in that movie.
“And again, since we’re on the subject, I lost out playing the role that Ed Norton got in Primal Fear, which, of course, he did get a Best Actor nomination for. It’s all a role of the dice.”
Has Damon turned any roles down? “Of course,” he laughs. “I decided against The Quick and the Dead, and Leo[nardo DiCaprio] got it instead. It didn’t look good on paper, but the movie, at least with Leo in it, was great. And I also turned down The Majestic, which Jim Carrey picked up. That is a movie I am glad I turned down.”
Damon is not averse by any means to going all out to get a character just right. For his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker, Damon jumped behind a bar to sling drinks before they began pre-production in Tennessee, so that he could perfect a southern accent.
For his role opposite Denzel Washington in Courage Under Fire, based on a true incident from Desert Storm, Damon lost more than forty pounds, playing a vet-turned-heroine addict. “That was hard,” reflects Damon. “I don’t know how girls or anyone can starve themselves to the point of emaciation.”
And the list of quality movies, each worthy at the very least of an Academy Award nomination for Damon’s performances: Saving Private Ryan, in which he plays the title character for multi-Academy Award winning director, Steven Spielberg. The Talented Mr. Ripley, again, playing the title character for Academy Award winning director Anthony Mighella. And even for his role as Linus in Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s 12, and Ocean’s 13.
In 2005, I spoke to Damon on the set of the film, The Departed, in which he costars with fellow Boston homeboy, Mark Walhberg, and fellow Best Actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio – and the godfather of all actors, Jack Nicholson. They all convened in Boston for a month that summer for a chance to work with Martin Scorsese, who is hoping for and won his first Best Director Oscar – along with the Best Picture statue.
The Departed, is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong hit film of the same name and in this update revolves around a rivalry between the Massachusetts police force and an Irish gang. A gangster is chosen to infiltrate the police force while a young police officer is chosen to infiltrate the gang. When their paths cross, “all hell breaks loose,” says Damon.
Damon showed no sign of slowing down. With The Departed wrapped, he ran off to shoot Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd, – “another CIA movie,” chimes Damon. And then a smaller, meatier film for You Can Count on Me, writer and director Kenny Lonergan, entiled Margaret, opposite Anna Paquin and Matthew Broderick – which has yet to be released. And last but not least, Damon will be starring in the third Jason Bourne film, The Bourne Ultimatum.
While earning next to nothing for Good Will Hunting, and only $600,000 for his role in Rounders, Damon has graduated to the $20 million plus per picture category.
“It’s a busy schedule,” Damon laments, in a facetious tone, “But someone’s gotta make the movies that audiences want to go to the movies to see.”
Below, a transcript of the most recent interview with Matt Damon, the press conference at The Four Seasons at Beverly Hills, where over 100 reporters convened – and Matt Damon sat in the spotlight, in front of micropone, answering a throng of questions – as surreptitiously as possible!
A far cry from the scenario at the interview we had, one on one, at the Boston Ritz Carlton, for the first Bourne film, five years ago.
Question: You said you’d never return to the character of Jason Bourne. What happened?
Matt Damon: I made that comment at Cannes when we were about nine months into shooting the movie. I just went, “I’m never doing this again.” In terms of doing another one, (a fourth), the story of this guy’s search for his identity is over. He’s got all the answers, so there’s no way we can trot out the same character. So much of what makes him interesting is that internal struggle that was happening for him. “Am I a good guy, am I a bad guy, what is the secret behind my identity, what am I blocking out, why am I remembering these disturbing images?” So that internal propulsive mechanism that drives the character is not there. If there was to be another one, it would have to be a complete reconfiguration. Where do you go from there? For me I kind of feel like the story that we set out too tell has now been told. I love the character, and if (Oscar nominated director – United 93) Paul Greengrass calls me in ten years and says, “Now we can do it, because it’s been ten years and I have a way to bring him back.” Then there’s a world in which I can go, “Yeah, absolutely.” We could get the band back together if there was a great idea behind it, but in terms of now and this story, that part? The story’s been told. If we came out with a fourth one, and I suddenly got bonked on the head, you guys would be like, “Are you kidding me?” Actually, I was talking to a journalist yesterday, who suggested that we could do the fourth one about Bourne losing his keys. And we could do that or the entire movie, “Where are my keys?” That kind of illustrates how out of story we are at this point in terms of what was good about these first three films.
Question: What have you taken from this experience of being a coldly efficient amnesiac killer?
Matt Damon: In terms of playing the character? It’s been seven years for me. The movies have come out over the course of five, but it’s been seven years of my life. There hasn’t been a role that’s had a bigger impact on my life. Maybe Good Will Hunting did because it pulled Ben and I out of total obscurity. In terms of having an impact on my career? Just as an example, between The Bourne Supremacy and this one, The Bourne Ultimatum, there were three movies that I really wanted to do. Because I loved the scripts to three movies in particular. All of these movies were sure to be box office misses. They were Syriana, which was a very complicated movie that George and I cut all of our money so we could do it. And The Departed, which now, looking back, obviously was this big hit and it won all the awards, but at the time if you took a Scorsese movie…His movies classically don’t make a lot of money. even the masterpieces. Goodfellas, Raging Bull, they didn’t make a lot of money at the box office. It’s this incredible experience because you’re working with him, which is why he can get any actor he wants. Everyone will cut their fee and go and work with Marty, but in terms of looking at your career, you go, “Well, okay, so that’s number two. That’ll be two movies in a row that I’m in that wont perform well at the box office.” And then I fell in love with this script called The Good Shepherd, and everyone went, “Look, this is a tiny, little bull’s eye you’re aiming at here.” You look at it and you go, “It’s a very tense, cerebral, historical epic about the birth of the Intelligence Service in America. It’s not Spider-Man 3.” But I didn’t hesitate because I loved all the scripts and they were movies that I desperately wanted to do, and I knew that I had The Bourne Ultimatum off in the distance. I knew there was going to be an audience that was built in for that. So it really just allowed me creative freedom to make all these movies., I’m just so happy with each one, I’m proud of each of those movies. They all did very well, some of them did incredibly well, and they were all reviewed really well, so they all just made a big impact on my career. So that’s liked an ancillary way that the Bourne character has completely changed my life. Starting with the first one, where nobody had offered me a movie in six months. I was in London doing a play in the West End, and the movie opened. By that Monday I had twenty offers, so that was where. I would have been thirty-two years old, or thirty-one years old, the rose-colored glasses came off. I went, “Okay, I get it.” If you’re in a hit, you have a career, and if you’re not, it doesn’t matter. They might think you’re a real nice guy, but they’re not hanging a movie on you.
Question: How does it feel to see this movie with an audience? To hear them cheering all the way through it?
Matt Damon: It feels so good. I can’t even tell you. In fact, you guys were the second audience to see the movie. None of us have seen it with an audience yet. Two nights ago, when the first press screening happened, we were all getting Blackberried during the movie, “They’re cheering at Waterloo.” We didn’t know, we came so down to the wire, as we always do on these Bourne movies, that we didn’t even get a test screening in. We had shown it to a few people. I showed it to my wife, I showed it to my brother, he was like, “Yeah, cool.” So we’d have these little friends and family screenings. Paul showed it to twenty-five people. People in the business that we know that make movies, “Are we missing anything, guys? Can you help us out?” Collecting notes as quickly as we could and trying to get them into the edit, and then putting it out. So, two audiences have seen the movie, of which you guys are the second. Last night we were at dinner, the Blackberries all started going off at the same time. We heard that it was a crowd pleaser again. It was Paul and George Nolfi, the writer, and me and Joan and David Strathairn and Julia so we just told Amanda to expect a hung over group coming in the next day, because that’s when the champagne came out.
Question: Do you think this movie is even more timely than when the first one came out?
Matt Damon: All the movies are very much of the time that they were made. The first one is very much a 2002 movie. It’s a post 9/11 movie. All of the fear, all of the paranoia, everything is in there. What I love about them is that you’ll be able to look back and know the second one is from 2004. Things are starting to turn in Iraq and now this f-American guy, this iconic American figure, is going and apologizing and atoning for his misdeeds. For things that he’s done, he’s taking some responsibility. Now you have the movie ending where Bourne is pulling the gun and putting it to the head of the person who lied to him, who said, “This is what you’re going to be doing, you’re going to be saving American lives,” and Bourne’s saying, “I see now that you led me into something under false pretences, and now I understand that and I’m not going to do that anymore.” So each movie is very much a reflection of the time in which it’s made. We obviously have all the images of water boarding, of somebody getting shot in the corner of the room. Bourne doesn’t even know what the guy did. He asks, “What did he do?” He’s told, “We’ve been through that. You can’t know that.” So there’s somebody who’s an American who’s killed without a trial, so all of these things are just little kind of nods to the world that we’re living in right now. I like that about them, they feel relevant. Bourne has a lot of integrity. I do think he’s an American character. I like that about him, his thoughtfulness, his intelligence, the fact that he’s trying to do the right thing. But he doesn’t always do the right thing or he is misled, but he is trying to do the right thing. Those things, I think, are great.
Question: Is it true that you and Ben Affleck are writing another script together?
Matt Damon: In terms of my hetero-life-mate, as Kevin Smith once said in one of his movies, we’re not working on a script right now. But we are talking about a bunch of different things. His career has gone in this really new and exciting direction. I’ve seen the movie that he directed and it is really good. It’s fantastic, the performances are great, and every actor is going to want to work with him after they see this thing. It’s coming out in October and it’s done, I mean he’s finished, so they’re just waiting for the proper release date to bring it out. I think they’re doing it around the time The Departed came out. He’s gone from being an actor to being a director. He’s now somebody that can give me a job, so our whole relationship’s completely changed.
Question: Do you think you’ll ever act for him? (Ben has his first big budget film, shot in Boston, hitting theaters this fall – Gone Baby Gone)
Matt Damon: I would love to. That’s a new dynamic that our partnership can have. We can do a movie that we act in, or I act in and he directs, or something that we codirect, or something that we cowrite and codirect. There are so many different possibilities now because he’s gone and done this really great movie. So it’s exciting and now we’ve started to talk about that stuff again. It’s been ten years since the last one and we both put our heads down and worked pretty hard in this last ten years. Now we’ve woken up with careers and families and all the things that we wanted. Hopefully the next ten years will be about doing better work, maybe doing a little less of it, but doing better stuff and doing more together.
Question: Were there any scenes that didn’t make it into this film?
Matt Damon: Joan Allen and I have shot, over the course of the last two movies, about eight scenes. it’s a weird thing, we make these movies…it’s a really weird process, and we’ll end up doing scenes and we’ll just be sitting there shooting and going, “Well, this is never going to be in the movie. This doesn’t work at all.” A lot of that we don’t know until we get them up on their feet, and so as a result Joan and I have done a number of scenes together…I mean, you could make a DVD of it…We’ve done the same scene in all these different locations and finally what we ended up with is that little quick scene outside the hospital in New York where I give her the thing. It’s kind of a good indicator, like the amount of attrition, like the attrition rate, that we shoot. Our ratio of scenes shot is about eight to one. That’s what happens when you start without a script.
Question: Do you have a favorite action scene?
Matt Damon: I always liked the Tangier sequence. And the running along the roof. It’s just Bourne a hundred miles an hour flat out. I always liked him grabbing the things, all the things we came up with when we were on the real location. That’s the fun stuff, because you get a bunch of guys together and you’re going, “Alright, what would be the smart thing to do here?” We’d kind of figure out those sequences, and when they cut them together and they actually work. It’s really a good feeling. Paul came up with Waterloo, that was all Paul’s design and what would it be like to have a guy leading a complete novice through. That was all Paul and I love that sequence too. And the car chase too.
Question: How did you resolve the importance of the David Webb back story?
Matt Damon: We always had a feeling about where the Bourne character came from. That he would have been trained, that he would have had a military background. Presumably he was tapped from one of these programs as a good candidate and showed language skills. You know, we had kind of a loose idea of what that back-story was. We didn’t want to pin anything too far down because obviously making all three movies, we never really knew. But we definitely knew enough that I could do all the physical stuff and get ready so that the character was kind of, hopefully, believable.
Question: Did you ever get hurt doing your own stunts?
Matt Damon: With the fighting stuff, yeah. There was a huge age difference. The first movie, I was 29, and this last one, I was 36. I definitely felt my age. And particularly because with that big fight scene in Tangier, Joey, the other actor, the guy that I’m fighting, is like 23 years old. The first movie came out and he was in high school. So he was so happy. He was like, “Mate, I’m in a Bourne fight, this is great!” And he is in really good shape, and he’s already like a much better athlete than me. I was like, “Oh, man, Joey, you’re killing me! You gotta slow down.” I think it took probably a couple extra days. You know, it probably cost the studio a couple extra days because I’m a little older now.
Question: Did he really try to take you out?
Matt Damon: No, I mean, he just was so excited, and I couldn’t possibly defend myself against him. I’d be like, “Dude, just like three moves at a time. Come on.” He was a good sport about it though. He did a great job.
Question: How did Paul’s background make your working relationship easier, and what kind of relationship do you have with him in shaping the film?
Matt Damon: He’s the guy that I do this with because he’s so great at it. And he’s also a terrific writer. You know, I mean, he wrote United 93, he wrote Bloody Sunday. He’s a really good writer. And he does a significant amount of the work on these movies, too. Which any director does. I mean, you have to take ownership. You’re telling a story, even if someone else has written it. You have to tell the story in a way that makes sense for you. So every director working, every director worth his salt is a pretty good writer, too. They never take credit for it, unless it’s just them doing it. You know, generally, that’s what the writer’s there for. And we were lucky enough to have George Nolfi on set with us every day. So George kept ahead of us. He would literally be in his hotel room working on the pages for the next day while we were working on the pages he had given us for this day, and we were making our tweaks in the real location, going, “Okay, well, let’s change this to that, because that thing’s over there.” You know, it’s not an advisable way to make a movie. Like you couldn’t teach that in film school and send people out there. But it works for Paul. And there’s something about the chaos and the alchemy of like Frank Marshall and Paul Greengrass. And in this case, we had three different guys working on the script: Tony Gilroy, Scott Burns, and George Nolfi, who were on at different stages, and who are three of the best writers working today. It’s like you get this big mix and then you get the actors in there. But they’ve all gone down to the 11th hour. And we literally haven’t known until two nights ago. So it should come with a stamp. It’s not an advisable way to work if you want to live a long life.
Question: Would you ever consider working within the confines of another franchise?
Matt Damon: Do you mean, would I do three more Bourne movies with the Bourne character?
Question: No, with a new character.
Matt Damon: I’m trying to only do franchises. That’s my new thing. In fact, when the guys who wrote Ocean’s Thirteen wrote the movie Rounders, and I said to them…Because Rounders was a bomb when it came out, but now it’s done really well on video. I said, “You guys are writing the wrong sequel. We should be doing Rounders 2 2!” You know, in each case, with both Bourne…And I know Ludlum had written three books, but I signed up for one, and they were okay with that. And then when I signed up for the second one, I didn’t sign up for the third, I only signed up for one again because I wanted to make sure that it went well and I still liked doing it. And so I’ve done it. And the Ocean’s movies have just…You know, Steven calls and goes, “We’re doing another one” and I go, “Okay, I’m in.” But there was never a kind of an eye to being, for me, for either of them being franchises. I don’t think that way. And so I’m open to any good movie. If I enjoy the experience and I love the people I’m working with and I feel like there’s a chance to make a good movie, I’ll make it if it’s a sequel or if it’s not.
Question: At the end of the day, what do you want to be known for?
Matt Damon: Well, Clooney’s definitely doing it right now, and Clint Eastwood. Those are the careers where they’re acting, they’re writing, they’re directing, and they’re doing it on their own terms. I mean, I think that’s the biggest. I love making movies, and I love everything about it. And I love writing and I love acting, and I really want to direct. And I’ve been taking this last ten years to really carefully study these directors that I’ve been working with. And I’ve worked with a lot of really good ones at this point. And so I feel like I’m ready to do it. And that, to me, would be great to have a long career. I mean, it’s so hard to have a long career in this business. I mean, I’m still here after 10 years, and we’re all probably a little amazed by that. At this point, I just want to be smart about the work that I’m doing and try.