It’s easy to mock Matt Damon right now. His new movie, The Great Wall, is the worst-reviewed of his career. Its lazy white savior narrative inspired the sarcastic #ThankYouMattDamon trend last week. The truly bizarre accent-of-indeterminant-origin he chose to go with in the film instantly resulted in a hilarious Reddit thread where users attempted to one-up each other with funny names for the accent, such as “PhoningItIn” and “ThisMovieIsGoingToBuyMeABiggerHouse.”
Contrast that with a year ago when Damon was a regular on the awards circuit for The Martian, using one of his acceptance speeches to gush about how nice it felt to actually be liked and star in a movie people really wanted to see.
And, dangit, I really like Matt Damon, have ever since School Ties, Courage Under Fire, The Rainmaker and, obviously, Good Will Hunting.
So, in the interest of putting something positive about Damon out into the world right now here is the story of how he gave Manchester By the Sea to Kenneth Lonergan as a kindness. As Damon himself recently put it, “Someday, I’m going to be able to say to my children, ‘When your dad had any bit of leverage in Hollywood, this is what he helped to do.'”
It all started over dinner with, oddly enough, John Krasinski, The Office star-turned writer-director who actually grew up mere blocks from Damon. They would eventually work together as writers and actors on 2012’s little-seen Gus Van Sant drama Promised Land, but that was still a couple of years ago away when Damon was busy filming The Adjustment Bureau with Krasinski’s wife Emily Blunt. At some point during the shoot, Damon and Krasinski met for a dinner, and Krasinski pitched his idea for a movie about a Massachusetts janitor forced to return home to care for his teenage nephew.
Damon described the process from that point forward rather matter-of-factly in a recent THR interview:
John Krasinski had this idea and talked to me about it over dinner. We decided I would direct and he would act. I had done a play of [Kenneth Lonergan’s] in London in 2002, so we pitched it to him [to write]. He loved the idea but was busy, so we had to go to the back of the line. That was fine because Kenny wanted to do it. A few years later this script arrived. It was rough, it was long, it was meandering, and it was absolutely brilliant. His next draft was essentially the one we ended up shooting. At that point, I had this heart-to-heart with Kenny and said: “You have to direct this. This clearly got its claws into you. Why don’t I star and you direct?” Then, because of my schedule, we had to push, and I didn’t have an opening for another two years. Kenny was ready to go, so we decided on Casey Affleck to star.
What he left out, though, is that Manchester was going to be his directorial debut. To simply let it go like that says a lot about his ego or lack thereof . Plus, he had done more than simply star in a Lonergan play; he had also starred in Lonergan’s Margaret, which had become embroiled in one of the more notorious post-filming legal squabbles in recent memory.
The battle had taken a lot out of Lonergan and sent him into a deep depression, although he’s been quick to point out it was likely no worse a depression that what he normally feels. THR explained what really happened after that:
This particular depression was in 2011, and Lonergan indeed was sitting at home when Matt Damon paid a visit and offered him a writing job. At the time, Lonergan was in the midst of a pitched legal battle over the last film he’d made with Damon, Margaret, a searing two-and-a-half-hour family drama that many critics since have described as a little-seen masterpiece — but which back then was being held up from release by a lawsuit filed by producer Gary Gilbert, who was demanding a shortened re-edit that Lonergan was refusing to make. Damon, concerned about Lonergan’s “horrible limbo,” wanted to do something nice for his friend. So he sat in Lonergan’s Manhattan apartment and pitched him an idea for a script about a New England handyman who ends up with custody of his dead brother’s teen son — a story Damon thought would be right up Lonergan’s dark alley.
The story ended up being the perfect vessel for Lonergan to work through his grief. He recognized that no one was going to feel sympathy for him if he made his next script a semi-autobiographical tale of an artist struggling to rediscover his balance after having his movie taken away from him, but he could channel those feelings into this story of a man who has lost his family.
Damon stepped down as director and actor, but he stayed attached as a producer, still looking out for the project and Lonergan and desperately searching for funding until Kimberly Steward, wealthy daughter of a tech billionaire, agreed to front the $8.5 million budget. She had one caveat – due to Lonergan’s damaged reputation after Margaret she wanted Damon to have final cut approval, not Lonergan. They agreed to that, but it ended up being unnecessary since neither Damon nor Steward asked for any re-edits of Lonergan’s original 2 hour, 15 minute cut.
The result is that with Manchester’s Best Picture nomination Damon now has his first Oscar nomination as a producer, and Lonergan’s career has been revived, lifted up from a very low place when a friend threw him a bone. In this case, we can very genuinely say #ThankYouMattDamon.