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Thursday, October 28, 2021

‘The Last Duel’: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jodie Comer & Nicole Holofcener on Making Their Medieval Drama Based on Actual Events


[Editor’s note: The following contains some spoilers for the film.]

From director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Matt Damon & Ben Affleck & Nicole Holofcener from the book by Eric Jager, the medieval drama The Last Duel is based on actual events that took place in 14th century France, leading up to the last sanctioned duel to the death between friends turned enemies Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). With a story told through three viewpoints, the grueling trial by combat occurs after Marguerite Carrouges (Jodie Comer) accuses Le Gris of an assault that he denies, putting her own life in jeopardy just for speaking the truth.

During a virtual press conference for the film, Damon, Affleck, Holofcener and Comer talked about the clear intentions of the script, what led them to tell this story, the challenge of writing the different perspectives, developing the woman at the center of the story, the experience of working with Scott as a filmmaker, spending time in Ireland, and the approach to shooting the duel.

Question: Jodie, you had to go through so many emotions, sometimes several times over, in some of these very pivotal scenes, but there was also such attention paid to the detail and choreography that they had to have. How much of that was on the page, how much did you have to work on, on the day, and how much of that back and forth did you have to do, to get the balance that we see?

JODIE COMER: The beautiful thing about the script was that it was all there on the page. The intentions were very, very clear, as to what was needed in each perspective. What was sometimes jarring was that we shot each version simultaneously, so we were literally jumping from one to the next. I was always wanting to make sure that we got Marguerite. I felt really loyal to her and really wanted to make sure that we’d always got that in the bag, and then I felt like I could play around with the other versions. I was afforded a lot of freedom in what I wanted to explore. We played around with the subtlety and how far we wanted to push it . . . It’s so important that when you’re in each perspective, you’re really invested in what that character is telling you.

BEN AFFLECK: She’s being generous. The script was more or less, “A great actress will show us the subtlety and nuance and the differences between the various perspectives.

MATT DAMON: She’s also being very humble. We had sessions where, after work, we would have dinner and we would sit there and go through the script with Jodie, and we did it with Adam too. When you have a great actor, they’re really able to say, “This moment doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel like I’d say that.” As a writer, if you have a great actor, you really wanna listen to them because they’re gonna steer you towards where a scene needs to be. So, she was really helpful in the writing process too.

NICOLE HOLOFCENER: And she’s nice.

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Image via 20th Century Studios

RELATED: Watch: ‘The Last Duel’s Opening Scene Teases the Epic Scale of Ridley Scott’s Medieval Revenge Tale

Matt, it’s been almost 25 years since Good Will Hunting.

DAMON: Why aren’t you asking Ben about this?

AFFLECK: Because you’re older.

DAMON: That’s right. Thank you very much.

In the time since then, did you have ideas that you guys maybe thought about working on together? Why this story and why now?

DAMON: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I think we were just afraid of writing because we were so inefficient. It was so time-consuming the first time we did it because we didn’t know what we were doing. It literally took us years, and we wrote thousands and thousands of pages that we basically scrunched into a 130-page screenplay. Just by doing movies for 25 years and by osmosis, we figured out structure, so the process turned out to be really efficient. And also, begging an incredible writer like Nicole to come help us was also a really good idea. That definitely streamlined the process.

HOLOFCENER: I threw them a bone.

AFFLECK: That’s what gave us the confidence to do it. We knew we couldn’t rely on each other.

Nicole, what was it like for you to work with Matt and Ben? How did you go about writing this?

HOLOFCENER: We wrote it before the pandemic. Matt and Ben had already started writing, and had decided to write it in this three-part point of view way. They asked me to come and write the last part, and I was thrilled. They did not have to beg me.

AFFLECK: We did beg you

HOLOFCENER: You didn’t beg me. No way. I was flattered and thrilled, and wasn’t sure I could do it, but did. I would send pages to them and we’d sit down together and work. We’d work on each other’s scenes. I basically wrote the third act, but they also had a hand in it because it had to be a part of the whole movie. When smart writers have ideas, one should take them, so between Jodie and them, it was really collaborative. It was really collaborative with all of the actors. Sometimes we wrote apart, and sometimes together.

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Image via 20th Century Studios

Nicole, since you wrote the majority of the Marguerite perspective for her point of view, did you also have any influence over the earlier scenes that she’s in?

HOLOFCENER: I wanted people to wonder why Jodie Comer took this lousy part and why she’s barely in this movie, playing this obsequious wife who thinks her husband is all that. And then, by the time we get to the third act, I wanted to say, “No, this is actually the truth. She’s actually a human being.”

DAMON: Yeah, the construct was that the world of women is totally ignored, overlooked, and is invisible for the first two acts of the movie, and then it’s revealed in the third act. Ben and I were adapting a book. Nicole was really writing an original screenplay. The men of the time took very fastidious notes about what they were all up to, but they didn’t record what the women were doing. And so, Nicole really had to create Jodie’s world, or Marguerite’s world, out of whole-cloth.

HOLOFCENER: One of the producers, Drew Vinton, helped me a lot. He knew a lot about it, and I was handed pages to read. I was assisted in researching, for sure.

AFFLECK: The joke [Nicole made] about why Jodie took this part has a lot of truth rooted in it, but that doesn’t work unless Jodie is so smart, brave, and complicated in her performance. I’m not sure every actor would have been willing to do what she did and actually play another character’s point of view of themselves, rather than their sense of their true self. Because she does that so perfectly, so that it’s seamless, you don’t get a sense that it’s an exaggerated version of a person. It feels like versions of women we’ve seen in movies before. We wanted to exploit the fact that historically people are, in many ways, largely accustomed to women being secondary and tertiary characters, so that it wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary. And she was willing to play, which makes the reveal so much more powerful and elegant, to see the difference between an essentially two-dimensional person and a fully-realized, three-dimensional human being.

This is a story that happened hundreds of years ago, but there are stories like this happening today. It’s a delicate balance, where you have to be true to these characters in their time frame and the ethics, moralities, and constructs of gender from that time, but it’s going to be consumed by a modern audience. How did you balance that?

AFFLECK: That was a very deliberate thing. Part of what we wanted to point out was the extent to which corrupt and morally bankrupt and misogynist institutions create and produce people who reflect those values. And so, rather than just an indictment of a bad person or a bad man, you have the church, you have science, you have the court, you have this whole Western-European civilization, of which we are an antecedent, culturally, by and large. At least, that’s the notion of the United States, is that it’s the result of the Enlightenment and its philosophies, even though that’s actually not true. The idea here is that this predominant culture comes from this other culture that is what produced these values, and this culture, in terms of how it educates people, what it rewards socially, and the behavior that is encouraged.

The character that I play could have been just a complete villain. Yes, he’s a villain and he does these horrible things, but really, the idea that when a person is in power and represents these values and says, “These are the values we encourage in you and you’ll be rewarded for following them,” it’s more about where Adam’s character is, how he’s taught to behave, and what he’s rewarded for, than it is about the essential nature of his character. In other words, people can be changed and created by these large institutions. That’s the value system that we wanted to indict and that required making sure, on an architectural level, that all of those elements were included. And then, you have to just throw it away and hope that the great actors make you identify with the people, so none of that feels pedantic or like a sermon or like a term paper.

HOLOFCENER: And if only the audience could walk out of this movie and say, “Wow, it was awful back then. Thank God, it’s not like that anymore.” I wish.

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Image via 20th Century Studios

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This is ultimately a woman’s story and it’s executed in a way that you know a woman had a hand in the writing. In crafting the character of Marguerite, especially since there wasn’t a lot written about her, how did you create who she was?

HOLOFCENER: I don’t know. It was how I write about any character. She was a woman who had certain talents and abilities and a personality, and she would have friends, and she was sad she couldn’t have a baby. I just started writing, and once I got the hang of no contractions and m’lady and m’lord, she was just this really brave, wonderful woman who we should all remember.

Jodie, how was your experience working with Ridley Scott? Why do you feel he was the right director for you, on this film?

COMER: When a script comes from Ridley Scott and he wants to meet you, you’re like, “Yes, I will.” And then, I read the script and I was so fascinated by the structure of it and this idea of there being three perspectives, but ultimately, only one truth. When I met Matt, early on, he was like, “You should know, he works at a pace. He has four or five cameras rolling. It’s fast.” He gave me a little heads up. And then, I got to set and I was like, “Oh, no kidding.” I’d never worked like that before. It was just really fascinating to see how he makes his decisions and his attention to detail, whether it be through the characters in the story or the locations and the set design. He doesn’t miss a trick. The film has a lot of heart, but it’s also a spectacle and it has the fighting and the duels. I think that’s what he’s so great at.

Matt, how did you end up approaching Ridley Scott with this?

DAMON: From the moment I saw the cover of the book and that it’s called The Last Duel, Ridley’s first movie is The Duelist. We did The Martian together, six or seven years ago, and I just had the best time working with him. With four cameras at a time, the amount of momentum that you get, all of the energy is just around, right on the floor. You can have your agent negotiate for a trailer, but you’re never gonna go there, except to put your clothes on in the morning. It’s all happening on set, and it’s really exciting. I just love that. I originally gave him the book and he said, right away, that he’d read it and wanted to do it. We were looking for a writer, and I was having dinner with Ben and told him the idea and he was like, “Well, why don’t we write it?” And I was like, “What? You wanna write that?” And he was like, “Sure.” So, it just happened, really organically, and it happened really quickly. We started writing, and Ridley had another movie he was gonna do and he just went, “I’m not doing that movie anymore. I wanna do this.” We begged Nicole to come join and she did, and that was it. We were off to the races. He was the perfect guy to do it, with the scale that he does everything at. He was great with us. It was delicate with the three different perspectives because we were playing three different versions of these characters.

Ben, what was your experience like, filming in Ireland?

AFFLECK: I loved it. It was wonderful and beautiful and the people were lovely. It was mitigated only by the fact that it was during the pandemic, so you got to shoot and then immediately had to be wrapped in your sarcophagus and separated. That was just an added hurdle. But Ireland itself is a magical, lovely place. Like many people from Boston, I grew up hearing that I was Irish, though I’d never been to Ireland. It’s an incredible place. The crew was extraordinary. Everyone was amazing. Ridley’s style of filmmaking was so impressive and exciting and energizing, and it made you feel so alive. You’re on camera. Everyone’s on camera. It’s all happening, all at once. I, immediately thought, as a director, “I’m gonna steal this. This is what I’m gonna do.” I went and did a commercial, I hired the same DP, and I was like, “We’re gonna do it just like Ridley did it.” It was for a sports betting app, so it didn’t quite have the same [reaction]. Me and Shaquille brought a lot of humanity to it.

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Image via 20th Century Studios

Matt, do you miss living in Ireland?

DAMON: Yeah, had the best time. Our movie shut down because of COVID, the day we got to Ireland, but we stayed. We had the choice to come home to America or stay there, and we’d never spent any real time there, so we took a family vote and decided to stay. It was amazing. All of these guys had rented these beautiful houses for three months that they abandoned because they all went back to their homes, so we took them all over. We turned one into a school for our kids. It was great. We were free-roaming in a beautiful town in Ireland for three months. The community there absorbed us in a really beautiful way and we had a great time.

HOLOFCENER: And now your picture is in every restaurant

DAMON: We know everybody there. It’s a small town.

Jodie, from an acting perspective, what was the biggest challenge or the most exciting aspect of doing the same scene, with a different subtext or point of view?

COMER: The most exciting aspect was the fact I’d never done it before. It was so new. Usually, when you approach a character, it’s none of your concern, what the other characters think of you. You don’t have to worry about what they need from you. Whereas on this film, you really had to think about what the other actor and character needed from you in that moment, in order for their story to ring true to them. You never have to usually think about that, so that was definitely exciting.

Matt and Ben, you wrote this, but you also had to act in these scenes. Was there ever a day that you regretted that choice?

DAMON: No, I never regretted it. It was really fun. I was more concerned that we were gonna muff it up. We always had it written down on the schedule, whose perspective we were in, but before we rolled, we’d always say, “This is my perspective,” or “This is your perspective,” just to remind each other because we had to totally calibrate everything based on that. That was the fun of it. You could also push it in other people’s stories, a little more, because you’re their version of you, in a way, and their projection. You had a little more leeway, in some ways, and that was really fun. It was really about intention. With those pivotal scenes with Jodie and Adam, the dialogue’s the same.

AFFLECK: We didn’t wanna cheat at all and have it be, “Oh, from my point of view, this whole other scene happens.” We really tried to create and reflect this phenomenon of the fact that two people can have a conversation, and you can ask each one of them what they came away with, and they’ll genuinely tell you different things because they had different experiences. Those experiences, oftentimes, are rooted in where they’re coming from, what their needs are, what their values are, and so forth. I certainly didn’t have a challenging role, in that aspect, because my character exists predominantly in Adam Driver’s role, though the influence of my character pervades the other two. The degree of difficulty for Jodie and Adam is very self-effacing, in a way.

You don’t really realize how hard it is to play three different characters. And not only that, but to take these extraordinarily delicate, sensitive moments and to not sacrifice the integrity of your character and not sell out for the other character, and yet still commit to playing a realistic version of that was extraordinarily brave, particularly for Jodie and for Adam, who could have lapsed into just utter villainy. To imbue that with a humanity was an extraordinary challenge and an act of courage. We always said, over and over again, that these performances were gonna make the difference. We would write the scenes the same way and believe that they were gonna be, not just good actors, but smart actors, who recognize that and are willing to do it. And we got so lucky with two exquisite actors and performances in those roles.

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Image via 20th Century Studios

Jodie, Marguerite’s story perfectly plays into how women’s suffering frustratingly gets caught up in men’s pride and politics, and even though it’s medieval times, that translates to contemporary issues. Do you think it’s more important than ever for an audience to get a chance to see this story?

COMER: Yes. The sad part about this story is that you could say, for any part of history that’s gone by, that this story is relevant. They’re extremely delicate subjects and they need to be handled with sensitivity. For me, especially in regards to the rape scenes, I knew they couldn’t be gratuitous. They had to be moving the story forward. That was always at the front of everybody’s minds because you know that there are gonna be many people who watch this film and, sadly, relate to it, in some way. That can be difficult to execute and it can be difficult to watch, but I believe we shouldn’t shy away from it for that reason, as long as it’s handled with care.

Nicole, what’s the toughest part of writing a medieval story for a modern audience?

HOLOFCENER: I don’t know if we thought about how it would be relevant today. The way they spoke, we had to constantly be proofreading each other’s, or have somebody else proofreading. Eventually, we had a medieval expert on the set, who would say, “No, they would not say it this way,” or “No, that word was not in use then.”

COMER: I remember leaning my elbow on the table when I was writing in ink and he was like, “No, no, no. No elbow on the paper because of the ink.” He was great to have around.

HOLOFCENER: I remember we wrote the wedding scene a certain way, that was based on the book, and then our expert was like, “No, this is how these wedding scenes went.” We had help.

AFFLECK: The really interesting thing about it was trying to create a balance. First of all, they spoke French. Second of all, they spoke a kind of French, which would be unrecognizable to contemporary French speakers, and the English, at that time, sounded like Chaucer. You can’t do that, and you obviously don’t want it to feel contemporary to make it too accessible because then it feels false, so you have to try to strike a balance. The value system, in truth, was so much more abhorrent, in many ways, and more awful, than we even represented, but if we get so far down that road of what it was truly, really like, it’s gonna be so repugnant that people have a very difficult time accepting any reality about it or any similarity to anything they can relate to. We tried to mitigate that without compromising the basic, essential truth. We worked with a dialect coach to try to find a way of speaking that didn’t sound contemporary and didn’t sound specific to another part of the world. Sometimes people go, “It’s a period movie, so they’re all British. British people sound older.”

DAMON: We couldn’t be British because we were playing French people who were in the middle of a hundred year war against the Brits and who were constantly talking about the English. That would have just been weird. So, we had to create this way of talking that we ran by all of the actors, and we adopted that. It needed to sound otherly. It couldn’t sound modern. We wanted the accents to disappear.

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Image via 20th Century Studios

Matt, do you feel like this duel is Ridley Scott’s greatest?

DAMON: The duel was recorded in history. It was a very famous thing, and it was decidedly un-cinematic because these guys basically looked like giant tin cans The only had these tiny eye slits. It would have been a really awkward affair and it wouldn’t have looked very good. Ridley kept the bones of the duel. The duel did happen with three joust passes, they came off their horses, and they went to axes, swords, then daggers. That all is true. But our stunt coordinator really invented this beautiful choreography with Ridley, and they figured out how to shoot it. That’s the great thing about collaborating with great people. They kept the spirit of the duel and exactly what really happened. The same person won in history, who won in our movie. All of that ended up the same way, and he actually did say that line. That was the last thing he said. All of the dialogue is from the actual recorded event. But it’s a Ridley Scott duel, so we have visors where half our face is showing. It’s beautiful and visual

AFFLECK: We knew he would make it great. We were like, “Look, here’s what happened. We’re not gonna tell you how to do it.”

The Last Duel is in theaters on October 15th.


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