When British student Meredith Kercher was murdered in Perugia, Italy, in 2007, it shook the world. Her roommate, American Amanda Knox, and Knox’s then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, were initially found guilty of the crime; they were eventually acquitted after a series of court decisions.
It is Knox’s story that director Tom McCarthy has said served as the initial inspiration for his new crime thriller Stillwater, which sees Matt Damon play an Oklahoma oil rig worker called Bill, who flies to France to help his estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin).
We meet Allison serving time in a French prison, after being arrested and falsely accused of murdering her girlfriend while studying in Marseille, and the project has led to huge criticism from Knox.
While she is never named on-screen, Knox has recently spoken out, in tweets and an essay on the site Medium, about her name being used to promote Stillwater, writing that McCarthy’s “fictionalised version of me is just the tabloid conspiracy guiltier version of me”.
How mindful was Damon, 50, of the sensitivity surrounding the Knox case, and making sure the film didn’t feel exploitative?
“I actually didn’t think about it at all, because it was just a jumping-off point for our story,” says the Massachusetts-born star, famous for roles in Good Will Hunting, The Martian, and the Bourne trilogy.
“What we were more concerned or interested in, was what happens after all the attention goes away. What happens to that family?
“Ours is a fictitious family. I have no idea what Amanda Knox’s father looks like or does for a living. I don’t know, because I didn’t pay attention to that.
“But this guy [Bill] is an oil worker called a roughneck – that’s what we call them in America. It’s a very specific job that requires a very specific type of person to do it. It’s a job almost nobody can do. It’s dangerous.
“It’s physically very draining. You’ve got to be very strong.”
The physicality of Bill came from Damon spending time with real roughnecks: “From the fire-retardant jeans to the goatee and the wraparound shades and the hat, it’s almost like they have a uniform.
“They’re very, very tough,” he elaborates. “[They are] very proud, because their job is so hard, and they’re proud that they do it well.
“And so what happens when that guy is the father of a girl who’s in prison? What does that do to the dynamic? What does that do to take this very American person, whose culture is very different from where I grew up – I mean, I hadn’t met a roughneck before – and what happens when you transplant him into a city like Marseille?”
Damon reveals he had been trying to work with McCarthy for a few years and thought the Stillwater script was “incredible”.
In particular, he was drawn to the touching relationships it portrays; obviously, there’s the one between Bill and Allison, but the character also becomes close to a Frenchwoman, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), while living in Marseille.
“He ends up having this relationship with this eight-year-old girl that he couldn’t have for his own daughter,” notes Damon, who has four daughters with Luciana Barroso.
“This guy carries a lot of pain and shame around the ways in which he failed his own daughter, and he’s trying to repair that, but he doesn’t really have the tools or the skills.
“I found the whole thing just beautiful and heart-breaking, but joyful and hopeful, and all the things that a complex movie can be.”
Talking to McCarthy, 55, about the film, which he wrote with Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, we touch on the similarities between it and the Amanda Knox case.
Thoughtfully, he reflects: “I followed that case as an American very closely, and it’s exactly why I didn’t want to write about it, because I feel like it was sensationalised to the point where people lost track of the real tragedy there, which obviously was the death of Meredith Kercher.
“So, I wanted to move beyond that and distance myself, but I really liked the setup of this woman being in prison for a crime that she did or did not commit, and then the relationship with her father.
“At the heart of it, for me, was this father-daughter relationship that – in this particular case – was very strained, and that’s different.”
The New Jersey-born director, known for Oscar-winning film Spotlight, adds he set Stillwater in France, because he wanted to get away from the initial inspiration of Knox as much as possible “and not exploit that case” – making something that was really a work of fiction.
“If there are other similarities in it, they are not by design. I don’t think there are, as I was pretty familiar with that case. We had other themes and things that we wanted to talk about, outside and around the case.” When McCarthy was writing Stillwater, it was against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s administration. And while audiences learn that Bill was not allowed to vote because he’d been arrested, Damon says we can “100%” assume that he would have been a Trump voter.
“Oklahoma is the reddest state in America, and these guys work in the oil fields. They vote Republican down the ticket, every time, no questions asked.”
Damon also reveals he had political discussions with some of the roughnecks he met while visiting the area as part of his preparation.
“The guys I talked to view it is as kind of a binary proposition, right?” suggests the affable actor. “It’s like, ‘I get to do my job, which not a lot of people can do, it’s really hard. It serves a purpose, I’m helping to power the country, and I take care of my kids with that. So, I’m either voting for or against my children based on how I punch the ticket’.
“And in that context, their decision makes a lot of sense.”
Stillwater is released in cinemas on Friday, August 6.