It’s been nearly 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 want just another version of The Matt and Ben Show. What they did want for this historical drama about a woman who was raped, and the men who refuse to believe her, was a female collaborator. And so they sought out the writer-director Nicole Holofcener, celebrated for her nuanced observations of thorny contemporary women in movies like “Enough Said” and “Friends With Money.”
“The Last Duel,” directed by Ridley Scott, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book and in theaters Oct. 15, depicts France’s final officially sanctioned trial by combat: In 1386, Jean de Carrouges, a knight, and his friend-turned-rival, Jacques Le Gris, a squire, are ordered to fight to the death after Carrouges’s wife, Marguerite, accuses Le Gris of raping her, and he denies it. Whoever survives will be proclaimed the winner as a sign of divine providence. Should Carrouges lose, Marguerite will be burned at the stake for perjury.
The film, set amid the brutality of the Hundred Years’ War, is divided into three chapters — the “truth” according to Carrouges (played by Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver) and finally, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Damon and Affleck wrote the male perspectives, while Holofcener wrote Marguerite’s.
“The heaviest lift in the architecture of this screenplay was the third act, because that world of women had to be almost invented and imagined out of whole cloth,” Damon said. “The men were very fastidious about taking notes about what they were up to at the time. But nobody was really talking about what was happening with the women, because they didn’t even have personhood.”
“This is an adaptation of a book that we read,” he added, “but Nicole’s part is kind of an original screenplay.”
On a spirited video call in late August — Damon in Brooklyn, Affleck and Holofcener in Los Angeles — the three discussed the intricacies of their collaboration and of portraying sexual assault during a violent period when women were little more than chattel. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Let’s start at 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’d 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 took the book that night and called me at 7 the next morning and said, “Let’s do this.” And that was how we set off to writing. But very quickly, through a bunch of different conversations we were having with a bunch of people, we decided that it would serve the story best if we found the best female writer we could 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 an [expletive]. Oh, God.
HOLOFCENER No — no. Am I making fun of you? I didn’t mean that. I was just thinking about how different my sensibility is from Ridley’s. That’s all.
DAMON Yeah, yeah. Well, Nicole was our dream writer and our first choice. And thank God she said yes. And she said yes in large part because Ben, behind my back, sent her about 10 or 15 pages that we hadn’t shown anybody. And I was so embarrassed, like professionally embarrassed, that he sent them to Nicole Holofcener.
HOLOFCENER They weren’t good, but they were good enough for me to say, “I want to work with these guys.”
DAMON I think they were bad enough that she was like, “Oh, these guys need help.”
HOLOFCENER Bad enough so that I wasn’t intimidated to be able to write for medieval language, at least in English. But they’re so talented, and I was immediately very flattered. The only hesitation I had was, “Can I come out of my own little world and write about something like this?” And as soon as I started and I got their support, I found that I could do it.
So why three chapters?
BEN AFFLECK Very quickly, we recognized that the film has a clear point of view on who’s telling the truth. And that this incredibly heroic character, Marguerite de Carrouges, had this story that deserved to be told. It was evident that it was going to be an exploration of the dynamics of power, roots of misogyny and survival in medieval France. It had all the elements of what makes a story really great to tell — the idea of an unreliable narrator, a second unreliable narrator and then a kind of reveal 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 to the men, and it was so black and white to the woman about what happened. So, the male point of views offer this perspective of male delusion.
Nicole, Marguerite wasn’t nearly as fleshed out in the book. How did you go about creating her world?
HOLOFCENER I did research about what women were like then and what they had to put up with. I gave her a friend to be able to talk to. I knew that she would have to take over the estate when he was away fighting. So I read up, “Well, what did they do?” Took care of the animals and the horses and the harvesting. And I really tried to imagine just how awful it was for her and how she dealt with the awfulness. Her life was pretty bad being married to Jean de Carrouges and so when she was violated, she had nothing to lose, really. I mean, she was going to suffer. She had the potential of suffering dearly and dying, but at that point she was just tired of having no voice.
How do three writers keep things straight?
AFFLECK Once the script got close to a completed stage, then it got passed around, emailed. In fact, one of the biggest challenges was the maddening technological aspects of keeping up with various versions — that they had included everyone else’s changes.
HOLOFCENER We kept working off the wrong drafts. It was like: “Wait a minute. I took that line out two months ago. Why is it still there?” We’re not the most technically savvy.
DAMON We had one of those moments where I think we’d done half a day on one of these things and we’re realizing, “Oh no, this is the wrong draft,” and then you have to try to go through and figure out what you’ve done.
HOLOFCENER Matt doesn’t even have a laptop. So don’t get me started.
How did you make sure you were portraying Marguerite’s rape accurately without exploiting it?
AFFLECK We were especially sensitive and careful to really listen and do research, whether it was consulting with RAINN [an organization that helps victims of rape, abuse and incest], survivors of assault, historical experts, women’s groups, and trying to allow all of those other experiences to inform the story and make it as authentic as possible.
HOLOFCENER I think that those organizations really, really wanted to make sure we were making it clear what the truth was — that this is not “he said, she said.” This is not ambivalent.
AFFLECK We had questions like: “Are we whitewashing if we don’t show the emotional toll and the severity of this? To what extent does it become too much? And where do you feel the bounds of tastes are?”
HOLOFCENER A lot of it was about how often do we see the rape and how long is it? How long do we have to suffer through this? That 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 had to see the rape twice, as disturbing as it was to watch.
What choices did you make to either stick with or depart from the book?
DAMON The biggest departure is the rape scene. Marguerite de Carrouges, what she said in court and over and over again to an ever-widening group of people and eventually all of France, was that Jacques Le Gris entered her home with another man, Adam Louvel. We have in the movie Louvel coming in, but then Le Gris tells him to leave. In Marguerite’s actual testimony, the rape was much more brutal. She was tied down and gagged. She almost choked to death. And Louvel was in the room.
HOLOFCENER [Le Gris] told himself he loved her.
AFFLECK What was fascinating was the degree to which this behavior and attitude toward women was so thorough and pervasive, and the vestigial aspects that are still with us today. That’s really powerful. What we have hoped is people will look at it and go: “Have I always understood how my actions were being perceived by others? Have I always recognized other people’s reality, truth, perspective, in the course of my behavior?” And maybe reflect on that.
Ben, I understood that you were originally going to portray Le Gris. And then you decided to play the libertine Count Pierre d’Alençon instead of facing off against Matt onscreen. Why?
HOLOFCENER He came to his senses.
AFFLECK What happened truly is that —
DAMON We heard Adam Driver was interested. [Everyone laughs.]