Matt Damon, star of Ford v Ferrari, is also right in the middle of another heated rivalry, Marvel vs. Martin.
That’s the smackdown between Marvel Studios and Martin Scorsese — the legendary director (The Irishman) who recently said the MCU movies did not qualify as cinema or art, took some heat for it, then doubled down with an essay repeating and refining his position.
The Marvel movies are by definition unoriginal, he wrote: “Everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”
Damon is in a unique position to referee, as he’s one of the few stars who has worked for both Scorsese (The Departed) and Marvel (Thor: Ragnarok).
And he’s deeply sympathetic to the point of view of Scorsese (whose work, ironically, was the artistic inspiration for Joker).
“I think it’s understandable that some of the filmmakers in the old guard would be concerned, because [Marvel] movies take up so much real estate,” Damon said.
“I think he’s lamenting a generation of filmgoers being acculturated to believe that’s what movies are, and that’s all they are. He’s thinking of the movies he loves, the movies that he’s made, and he knows that nobody’s making them anymore.”
Certainly there are fewer on the big screen. Damon is quick to add that Marvel is clearly giving the marketplace what it wants, but he said the changing nature of that marketplace is changing movies.
“The movies that have the best chance of making a lot of money are the movies that travel around the world. Those are the movies with the least amount of cultural confusion, the least amount of language. So, you’re talking about superhero movies, which are graspable everywhere. There’s a good guy and a bad guy, they fight three times, the good guy wins twice, and you go home,” he said.
“And people never seem to tire of seeing that story, and to people like Scorsese, that’s what’s so frightening. He feels that the point of cinema is to expose us to the moral uncertainty and emotional confusion of real life, which is not a binary contrast of good and bad, but something more nuanced and complex.”
It’s why Damon wanted to make Ford v Ferrari, the fact-based account of Ford Motor Co.’s all-out bid in the mid-1960s to end Ferrari domination of the international racing scene. To build a winning car, staid Ford turned to maverick racer/designer Carroll Shelby (Damon), who, in turn, recruited an erratic driver and engineer, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), to pilot one of Shelby’s now-legendary vehicles in 1966 during the decisive 24-hour race at Le Mans. (Spoiler warning: If you are not a racing buff, and you don’t want to know what happened, skip the next two graphs.)
The clash between Shelby and Miles is a knotty portrait of masculine friendship and love, defined as much by their sometimes violent quarrels as their collaboration, culminating in a legendary victoryand Miles’ subsequent death test-driving a car for Shelby.
“I think people are going to love the racing scenes, which are incredible, but I also think people will be surprised by how emotionally powerful the movie is," Damon said. "And that’s the bond between these two men. In researching Shelby, I watched a lot of interviews with him, and he lived into his 80s, and right up until the end, he had a hard time talking about Miles. He would tear up every time. That’s how close they were.”
Damon said the movie’s character-driven story line is a bit of a secret — it’s being marketed as an action film, and there are plenty of action scenes in it. And he’s aware it was surely cast because of the superhero and franchise bona fides that Bale and Damon acquired through Batman and Bourne.
It’s the Jason Bourne franchise that Damon credits with resurrecting his career and making him a bankable star in the movie business. Actors in Hollywood, he said, are always a few underperforming movies away from career distress. That’s where Damon found himself in 2002, even though he’d won an Oscar (screenplay for Good Will Hunting), and had starred in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Saving Private Ryan.
“All the Pretty Horses lost of a bunch of money, [The Legend of] Bagger Vance didn’t do very well, and there’s this kind of three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule in Hollywood, and I had no reason to believe that rule wouldn’t apply to me,” said Damon, who had also been previously unnerved by a conversation with Tom Cruise at a post-Oscar party.
“I was 27, and he’d been a movie star since I was an adolescent, and he’d always been the biggest thing out there, and he’s talking about how he doesn’t really have job security, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, if he’s not safe, no one’s safe,’ ” Damon recalled.
By 2002 Damon was at a major “inflection point” in his career. He was betting everything on the yet-to-be-released The Bourne Identity, a project that had been plagued by production delays and reshoots, and was a year behind schedule.
His career was riding on the opening weekend.
“I just wasn’t getting calls. For anything. You know, there really is a list in Hollywood. Nobody’s ever seen it, but all the studio heads know if you’re on it. The movie opened Friday. By Monday I had seven offers.”
To gain more control over his career, Damon eventually turned to producing, and got even more sobering lessons in the disappearing market for adult movies.
Damon talked about pitching his Liberace movie (costarring Michael Douglas and directed by Steven Soderbergh) Behind the Candelabra, and getting turned down by every major studio. He eventually made it with HBO, but the studio picture he wanted to make was considered too expensive, even though it was budgeted at a modest $25 million.
When Damon produced Manchester by the Sea (which won an Oscar for friend Casey Affleck), he did so for less than $10 million, and had to rely on a deep-pocketed indie investor to foot the bill.
Ford v Ferrari is a handsomely budgeted movie (close to $100 million), with lots of money on screen in the ample racing sequences. It has Damon, and Bale, and director James Mangold (Logan), who Damon notes has “made a lot of money for Fox.”
Still, there are never guarantees, and everyone on the film worried when Disney swallowed up Fox and Ford v Ferrari in the bargain.
“You never know what’s going to happen after a regime change like that, but Disney liked it, and really got behind it,” he said.
So has Damon, working the phones for the movie while taking a break from the film he’s currently shooting — Stillwater, with writer-director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), inspired by the Amanda Knox murder trial in Italy.
On set, he listened to McCarthy complain about some of the same things that bother Scorsese.
“Tom said to me that his beef with Marvel is they hog all the great actors. They have all these wonderful actors locked into long-term contracts,” he said.
No wonder so many directors, like Scorsese, have found a home at Netflix.
“Look, Marty made The Irishman and they say it’s his best movie since GoodFellas, so it’s not all doom and gloom,” said Damon. “Netflix really backed him and we have all these platforms where they are still generating all this good stuff. But in many cases, it’s not going to the theaters."
Increasingly, that space belongs to Marvel, DC, and endless franchise iterations.
“The experience of cinema as we knew it growing up? It’s gone, really.”