“One of the things Matt has going for him is he knows how to read a script,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who directed Damon in All the Pretty Horses. “Like, there’s some writing that sounds poetic and looks great on the page, and you think, ‘Oh, man, I’ll be like Richard Burton,’ but then you get out there and make it into a movie, and it’s corny.” Maybe that’s why Bagger Vance is still hacking away from inside Damon’s skull with a five iron. He prides himself on being wise and cautious. He should have known better than to think that just because you want to work with Robert Redford, you should turn a blind eye to a shitty script. And he should have known that if Miramax is behind a $50 million movielike HorsesHarvey Weinstein’s going to do whatever the hell he wants with it (e.g., chop it from three and a half hours to two, in the process saddling Damon with the kind of emotional baggage most guys get from being bullied throughout elementary school).
Damon now approaches every job intent on never fucking up the same way twice. After seeing a cut of The Bourne Supremacy, he wasn’t satisfied with the ending, in which Jason Bourne wakes up in a Berlin hospital after having been plugged full of bullet holes. It felt flat to him, and frankly, it felt flat to director Paul Greengrass and producer Frank Marshall, but the film was done and cut. “None of us were happy with it, but there’s a point where you go ‘Okay, it’s fine’ and you go forward,” Marshall says. But Damon called Greengrass and Marshall from the Ocean’s Twelve set on Lake Como, where instead of towel-snapping with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, he’d been stewing. He announced that he and Ocean’s screenwriter, George Nolfi, had come up with a zippier finale. In a cute echo of an earlier scene, Damon, while watching Joan Allen from a nearby building through a telescope, shocks her by calling and telling her she looks tired. Marshall said it sounded great, but the film was three weeks away from release, so what the hell could they do? Damon called Stacy Snider, then the chairman of Universal, and persuaded her to spring for a reshoot. He flew to New York, and the scene was filmed three days later in a Universal production office, since there wasn’t time to secure a location. “A lot of actors let the director or the script dictate everything,” Marshall says. “Matt takes it to another level.”
This sounds like the kind of bullheadedness that would have studio executives or directors who get the “Damon on the line” call rolling their eyes and reaching for the Maalox. But in fact, it seems that not only is he tolerated, he’s adored. A flotilla of heavy hitters promptly returned calls for this story and offered personal hosannas to Damon. Harvey Weinstein: “Matt Damon is my family.” Steven Soderbergh (on a voice mail): “Matty’s great, and I’d just like to say so publicly.” Even Robert De Niro, his director on the drama The Good Shepherd (out this month) and a man who would likely choose a day of water-board torture over shooting the shit with a journalist, calls and manages, through some excruciatingly long pauses, to say, “Matt was just terrific. He would always be there. He’d do whatever I asked. He’d be willing to try anything.” Angelina Jolie, who plays Damon’s boozy wife in Shepherd, phones to say, “Matt’s just a really solid, genuine guy. He’s very humble and straightforward. It’s what I expected, because you honestly never hear a negative word about him in this town.”