There’s a reason that Stillwater’s premise sounds so familiar, director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy tells Vanity Fair.
In Matt Damon’s new movie Stillwater, the onetime Jason Bourne trades slick spy gadgets for a dramatic storyline involving a young woman in Europe who is imprisoned abroad for a murder she says she didn’t commit.
The premise, Stillwater’s director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy tells Vanity Fair, was directly inspired by the Amanda Knox saga that erupted in Italy after Knox’s roommate was killed in Perugia in 2007. Knox, an American studying in Italy, was arrested as a suspect and imprisoned for four years. (In 2015, Knox was acquitted of the murder by the highest court in Italy.)
McCarthy says that like many around the globe, he was fascinated by the story. And the filmmaker—who would win an Oscar in 2016 for co-adapting The Boston Globe’s real-life investigation into the Catholic church’s sexual abuse for Spotlight—couldn’t help but imagine how it would feel to be in Knox’s shoes.
“There were so many characters around the case that I really followed pretty closely,” McCarthy says. “But really the first thing that I took away from it was, what would that be like as an American student to go over [to Europe] for what should be one of the most exciting moments in a young-adult life and to find yourself in that tragedy? There were just so many layers to that story that kept anyone who was following pretty riveted…. Who are the people that are visiting [her], and what are those relationships? Like, what’s the story around the story?”
The dynamic that intrigued McCarthy most was the young woman’s relationship with her father. With the help of French writers Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, McCarthy fleshed out a fictional relationship and storyline that centered around the true-story premise.
“We decided, ‘Hey, let’s leave the Amanda Knox case behind,’” says McCarthy. “But let me take this piece of the story—an American woman studying abroad involved in some kind of sensational crime and she ends up in jail—and fictionalize everything around it.”
“What was more interesting to [McCarthy] was what happens after all the cameras go away, and what happens to the family,” Damon tells Vanity Fair in a separate interview. “And then they came up with this story of a roughneck from Oklahoma who has this kind of fraught relationship with his daughter, and carried all this grief and shame and pain, and he had done damage to this relationship and was trying to repair it in the context of his daughter being in jail, and feeling kind of responsible for where she ended up and where her life had taken her. And so that, I thought, was a really interesting place to put a movie.”
In Stillwater, college student Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been imprisoned for a violent crime in Marseille, France—not Perugia, Italy—for five years and counting. And unfortunately for Allison, she does not have the strong support system Knox had. Allison has only her estranged, ne’er-do-well father Bill Baker (Damon) flying in from rural Oklahoma to try to help in a foreign country.
Knox’s actual father, Curt Knox, was Knox’s most vocal supporter during the four years she spent in Italian prison—offering media updates on his daughter and the family’s efforts to support her. Per Time in 2011:
“Through a complex algorithm involving donated airline miles, vacation and sick time, the family coordinated schedules so that one relative or another was always stationed in Italy to spend time with Knox, now 24, during the handful of visits she was allowed weekly. They were [in Italy] so often during the four years Knox spent behind bars that they rented an Italian farmhouse and bought a jalopy. Back home, they piled into [Knox’s mother’s] West Seattle kitchen to await the weekly phone call that Knox was allowed to make from prison. In the course of depleting bank accounts and taking out second mortgages, they’ve racked up legal bills in excess of $1 million, according to the Seattle Times.
“When it’s your child, you’ll go to the end of the earth for them,” says Pamela Van Swearingen, a Seattle attorney who offered advice on legal options, including a possible review by the European Court of Human Rights. “I don’t think she would have her freedom if they hadn’t done all they could.”
Damon’s Bill, meanwhile, is a gun-toting, goatee-wearing roughneck—the kind of quintessential American you can spot a mile away. (The creative decision allowed McCarthy and his cowriters to explore racial and political tensions when Bill arrives in France.) Bill does not have any friends, family members, or familiarity with the French language. But he finds companionship—and a few unexpected storylines—in a French actress (Camille Cottin) and her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud).
“I was listening to S-Town and just thought it was genius,” says McCarthy, adding that his co-writers were also listening to Serial. “These podcasts are so brilliant because there’s usually a central character and it just takes you all over the place. It never goes where you were expecting it to go. But it all makes sense because you’re really rooted in a certain character’s story. We thought, cinematically let’s reach for that podcast structure a little bit—and let the movie go where it needs to go without feeling hemmed in by a particular story line and/or genre.”
By the end of the film, viewers know whether Allison committed the crime she is accused of. Without giving spoilers, McCarthy said that Stillwater’s ending was inspired not by the outcome of Knox’s case, but by the demands of the script he and his collaborators had created. “Allison’s innocence or guilt is crucial to the story, thematically,” explains McCarthy.
As for Curt and Amanda Knox: They may have returned to the States after the American student was acquitted—but that didn’t mean that their obstacles ended. Knox’s family reportedly accumulated more than $1 million in legal bills, even after both parents took out second mortgages and Knox’s grandmother took out a $250,000 loan. In 2017, Knox’s then boyfriend Christopher Robinson reported that Knox was still struggling financially—even after receiving a nearly $4 million publishing deal with HarperCollins.
“That $3.8 million is long gone,” Robinson told People. “She paid back her parents and grandma, who took out mortgages to move to Italy during her case and pay her lawyers. And she still has massive legal bills.”
Those bills were helped, somewhat, in 2019. Twelve years after Knox’s arrest, the European Court of Human Rights determined that Knox’s rights were violated because police did not offer her a lawyer or an appropriate translator while she was in custody. The court ordered Italy to pay Knox $20,000 in damages.