Cillian Murphy & Matt Damon On Reteaming & Small Things Like These


EXCLUSIVE: Passing the time between Oppenheimer takes in a New Mexico bunker one morning at about 4am, Cillian Murphy and Matt Damon sowed the seeds of a future collaboration. Fast-forward to today, and Small Things Like These is opening the Berlin Film Festival. 

Murphy stars in and produced Small Things Like These alongside his Big Things Films partner Alan Moloney. Damon is also a producer – his and Ben Affleck’s Artists Equity financed the film that’s based on Claire Keegan’s acclaimed novel and was adapted for the screen by Enda Walsh. Tim Mielants directs.

Though it deals with a serious subject matter, the road to making the movie was “blissful,” and married “kismet” with “serendipity,” Damon and Murphy told me recently in a conversation that also touched on how Artists Equity acts as “facilitator” and not “babysitter” (according to Murphy, it also has an “undervalued superpower”), the importance of trust and whether or not the mutually admiring duo will work together again. (See more below)

In Small Things Like These, Murphy plays a devoted family man who discovers the local convent is in fact a cruel institution that takes in so-called ‘fallen girls and women.’ This revelation forces him to confront some hard truths about the convent, his hometown — and his own life. Eileen Walsh, Michelle Fairley and Emily Watson also star.

Murphy had previously executive produced three seasons of Peaky Blinders, but this was his first feature producing role. So how did he step up to the plate, and what gave Damon the confidence to make this the fifth film his and Affleck’s nascent studio would finance? (Hint: It certainly wasn’t dinner conversation.)

Here’s our chat which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

DEADLINE: How well did you guys know each other before you worked on Oppenheimer?
MATT DAMON: We hadn’t met. I was a big fan, and because he had done Quiet Place II with John (Krasinski) and Em (Emily Blunt) —  we all live in the same building in Brooklyn — I’d heard quite a bit about him.

When Oppenheimer came along, before I even met him, Em was just going on and on about how much fun we were gonna have. 

And then of course I met him and he was no fun at all (Damon and Murphy laugh) because he was totally focused. He was a lot of fun to work with, but we joke that he never accepted a single dinner invitation — you know, we were out in the middle of Santa Fe, there was one place to eat and we’d go, “Cill, come meet us for dinner” and he just never, he’d go home and eat like a handful of almonds and get ready for the next day.

CILLIAN MURPHY:  I just want to say about Matt — and I’m going to embarrass him, and I’ve done it before but it’s too late now — I’ve admired him from a distance for-ever as an actor.

DAMON: (laughing) Don’t put any of this in the article, Nancy.

MURPHY: Do put it in Nancy — but also as a human being, and I’ve told him this so I’m gonna leave it at that, but for a long, long, long, many, many years.

DEADLINE: Cillian, take me back and tell me what clicked for you with Small Things Like These, what made it the first feature you were going to produce?
MURPHY: So, I’d read the book and it really connected with me and I felt I could see it as a film, you know? And miraculously the rights were available and myself and Alan Moloney managed to get the rights and then we were in the process of getting it going along, and then Oppenheimer came along.

I remember Matt and myself were out in the desert on a night shoot, I think it was that big rain scene, and we were sitting in like a bunker at like 4 o’clock in the morning and Matt was telling me about Artists Equity and about what himself and Ben were doing, and it was kind of staggering what they were setting out to achieve.

Then I said to him, “You know, I have this story…” and he said “Tell me about it,” so I told him about it and he loved the sound of it.

Then, I don’t know when you got the script, Matt, but it was quite quickly after that and then it all sort of happened really, really quickly.

Also at the same time, Matt was working with Alan on Kiss the Sky, so there was a kind of serendipity about it and kind of good timing about it all.

DEADLINE: Matt, how good a pitchman is Cillian?
DAMON: It’s pretty easy when he says it’s a Claire Keegan novel and he’s gonna be in it. Now, in my position as somebody who’s like running a studio — quote-unquote — that was kind of music to my ears.

I was watching what Cillian was doing on Oppenheimer, and Small Things Like These was exactly the kind of movie we want to make. What will keep us successful as a studio is going to be making really good things and that’s what we knew this was going to be.

And as Cill said, because I was coincidentally working with Alan already, the whole thing just seemed like kismet and it came together really, really quickly — and they had a great script too, the adaptation was beautiful. Cillian had the director he wanted, it was just very, very easy to get it going.

DEADLINE: Cillian, can you talk a little bit about why the aspect of this dark time in Irish history and the impact it has on your character intrigued you? 
MURPHY: When we all talked about the story, it is kind of very specific and set in this town in Ireland in the 80s, but there’s a huge universality to it.

It is about how all these women were incarcerated and locked up and it was this terrible trauma that Ireland is still kind of trying to process, but it’s a very common kind of story in that one person decides to — I don’t even know if he’s doing it consciously or not —  sort of call it out and stand up, and we see that everywhere in the world now, at this point in time, and then in Ireland. The reason I  think this story resonated in such a huge way is that if it wasn’t you who has a story, it’s your friend that has a story or your cousin or whoever it might be — and Tim, our director who’s from Belgium, there’s similar stories there, and obviously in America there’s all sorts of stories as well.

So we knew that it was very specific, but that was where its universality came from.

DEADLINE: Matt, can you talk me through the collaboration?
DAMON: It was embarrassingly easy for Artists Equity, it really was, and that’s part of the way we’re set up is that we’re not babysitters, we’re facilitators really — and we had a group of really fantastic professionals. It was really about facilitating so they could do their work.

We’ve got a different pay structure, depending on the movie, but what we try to do is make sure that everybody who makes the movie — crew and cast — are participating in the eventual sale and in the profit. So it really becomes about everybody’s own accountability; we don’t need to kind of put out fires or field phone calls cause there just aren’t any. You know, you leave a group like this together that they’ve got a great script, they’ve got an incredible cast and a great director and Alan and Cill, they know exactly how to make it.

We all have to look at the realities of what can we make it for realistically — it’s a period movie, what is the movie and what can it hold? — because we have our eye on eventually selling it, but other than those kind of constraints that exist everywhere in the movie business… We’re not a kind of finger wagging group — the whole point is to partner with people who are great, and clear the deck so they can do their work.

It was really blissful, from our perspective back in America, it was a very light lift.

DEADLINE: Cillian, you’ve told me previously you couldn’t have asked for better partners; that kind of freedom must feel terrific…
MURPHY: Oh, completely and it’s because they’re filmmakers and so you’re working with actual filmmakers and they speak the same language as us and they have such incredible experience in this business and such taste — which I think is sort of an undervalued superpower which these guys have.

The biggest compliment we can say to them is that they let us make exactly the movie that we wanted to make, but we did that completely in tandem, do you know what I mean? As Matt said, there wasn’t any of people calling you in the middle of the night or people arriving on set.

We all shared the dailies, we all shared the cuts and we discussed it, but they knew the script we were trying to make from the beginning so that’s what they got on board with.

DAMON: Yeah, I think that’s the biggest thing is that there’s none of the kind of subterfuge that normally exists with a studio where you’re trojan-horsing in one idea and you’re selling it as another —  which happens a lot in our business. With us, it’s just “What do you want to make?” So there’s a lot of trust that I think might be difficult for other people. But, as Cillian says, for people who do what we do, and we all know kind of how to do it, the conversations are just very blunt and that way you end up with no surprises. There was no need for us to go hustling over and babysit their set,  they were doing exactly what they told us they were gonna do and that makes everything really go pretty smoothly.

DEADLINE: It’s clearly not always like that…
DAMON: It’s not, but it should be and that’s what Artists Equity is trying to do. We’ve done five movies now and they’ve all been really joyful experiences and that’s by design. You kind of get everything out of the way beforehand so everybody’s expectations are realistic and then you just hold hands and go into it together. And if you do that there really shouldn’t be… there’s always unforeseen issues — I just did a movie with Doug Liman and Artists Equity is responsible for the overages; my salary and Doug’s salary were tied to the overages too. It was a bigger movie, there was a lot of action, and so we just kissed up against the black/red line, we came closer than we wanted to because things happen — you’re still making movies — but by and large we try to give enough of a cushion, if we can, to the budget so that everybody can comfortably operate within it, and more importantly can make exactly the thing that they want to make.

These guys knew exactly what they wanted to do. The book is incredible, the script is fantastic and so there weren’t really any questions — it was really about executing it and we had no doubt they were gonna do that and there were no surprises.

DEADLINE: Cillian had already exec produced three seasons of Peaky Blinders, but this is his first feature producing gig, did you give him any advice in that regard?
DAMON: (Laughs) He doesn’t need my advice.

MURPHY: Working with Matt on Oppenheimer, we all know what an extraordinary actor he is, but he understands every single facet of the moviemaking machine or apparatus or whatever you want to call it.

I remember at one point we were doing takes and Chris would say to you, Matt, “Just stop trying to help, Damon. Just do the work” (both laugh). Matt would always be like, “What if I come here? I can do this,” because he just lives and breathes it, so that’s very inspiring to see.

While Matt was chatting there, I was thinking himself and Ben have known each other since they were kids and I think that sort of trust and bond is very important and it’s very important to me. Like me and Alan, this is our fifth movie together — we’ve known each other for 20 years.

Myself and Tim, he did Season 3 on Peaky, we’re about to do another movie. Myself and Eileen (Walsh) have known each other for 27 years, a lot of the crew we got in Ireland I had worked with since I started acting. So there was a lot of trust in the process of making this whole thing cause it’s quite a delicate little film and you need to trust the people that you’re making it with.

DEADLINE: Exactly. Cillian, you and I spoke about that last week, and I was going to also ask Matt because he seems to value that too…
DAMON: Among all the things about that actually — and there are a lot of different wonderful benefits of working with the same people repeatedly, professionally and personally — but one of my favorite things is the kind of utter abandonment of diplomacy (both laugh). Like, when you don’t know people there’s a language that’s been invented to protect everybody’s feelings because it’s a collaborative medium. But Ben and I, for instance, because we grew up together, we just say “You know, that take was terrible, you can’t do anything with that!”

So much of filmmaking is actually just practical problem solving and we couch it in these kind of artistic terms because we’re trying not to hurt one another’s feelings, but oftentimes you can just really cut to the chase and solve the problem quicker if you know and love the person, you can be a little more blunt.

DEADLINE: Let’s talk about Berlin. There’s been an awful lot of controversy surrounding the festival this year with boycotts and protests threatened as the organizers invited members of the far-right AfD party. Those invitations ultimately were rescinded after outcry from artists and the local industry. Do you have any thoughts on the situation?
MURPHY: I would completely support all of those artists and filmmakers that came out and I’m really glad that the festival listened to that petition and also to the mood of the general population in Germany.

DEADLINE: You’ve both been to the festival before, but what does the prospect this time feel like?
DAMON: It’s huge for us that we got that slot, we’re really excited about it. We talked a lot just strategically amongst ourselves about what would benefit the film the most and obviously there are festivals all over the place, but this was the one that we had our eye on because it felt like it should premiere in Europe and like this was definitely the place to do it — and obviously Claire’s work has been made into film and done quite well coming out of Berlin before (ed note: The Quiet Girl) so it seemed like the right place.

DEADLINE: Cillian what does opening Berlin represent for you? 
MURPHY: This is the first Irish film to open the festival which is a big deal for us.

People ask me the question, “What is it in the water in Ireland and why is there so many good filmmakers and actors coming out at the moment?” and I don’t really know, I don’t have a proper answer.

Part of it is coincidence, part of it is something to do with our culture and its just a good moment, but I hadn’t made a film in Ireland in a long time, even though I’d moved back there I hadn’t made a film in, gosh, like 10 years or more. For me, the geography of the story is always secondary to the quality of the writing but this just happened to have both and it was wonderful to get back and work with all these amazing cast and crew that we have.

I’m really really happy to be part of whatever moment the country is having in terms of film and actors, I’m thrilled. 

DEADLINE: Do you guys hope to, plan to, intend to work together again?

DAMON: (Deadpans) I’m never working with him again. 

MURPHY: (Laughing) I promise I’ll go for dinner with you, Matt, this time.

DAMON: In that case, if he actually goes out to dinner with me, I’ll work with him as much as I can.


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