Matt Damon is certainly no stranger to following orders as an actor in movies, but as a character with a mind of his own in George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, obedience is another matter. Playing a NYC politician running for office in the US Senate, Damon finds himself faced with an offer he can’t refuse, so to speak, from bureaucratic bullies in fedoras, in the Philip K. Dick adapted sci-fi psychological thriller. As well as being hopelessly drawn to the irresistible allure of a dancer (Emily Blunt), who repeatedly catches his eye while he’s on the run. Damon stopped by to talk about The Adjustment Bureau, and mull alternate identities, cheating fate on and off screen, devouring donuts on the sly on set, and his own hopes for channeling destiny into a better future through his H2O Africa Foundation.
Matt Damon: Whoa…I thought this was my hotel room!
Matt Damon: I looked around and was like, what? Uh, good morning!
Question: So do you have any stories like what we see in this movie, to share from your own life? You know, where fate has ever seemed to take over your life so strongly, in like a wow moment.
Matt Damon: Hmm…I think Emily’s chance to work with me, must have been one of those moments! Uh, well clearly for me, passing up the chance to be in Avatar, in order to do Green Zone, was one of those moments. Because Avatar didn’t do very well!
But I do end up thinking about jobs, and the roads not taken. There’s a Garth Brooks song that goes, ‘Thank god for unanswered prayers.’ And I think of all those movies I auditioned for, jobs that I was desperate to get and didn’t get, that really turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
And looking back on my life and my career, and everything, I feel like even when I tried to control as much as I could, and worked as hard as I did, a lot of it is really down to luck. And I’d say one of the biggest ones, there was a Werner Herzog movie called Rescue Dawn that Christian Bale did.
And Werner and I were talking about that. This was eight years ago, about me possibly playing that role. And I was really, strongly considering it. And instead, I met with the Farrelly Brothers.
And I remember talking to my mother and she said, you know, you don’t always have to go into a jungle and lose a bunch of weight. You’re allowed to have a little fun.
So I did the Farrelly Brothers movie [Stuck On You]. And that’s where I met my wife! So four kids later, I mean…Yeah, that was a pretty fateful decision!
Question: And what would you do if you were like your character David, and could change your fate?
Matt Damon: I’d go straight for Avatar!
David also has his eye on running for president. So what would you do if you were president, like regarding Egypt?
Matt Damon: Well, that’s kind of a Superman versus Mighty Mouse question! I don’t know what kind of president David would have been, or what issues would have been important to him. But he’d probably respond to…how things were polling!
So I honestly don’t know, But I’m thrilled about what’s happened so far in the Middle East. It’s very exciting to see this nonviolent revolution. And this dictator toppled in eighteen days. That’s pretty incredible.
And I’m very interested in seeing what’s going to happen next, obviously. That’s what really matters.
Question: If you were the head of an all-powerful Adjustment Bureau over the world like that, what would you like to see changed?
Matt Damon: Uh…Maybe not needing those hats! [They all wear identical fedoras]. I’ll let Emily answer that one. But it will be hard for her to do that, without sounding like Miss America! You know, “Well first of all, world peace. And secondly!…”
Question: Any big surprises on the cutting room floor?
Matt Damon: There is a lot of footage of me running around in a white shirt and a blue fedora! Dancing. Certainly on the set, I definitely burst into song and dance a lot. When I was in a costume. Because it felt appropriate.
But no, I left the dancing to Emily. Thank god! And it was nice to actually be in one of those movies, where I wasn’t one of those guys training my ass off! And it was somebody else. So what were you up to instead?
I was sitting in the corner, eating donuts! And watching Emily eat celery!
Question: Matt, your character risks everything for love. And I wanted to ask you, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for love?
Matt Damon: Hmm…I don’t know what’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done for love is. What the hell is the craziest thing…I don’t know, I don’t know.
I mean, you build your life around somebody. That’s kinda crazy! But it’s more incremental. You know, there’s no moment where I’m like Tom Cruise in Born On The Fourth Of July, running down the street in the rain.
Like, what the f**k are you doing! I thought because it was raining, I’d just run! Get in the house. What’s wrong with you? No, nothing like that leaps to mind…
But look, any minute I’m not working, I go home. And we have a two week rule. There’s no job I can take, like when I did True Grit. I asked Joel and Ethan to just board the movie, so that I was never away from home for more than a week.
And so they did that. So I was working two days a week, and then I’d fly back here. And I just took this big movie in LA, but we’re all there together.
So we all just went together. It’s a pretty mundane life. But we don’t allow ourselves to be apart. So we don’t need those…big dramatic moments! Like running home with flowers, or anything.
Question: You said you chose to do Green Zone instead of Avatar, so money was probably not the motivating factor.
Matt Damon: No.
Question: Then what is your motivating factor in choosing films?
Matt Damon: Well, it wasn’t anything against Avatar. I talked to Cameron and I read the script, and I knew the movie was going to be a very big hit. You could see.
And I really wanted to do Avatar, to work with Jim Cameron. And to watch him direct. Because I was going to learn a lot. It was just that we were finishing The Bourne Ultimatum. And I couldn’t leave. It was a scheduling issue. So I joke that I passed on Avatar. Really, my schedule made it an impossibility for me.
But in terms of Green Zone, Paul, one of my best friends in the business and a director I love, wanted to make a movie about Iraq. And about the original lie that got us in there. And so I really wanted to go do that. And my decisions are usually based on the director.
Question: What about being selective in choosing themes?
Matt Damon: Yeah, certainly. You know, the way Paul wanted to do it, with all veterans, it just sounded like a great way to do it. And his films and the ones he’s done that way, are just remarkable, they really are.
And so, it just felt like something that I would really want to be a part of, you know? It was a very easy decision. There was no hand wringing. When Paul calls, it’s always a very easy yes.
Question: You and Emily have terrific chemistry in this movie.
Matt Damon: It’s mostly me!
Question: Well, how do you go about building chemistry like that?
Matt Damon: The tone stuff, we weren’t in charge of it. That was the director’s job. So for us we went, well like this is a love story and with this whole other element in it.
But what really has to work, what we can really control, is the relationship between us. And so we just worked on the scenes, and rewriting the scenes. To make them kinda feel like right.
And there was a lot of stuff that we just had fun shooting. And there were like these little things, that just kinda came up on the day that we were shooting. But I think we just had similar senses of humor. And so that kinda helped. You know, with all of it.
But in terms of the tone, we’re like in different movies for a lot of this. Because she’s not aware of the Adjustment Bureau. So she’s kind of in a love story, where this guy keeps disappearing on her.
And she’s like, what is the deal with this guy? Whereas I see the Adjustment Bureau kind of early on. Which was my question for George. Like, what is the tone of this?
You know, is it dark, is it Heaven Can Wait? And he was like, no! It’s not Heaven Can Wait. So is it The Matrix? No, no, no! it’s not The Matrix. Then what the f**k is it?
Because it is weird, like when you really start picking it apart. You know, they’re wearing fedoras and they’re going through doors. But what it really works as, is an obstacle to this love story.
And you really want these people to be together. And it’s kind of a simplistic version of the hand of fate. You know, it’s not Inception. It’s never gonna be that kind of intricate and complicated.
It’s like they walk through doors and they wear these hats, and that’s kind of what you need to know. But they’re in the way of this relationship, and we want this relationship to work.
So for us, Emily and I, our whole thing was like, we gotta make people need to love both of these characters separately. And then they would really want them to be together, or the whole movie falls apart.
Question: The movie is also about opening all these doors, and finding yourselves in vastly different places. If you did have that magic power walking through doors. what one place would you want to be transported to?
Matt Damon: Well, we shot that big love scene at the Statue of Liberty, and you can’t shut down the Statue of Liberty. So there were hundreds of people watching us yell at each other, ‘I love you!.’
Then they’d yell cut. And there would be a pause, and then everyone there would start clapping! But Yankee Stadium, that was cool. And the whole magic trick aspect of it.
Like you’d have to like build this bathroom, right outside the stadium. And matching up all that stuff. You know, to make it all seamless, as we went plowing through those doors.
Because obviously it’s happening in the course of thirty seconds. But you’re doing it over the course of three months. And so that kind of thing is always fun stuff to work out with a group of people. Totally.
Question: You’ve said that Ben Affleck will tell you when you have terrible ideas for movies…
Matt Damon: He tells me that a lot!
Question: Well, how much of it is a benefit, when he’s brutally honest with you?
Matt Damon: It’s everything. Yeah. Look, when I have a cut of a movie I’m in, I always show my friends. I always show my wife. And I show Ben. And I probably saw six different versions of The Town when he was working on it. And I read the script. We always do that.
And it’s always good to have another set of eyes on something. And our deal was always, like on a movie set, you can always see a lot of time being wasted on diplomacy. Because people don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.
And it’s just so much easier if it’s implicitly understood that like there’s a deep respect for the other person. So that I can tell you, that’s a f**king terrible idea!
You know, and then you can just move on. Particularly when you’re writing. And you get so excited about what you’re writing. Like, ‘then the guy comes in the room and..’ And then your writing partner will be like, that’s terrible!
And then you can just abandon it right away. Instead of spending two hours going, well I wonder if that’s what we really want to say. It’s just a waste of time.
And the quicker you can cut to the chase…Like the idea is that the allegiance is to the great idea. It’s not up to any one person, or any agenda. It’s just to the idea.
And the thing I’ve noticed about all these great directors that I’ve worked with, is that they are open to the ideas of everyone around them. You know, they hire these crews, and they expect people to come up and give an idea.
And ultimately, a director is a dictator. I mean, it’s an absolute. You are God in that. You are the absolute arbiter of taste, in that the buck stops with you.
So why not listen to every idea. Because you’re gonna make the decision. So you want to have as many choices as you can get from as many places as you can get. And then ultimately, you decide.
So a big part of that, is just having people that you believe in. And believe will give you good ideas. The other thing that we always said is, judge me for how good my good ideas are, not how bad my bad ideas are.
Because we all have terrible ideas. And particularly when you’re creating something, and doing something creatively, the faucet is like, just open. And stuff’s just pouring out of you. And it’s not all gonna be good!
And so to have somebody be like nope, nope, and kind of sift through that stuff with you, it just makes the process a lot more economic. And seamless.
Question: What’s up with your H2O Africa Foundation?
Matt Damon: That problem is so massive, You know, every fifteen seconds a child is dying, because there’s no access to clean water or sanitation. So obviously for us, we’re hoping we’re gonna drastically reduce that number over time. But it’s not just digging wells. We have a whole program with water credit.
And it’s kind of using the ideas of micro-finance, and applying them to water. And then a bunch of other stuff we’re cooking up. So hopefully, that will save a lot of people’s lives. Yeah.
Thank you, great movie.
Matt Damon: Thank you for seeing it! Well I’m really happy with it. And it exists! So, thank you. Alright!