TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After working together on the films Ocean's 11, 12 and 13, my guest Matt Damon and director Steven Soderbergh have made the new film "The Informant!" It premiered last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, and opens nationally this weekend.
It's adapted from a book of investigative journalism about a price-fixing conspiracy involving the agribusiness company ADM. The book also investigates the ADM executive who blew the whistle and alerted the FBI to the scheme. That whistleblower had his own secrets, and what he told the FBI wasn't always true.
Damon stars as that not-always-reliable whistleblower, Mark Whitacre. Unlike the book, the movie has an ironic, often comic, tone. Let's start with a scene. Whitacre has been working with the FBI undercover while continuing his job at ADM. The feds have made their first bust, and none of Whitacre's colleagues have figured out he's the informant. He's intoxicated by playing the role of spy, even though he sometimes unknowingly bungles the job. He's with the two FBI agents he's been working with, played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale. They're talking about the bust.
(Soundbite of film, "The Informant!")
Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (As Mark Whitacre) That was amazing. You guys should have seen it. Oh, Perry(ph) was so scared, and Mick(ph) and the lawyers, they were just, they were pissed.
Mr. SCOTT BAKULA (Actor): (As FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard) Yeah, that's super, Mark.
Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) And the best part is, they thought you guys gave me the once-over.
Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who did you tell?
Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) What?
Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who else did you tell about the raid?
Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) Well, I had to tell my secretary. Guys, I'm the head of the bioproducts division. You know, she has to know where to get in touch with me. I told her months ago. So all I said was Liz, I'm doing some work with the FBI. I might be out of touch for a while. That's it. She had no idea about our case. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned the name Cathy Dougherty(ph) a time or two. She is a trusted ally, and I didn't want her to be scared.
Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Why did you do that, Mark?
Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) I trust her. Guys, we can trust Cathy.
Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who else? Don't jack us around, Mark.
Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) Mmm. Kirk Schmidt. Schmidtty.
GROSS: Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Steven Soderbergh, the movie starts with a disclaimer that says basically, these characters are all composites. And the disclaimer ends with, so there. What's the "so there" supposed to be there for?
Mr. STEVEN SODERBERGH (Director, "The Informant!"): I stole that, actually, from a movie called "Airplane," that came out in 1980. At the very end of the crawl in the film, they put "so there" at the end.
Mr. DAMON: I never knew that.
Mr. SODERBERGH: I've always wanted to steal it. And that was a card that was going to be in our case at the end of the film, and I moved it up front because I really wanted to remind everyone that this was a true story because at a certain point it becomes so absurd that I thought people might not remember that it was true.
GROSS: So the " so there" was to remind us that it was true, not to remind us that you took liberties.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yes, exactly. And also, it's kind of a mood-setter.
Mr. DAMON: Yeah, yeah, it sets the mood.
GROSS: Well, speaking of the mood, the mood is ironic, as opposed to investigative journalism. We're inside the character that Matt Damon plays, Mark Whitacre, inside his head. Why did you want to go for that ironic tone? The book that it's based on is a straightforward, investigative book.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, let's see. When the book reached us in 2001, I'd recently finished "Erin Brokovich," and Michael Mann's "The Insider" had come out in 1999. I think our sense was we needed to do something different, that just taking the standard approach wasn't really going to be exciting or fresh, and that's when we started thinking maybe we should try and do it as kind of a black comedy.
GROSS: Matt, when you decided to take the part, did you want to meet the real Mark Whitacre or read the book, look at the court transcripts? How much of this was about authenticity to you? Since the tone wasn't quite the tone of the book, the question of authenticity, I think, is a difficult one since you weren't being completely true to the tone of the story. You were altering that and also kind of getting inside the mind of the character without knowing for sure what was going on in the mind of the character.
Mr. DAMON: Right. Once Steven made the decision to shift the tone, it became unnecessary to meet Mark - and kind of inappropriate to meet him. You know, I had originally thought I'd go down and see him. He was in prison at the time, and I was going to go visit him. But it just became - it wasn't about doing a rigorous character study at that point. It was about, you know, trying to make something that was more like a - Steven called it more like a subjective fever dream.
So I actually have another movie coming out in a few months where I play a real person, and I prepared for the role completely differently and spent a lot of time with the guy. So just, it was more about the tone of this movie that kind of determined how I'd prepare for it.
GROSS: The character that you play, Matt Damon, who's based on a real character, Mark Whitacre, who is the whistleblower on ADM and a price-fixing conspiracy, he - once he decides to talk to the FBI and wear a wire, part of that process drives him crazy, but part of the process is really seductive to him because, you know, he's seen the movie; he's seen "The Firm." He's watched the James Bond films. He kids that he's 0014 because he's twice as good as 007. Since you've been in a series of spy films, "The Bourne Identity" films, what was it like for you to play somebody who wants to be that character and isn't?
Mr. DAMON: It was a lot of fun. It was, you know, the opposite of doing the Bourne movies. Yeah, I think - and it was always something that I thought was interesting about the character, that he did enjoy - you know, he did see himself as embroiled in the middle of this, you know, this drama, and he did constantly refer to Michael Crichton novels, and the character actually became addicted to the movie "The Firm" and saw himself as Tom Cruise in "The Firm," and he would go and you know, he would tell his wife he was going one place, and he'd go back to the multiplex and sit there and watch "the Firm."
So there is that aspect of the character, of him, that was enjoying the work that he was doing. But on the other hand, he was taking extraordinary risks. He was doing really courageous things, gathering all this evidence, but ultimately his lawyer, the defense - one of the defenses they used was look, these FBI agents go out and do undercover work, and they're trained for it, and they crack, and here's a guy with absolutely no training who went out there for two and a half years. And you know, obviously when he was diagnosed as being bipolar, they realized that all of this pressure that he was under was just exacerbating that, and he started to deteriorate, you know, pretty quickly by the end.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how you stand or walk or move differently as Jason Bourne in a genuine spy thriller, and as Mark Whitacre in "The Informant!" - somebody who is an executive at ADM but is wearing a wire and really wants to be the spy, kind of, thriller person, but isn't.
Mr. DAMON: Yeah, to me the whole - you know, the way you walk, and the way you stand, and the way you sit, those are things I think a lot about and always come out of hours and hours and hours of whatever kind of training or research I'm doing.
In the case of the Bourne movies, one of the examples I use is that character always stands angled off on whoever he's talking to because the guy who was teaching me, you know, how to handle all these weapons out in the desert in L.A. was a former SWAT shotgunner, and he always stood angled off to me. And I realized that after I'd spent, like, a couple hundred hours with him, and I said: Why are you always standing like that? I mean, is it to present less of an angle or something? He said: Well, it's that, but really I just do it out of habit because I wear my gun on this hip, and I always keep my body between whoever I'm talking to and my gun.
So I'm convinced that there are thousands of little things like that that are signals, that you don't - when you look at a movie, and sometimes you walk out and you know, I'll say to someone, hey, did you like that performance of that, you know, whatever actor? And a lot of times somebody will say, no, I didn't, not really. And I'd say, well, why? And they'd go, I don't know. I don't know. And they can't quite put their finger on it. But I'm convinced that there are hundreds of little details and little signals that you're sending to somebody who's watching the performance that add up to make a performance believable or not, and so I geek out on that stuff all the time and think about that stuff.
You know, in the case of this movie, putting on the weight and you know, a bunch of the external things really helped, the wardrobe, the wig I was wearing, the moustache. I had plumpers - plumping things in my cheeks that the dentist made for me, a nose thing at the end of my nose because Steven was convinced that the character shouldn't have any hard edges at all. You know, he should look kind of hard to define, hard to pin down.
When your body changes and you feel clothes hitting certain parts of your body they don't normally hit and - it just affects everything. It's like a kind of a way to immerse yourself into that other guy.
GROSS: So if in "The Bourne Identity" you stood at an angle when talking to people to separate your gun - to put your body between your gun and the person you're talking to, how did you stand as Mark Whitacre in "The Informant!" when you were talking to people?
Mr. DAMON: Straight, just right - straight facing somebody, like a guy who's got nothing to hide.
GROSS: What kind of conversations do you have with each other when you're making a film? Like Steven Soderbergh, do you give a lot of directions to the actors? Do you have conversations about motivation and that kind of stuff?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Boy, you know, I try not to.
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Honestly. I don't want an actor - this sounds terrible - I don't want them thinking. I want them just behaving the way the character would and…
GROSS: But wait, wait, but Matt Damon said he kind of geeks out on the details, thinking about…
Mr. DAMON: That's preparing.
Mr. SODERBERGH: You're preparing so that when you're in the moment, you're responding as the character would respond. But it's been my experience that when you can give an actor practical things to do, physical things to do, that that really helps them lock into the character. And I really don't like to engage in philosophical conversations while we're shooting because I feel like it puts them in their head, and I don't want them in their head.
Mr. DAMON: That's exactly right, and I mean from an actor's perspective, too, that's exactly right. And the things that I geek out over, it's just when I'm thinking about it. It's a totally different stage of the, you know, of the whole deal.
When it's happening, you need practical - you know, in fact, I'm working with a first-time director right now, and I jokingly told him that he was on a shot clock, that - you know, if he can't say it in 15 seconds, I just start hearing white noise.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DAMON: Because - now, if you want to have philosophical conversations, that's great, and I'll go out to dinner with you in pre-production, and we can talk for hours and hours and hours, and sometimes that's really helpful and good to talk about, you know, thematically what's happening and you know, all that's great. But shooting a movie is a very different kind of stage of the process.
And to talk about Steven's direction for a second, I would say it's how I feel about a bunch of the directors I've worked with who all work very differently. But, like with Gus Van Sant or Clint Eastwood or Francis - like, their direction is always necessary and helpful.
So they don't give me any more direction than I need. But like, an example would be in this movie, there's a scene where I apologize. I'm in court, and I apologize to the community, and I apologize to all of these people right before I'm sentenced. And on the first take, I did it as I thought he would have done it. It was this very heartfelt apology. And Steven said cut, and he came over, and he just sat down next to me and he went, no.
And I said, what do you mean? I thought that was really, that was honest. I felt something there that felt pretty real. And he goes, no, no, it was good. He said, it's just in the wrong movie. And this, the tone of this movie was so specific that all the actors were really relying on Steven to kind of have the view from 30,000 feet at all times because we can get lost in a moment or in a scene and go off the rails pretty quickly, and that's what had happened to me.
And so I said OK, well, all right, what do I do? And he thought for a second, and then he said: Do it like an awards acceptance speech.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DAMON: And that was it, and that was my direction, and it's brilliant direction, and it's what - it's why I love working with him and why I've gone back to work with, you know, Gus and Francis, and I'm going to go back and work with Clint again. The best ally you can have, you know, I have such trust in somebody who can give me a perfect piece of direction that, you know, doesn't bog me down, that doesn't take me out of it but just basically is utterly helpful.
GROSS: Steven, what made you think of an awards acceptance speech as being like, the right tone?
Mr. SODERBERGH: I guess it's because I knew that part of him liked standing up and having everyone look at him and listen to him, that he liked that kind of attention. And so I wanted to have a sense of that, of the pleasure of that, and it contributes to the fact that he's often disconnected from the context in which he's operating.
So it just - I don't - you're always trying to find the right metaphor to give somebody an idea. And for some reason, I just - I thought of him standing up there sort of with an Oscar in his hand, and what would that sound like?
GROSS: My guests are director Steven Soderbergh and actor Matt Damon. Their new movie is "The Informant!" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon. They worked together on the "Ocean's" movies, starting with "Ocean's 11," and now they've worked together on "The Informant!" which opens Friday. Steven Soderbergh directed it, Matt Damon stars in it as a whistleblower at ADM. And it's adapted from the true story as reported in Kurt Eichenwald's book, "The Informant."
Let me take you on a tangent for a second, Matt Damon. You did one of the really funny videos. This is really one of the funnier moments of recent TV history, I think. It was a video that Sarah Silverman made for the Jimmy Kimmel show, and at the time this was on, they were a couple. I don't know if they still are. But anyway, so she comes on his show and says, I have something very, very important to tell you. And then it cuts to this video, and the video is her saying, I am blanking Matt Damon. I can't say the word, but you'll get what it is. It's a word I can't say on the radio. I'm blanking Matt Damon.
And then it cuts to you and you're there, looking very handsome on a couch, and you say, yes, she is blanking Matt Damon. Then it goes into this whole kind of song-and-dance video thing and you know, there's like parodies of, like, hip-hop dance videos and you know, like love scenes from videos. How did Matt Damon become the person who she wanted to brag to her boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel, that she was blanking?
Mr. DAMON: Well, it started - there's been a kind of a running joke with Jimmy and me, and I don't know how he picked me. He told me that - he does this thing at the end of his show where he says, my apologies to Matt Damon, we ran out of time, and it's this running joke that I'm sitting waiting to come on, but I was basically bumped by whatever guests he has on the show that night.
GROSS: Which is something that typically happens to up-and-coming people or the writer who's on the end of the show, the unknown comic, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DAMON: Exactly, exactly, and they end up doing an extra segment with one of the people, you know, one of their headliners, and that guy gets bumped. And so it started because he had such a depressing show one night. He said, I had like, a ventriloquist and a guy in a gorilla suit, and you know, it was one of these shows where I had this feeling like, nobody was watching. And just as kind of a throwaway at the end of his - you know, when he was saying goodnight everybody, he said, my apologies to Matt Damon, you know, we ran out of time.
And his producer, who was standing by, you know, on the other side of the camera, just doubled over laughing. And so he just started doing it every night because the two of those guys thought it was really funny, and then it kind of took on a life of its own.
I started to hear about. People came up to me, you know, what's the deal with you - are you really - did you really get bumped from, you know, Jimmy Kimmel? And I knew what it was - I mean, I knew what it was. I watched him, and I saw him do it. I thought, oh, that's a really funny idea.
So Sarah called with this idea of - because, you know, she was his girlfriend, that originally it was going to take - the show was originally, it was going to air on his - what was going to be his 40th birthday party. But the writers strike happened, and it ended up being done at a different time. But that was - but basically, I mean, I can take absolutely no credit for that, you know, video. It was a great idea that they had and that Sarah - you know, Sarah showed up in Miami. We shot it in like, two hours because I had to go to a parent-teacher conference, and I wasn't expecting it to have even that much production value.
There was - I got there at 7 in the morning and they had, you know, red jumpsuits and backup dancers, and I was like, oh, OK, this is funny.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DAMON: So it was basically just - I was the beneficiary of some very funny people doing some really good writing.
GROSS: You both had success when you were very young. Steven Soderbergh, when you won, when "Sex, Lies and Videotape" won the Cannes Film Festival top award, you were the youngest person ever to win that, the youngest director. And Matt Damon, you were in your 20s when you got the Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Mr. DAMON: Affleck was younger than me, though, so he's the youngest screenwriter.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Right. So I guess I'm curious how what you think you want out of life and work has changed since having that young success, you know, now that you've actually had a lot more experience.
Mr. DAMON: I think we both just want to try and win more awards.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Good going.
Mr. SODERBERGH: That's what drives us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SODERBERGH: No, I think - speaking for myself - I think the danger is always that you get frozen in the moment of your success because you're afraid that it's going to go away. And I looked at it as just an opportunity, that the sort of crazy luck that we had was going to present me with the opportunity to explore a little bit, and I tried to take advantage of it. And I've continued to try and take advantage of it. And so early on, because I'd read a lot about the careers of other artists - not just filmmakers. The artists that I admired the most kept evolving and adapting and so, you know, I felt that's - you know, in a weird sort of way, the only safe thing is to take a chance.
GROSS: Interesting. OK. Well, listen, good luck with the new movie and everything else, and I really want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, thank you.
Mr. DAMON: Thanks a lot.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Matt Damon stars in the new film "The Informant!" It's directed by Steven Soderbergh. "The Informant!" opens this weekend. Here's music from the soundtrack, composed by Marvin Hamlisch. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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