The timing and relevancy of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel underscore how little has changed for women between its 14th century France setting and now. Based on a true story, the gripping period piece tells the story of a courageous Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) who accuses squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape. Though no one believes her accusations, her husband, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), challenges his former friend, now bitter rival grueling duel to the death.
Based on Eric Jager’s book of the same name, the events of The Last Duel are the last recorded trial by combat of its kind. It took place when etiquette, justice, and science were governed by religion and royalty. For a woman to navigate those violent times would be extremely difficult. So to come forward with such an accusation, knowing full well that her act of defiance puts her life in jeopardy, was nothing short of brave.
The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists at the virtual press conference for The Last Duel to talk to stars Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, both of whom also wrote the film, and their co-writer Nicole Holofcener about the film’s relevancy, writing process, and convincing Ridley Scott to direct.
Typically, a film is separated into three acts. But The Last Duel has a “Rashomon” effect since its split into Marguerite, Jacques, and Jean’s perspectives. For Comer, this meant she had to act out more than one rape scene, which would prove pivotal for progressing the plot. But it also had to thread that needle delicately so it wouldn’t be gratuitous. “I think the sad part about this story is it you could say it for any part of history that’s gone by, but this story is relevant,” she said. “They’re extremely delicate subjects, and they need to be handled with sensitivity. And I know for me, and all of us, like, especially in regards to the rape scenes themselves, like they, they couldn’t be gratuitous. They had to be moving the story forward.”
Comer recognized how people who watch it may “sadly relate to it in some way.” “That can be difficult to execute, and it can be difficult to watch, but I believe, you know, we shouldn’t shy away from it for that reason, as long as it’s, it’s handled with care,” she added.
It’s not just how visceral the rape scenes are, but how Comer’s Marguerite is treated throughout the film, whether through the physical aspects like kissing, the dialogue, or just the non-verbal communication. “I think the beautiful thing about the script was; it was all there on the page,” Comer said. “The intentions were very, very clear as to what was needed in each perspective. And what was sometimes jarring was that we shot each version simultaneously. So, we will literally jump from one to the next.”
Comer felt very loyal to Marguerite, so she knew she had to get the character right. “I was kind of afforded a lot of freedom, and in what I wanted to explore, we kind of played around with the subtlety and how far we wanted to, to push it,” she said.
“Jodie is so smart, and brave, and complicated in our performance, where she’s willing to, and I’m not sure every actor would have been, actually play another character’s point of view of themselves, rather than their sense of their true self,” Affleck said.
“Because she does that so perfectly so that it’s seamless, you don’t get a sense that, ‘Oh, it’s an exaggerated version of it feels like versions of women we’ve seen in movies before.’ And we wanted to exploit the fact that historically, people are, in many ways, largely accustomed to women being secondary and tertiary characters,” Affleck continued. “So they wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary. And she was willing to play that and makes the reveal, I think, so much more powerful and elegant to see the difference between essentially two-dimensional person and fully realized three-dimensional person.”
Comer’s contributions to The Last Duel went beyond just the front of the screen. According to Damon, she provided valuable input to the script as well. “When you have a great actor, and we did it with Adam, too, they’ll say, like, ‘This moment doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel like I’d say that,’ you know what I mean,” he said. “If you have a great actor, you really want to listen to them because they’re going to kind of steer you towards where you know where a scene needs to be. So, she was really helpful in the writing process.”
It would be nearly 25 years before Affleck and Damon reunited on writing a script since their debut with Good Will Hunting. Damon says part of their success with the first was that they didn’t know what they were doing and were inefficient with time. “We wrote thousands and thousands of pages that we basically scrunched into a 130-page screenplay,” he said. “But, I think by just doing movies for 25 years just kind of by osmosis, we figured out structure. So, that it turned out to be really efficient the process.”
After Affleck and Damon decided that the film would be written in a three-part structure from different POVs, Holofcener was brought in to pen the final chapter, which would be from Marguerite’s POV. Flattered and thrilled to be a part of the writing team, Holofcener commented on how the script was both an individual and a team effort. Everything had to come together while also respecting the individual chapters. “When smart writers have ideas, one should take them,” she said. “And so between Jodie [Comer] and them, you know, it was really collaborative, really collaborative with all the actors.”
That third act is key to The Last Duel as it reveals “the truth.” Marguerite was an intelligent young woman of certain talents and abilities. She also had a personality and often had to be independent in her husband’s absence and live in this world ruled by man and governed by religion. Despite that, she was still a human being who languished the idea of not being able to have a baby. So one of the chapters in the film needed to be from her point of view. “The construct was that the world of women is totally ignored and overlooked and is invisible for the first two acts of the movie, and then it’s revealed in the third act,” Damon said. “Ben and I were adapting a book. Nicole was really writing an original screenplay. The men of the time took very fastidious notes about what they were all up to. But they didn’t record what the women were doing. And so, Nicole really had to create Marguerite’s world.”
“From the moment I saw the cover of the book,” Damon thought director Ridley Scott would be perfect to helm the epic because Scott’s The Duelists. He also had been wanting to reunite with Scott since working with him on The Martian. And he loved the energy and momentum that you get from filming with “four cameras at a time.”
But when it came to convincing Scott to direct, it all came to finding the right people to pen the script. “I originally gave him the book and he said right away, he wanted to do it,” Damon said. “We were looking for a writer. I was having dinner with Ben and told him the idea and and he was like, ‘Why don’t we write it?’ And I was like, ‘Why? You want to write that?’ and he was like, ‘Sure.’ So, it just kind of happened kind of really organically, and it happened really quickly.”
While The Last Duel takes place in the 14th century, the core of its story is relevant today, especially in how a male-dominated system continues to influence larger domains that women also occupy. So to tell that story and make it feel modern was very intentional on their part, according to Affleck. “Part of what we wanted to point out was the extent to which corrupt and morally bankrupt and misogynist institutions create, produce, you know, people who reflect those values,” he said. “The idea is here is this predominant culture comes from this other culture that is what produced these values and this culture, in terms of how it educates people, in terms of what it rewards socially, in terms of the behavior that is encouraged like in the character that I play.”
Affleck hoped that the script explored the culture and institutional influences that helped shaped his character and later mold Driver’s Jacques Le Gris in a way that wasn’t pedantic or sounded like a term paper. “Really the idea that when a person is in power and represents these values and says, ‘These are the values we encourage in you, and you’ll be rewarded for following them.’ It’s more about where Adams character is and how he’s taught to behave, and what he’s rewarded for that it is about the essential nature of his character,” Affleck said. “In other words, that people can be changed and created by these large institutions. And that’s the value system that we wanted to indict.”
“And if only we could walk out of this movie if the audience could walk out of this movie and say, ‘Wow, it was awful back then. Thank God, it’s not like that anymore,” Holofcener added.
The Last Duel opens in theaters on October 15, 2021.