By Eric Jager
One morning in January 2019, at a coffee shop near UCLA, my phone pinged. It was a very short message from my agent, Lynn Chu: “Your option is up again,” she wrote, “and Matt Damon wants it.” Incredulous, I read her message several times to make sure I wasn’t imagining things.
My book The Last Duel (Crown, 2004) had been optioned twice before, first by Paramount for Martin Scorsese, and then by Studio 8 for Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence. Perhaps the third time would be the charm.
I soon learned that Damon’s company, Pearl Street Films, was working with Scott Free Productions and Twentieth Century Fox, soon to be acquired by Disney. If Scott Free was involved, it meant that Ridley Scott might direct. His first feature film, The Duellists (1977), had been about a lifelong trial by combat between two Napoleonic officers. Was the renowned director now circling back?
At Lynn’s urging, I let calls and emails from Hollywood offices go unanswered, anxiously waiting it out. Finally, a few days later, she wrote again, saying, “OK, it’s a deal now….”
A few months later, I was invited to a meeting at Pearl Street Films. Arriving at their Santa Monica offices, I was shown into a large, well-lighted conference room dominated by a long table. Right across from me was Ben Affleck, to his left was Matt Damon, over to my right was Kevin Walsh, president of Scott Free Productions, and next to him at the far end of the table was Pearl Street producer Drew Vinton — who later told me that he had found my book on a library table, read it, then pitched it as a movie to Matt Damon, who in turn had enlisted Sir Ridley.
Still standing, I placed a notebook on the table in front of me, along with a heavy, bulky object wrapped in cloth. Everyone had stood up, and there were handshakes all around. It was a very friendly welcome, and I was thrilled to be there. As I knew was customary in Hollywood from prior experience, all of us were instantly on a first-name basis.
After everyone sat down, Matt, I think it was, asked if I was still actively teaching at UCLA.
“Do I look that old?” I replied, almost without thinking.
Fortunately, this got a good laugh all around, further breaking the ice.
I was outnumbered, of course, and by highly talented, very accomplished people. But awed as I was to be in the same room with high-powered producers and big Hollywood stars, and despite my huge respect for the work of everyone there — as a fan, I’d seen many, many of their films as they’d been released over the years, including the entire Bourne franchise, Good Will Hunting, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Argo, Gone Girl, Manchester by the Sea, and more than a dozen Ridley Scott pictures — I was not actually very nervous.
Maybe I was running on coffee and adrenaline. Maybe it helped that in the past I had met with other filmmakers, although I had never sat down with people like Matt and Ben, who not only wrote and produced films, even directed them, but also starred. Or maybe now that I had signed a contract, I felt free to focus on the work at hand instead of worrying about the deal. After all, they had officially hired me as a consultant, and clearly they had plenty of questions.
From Book to Script
“So,” said Ben, starting things off, “we’d like to hear about how you found this story and came to write the book.” I described how I had discovered the story in a medieval chronicle, and, struck by its powerful emotions and spectacular scenes, I had started doing research for what eventually became the book.
Next Ben began outlining the script on which he and Matt were collaborating. Over the next half hour or so, the two of them together sketched out the whole scenario as they took turns narrating.
To my delight, it turned out that their script had been partly inspired by the Kurosawa classic, Rashomon, which had shaped the early stages of my work on the book. Their scenario began with the knight’s version of the events, followed by the squire’s alternative account, and concluded with Marguerite’s story, giving the last word to the woman at the center of the intrigue.
After Matt and Ben had outlined the plot, culminating with the deadly duel, I leaned forward and unwrapped the cloth-covered object I had earlier placed on the table, revealing a forged-steel reproduction of a helmet similar to the ones worn by the original combatants. As I pulled back the cloth, the effect in the room was explosive. “How old is that thing?” exclaimed Drew.
Ben grabbed it, put it on over his head and posed knight-like, one fist closed over an imaginary lance as he peered through the visor. Matt snapped a picture with his phone. Then Ben took off the helmet and Matt placed it on his own head, as Ben and Drew snapped more pictures. At some point, Matt texted a picture to Ridley Scott, who evidently texted back his enthusiasm.
I had brought the helmet along as an afterthought during my hurried departure for the meeting. I’m really glad I did! The moment when the two co-stars took turns trying it on, getting into character as the two warriors, galvanized everyone in the room. It put the two actors in the picture, so to speak, at the same time putting the rest of us right at the scene.
A couple of months later, in July 2019, paparazzi ambushed Matt Damon near Ben Affleck’s home with a paperback copy of The Last Duel in hand along with what appeared to be a script. The scoop in turn forced the first official news announcement about the film project in Deadline Hollywood.
Acclaimed writer and director Nicole Holofcener soon joined Damon and Affleck on the writing team. She wrote Marguerite’s role for the three-part Rashomon-like script. That fall, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer joined the cast, and in November the project got the green light.
All this time, I had been doing historical research for the project, and in December I got a call from the producers asking if I wanted to read the script. I think they already knew the answer.
The script arrived by courier for security, and when I sat down to read it, I was awed by its careful plotting, sharply drawn characters, attention to historical detail and spectacular scenes. Also, the Rashomon effect of the changing point of view was emotionally very powerful.
After reading the script, I suggested some tweaks to the dialogue here and there, adjusting certain lines to fit the natural iambic rhythm of English, or substituting shorter words derived from the Norman French actually spoken by the original characters. The word “duty,” for example, instead of “responsibility.”
Filming in France and Ireland
About two months later, in mid-February of 2020, shooting began on location in France at some spectacular castles and abbeys.
Casting calls for extras drew huge crowds in France and also in Dublin for the shoot’s announced continuation in Ireland. Some enthusiastic applicants showed up in full medieval attire and carrying weapons or other props. Social media and press sites popped with the latest news of the shoot, and despite tight security, fans converged on the locations in hopes of celebrity sightings.
Soon afterward, however, with the filming only about halfway done, production was halted because of the worldwide pandemic.
Amazingly, six months later, in September, Sir Ridley resumed filming, in Ireland, as originally planned. The locations included Cahir Castle, a stunning site in County Tipperary; and beautiful Bective Abbey, just north of Dublin in County Meath. Cast and crew adhered to full pandemic protocols.
Even with all of these extra logistical needs, the project wrapped in mid-October. The man in charge of it all, the director, had more than lived up to his knighthood. Under a “Breaking News” banner, Deadline Hollywood offered a salute: “While most are hunkered down due to the pandemic, Scott is moving like a locomotive.”
As an eyewitness to the actual 1386 combat had said about the victor’s triumph at the end of the duel, “It seemed like a miracle.”
Eric Jager is a Professor of English at UCLA, where his research focuses on Old English, Middle English and medieval literature. He is the author of The Last Duel, and the movie version is being released in North American theatres on October 15th. To learn more about Eric, please visit his university webpage.