Interview: Matt Damon on technology, the film industry, and getting involved

The Tech had an opportunity to speak with Matt Damon before he gave the commencement address to the class of 2016. The actor discussed some of his opinions on science fiction, the film industry, and how to get involved in solving global problems.

Damon is a Cambridge native who has recently appeared in movies such as The Martian and Interstellar. He shared the Oscar for best original screenplay with his childhood friend Ben Affleck in 1997 for the film Good Will Hunting. He also co-founded, an organization that seeks to help communities around the world gain access to clean water and sanitation.

The Tech: You’ve been involved with some science movies lately. Would you say that these films inspire people to get involved with science?

Matt Damon: I don’t know. I hope so. I certainly hope that — The Martian was certainly a pro-science kind of [movie]...when I first met the writer of the movie, he called it a love letter to science, and that was why he wanted to do it. So I think the hope for all of us who made it was [that] the adolescents who saw it would think it was really cool and maybe give science another look. But I guess there’s no way to predict what people are gonna do.

The Tech: Personally, I got involved with science because of movies about space. And movies about space — they probably sell really well...are there any other topics that you think would be really cool to make movies about that have to do with science and technology?

Damon: To answer that in one way I would say what science fiction allows you to do is ... say things more explicitly, [things that] would feel maybe preachy if you made a straight-ahead, literal movie. So you can kind of speak in metaphors and use science fiction to kind of camouflage a greater point that you want to make.

But in terms of things I would like to make a movie about … I’m fascinated by [artificial inteligence], and I’m fascinated to know where it’s all going. I think everybody who reads about it, it suddenly becomes the most important topic, you know? I’ve met [Demis Hassabis], the guy who’s running DeepMind at Google, and he’s got a group of hundreds of PhDs who sit in a room and they’re kind of trying to figure out how to do this and how to do it so that it’s benevolent, and I think that’s a very fertile area. Things are changing so rapidly technologically that I would be loathe to make a movie about a specific gadget because it would be obsolete before the thing came out on HBO. But these bigger ideas of AI and what those mean to us and what the implications are for us and how does that change human existence, I think those are really interesting issues.

The Tech: You’re going to be addressing a bunch of MIT graduates today. For people who aren’t really sure how to get involved — I’m sure my classmates are eager to make the world a better place — but if you’re not really sure where to get started with that, what would you encourage them to do?

Damon: I was lucky because I got to go out — I had the money to go out into the field and the access to visit a lot of programs as I was thinking about exactly that question. I think today with the Internet, there’s so much information available that if you have a real desire to engage, which you must, it’s about getting information and trying to learn as much as you can about all these various problems.

Start with — just intuit — what speaks to you and what feels like something you want to spend your time on. It doesn’t have to be a calling perse, but there are differences with all of these issues and how they land with you emotionally and maybe start there. Because it takes a lot of work, and like anything you do that you really engage in and want to do well, it requires so much work and so it helps if you love it. I mean, and that’s for anything. I’d feel that way about my day job, too.

The Tech: I review movies for [The Tech]. I wonder, as an actor, what is your least favorite trope? Do you ever just read a script and go, ‘Seriously? You’re gonna make me do that?’

Damon: I think nowadays I’m so depressed about ... things because movies have changed since I was where you are. That was 25 years ago. Because of these bigger influences on the business, now they’re making these giant, giant movies that are these 300 million dollar behemoths, and they’re all about people in capes running around...

I’d say what irks me the most right now is that the movies that were my bread and butter, you know, the Good Will Hunting-type movies, or The Informant, or movies like that, that range from say 20 to 60 million dollars and are about people talking to each other, have just evaporated. They’re just gone. They’re not being made anymore. They’re either being migrated to television, or they have to be made for extremely low budgets. And they’ve been replaced by these 500 million dollar juggernauts that the movie audience doesn’t seem to be getting tired of. And that’s what’s alarming, like normally these things move in phases and there’s a correction, there’s kind of a re-correction and a rebalance and we kind of get back to how we all like entertainment. But right now, it looks like there hasn’t been that correction. In fact, I’m thinking of one thing that bothers me; it’s that the scripts have become so simple, and the stories have become so simple and predictable, and we’re not getting tired of them yet.

This interview has been edited for clarity.