Matt Damon Shares Behind-the-Scenes Details of 'Project Greenlight' Diversity Comments

Matt Damon - H 2015
Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP

"By the time we arrived to do our judging, we knew we had blown it," said 'The Martian' star of selecting diverse filmmakers.

In an interview with the New York Times earlier this week, Matt Damon tried to shed a little more light on the behind-the-scenes context of his controversial comments on diversity on HBO's Project Greenlight

Damon and Ben Affleck executive produce the filmmaking competition show, which returned to TV with its fourth season this year after a decade hiatus. On the premiere episode, which aired in September, Damon appeared to resist a push for greater diversity by Effie Brown, an African-American producer.

Brown was advocating the hiring of a white woman and a Vietnamese-American man as co-directors of the Greenlight-backed film. But Damon disagreed with the choice, telling Brown, “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”

Brown replied simply: "Wow."

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In the wake of the episode's airing, Damon faced an onslaught of outrage and criticism.

He repeated to The Times what he previously told The Hollywood Reporter: that he looked terrible in the moment as captured on the show. But talking to The Times, he also claimed there was more to the exchange.

"Um, there are a few parts to it, Damon told The Times, "So I'll unpack it for you."

He described that what was not shown in the moment was many months of behind-the-scenes frustration and disappointment that had built to that moment.

"Ben [Affleck] and I had taken a lot of stick for this 10 years ago, that our committee of mostly white men had selected three white men, in succession, as winners,” he said. "This time, the producers actively pursued a more diverse cross-section of applicants, partnering with Facebook and actively recruiting at film schools."

Despite their efforts, when the judges — including Damon, Affleck and Brown — faced the final cut of candidates, 17 of the 20 choices were white men.

"By the time we arrived to do our judging, we knew we had blown it," he said. "So Ben and I were already frustrated and upset about that. So when Effie brought it up, it was like, 'Yes, OK, we got it.' "

Damon also cited the realities of the series itself as part of the challenge: "The dark secret of Project Greenlight is that the TV show is bigger than the movie. It costs more than the movie."

The result, he said, is that the show's needs often take precedence over the film's. And the role of being the chosen director of the film often becomes secondary to the role of being the focus and star of the reality TV series.

Returning to the issue of diversity, Damon argued, "The idea that I would say that there didn’t need to be diversity behind the camera, it’s not only complete anathema to what I believe in my heart and always have, but it’s not something that I think anybody would ever say with a camera on.

"And so when Effie was advocating for the woman and the Vietnamese-American guy, what I actually said was, 'Are we judging a contest or are we casting a reality show?' he explained. "And that’s when she said, 'Wow.' And I went, 'No, Effie, I’m completely serious, what is our responsibility at this point?' Because we had already blown it on the competition.

"We were fine that day," Mr. Damon maintained. "It wasn’t like I left and said, 'Boy, I got in an argument with Effie Brown,' and I don’t think she would have left thinking that she had had an argument with me. But the truth is, Effie did an awesome job for us. She’s an awesome producer."

The Times notes in the article that when reached for comment, Brown declined to comment.