Matt Damon is one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, so it’s not surprising that he had issues carving out the time to write and direct his passion project “Promised Land.” Fortunately, some close friends had his back.
When it came to crafting his screenplay about a conflicted gas company rep who heads to America’s Heartland to buy up land for the controversial drilling process known as fracking, Damon, already an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, teamed with actor John Krasinski, who in turn brought in his friend, acclaimed novelist David Eggers.
Damon befriended Krasinski’s while working opposite the "Office" star's wife, Emily Blunt, in “The Adjustment Bureau.” In addition to co-writing, Krasinski took on the role of Damon’s eco-minded nemesis in the film.
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And when Damon realized he needed a director, he turned to another friend, “Good Will Hunting” helmer Gus Van.
The "Promised Land" star and producer sat down recently to talk about the huge lift he got from his friends, how he recruited Frances McDormand and Hal Holbrook, and whether he’s ready to re-team with another old pal, Ben Affleck, for a future film.
Has being a parent made you more environmentally conscious?
Probably, yeah. I thought a lot, before I had kids, what kind of world we're leaving them. I think it gave me pause. The world is fraught with so many challenges and perils. Kids don't ask to be here. We bring them here, and then it's like, ‘Hey – this is the fix you're in. Sorry.’ I did think about that, but ultimately, problems get fixed when people get engaged with them, so I figured why not raise some kids who are smart and conscientious and good citizens and want to pitch in and maybe they'll clean up some of these problems.
You’ve compared this process to when you write with Ben Affleck.
Yeah. I think because we're all actors, the way we write: we get up, we're walking around, we're improvising. We're playing all the different characters, and then pretty soon the characters start to talk back at you because you start to realize how they'd answer certain things, and that's when it gets really exhilarating. And that was the same with writing with both guys. We realized that for some reason I write with guys who are taller than me, funnier than me. I don't know what that is, but I guess I subconsciously seek out certain qualities in a writing partner.
What made Gus the go-to director when it turned out you wouldn’t be able to direct as originally planned?
He's such a humanist –the performances in Gus's movies, from his little movies to his bigger movies, always have that feeling of being captured. He just has a way of getting real human behavior out of the actors. There're the Hal Holbrooks, where you don't have to do much to get human behavior out of an actor of that stature and experience, but also the local folks and the people who we use in the movie who fill out the whole cast, Gus just has a way of putting everybody at ease, just filming the real world. And that's what we really wanted with this, was for it to feel like a moment in time in the country, where we are now, where we are today. John and I joke that my best contribution as a producer was firing myself(as director).
How did you land Frances McDormand?
Early on, we decided to write that part for Fran. I met Fran and worked with her in 1994, 18 years ago – she played my mom in a TNT movie that Tommy Lee Jones directed – so I kept in touch with her over the years and seen her sporadically, and I just love her. I love her work. At the same time, I was going to direct the movie, and we had an early draft of the script and I've shown it to Ben Affleck, to Cameron Crowe. John had shown it to Aaron Sorkin, and we’d gotten really positive feedback from those guys. So we said, ‘Okay. We're not crazy. She lives near me in New York, and I printed out a copy, and I walked over and left it at her apartment building. She wrote back like the next day and she said, ‘I'm in – I love it.’ That was a huge kind of milestone for us in the whole process, because not only did we get validation from a great actress and know that our script was in pretty good shape, but we also knew that we really were writing for her.
Equally huge would be bringing in Hal Holbrook.
That character's got to speak to the older America and where we've come from, and very simply and with great authority. So we just looked at a list of all the actors who were over 70 who we felt could do that, and there are a handful... Hal's 88 now and he's just the guy…The first town hall scene, we originally overwrote, because we didn't know how much of the pro- and anti-fracking arguments we were going to use, so we just literally wrote all of them and it was a 15-page scene. But we decided ‘Why don't we just shoot all of it, and then in the edit we'll cull it down.’ And so that's what we did – but Hal showed up in the first take and he just goes all the way through the dialog. I mean, he was just such a pro The guy is just a horse of a man.
How hard is it to play a character who lies so convincingly and isn’t telegraphing it to the audience. Is that a tricky thing to wrap your head around?
He believes he's giving them the medicine they need, and that first scene sets up that idea of a guy who's seen industry leave. He's got this rage, and it’s also that kind of streak of self-loathing that you get in those great [Elia] Kazan protagonists. But he's not wrong either. So that's what we wanted. We wanted it to feel really complex, and there aren't any one-dimensional characters or easy answers.
Do you and Ben have a project that you'd like to get around to together at some point?
We're developing a few. There's one Whitey Bulger project that we were looking at… But the big question of it is, what's your way in? It's tough. They're the biggest batch of irredeemable...
"Promised Land" opens in limited release Dec. 28