Matt Damon says that he nearly killed his movie “Promised Land” when he decided not to direct the film. Warner Bros. Pictures was funding the movie on the condition that Damon would direct it. (“Promised Land” would have been have been the first movie directed by Damon.) But within 24 hours, Damon saved the movie by asking Gus Van Sant to direct it. Damon and Van Sant had previously worked together on 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” (Damon and Ben Affleck won an Oscar for co-writing the original screenplay) and 2002’s “Gerry.” “Promised Land” lost financial backing from Warner Bros., but the movie found distribution from Focus Features.
Damon told the amazing story of this dramatic turn of events for the movie when he and Van Sant sat down with “Promised Land” co-star John Krasinski for a TimesTalks public Q&A presented by the New York Times in New York City on November 27, 2012. “Promised Land” was co-written by Damon and Krasinski, who are also two of the movies producers. Damon and Frances McDormand play Steve Butler and Sue Thomason, two corporate energy employees who go into a rural town to convince the residents to let the company pay them to use their land for fracking. Krasinski plays Dustin Noble, an anti-fracking environmental activist who arrives in town and immediately comes into conflict with Steve. Here are highlights of what Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant said during the Q&A.
Matt, how did you and John end up writing “Promised Land” together?
Damon: I met John through Emily [Blunt], his wife. We [Emily and I] did “The Adjustment Bureau” together, and we really hit it off. We started having all these conversations about work, and we decided early on that we wanted to find a project to do together. He knew that I wanted to direct eventually and that I was looking for something. So one night at dinner, he came to me with this idea that he’d had and that he’d already been working on.
John, what kind of idea did you present to Matt at that time?
Krasinski: I had always wanted to write a movie about American identity. My dad grew up in a steel-mill town just outside of Pittsburgh: Natrona Heights. The way he talked about the town was just simple in the best way, not in a cliché way. It was about faith and friends, faith and family, and faith that tomorrow would be a better day than today. And I just felt with the political landscape headed where it headed that we were all forgetting the people who were affected by all the rigamarole that was happening in the big dance.
And so I just wanted to bring it back to a conversation about people. And so this idea about natural gas was an incredible backdrop. Whether you believe whichever side of the issue, there’s huge potential gain and huge potential loss. And so for us, that complex situation that these people find themselves in is a decision-making process that should be happening every single day with every single issue. So we thought it was a perfect backdrop.
What was your knowledge of fracking at that point?
Krasinski: At the time, it wasn’t really on the national radar, it didn’t feel like. It was definitely an issue, but it was just starting to come out slowly. We immediately jumped on it. I remember, actually, the New York Times did a series called “Drilling Down,” which was phenomenal.
Krasinski: We got addicted to that. And then we saw a “60 Minutes” piece called “Shaleionaires.” And we finally saw “Gas Land” after starting to write the piece. It was interesting the progression of how hot the issue was getting. We were done with our script pretty much when this thing started to get really, really big. We didn’t even know what was coming when we wrote the draft.
Dave Eggers is given credit for writing the story to “Promised Land.” What does that mean?
Damon: He worked on [the screenplay] very early on, and then he had to leave to write his book that has just come out. And he was like, “I’m not taking a writing credit.”
Krasinski: When I had the idea, I wasn’t sure if I was going to write it myself, so I brought it to him. I had worked on “Away We Go” with him and had done a bunch of 826 events with him. He’s a great guy and someone I look up to greatly.
Damon: He’s a great writer.
Krasisnki: Yeah. So we just sat in a room and hashed out characters and story. These issues are very close to his heart too. He and I just had this big discussion, which led to me bringing it to Matt.
Damon: And I was just looking at it as a director, but as a director who’s very much involved in that process. So John and I started, every weekend, just writing and writing and writing. And it started to take shape really quickly. And we kind of hit that point early on where the characters, you start fleshing them out enough that they kind of start to talk back, and the writing starts to go fast. It gets really exhilarating.
Pretty early on, we showed a draft to Fran McDormand, and we knew that we wanted her. She was our first choice for the role she ended up playing. She said yes really early on. So we had three actors that we knew we were writing for, which makes things go a lot easier and a lot faster.
Matt, why did you decide not to direct “Promised Land” and have Gus Van Sant direct it instead?
Krasinski: [He says jokingly] Yeah, why was that, Matt?
Damon: It was actually the worst moment in the whole process. It was December 15 of , and I remember it because it was when all of my work for the year ended. I had done a big science fiction movie [“Elysium”] that had gone long, and so I had been away from my kids and my wife.
And then I had intensive two weeks of press to get the Cameron Crowe movie that I did [“We Bought a Zoo”]. It was December 15, and “The Daily Show” was the last thing I did. And it was on my calendar. “OK, that’s my year when I can kind of relax.” And I realized that night when I got home and we got the kids down and I sat there for about an hour and realized that “I have to go into pre-production January 1 [in 2012] if I’m going to direct it, and I can’t do that.”
So you called Uncle Gus?
Damon: No, I called John and had to tell John. We’re producers of the movie as well. We had a producers’ conversation that was really horrible because I put him in a really tricky spot. He said, “Couldn’t you have told me a month ago?” I said, “I’m sorry. I was too selfish to do that.”
Krasinski: It was the day before the entire town went on a Christmas break, so I said, “I can’t get an agent on the phone, let alone a director.”
Damon: It was like, “We can’t even get our agents on the phone.” It was rough, but I knew that it was the right thing for the movie. And I knew it was the right thing for my life. And the last thing he wanted as a producer or an actor was a half-distracted director.
Have you ever come this close to directing a movie before?
Damon: This was the closest.
So how did you get Gus Van Sant to direct “Promised Land”?
Damon: Well, the next morning, we were leaving to go down to Florida for the holidays, and I was on the plane feeling horrible. And I emailed Gus and told him everything that happened. And I told him, “There’s a script and I think it’s great.”
Had you been talking to Gus about the movie before you emailed him?
Damon: No, this was the first [time]. It was like a cold call. I just said, “I just wanted to let you know this is going on. And are you doing anything?”
Van Sant: And he wrote back, “No. I love your writing. Send it to me.” And they were telling us to turn [off electronic devices on the plane]. It was the Alec Baldwin moment on the plane. And I’m looking up [saying], “Really, I just have to send this one thing. This is really important. This isn’t Words With Friends, OK? I’ve got to send this!”
And I attached the script from my BlackBerry and sent it and then turned the phone off. We landed in Florida a couple of hours later. And I had turned [the phone] on, and Gus had read it, and he said, “I want to do it.” I told John as a producer, it was literally a high moment for me. The best thing I did on the movie was fire myself as the director.” [He laughs.]
Was “Promised Land” fully funded at this point?
Damon: Well, that was the other problem.
Krasinski: It just gets better.
Damon: Ben Affleck and I have a deal at Warner Bros., and I’ve done 10 movies there over the last decade. And they’re really supportive of us. And this was a smaller movie and not really a Warner Bros. movie, but because I was directing it, they wanted to do it to support me. So when I said, “I’m not doing it,” I knew I was screwing our funding too. [He says jokingly] John was so happy with me that night.
Krasinski: [He says jokingly] I just got over it yesterday.
Damon: Once we talked to Gus, we got his notes and started to incorporate them, we took the script out on the town and we all started taking the financing meetings and stuff.
“Promised Land” has gotten some criticism because one of the movie’s funders is Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which is owned by the United Arab Emirates, which obviously has a vested interest in stopping the fracking movement in the United States. What’s your response to the criticism?
Damon: We found out that they were involved when we saw the rough cut and we saw their logo. We met with Focus Features and Participant [Media], and so they backed the movie. Participant has a blind-slate deal with these guys, and these guys take a piece. It’s like a 10 percent piece or whatever their deal is. I don’t know these people at all and I didn’t know they were involved with the movie.
Krasinski: Their logo, their animation is all these pictures flying across the screen. And I was at the first test screening. And I literally turned to my friend and said, “What is Gus doing? Was it Gus’ decision to throw photos all over the place in the movie?” I was like, “Bold.” And then Abu Dhabi came up and I was like, “What?”
Damon: So it was literally a surprise to us too, but I guess something that these guys have latched onto.
So you and John wrote your “Promised Land” characters knowing that you were going to play these characters?
Damon: Yeah. Another criticism we’ve heard was that we changed the script in the middle of the shoot.
The “Promised Land” script was leaked on the Internet long before the movie was finished filming. Does that happen to you often?
Damon: No. A lot of movies that I work on, they’ll watermark the script. They’ll do all that kind of stuff, and they’re super-protective to kind of a ridiculous degree. And we just made a decision early on not to do any of that. We never really had anything to hide. These guys posted the script, and I guess technically we could sue them, but I want people to read the script, so go ahead and post it. I don’t care.
What kind of reaction to fracking do you want people to have after seeing “Promised Land”?
Krasinski: Honestly, the only reaction I’ve ever wanted to this movie is to start a conversation. It doesn’t really matter to me what side of the issue you fall on, as long as you’re wiling to talk about it and learn more. I just think as a country, we just need to take a little more responsibility for where we’re headed together rather than where we’re headed individually.
Are you ready for some of the negative reactions people might have to “Promised Land” since fracking is such a hotly debated issue?
Damon: When we were shooting it in Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, the first day we were shooting, guys would come up and ask, “Is this movie about fracking? You shouldn’t say anything bad about that. We need this here.”
That’s why it’s so interesting to us, because the stakes are so high. You go and you drive around and you talk to these people. First of all, they all know what’s going on and they all have an opinion about it. It is life or death for a lot of these family farms. This is a lifeline to them. This is keeping the farm in their hands.
It’s a very complicated issue, so the feelings are very, very strong around it. If it’s people from the energy industry, they should just see the movie first, because until then, you’re having a conversation with somebody about a book that they haven’t read, and I think it’s just a waste of everybody’s time.
You and Frances McDormand don’t play villainous corporate people. Can you elaborate on why you chose not to have any obvious villains in the story?
Damon: The idea was that all the characters should feel like people you know. They should feel like real people to you. Gus made a decision early on that none of us wear makeup.
Like Fran’s character, for instance, she keeps saying, “It’s just a job.” You see her [character’s] allegiance is to her teenage kid, who’s back home in Houston. It’s a good job, and that’s why she’s doing it. This is us. It should feel like all of us.
Gus, you’ve done politically charged movies in the past. What was your understanding of the underlying issues of “Promised Land” before you decided to direct the movie?
Van Sant: I had never heard of hydraulic fracking before I had the script. I think the day after, there was an earthquake near Akron, Ohio, and they were suggesting that it was because the earthquake was right there where the drilling was. So it had been in the news already. So I was absorbing information, mostly from the screenplay and talking with John and Matt about it and talking with people in Pittsburgh about it as well. I didn’t take the time to see some of the documentaries that had come out. So I was pretty much being guided by things that were written in the screenplay.
When we got there, there was a conference in our hotel. A lot of the people staying at the hotel were in the hydraulic fracking business. So there was a lot of interaction there. Even if you’re in the business, there are the ups and downs of the business.
Obviously, the fantastic ups are jobs and opportunity and a source of power that’s on our own soil. And then there are the downs. They were always being discussed wherever we went. The location scouting, the farms where we went, the folks were sometimes heading their own township meetings, having discussions about it. So it was everywhere.
What is your biggest concern about “Promised Land” when it opens in theaters?
Damon: It’s like sending your kid to school on the first day. Obviously, we have a huge investment of time and emotion and energy, and so you want people to see it. With a movie of this size — it was made for $18 million or a little less, actually because we came in under budget — it’s not a Jason Bourne movie, so you don’t have the marketing budget.
So to get the word out, you do a lot of Q&As. And yeah, you’re hoping for good reviews. That’s a big part of it. And the reviewers know that. Films of this size live and die a lot of times based on reviews. Book theater is based on how strong the reviews are.
The trade reviews come out, and then you’re on the phone with the theater owner in Coolidge Corner going, “Look, man, come on. You’ve got to do me a favor. Keep it in there. You don’t really want ‘Lincoln.’ Come on, everybody’s got that. Spielberg, Schmielberg! Come on!”
What’s your emotional state when one of your movies is about to be released?
Van Sant: I’m very nervous and curious about what will come about. Critically is huge. Also box office, whether people want to go see it, whether they’re talking amongst themselves. And also whether you’re able to get it in theaters and whether you’ll publicize it enough that people will go. All of those things, they’re huge.
Pretty much every movie I make, I’m really on board with it. Whether it turns out well or not, I think it’s a really great movie. I try not to change my opinion after it comes out. It’s like a kid for me.
Krasinski: I’m in a unique situation where this is all totally surreal. Truly surreal. The fact that we’re even up on this stage next to these people is very bizarre to me still. I shouldn’t say that out loud.
“The Office” is coming to an end in March , shooting-wise, for me. And this year will be the [the show’s] last year. And weirdly, this happens to be this bizarre, incredible transition for me. And so the experience is so existentially heavy that it’s not just about box office or critics or anything to me. This is so special that I’m just thrilled to be going along for the ride, and I’m just so, so proud to be a part of it.
What’s next for you in 2013?
Damon: For shooting, I don’t have anything right now, but … I have “Elysium,” the big science fiction movie. That’s going to come out August. And I just finished shooting two months ago “Behind the Candelabra,” which is the story of Liberace and his lover. And that’s going to come on HBO in May. And Steven Soderbergh directed that one.
Van Sant: For me, I have some projects that I’m trying to talk people into.
Krasinski: I’ll do it!
Van Sant: There are a few screenplays. I’m waiting for “Promised Land” to come out. It’s kind of hard to make a move, for me, until the movie at least just plays, and then you move on to the next project.
Gus, you’ve done not only high-profile, mainstream movies but also quirky, off-beat films. Do you plan it that way or do you just direct whatever comes up?
Van Sant: There are reactions to a particular kind of film, and you become more interested, at least for me, in something that’s unlike it, so you can go on to the next. Or in the case of, say, “Gerry,” I wanted to make films in the same manner. But there’s definitely a point where I’m reacting to the film I’ve just made, and I want to do something that’s completely different, which I think in an acting sense you would want as well, to not play the same character all the time.
Damon: That’s a mistake people get into. They have success doing one thing, and they keep doing that thing, and before long, that’s the only thing they’re allowed to do. I was always really leery of that, of not trying to protect my beach head.
Matt, how did you feel about another “Bourne” movie coming out and you weren’t in it? Did you see “The Bourne Legacy”?
Damon: I did. It was odd watching it. It had a lot of the bells and whistles of the “Bourne” series, but I didn’t know anything about it. But I understand that they had to make it. They had a deal with the estate and had to get a movie out in 2012.
Did seeing “The Bourne Legacy” make you want to make another “Bourne” movie more or less?
Damon: I’ve always wanted to make another one, but I think that it made it less likely that I’d be able to. There are things that happened in that universe that now have to happen in the “Bourne” universe because they used some of the actors from our [“Bourne”] movies. So in the “Bourne” world, all that stuff happened now, so we have to think about what that would mean. I don’t think it makes it impossible. I just think it makes it more challenging. The problem historically on the “Bourne” movies — and I’ve noticed this on big movies this happens — they’ll give you a release date, and the second that you have a green light and you’re going, all of their problems become your problems.
The third [“Bourne”] movie we wrote literally while we were shooting it. Day to day, we were writing it. It took years off of our lives. It was so much pressure because you’re so aware of how much money … Once you get on set, the money is just burning. You have to make decisions — and they’re huge decisions.
[Director] Paul Greengrass and I would say, “We’re in the wrong country.” This happened when we were in Spain. It was 4 in the morning and we were on the street, and going, “Is there anything else we can shoot in Spain? Is there anything else? Why the f*ck are we in Spain?”
We came in under-budget and under-schedule with [“Promised Land”] because we had a script. And all we ever said to them [about doing another “Bourne” movie] was, “If we can get a script, we’d really like to do it.” But nobody could ever really crack what that story really was. So if anyone here is watching, Universal will pay you a lot of money if you can come up with a script idea for another Jason Bourne movie.
John, what’s next for you?
Krasinski: I’m writing a couple of things right now and seeing where they’ll take me. I’m working on a couple of other projects outside of film, actually. Development is really, really exciting. You just never know when it’ll actually get made. It’ll be there ready for people until they act on it. I think emotionally, I’m going to be so connected to the end of [“The Office”] that I just want to make sure that I’ll do everything I can to be there for the show that’s been there for me the whole time.
Gus, you’re from Portland, Oregon. What do you think of the TV show “Portlandia”?
Van Sant: I’m a big fan of the show. I didn’t know at first what it was going to be like. I appeared in one of the episodes before I saw the episodes. [“Portlandia” stars] Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, they bring in local characters into the fold, so there’s a lot of friends that were in the show. But I’m a big fan. I’ve seen all episodes, I think.
For more info: "Promised Land" website
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