Matt Damon is not only part of the creative force behind Promised Land, which he co-wrote with John Krasinski, but is also the glue that holds the film’s talented cast together. In the film, Damon plays Steve, a sales representative for a natural gas drilling company, who tries to buy land from a small farming community. He and his partner Sue, played by Frances McDormand, come up against an unexpected obstacle, however, when environmentalist Dustin (Krasinski) comes to warn the town of the dangers of fracking. But Promised Land is a film that doesn’t let its politics overshadow its characters, so compiling the perfect cast was key to the film’s success.
Damon shares his thoughts on the cast — which includes Krasinski, McDormand, Hal Holbrook, and Rosemarie DeWitt — (no surprise here, he “loves” McDormand), re-teaming with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant, the film’s twist ending, and why, sometimes, silence is golden.
Hollywood.com: What was the process like writing with John Krasinski? And with Dave Eggers, who wrote the initial story?
Matt Damon: John hashed stuff out with Dave early on and then Dave left to go work on his book. But the writing process with John was basically exactly what it was like writing with Ben [Affleck]. It was very, very similar. You know, two actors in a room jumping around playing all the different parts and improvising and eventually ending up with the screenplay. But yeah, I laughed just as much as I laughed with Ben.
It was weird, the main difference was probably the fact that my kids were there and running all over the place and climbing all over me and John. John might say, he said it the other day and it made me laugh, “If someone walked into the room and saw it they’d go, ‘There’s no way a movie’s going to come out of this. There’s no way.'” But somehow one did.
I loved all the little asides in the dialogue, the recurring conversations about the miniature ponies and whatnot. It felt very casual and natural. Is that something that happened while you were writing or while you were shooting?
That was all in the script and came out of discussions with John. Our big thing was wanting the characters to feel real, like people that we all know. We wanted them to feel relatable. You know, the guy who gets five grand and goes and buys a Corvette, we all know that guy. Lucas Black actually told us that he thought we based it on a guy in his town because the guy had actually bought a Corvette and didn’t have the money, and then also got the logo tattooed across his chest. He subsequently lost the car, but still obviously has the tattoo. So Lucas literally thought we based it on that guy. But we were like, “No, we made it up.” But it’s heartbreaking when he drives up in the Corvette. And [Frances McDormand]’s character, somebody who is rationalizing what she does and she’s like “It’s a job,” and you know, it’s all about her kid. That’s where her allegiance lies, with her son, and she’s going to do whatever it takes. We can all relate to that, and we know that person.
I wanted to ask you about working with Frances McDormand. You two had such a natural chemistry onscreen and I’m wondering if you just fell right into that.
I love her. I worked with her in 1994; she played my mother, which is really funny because she’s not much older than I am, but she played my mom in a cable TV movie that Tommy Lee Jones directed. So I started hanging out with her back then. And I’m just a huge fan of hers, obviously — I mean who isn’t? But when we started writing, John said who are you thinking? Because I was going to direct it, he asked who I was thinking of for that role. And I said, “Well my first choice would be Fran.” And he said, “Oh my God! I hadn’t even thought of that!” So we started writing it with her in mind. As the script got better and better we finally thought we had a draft that was good enough to show her and I gave her a copy and said, “Would you ever consider doing this? I’m going to direct it.” And she read it and she signed up. So pretty early on in the process we had her character and John’s and mine and we were all going to play them, so that made the writing a lot easier.
You mentioned that you were going to direct and then had to step back because of your schedule. Was it hard to let go of the idea of that?
It was the right thing to do, because just for personal reasons. It would’ve taken me away from my kids for too long, so I kind of had to make that choice. But it was hard to give it up. It was a bummer. And the day that I decided to do it, it was a really tough phone call with John. And also because we had it set up with Warner Bros. because I have a deal there and they were just doing it to support me; it didn’t feel like a Warner Bros. movie but they were doing it to be supportive of me, so when I bowed out as the director they bowed out as the financier, and that was that.
One thing I thought that was so interesting about this movie is that your character is so sympathetic, and for 85% of the film he is defending the big corporation. It’s so rare in these movies that it’s okay to root for people to want the money and go against the cause. Until, that is, the end. What was your thought process in adding in that twist ending?
I mean, really the stand that the guy takes at the end doesn’t have anything to do with the issue, it has to do with democracy and the idea that the process is being hijacked by the money, basically, is too much for him. And what he says to the town, basically, is, “I’m not telling you what to decide.” He says, “I don’t think this is going to happen, but I don’t know what to tell you. This is your decision.” It’s about taking responsibility for the decisions that we make as a society and as these communities and owning those decisions. And he basically says, “If you don’t make this decision it’s going to get made for you.” So that’s really the stand that he takes, if there is any stand at all. Which I liked. It feels like our political process has been captured by these big money interests, but at the end of the day the power does truly lie with the people if they are engaged. And that’s what he’s saying at the end.
I read that it took you guys a little while to settle on what issue the movie would be about, and I was wondering if you think the movie would have been different if you were dealing with an issue that wasn’t fracking.
Yeah, I mean surely it would. But there was nothing we could find where the stakes were this high. Which is why we loved it, which is why it’s a really interesting place to set the whole thing and issue to set it around. Because the potential gains are so huge and the potential losses are so huge, that it’s really the perfect issue for the movie.
I liked how in the movie it took a long time before anyone even said the word “fracking” and then when someone does it sounds almost like a swear word.
Yeah, and it’s Hal Holbrook who said it.
And he was so great in the movie. How did his casting come about?
Well, that guy is supposed to represent the ones who’ve come before, and he speaks to the idea of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re headed, and the idea of stewardship. So we needed an older actor, and we wanted somebody who could just be… who could just be, really. Who was undeniably honest. And Hal just has such a quality of truth to him, that when he speaks you believe everything he says, and it’s unadorned. I love that style of acting. To me that’s because it’s so genuine, it’s so honest. And that’s what that role needed. So once we thought of Hal there really wasn’t anyone else we could think of who could do it quite like that.
The last bit of casting we haven’t really talked about is casting the role of Alice.
Every time in my career I’ve been part of casting a romantic lead, my theory has never changed, it’s just get the best actress available. Whoever wants to do it. And [Rosemarie DeWitt] came in and we read together and we did kind of like a screen test in a bar in Hollywood, and John Krasinski played the bartender, and we did that first scene where they meet in the bar. And she was just great. And it was that thing where a woman comes in and she just took it, she just took the part. And there was just no doubt she was the right person for it. And she also has that real quality, which we really wanted, again. Like, Gus [Van Sant] said no makeup, we couldn’t wear makeup, he just wanted us to be real people.
Speaking of Gus, what was it like working with him this time around? Did it feel different?
No, it felt the same. It felt really great, and I have the benefit of 15 years of being with all these other directors so I understand why he’s a genius now. In the old days I just knew he was a genius and didn’t quite understand how he did what he did. And now I do have a keen understanding of how he does it and why he’s so great, and I’m just very appreciative that I get to work with him.
I’ve heard so much about the silent takes that he does, and I’m just curious from an actor’s standpoint what it feels like to do a scene in that way.
It’s great. That’s the old Coppola thing, steal from the best, Francis always said that, “You steal good ideas.” Sean Penn had told [Van Sant] that Terrence Malick did that, so Gus started doing it on Milk, and two scenes in Milk are silent takes. And the scene where Scoot and I — the “fuck you money” scene in the bar, there was dialogue of him walking towards me. He was talking the whole time in the four or five other takes we did, there was a whole chunk of dialogue back and forth. And we did the silent take and he just got up, and Gus put it in the movie. He comes up and it’s really menacing. And there was a whole time that passes before finally I just kind of laugh, and he goes,”Is there something you wanted to say?” That all was, you know we had like a page of dialogue that Gus just cut out. So that silent take stuff really works. It also works for reaction takes, Gus said, because the actors loosen up. They go, “It’s the silent take, it doesn’t really matter.” And so he says he ends up using the reaction shots from a lot of those takes.
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[Photo Credit: Scott Green/Focus Features (3)]