EXCLUSIVE: Even before Focus Features made Promised Land a late Oscar entry, the film’s writer-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski came under fire from the energy industry. Their film deals with “fracking,” which mixes chemicals, sand, water and drilling to loosen underground shale deposits to harvest natural energy. Damon and Fran McDormand play gas company reps using the lure of potential riches to convince struggling farmers to allow fracking on their lands, despite the risks for their crops and livestock. Krasinski plays a grassroots activist fighting the reps as the town prepares to vote. Promised Land reunites Damon with Gus Van Sant, who directed Good Will Hunting, which brought Oscars and fame to Boston neophyte scribes Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon and Krasinski are fun guys, the type who’d be a blast to invite over to watch football…as long as you aren’t a fan of the New York Giants and the two Super Bowls they won over the New England Patriots.
DEADLINE: Matt, you’ve said recently that the Bourne Legacy spinoff didn’t make it any easier for Jason Bourne to return. What has to happen for us to see your signature character back onscreen?
DAMON: Just a couple things, really. Paul Greengrass has to want to do it, and secondly and equally important, it comes down to Paul and I knowing what the hell we want to do. We just don’t have a story, and we haven’t had one. I quietly went to Jonah Nolan, because he and his brother Chris did such a brilliant job on Batman and that whole mythology. I just said, can you put your brain on this? I can’t figure it out. And he took a run at it and he couldn’t crack it either. Paul and I have been talking about it for years. And we can’t quite see what the movie would be. If we could get line of sight on that…
DEADLINE: We are force-fed so many unnecessary sequels, and here is a smart thriller that we actually want to see more of…
DAMON: Neither of us is against it. I would love to do another one. I love that character. To me, the reason to make that movie is because people want to see it. Paul and I have said that to each other. We don’t take for granted the fact that we’ve built an audience for Bourne, that’s a real privilege. But our part of that bargain is that the movie is good and belongs with the other three. Until we can deliver that, we just can’t make it.
DEADLINE: I watched last week as Brad Pitt’s bankability got questioned after Killing Them Softly tanked. How much do stars like you and Brad worry about taking on projects like that or Promised Land? You see them as specialty pictures made at a price, but if they fail, they go down in the loss column.
DAMON: Some actors don’t make these movies for exactly that reason. I couldn’t bear to have a career like that. These are exactly the kind of movies I like to go see. That might put me in the minority of the movie-going public, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make them. In writing Promised Land, John and I talked a lot about films like Local Hero and The Verdict, a movie I absolutely love. I don’t know what that movie would do today, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to be in The Verdict.
DEADLINE: How helpful then are hits like Bourne?
DAMON: It’s always nice when one hits. It buys you relevance in the industry for a couple years and gives you cover to do these other things. But I would never just protect my beach head. That would be a career built out of fear and I won’t live that way. I want to challenge myself in different genres, playing different characters, and I don’t want to get pigeonholed and forced to do the same things. If Promised Land does not do a lot of business, it’s not going to end my career. But I am mindful like we all are that you don’t get to keep doing this if your movies don’t perform at the box office.
DEADLINE: John, how hard is it for you to end your long run on The Office?
KRASINSKI: It’s as hard as it gets, to be honest. This is so much more for me than just ending a television series. I was a waiter when I got the job. No one would know my name if it wasn’t for this job and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the career opportunities. To be part of something special enough to have a final season rather than just getting canned is an honor. The show is everything to me. By the end of whatever career I have, there’s a part of me that will always be defined by this show and I’m supremely honored that is the case. I got this job when I was 23 and now I’m 33 and that’s a pretty important decade to spend on one project with one group of people. This is the most important thing I’ve ever done, the proudest thing I have. I will never forget a minute of it nor would I take back a second of it.
DEADLINE: John, you hatched the idea for Promised Land and paid Dave Eggers to write, out of your own pocket. Matt, you were making Adjustment Bureau with John’s wife Emily Blunt at the time. How did all this lead to you guys becoming writing partners?
KRASINSKI: Well, you nailed how we met, and we started professionally double dating. We’d talk about what we hoped to do. Matt told me he wanted to direct and did I have anything. I brought him this.
DEADLINE: How much of the ambition behind this script was to expose the dangers of fracking? Is that what you responded to, Matt?
DAMON: Not at all. I responded to the idea of a guy going to a small town and being changed by the town, and the town being changed by him. It was about American identity, where we’ve been and where we are headed. We talked about different issues we could use as a backdrop. As we researched natural gas, we realized it was the obvious choice because the stakes are so incredibly high, and it is right now something people are grappling with in thousands of communities all over the country. It seemed a perfect fit for the story we wanted to tell.
KRASINSKI: I subconsciously based the idea on my dad, who grew up in Natrona Heights, a small town just outside Pittsburgh. I remember him telling me his dad held multiple jobs and they didn’t have much. As an ignorant 8-year-old I remember asking, does that mean your childhood was awful? He said no, that it was the opposite. He said it was a phenomenal way to live; they had each other and a tremendous sense of community, and faith that tomorrow was going to be a better day. That pure ideal is so inspiring it has stuck with me my whole life. So as this country in my opinion has moved farther away from that ideal, I thought it was important to tell a story of how it once was, and how we can be again.
DEADLINE: When you cover a hot-button topic like fracking, how do you make sure you don’t leave viewers feeling they’ve been lectured?
DAMON: We talked about that a lot, and worked toward having characters at the center of this that felt like people we all know. Like that guy who, as soon as he gets five grand, goes right out and buys a Corvette. Or Fran McDormand’s character, who approaches making these deals with locals as a job and makes the decisions she makes to support her kid. Those things are humanizing; the relatable characters keep it from being a dry, boring lecture. I’d never forgive myself for writing that.
KRASINSKI: That was especially important with this incredibly complex issue. We agreed right away that taking one side in this story wouldn’t be the way to go. To say that fracking is either good or bad is naive. We found that out in the research and especially when we got to the town. We see it as a political issue on a national stage, but it’s not a hypothetical for the people dealing with these issues. It’s not as simple as, do you want money or do you want the earth to be untouched? It is about how these people find themselves in the position of having to decide between allowing drilling to happen on their land, or losing the farm. We met people who said, literally, we’ve had this farm in our family for 150 years, and I can’t pay the mortgage. If I don’t allow drilling on my land, I’ll be the person who let it go. And I’m not willing to live with that.
DAMON: And there are people on the other side who argue just as strongly and ask, do you bring your daughters to the whorehouse when times get tough? These are real arguments and real people. We wanted to be sure the screenplay wasn’t judging any of the characters, and that you would recognize some of your own decisions in the decisions these people are making when big money and real people collide in these communities.
DEADLINE: How did the writing dynamic between you and John compare with your Good Will Hunting collaboration with Ben Affleck?
DAMON: It was eerily similar. Maybe because we’re all actors, the process was absolutely the same. We’d improvise stuff, play all the different characters. It brought back a lot of really great memories. I really did forget how much I loved writing. My wife said to me in the middle that even if you guys never get this movie made, I haven’t seen you this happy and at least you’ve remembered how much you love this. It’s true. I’m definitely not going to take as much time between writing jobs again.
DEADLINE: No getting around the fact you wrote a script with another actor. How upset was Ben at this blatant infidelity?
DAMON: Well, listen. I think John just used me, to get to Ben.
KRASINSKI: Not true…but do you have his number?
DAMON: Ben is at the top of the A-list in every single category, so Ben is not hurting at all these days.
DEADLINE: I just read an Entertainment Weekly cover tribute to Ben written by his Argo producer George Clooney. Maybe it’s you who should be worried, Matt. You could feel the bro-mance in the air. It wouldn’t shock me if they are going halves on a private box at Fenway Park.
DAMON: That’s why I immediately took my next job on Clooney’s The Monuments Men. I want to head that off. I gotta put a stop to all this.
DEADLINE: Matt, what got in the way of making Promised Land your directing debut?
DAMON: I blame my damn kids. Actually, I was doing Neill Blomkamp’s movie Elysium. It’s a big sci-fi film that ran longer than expected. I realized I was going to have a two-week break before leaving my family again to go into pre-production for 12 weeks, and then shoot for another eight weeks. I just couldn’t do it. So I bowed out ungracefully at the eleventh hour. John and I wanted this movie for 2012, it was important just because of the topicality. We saw from a distance when we started a year and a half ago that this issue was gaining prominence and we felt people would really start being engaged with it around now.
DEADLINE: John, you directed a film, and I’m sure you both discussed how Matt would shoot this. When you see what a top director like Gus Van Sant did, what lessons did you learn?
KRASINSKI: Every single lesson you could ever learn. I think Gus is one of the best directors ever, and he was absolutely No. 1 on my list when people ask, who would you like to work with? So much so that when Matt told me Gus wanted to direct this movie, I straight up didn’t believe him and Matt had to forward me the e-mail from Gus. From a directing standpoint, very few people are as confident and as vested in what they do as Gus. His very unique perspective on the world, and tone and reality was so necessary for this project.
There’s one shot that’s a perfect example. It was the second day of shooting, where Matt’s character goes to sign his first house. There’s this beautiful blonde girl sitting at the table, coloring in her coloring book. Our idea would probably have been to film the conversation between the two men over her shoulder. Gus shot it with the girl in the foreground, and the two men in the background, in another room. You only see their hands but you see her, as they do a deal that will forever change the life of this girl and her generation. The way he did it was so poetic and powerful that we just silently pumped our fists and knew we had made a great decision to fire Matt.
DEADLINE: Matt, how humbling was it when you had one way in mind to shoot the picture, and then see this?
DAMON: That shot was just exquisite. We knew it was a great shot when we saw him do it and later, we said to each other, we wrote this thing and we didn’t think of that! It was a director elevating the material. I’d like to think that eventually I would have arrived at the conclusion that we needed the girl in the foreground, but I don’t know. He thought of it first. It was humbling.
DEADLINE: Even before anybody saw this film, the energy industry was critical of Promised Land, noting its partial sponsorship from oil-vested Abu Dhabi. How has this impacted your film?
DAMON: Well, the film hasn’t come out yet, I wouldn’t get into an argument about a book I haven’t read, and so I can’t engage with someone knocking a film they haven’t seen. I think that’s more of a fringe element. The energy industry is more sophisticated and my guess is, if they decide to attack the movie they’ll put out stories about people who’ve positively been affected, and have them talk about the movie. They won’t deal with it directly. That would be the more sophisticated play, and what I’d do if I were them.
DEADLINE: Promised Land was the last film to enter the Oscar race. It platforms December 28 before opening in January. Why enter so late?
DAMON: Normally, when we’re in a race, we like to give everybody a big head start. Actually, we badly wanted to get it out this year, and Gus has so much experience that he didn’t need an extended postproduction. I’ve never been good at handicapping this stuff. I just know I’m proud of it and we’ll see what happens. It’s hard to make a dent in the public consciousness with all of the behemoths that are coming out. John and I have considered telling people that we actually have Hobbits, and that at the end, Osama bin Laden gets shot in the face. Unfortunately, neither of those things happened in Promised Land, but it has some other merits, I hope.
DEADLINE: Matt, you outed the retirement plans of Steven Soderbergh and just wrapped his last film, Behind The Candelabra. The three of us could sit here and name 100 directors who should retire before Soderbergh. How much have you tried to talk him out of it?
DAMON: Believe me, it’s an ongoing conversation, but after a few years to absorb this, I am at peace with his decision. He is a real artist, he’s got a lot to give and I just hope he finds something that feels right at this stage of his life. My real hope is he misses us and comes back.
DEADLINE: He has done great work since your declaration made the retirement plans public. Maybe he’ll pull a Brett Favre, the quarterback who kept un-retiring.
DAMON: I want him to pull a Favre so bad, dude. I hope Steven Soderbergh becomes the Brett Favre of moviemaking.
DEADLINE: I’m out of questions, but since we are on a football track and you guys are fans, what say we reminisce about the last two Super Bowls between my Giants and your Patriots?
DAMON: Oh, please don’t. We’re hanging up on you now. Okay. The first one, David Tyree, greatest catch ever. Second one, Mario Manningham, second greatest catch ever. Two miracles. Good for you. But you were one Gronkowski sprained ankle away from an ass whuppin’ last time.
Here is the trailer for Damon and Krasinski’s Promised Land: