Matt Damon and John Krasinski on ‘Promised Land’
“IT’S the moment every actor actually fears,” Matt Damon said, looking around a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria in mock terror.
The night before he’d been at Cipriani, of all harrowing places, to receive a tribute at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. “It was one of those career achievements that makes me feel like it’s over for me,” he said, not entirely seriously. John Krasinski, a star of “The Office” on NBC, had presented the award. Now he sat grinning in the next chair. The two men wore suspiciously similar sweaters.
“How did you like your time here, Matt?” Mr. Krasinski asked, affecting a stern tone.
“Wait, what, sorry?” Mr. Damon said, playing along. He mimed being dragged away. “Then they take you in the back room ——”
“And shiv you,” Mr. Krasinski finished, with evident relish.
The banter was spontaneous, the rapport hard-earned. Mr. Damon, 42, and Mr. Krasinski, 33, are friends; they met through Mr. Krasinski’s wife, the actress Emily Blunt, when she starred opposite Mr. Damon in last year’s romantic thriller “The Adjustment Bureau.” They’re also collaborators and co-stars in a new movie, “Promised Land.” Their ease at improvising a scene is the result of practice. In addition to acting in “Promised Land” they wrote and produced the film, running lines and hammering out drafts in between day jobs, working weekends alongside Mr. Damon’s four rambunctious children in his Los Angeles home.
The film, directed by Gus Van Sant, concerns what happens when a natural gas company comes to a small town somewhere in the Marcellus Shale in the rural Northeast, intent on persuading the town’s working-class residents to allow the company to drill on their land. Mr. Damon plays Steve Butler, a blithely confident representative of the drilling company; Mr. Krasinski plays Dustin Noble, an earnest environmental activist with a nasty edge. At issue is the technique of fracking, the controversial method that the company in the film uses to extract gas, and the corrosive influence of the vast wealth that Mr. Damon’s character can promise and that Mr. Krasinski’s character is intent on resisting.
In an interview Mr. Van Sant described “Promised Land” as a “simple learning film,” an earnest, Capraesque meditation on the conflicting dictates of stewardship, hardship economics and fraying community values. By Mr. Damon’s standards, it’s a small movie, made for a modest budget of about $15 million and opening Friday in a limited number of theaters. (A wider release will come in January.) But it’s also a turning point — and something of a departure — for both Mr. Damon, who was scheduled to direct “Promised Land” before bowing out at the last moment, and Mr. Krasinski, whose show “The Office” is ending after an eight-year run.
“I feel like I’m on a precipice, jumping off for good,” Mr. Krasinski said. “To not be sure what’s next after that is completely terrifying.”
For Mr. Damon the stakes are equally real, if more elusive. He does not exactly lack for work. Last year he starred in Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and George Nolfi’s “Adjustment Bureau,” among other high-profile films, and next year he’ll be in “Elysium,” a science-fiction blockbuster from the director Neill Blomkamp. When shooting went long on that film, Mr. Damon was forced to give up the director’s chair on “Promised Land” for lack of time to prepare.
Uncharacteristically “Promised Land” will be the only film that Mr. Damon appears in this year. And that, he said, is a point of pride. “It’s a different feeling to work this in depth with a movie. Usually we show up, and we’re the mercenaries.”
His longtime friend Ben Affleck noted that it was neither easy nor politically simple for an actor of Mr. Damon’s stature to take a year off to work on his own project. “His career is full of the most extraordinary opportunities that an actor could ever dream of. So naturally the instinct isn’t to just turn away from that and say, ‘Let me sit at home staring at a blank page for six months.’ ”
On “Promised Land” Mr. Damon and Mr. Krasinski did everything from recruiting the cast, which also includes Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook and Frances McDormand, to scouting locations. That involvement provided “a much richer and deeper feeling of ownership,” Mr. Damon said.
The film may be Mr. Van Sant’s first collaboration with Mr. Krasinski, who previously wrote and directed an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.” But Mr. Van Sant and Mr. Damon have some history together. The director is fond of recalling a wager he was once tempted to make with the producer Laura Ziskin, back when Mr. Damon was an unknown actor auditioning for a part in Mr. Van Sant’s mordant comedy “To Die For.”
“He came in, he did a regular reading like everybody else, and when he left, the producer said, ‘That’s a movie star.’ ” Mr. Van Sant recalled. “You meet a lot of magnanimous, forthcoming, attractive, intelligent, talented people in your casting sessions. But somehow she just thought he was the thing. And if I was asked to bet — like a Las Vegas bet — I would’ve voted against.”
Most moviegoers know the rest of this story. Mr. Damon did not get the part. But he and his writing partner, Mr. Affleck, did eventually win Mr. Van Sant over, persuading him to take on a screenplay of theirs called “Good Will Hunting.” That script led Mr. Damon and Mr. Affleck to an Oscar, cementing their reign at the end of the last century as “the most overpublicized writing duo in some time,” as Mr. Affleck ruefully put it.
This month is the 15th anniversary of “Good Will Hunting,” and Mr. Damon admitted he’d been thinking about the film more than he had in a while. Writing “Promised Land,” Mr. Damon said, “we’d basically just be in a room with a laptop open and kind of hashing out the scenes, pacing around the room. It’s really exactly the way Ben Affleck and I wrote ‘Good Will Hunting.’ ”
And how, a reporter tentatively asked, did Mr. Krasinski compare to Mr. Affleck?
“Strikingly similar,” Mr. Damon said, laughing. “Honestly. The writing experience is the same.” (Mr. Affleck said, by way of wry response, “I think John is very, very talented.”)
This time Mr. Krasinski originated the idea to write a film about “American identity,” as he put it, one that focused on the working people whom he saw as marginalized in the present political climate.
“My dad grew up in a steel mill town just outside of Pittsburgh, and all his stories of growing up seemed so incredibly inspiring,” Mr. Krasinski said. “I wanted to write a movie where these people were in a situation that was representative as a whole of everything that we’re going through as a country.” Mr. Krasinski called the author Dave Eggers, whom he knew from the film “Away We Go,” and the two men worked out a basic concept (Mr. Eggers has a story credit on “Promised Land”) before Mr. Krasinski took the idea to Mr. Damon.
“Promised Land” quickly found a home at Warner Brothers, where Mr. Damon has a production deal. But the financing was contingent on Mr. Damon’s directing.
“I knew that when I bowed out that we were going to lose our” — Mr. Damon used another word for emphasis — “money.” In desperation he e-mailed their script to Mr. Van Sant from an airport runway. By the time he had landed, Mr. Van Sant had signed on, and the project eventually found a new home with Focus Features.
“As a producer I like to say that the smartest thing I did on the movie was firing myself as the director,” Mr. Damon said.
The behind-the-scenes experience on “Promised Land,” both men said, was something that they were eager to repeat.
“It was my wife who said to me after we’d been writing for a couple months, ‘I haven’t seen you this happy working,’ ” Mr. Damon said.
“And it’s true. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to start from scratch.”