Matt Damon in Promised Land

Matt Damon in Promised Land

Matt Damon has reunited with director Gus Van Sant for Promised Land; a script he penned with co-star John Krasinski.

Below, Matt Damon talks about why he was originally planning to direct but then pulled out, how it was to reunite with Gus Van Sant again.

- What drew you to working with Gus Van Sant again?

I was originally going to direct this movie, and my schedule got a little beyond me, so he was the first person that I called.

I have written three things and Gus Van Sant has directed all of them, so I just trust him completely. He creates the perfect work environment; he makes it seem really effortless. A great director.

- How different would the film have been if you’d made it?

It probably would not have been as good! No, it was really instructive, because I had prepared the entire movie as a director.

Obviously I did not tell Gus Van Sant anything I was going to do. But it was great for me to watch the things that he did that I was going to do and then things that he thought of that I didn’t think of, that were really great.

- How did you and John Krasinski click as writers?

It was really easy. We met and we became friends and we had dinner a lot, and then we would talk about everything. We were talking about the country, current affairs, and he pitched me this idea.

We were interested in looking at the idea of American identity and looking at where the country came from, where it is and where it’s going.

He told me about this idea of somebody coming to a town - but it was really an exploration of American identity and how we make decisions and what we think about when we make decisions and what that says about us.

- Does writing give you a different feeling than acting?

Yes, to write it is more of an investment. I feel like I am always invested, but when you put all the time into writing it, there is a much bigger investment of time and energy, so it probably feels more personal.

- Why?

Just because of the amount of time we put in. It is a slightly different feeling when you are a mercenary and an actor-for-hire - you come in very late in the pre-production process, you do your job and then you leave, and a few months later somebody shows you a cut of the movie, and maybe you have some notes, maybe you don’t, but life goes on.

But this does not exist unless you make it exist. You write it, create it, and now suddenly it is a script and it is a thing. You go get a director and you are in every casting meeting, you are location scouting... and it is a much more labour intensive process. You are paying attention to every single detail.

Like ‘I don’t think the mail box should be red; it should be green.’ It’s things like that, and there are thousands of decisions. With Gus Van Sant, he is a very inclusive director, and he always wants ideas. He really included us in that process.

So it becomes more personal, just because you are invested in every detail. There is never anything arbitrary on screen. There is nothing arbitrary.

Every single detail from the frame line to every thing people are wearing, how they are saying what they are saying, the colour of the curtains... for every single thing there has been a meeting.

- The film deals with fracking. Had that issue been in your consciousness?

A: No, not initially - although it had been because it was in the news in New York. When we first started the movie, it was about wind-farms, so it was not really the issue that mattered - it was more the idea of American identity.

But then when we started to really look into the wind farms and started to go to upstate New York, we realised that the research that had been done for us was all wrong, so we had to reboot the entire thing, that’s when John found natural gas.

It is actually a much better issue, because the stakes are so incredibly high and people are so divided about it. If you’re going to explore how we make decisions, it’s actually the perfect issue.

- Is it a subject you are more involved with now?

We did a lot of research so I am a lot more interested. It is a really big thing in New York right now. It’s big wherever the Marcellus [Shale] is, it is really big.

But in New York, [Governor] Cuomo has not let them in yet so there is a huge battle that has been raging there amongst people who want to lease their land and people who do not want anybody fracking in the state.

- But you would say the eco-aspects were secondary?

Yes, the issue was secondary to the actual dynamics of our decision-making - where we are and where we are headed. We literally swapped the issue out.

We looked at a number of possible things. It was more about that dynamic within... we wanted it to feel like a pro-community movie, about where we are all headed.

- You are not a hardcore eco guy then?

I am not an environmentalist or anything like that. But like all of us I recycle... hopefully, all grown-ups are recycling. I do not have a car. That is because I live in New York; not because I am against cars. But, no, it is not a cause. It did not come from that place.

- Is the film also a tribute to the ways of rural life?

A little bit. It’s the American iconic idea of rural life. That’s really the life that’s dying out there and when you go to these rural places and talk to people - you think a recession is bad in the city, it’s horrible in the country.

These guys are all losing their farms and losing a way of life really and looking for some way to hang onto it. It’s really tragic. When you go to talk to people about shale gas, natural gas, they all have an opinion about it. These small towns really know the issue.

- Did you want to address the traditional heroism of American characters seen in films?

A: It was addressing the idea of where are we headed, where are we and how did we get here? Kind of on the heels of the rampant greed and insanity of the last decade and everything with the bankers.

The original idea with the wind farms was that it was a subsidy play that people were actually erecting wind turbines on their property... fly-by-night companies were coming and erecting these wind-towers and they didn’t even have to work to get the subsidy, and the farmers knew it.

So there is this whole idea... we went from selling nothing to one another, like these credit default swaps, to now erecting towers of junk on our front lawns to get the money. It has taken an even more perverse turn.

So it was really a reaction to the disgusting, naked greed of the bubble - and ‘What does that say about us?’ This idea of long-term problems not being engaged with, because on the political side people are only incentivised to engage with short terms things because we have a two year election cycle, so these people in Congress do nothing but run for office; they do not actually do anything.

And so the long term problems are now the ones that are actually going to rise up and get us, and nobody is actually facing them. And where the hell are we? That was really the impetus behind wanting to make the movie.

Where are we ultimately? How is it when these big decisions come? Where have we arrived today in the country? How do we decide what to do and what to think about? Do we think about stewardship?

- How did you find reuniting with Gus Van Sant?

Well, fifteen years after Good Will Hunting (1997), he has so much experience, he will take a five-page scene and on the first two, three pages, he will carry it in one shot.

Once he gets it, he moves on. He is very confident. He does not cover a lot. Directors who do not know what they are doing sit there and do ten takes.

- Were there other differences to Good Will Hunting?

What was interesting was that the movie business has really contracted. So it is harder to get money for anything now, and you have got to kick and scratch for anything you get.

Also, we shot Good Will Hunting in 48 days, this movie we shot in 30 days. Structurally it is the same; a lot of five-page scenes and we probably had more locations on Promised Land actually. So that is an indication of where the business is going. But we never felt rushed, and that is because of Gus Van Sant.

- Do you think Promised Land is a hopeful film?

I think ultimately the guy says at the end of the movie - he does not have his job but he says ‘It’s still our barn.’ He is basically saying it is a decision we have to make. We cannot put our head in the sand, or it is going to get made for us.

So you have to engage with the issue and make a decision - and it is your decision. That is why we did not want to say what the decision was. The idea was not to give any answers. It was just to say it is the job of all of us to be actively engaged, understanding what is happening on our behalf.

I think it ends with some hope. It was not meant to be a fatalistic ‘We don’t have a chance against these corporations’ type of thing.

Though we did want... the twist with John’s character is meant to stand in for that idea that they are playing both sides. That if you are passive they will decide for you, but if you are active, then no.

Promised Land is released DVD 13th January.

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