Matt Damon and John Krasinski set out to make a movie about abuse of corporate power and the little guy, set against the backdrop of an environmental movement. "I wanted to make a movie about American identity," says Krasinski, a star of The Office, who found a kindred spirit in Damon after the international movie star had been in The Adjustment Bureau with Krasinski’s wife, Emily Blunt.
"That’s personally something I think about a lot," says Damon. "The rise in corporate power, increasing disenfranchisement, a feeling that the system is rigged."
Together, they were going to write a movie that Damon would direct (more on that later). And they were interested in exploring the green energy movement. But they weren’t sure which part of the movement.
First, they tried wind. Krasinski and Damon hashed out a story based on research by a reporter they had hired to hunt down a controversy in upstate New York. But, says Damon, "If you go into the woods looking for a bear, you’ll find a bear." In other words, the reporter came back with the story they had wanted to hear, but upon further exploration it didn’t actually pan out. Plus, says Krasinski, “The biggest problem with wind energy is it’s noisy and people don’t want those big wind towers on their land.” So wind power wouldn’t make for a very interesting story.
After a moment considering the salmon industry, the pair settled on making a movie about hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. Krasinski was inspired in part by a series of stories in The New York Times, called Drilling Down. Thus, Promised Land, written by and starring Damon and Krasinski, and directed by Gus Van Sant, was born.
Despite the controversial subject, Damon and Krasinski were determined to not make a message movie. So to tamp down that perception, they kept a lid on talking about the movie’s central issue. “We didn’t want it to be a 'fracking’s bad’ movie,” says Damon, who figured the best way to do that was to focus on the characters, residents of a small, unnamed town in the Midwest.
"Once we knew it was heading towards natural gas, Matt said, look, people are going to see this as an anti-fracking movie and we can’t change that," recalls Krasinski. "We just have to get people to see it. And we never thought about the political ramifications again." He says the issue became merely a backdrop for the story.
Having settled on a subject and a basic outline, the two set about writing the script, which was no easy task considering Damon’s insane acting schedule. So Krasinski followed him—to Los Angeles, where he was shooting We Bought a Zoo, and to Vancouver where he was shooting the upcoming Elysium. “We would write at his house every weekend," says Krasinski. "He wins that chit because he has four beautiful girls. That’s a very busy house."
They’d take turns acting out the characters and typing, and their styles were well balanced. "Because we were writing it, having us be the actors the whole time allowed us to drill down layers beneath what we were going to expect any actor to do," Krasinski says, seemingly unaware of his thematic play on words. "Our tones worked well together. He’s a good sounding board and I run 150 miles an hour in one direction. He’s the guy who goes, wait, let me think that out."
Damon was set to direct until pretty much the last minute. Just before Christmas 2011, the pair had finished the script and they were feeling good heading into a little time off before pre-production. That’s when Damon dropped a bomb. Recounts Krasinski: "He realized things were starting to move on some of his projects, and that he still could shoot in April but it meant it would be crammed into the start date of Liberace, and he’d be doing editing while on the other movie." Clearly, it wasn’t ideal.
"I didn’t want this project to suffer," explains Damon. "I didn’t want to rush my directorial debut." And yet, even then he knew that he was crushing Krasinski. "Could you at least have told me a month ago?" Damon recalls Krasinski saying. "He was right. The only thing I could say was sorry."
And then, like the movie hero he sometimes plays, Damon saved the day: He emailed the script to Van Sant, who had directed the first—and pretty much only—movie Damon had previously scripted, Good Will Hunting. Van Sant said yes and immediately replaced Damon as director.
"It takes a lot of time to write." That’s how Damon explains his absence from movie writing since Good Will Hunting, which he wrote with his childhood friend Ben Affleck (and they won an Oscar for it—remember them screaming out their thank yous?). Damon is also credited with writing Gerry, a movie he says was largely improvised. "I never could find the physical time." He also recognizes that he needs a partner—first Ben Affleck, then Krasinski.
"I always felt as a director, 'I’m ready to direct my movie—oh, wait, Steven Soderbergh just called, he’s ready to make a movie, and I’m going to learn even more on that set,'" he says of making the jump to directing.
When he does finally settle on a movie to direct, Damon intends to follow advice that Steven Spielberg gave him: "He told me, 'The first time you direct find something simple—see if you can tell a story this way.' So don’t start with Lincoln. That’s a not a good first movie for anybody." (Spielberg’s first movie was Duel, a simple story but grippingly told.) "The scale of Promised Land was the size of the first movie I should do," he says. "It had all the things I wanted in terms of movie—it’s about people."
Damon does have his eye on a project for Warner Bros. "It’s a little movie. We’re trying to figure out when I can do it."