"Promised Land" was supposed to mark Matt Damon’s directorial debut -- the kind of meaty, ripped-from-the-headlines drama that would launch him into a second career behind the camera, mirroring what his friend and "Good Will Hunting" co-star and co-writer Ben Affleck has accomplished.
But there was a small snag on the way to cinematic glory.
A year ago, when Damon sat down just before Christmas to plan out his schedule, he realized that with films like Neill Blomkamp’s "Elysium" and Steven Soderbergh’s "Behind the Candelabra" on his plate, something had to give.
That meant calling John Krasinski, the star of "The Office," who had collaborated on the "Promised Land" screenplay, to break the bad news: Damon was pulling out of directing. Worse, his decision meant that Warner Bros. would no longer back the film.
“It was the lowest moment of the whole process, without a doubt,” Damon told TheWrap. “It was hard for me to let it go, because I loved it so much and I wanted to direct it -- but also, I did it on Dec. 15. As John said to me that night, ‘Couldn’t you have done this a month ago? It’s the holidays; we can’t even get our agents on the phone, let alone a director.’ It just looked like the movie was going to get pushed.”
As a Hail Mary pass, Damon emailed the script to Gus Van Sant, who helped shepherd the actor’s Oscar-winning script for "Good Will Hunting" to the big screen more than a decade ago. To the pair’s relief, Van Sant almost instantly agreed to take on the project.
“It was 18 hours from when Matt gave me the bad news that he gave me the good news,” Krasinski told TheWrap. “Truly, it was insane, to the point where I think my brain had a hard time understanding what the hell was going on. He wrote me an email at 8:30 as he was taking off on a flight to Miami saying, ‘I just sent it to Gus,’ and at 11:30 I had an email saying, ‘I just landed, and not only has he read it, he’s in.”
With new backers in the form of Participant and Focus Features, "Promised Land" opens in limited release on Friday, roughly a year after the project nearly went off the rails. It arrives with a big-name cast: Damon plays a morally conflicted gas-company executive, Frances McDormand is his wry partner, and Krasinski plays a scrappy young environmentalist who may not be exactly what he seems.
Not everyone is excited the movie eventually made it to the big screen.
"Promised Land" is under fire thanks to an incendiary plot about a small town struggling to decide whether to allow a natural-gas company to lease its land for the controversial drilling process known as “fracking.”
Even before the film had screened, the energy industry slammed the filmmakers for exaggerating fears that this type of natural-gas extraction could contaminate water and impact air quality.
In a story published in September in the New York Post, Phelim McAleer, the director of the pro-fracking documentary "Frack Nation," said that Damon’s and Krasinski’s movie was hyperbolic in its portrayal of environmental hazards associated with the practice.
“There is a war going on in parts of America between impoverished locals and urban elites,” he wrote. “These elites are using fraud, exaggeration and celebrity star power to stop rural communities from prospering through gas drilling. Sounds like a great setting for a movie. Unfortunately for America, it’s not one Hollywood is going to make anytime soon.”
Damon and Krasinski insisted that their critics should see the film first, because they were not interested in making a broadside against fracking. In fact, in early drafts, the villains had been coal-company workers who were exploiting wind-turbine subsidies.
“I’m willing to have any conversation with anyone after they’ve seen it, because I think that they’ll be very surprised as to what the movie is really about,” Krasinski said. “I don’t think either of us were interested in telling a very one-sided, uber-liberal anti-fracking movie because that would just be boring. The truth lies so much closer to the middle than either end of the extreme.”
Great pains were taken to present opposing viewpoints. Damon’s character argues in the film that in order to drive a car or enjoy electricity, sacrifices have to be made. “What is so interesting about these problems is that they are so complex, so we wanted the characters to be dimensional,” Damon said “We wanted them to feel like real people, because you can’t judge people for the decisions that they’re making. It’s not hypothetical to them. It’s real.”
Damon said that he decided to end the movie with a scene of the town gathering to vote on whether to allow the drilling, because he wanted to make a larger point about the value of democracy. “It’s not about what you decide, it’s that you make the decision,” he said.
Being part of democracy for Damon has often meant taking unpopular stands. He made headlines last year when he criticized President Obama in interviews with Elle magazine and Piers Morgan. At the time, he faulted Obama for not pushing for more Wall Street reforms in the wake of the financial crisis.
He said that he has since made peace with the president and voted for his re-election. “I’m a perennial optimist,” Damon told TheWrap. “So I’m very hopeful that this second term is going be a great one and that we’re going to see who he is.”
Damon said that despite the backlash that occasionally greets his public statements, he has no regrets about making his political beliefs known. “People know I’m a liberal guy, and I’m fine with that,” he said. “I think people go to the movies that they want to go to. A Jason Bourne movie is always going to have a bigger audience than a smaller movie, and there are people of every stripe who go to those.”
Should Oscar voters endorse "Promised Land," the natural-gas lobby won’t be the only thing Damon will be up against. He may soon find himself going head to head with longtime buddy Affleck, whose Middle-East drama "Argo" is considered one of the frontrunners for the big prize.
“I’ve known Ben for 30 years, and I’ve been probably on a hundred auditions with him since we were teenagers, so I know how good he is,” Damon said.
“He got put into the penalty box by the industry and the only way for him to get out of it was to be totally self-reliant, because nobody else was going to put him in their movie,” he added of the tabloid frenzy that greeted Affleck’s romance with Jennifer Lopez and the industry backlash that ensued after their romantic comedy "Gigli" died at the box office. “Now he’s breathing some pretty rarified air.”
Damon, along with his wife of seven years, Luciana Barroso, and their four children, studiously avoids the tabloids. He thinks there are virtues in keeping some things private, a lesson he hints Affleck learned the hard way.
“I think that getting caught on the cover of those magazines is just death,” he added. “I talked to Ben about it 10 years ago, and nobody was more aware of what was going on than he was. He literally was like, ‘I am in the worst place you can be. I’m selling magazines and not movie tickets.’”
Thanks to the nearly $1 billion his three Jason Bourne movies racked up at the worldwide box office, Damon has been able to work on a number of offbeat or independent films. He’s leveraged his star power to work on dark dramas like "Hereafter" with Clint Eastwood or to partner with the Coen Brothers on "True Grit."
Yet the economics of Hollywood have shifted to favor superhero films over the kind of deeply personal films that those filmmakers prefer to shoot. Despite the new financial reality, Damon said he is confident that it’s still possible to make passion projects.
Both he and Krasinski claim their experience working with Van Sant on the $15 million "Promised Land" demonstrate that working economically does not have to mean skimping on quality.
“You have a bunch of people who are really going to be the redefinition of the industry,” Krasinski said. “That’s really exciting because maybe more movies like this will be made. They’ll be made for a price, but I don’t mind that as long as the good stories are being told.”