Gus Van Sant has always been a director who is hard to pin down, veering from insanely small-scale, personal works like “Elephant” and “Paranoid Park” to larger scale entertainments like “Finding Forrester” and his admirable-if-unsuccessful “Psycho” remake. This week, his charming eco-drama “Promised Land” opens, which casts his “Good Will Hunting” co-writer Matt Damon as an operative from a natural gas company who travels to a small, financially struggling Pennsylvania town to woo them to sell the drilling rights to their land. But his efforts run up against an environmentalist, played by John Krasinski (who co-wrote “Promised Land” with Damon), who tries to alert the citizens to the dangers they might face with the “fracking” process. It’s not as showy as most of the movies grabbing for Oscar gold, but it’s a solid, well-intentioned drama, beautifully, almost impressionistically directed by Van Sant.
We got a chance to talk with the director, who as you may or may not know was a last minute replacement on the project. Damon was initially slated to helm “Promised Land,” but had to bow out as scheduling with “Elyisum” reshoots and other projects wouldn’t leave him enough prep time. Van Sant discussed with us stepping into director’s chair, refashioning the movie’s third act, and how he divides his time between commercial films and more arty movies.
Why did you jump onto this project?
I had been following it a little bit when Matt was developing it. There was a project he had talked about directing, and this one he was going to direct. When I read about it I somehow felt like it’d be great, if they ran into trouble and needed somebody to direct it, that I could do it. So when Matt texted me to direct it was like my little fantasy of them running into trouble and they’re calling now. So I was almost ready to say yes without reading the script. But I did read the script and I really liked it. It was about what I had expected – Matt has very high standards. I thought these words I was reading were the best of his standards. After reading it once I texted him the next day and said I’d do it for sure.
How much prep time did you have?
I think our start date was April 1st or something. So we had three months. It was enough time. It didn’t involve anything special. You just needed the cast, which you can accomplish really fast. The costumes were just Carhartt and pretty simple; that wasn’t going to be too hard. There weren’t any obstacles.
When you came aboard you worked on the script. What kind of stuff did you address?
There was always a desire to bolster Matt’s character in the sense of his journey to becoming disenchanted with his job. So there were initial meetings together wherein I sometimes served as a cheerleader and then they usually did most of the idea-making. Every now and then I’d say something and they’d look at me and go, “Yeah, okay.” And then on their own they were writing stuff. We were refashioning the last third of the story, not so much in the locations but in terms of what happened in those locations. It was fun. [John] and Matt are fast.
**SPOILERS** How did you approach the big third act reveal?
To me, I loved it the way it was originally written. There was some kind of technical question that John had that made him go into this whole other idea, at my suggestion. Somehow I suggested something that captured his imagination. It was like starting a match and somehow it blew into a gas fire. It changed that particular scene quite a bit. Originally, that character was just joking around. He thought that Matt Damon’s character always knew. So he was shocked. He said stuff like, “We’ll have offices together at the top of the building.” He didn’t know that Damon was upset and he just drives away. Which I thought was great. But because of certain logic, it went into a whole kind of James Bond thing. It became like a spy scene or something like that.
What was it like working with Damon again?
Well, he was 26 when we did “Good Will Hunting” and then we did “Gerry,” which was 2001. And on that one we were writing it while we were shooting. And it was Casey [Affleck] and Matt and myself. This one had a really strong screenplay that they had been working on for at least a year. It was sort of a sealed script. It was pretty much the roadmap. In the case of “Good Will Hunting” and this film, Matt divorces himself from the writing part and is just the actor. There was always, on “Good Will Hunting” and this film, a feeling of mutual agreement of what we were doing. I don’t know what he says in those situations, when people ask him what it’s like working with me. He’s very sensitive so he knows what I’m thinking without me actually talking. So he reacts to very small gestures and things and I’m usually not talking to him. And we don’t do many takes. We just do a take and I go, “‘Okay, that’s great, let’s move on,” he won’t have any doubts and say, “Can’t we do one more take?” It’s done with no particular discussion. It was like that on “Good Will Hunting” and it was like that on this.
Do you still plan on moving between smaller and larger films?
Well the budgets for all the films, with the exception of “Finding Forrester,” were all $20 million. I guess there are films that you would think were commercial and become more commercial and there are ones that you think might not be commercial, just from conception. So the question is, will I still be doing both of those movies? And the answer is, yes I will.
There was no indication really that “Good Will Hunting” would be terribly commercial. It seemed like something that could be really commercial but I always thought it was a question of whether or not people picked up on that. But when I make any film I always think they have a chance but it isn’t designed that way. I’ve only recently realized that there is this agreed on perception of: “Why would you do anything other than something that would make the most people come to your movie? Why would you intentionally challenge the audience in the medium we work in?”
In theater you challenge the audience quite a great deal. But in film, there are certainly people who do it, but why, in the Hollywood world, would you think to do that? And it’s only this year that I’ve started to understand filmmakers who do think in large-scale entertainment terms. It’s only recently that I’ve agreed with their vision. I guess because it’s where I’m coming from, because in art school the first thing you want to do is change it, change the way it’s done, with adverse results. If you challenge the audience and only 10% of that audience shows up, then you’re not intending it to be a gigantic thing. But it’s only recently that I’ve started to think like that.
“Promised Land” is in theaters now.