This month Matt Damon stars in Gus Van Sant’s eco-drama “Promised Land” (read our review here). Seizing upon the hot-button issue of fracking, a dangerous and potentially environmentally hazardous method of getting natural gas out of deep subterranean pockets of earth, Damon plays an operative for the gas company who is sent to woo the citizens of a small, northern New York town into signing over their land for the process. There are people in the town, of course, that oppose the company and the procedure (led by an outstanding Hal Holbrook as a local science teacher), and things get even thornier when a mysterious environmentalist (John Krasinski) attempts to foil Damon’s plot. Late last year, we got to talk to Damon about the film (which was originally scheduled to be his directorial debut). We discussed the process of handing it over to Van Sant along with what was going on with Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” and what it was like being part of Steven Soderbergh’s last-ever film (at least for now). We even spoke to him at length about the possibility of returning to the ‘Bourne‘ series (it doesn’t look good), which you can read about here.
You haven’t written a script since “Good Will Hunting.” What made this something that you were compelled to write?
It was just something that John and I were ruminating on. We were looking to do something together. We started it and neither of us made any promise to the other that this was definitely going to happen. But we started writing and we wrote really fast together and it was really fun. So we just kept doing it. He was working on [“The Office“] and I was doing a movie, so we would meet on the weekend and write all day Saturday and Sunday. I think it was the progress we were making that made us stick to it.
But why hadn’t you done anything in between?
Timing. It was really hard to find the time. Even this was done moonlighting. But John was tenacious and that really helped. He was tenacious – he would show up at my house every Saturday morning and we’d have breakfast and start writing and he’d stay until dinnertime. And Sunday – same thing. During the week I would go over what we’d written and mark up the script and come up with notes and sure enough the next Saturday morning he’d be at my door. Very quickly it started to take shape and looked like something really good. The original plan was for me to direct it and my excitement was in large part because of that. Plus the role started to get really good. It was one of those [Elia] Kazan protagonists with that self loathing streak that I was never able to play before.
Were there any other touchstones you were harkening back to?
No. It was a feeling. We talked about [Frank] Capra and Kazan but the main goal was to make sure the characters felt like real people, that we would regonize them all as people we know – the dude who gets the five grand and buys the Corvette. We wanted it all to feel contemporary and honest and be complicated, because the issues are complicated. You know you go to these rural places where we were shooting and ask them about fracking and they are very divided but it’s not an intellectual exercise for them. If you think the recession is bad in the city, wait until you see it in the country. These are people who are going to lose their family farms. When we were shooting a couple farmers came up and said, “Is this movie about fracking? You shouldn’t say anything bad about that.” It was very intense. And that’s where we are and that’s what’s interesting to us, because the stakes are so incredibly high with the potential gains and the potential losses.
You missed your opportunity to direct this time. Is that something you still want to do?
Definitely. It was very hard, selfishly, for me to pass up directing this because I really liked it and was really happy with where we got the script. But it just didn’t fit with my life. We wanted to go right away, we wanted it to come out this year. And that was that.
Why was it so important for it to come out this year?
It’s all happening now. Just in terms of it being in the news and something people are talking about.
Was your involvement more based around the political discussion or because the character was so good?
It was the character. We loved these characters. They feel so real and that’s the kind of movies I like.
[Spoiler alert] I heard from Gus that the reveal of John’s character being a double agent was handled differently originally. How did that evolve?
Well we rehearsed it that way. The reveal scene, everything you know about the character you learn in that scene. So you can do ten different versions of that reveal scene and it will have totally different implications for the movie. So we rehearsed it that way where John’s character is like, “Wait a minute you didn’t know the whole time…?” And it was one of those. But the turn felt so much better the way we ended up with it. Because we also had a version that was similar but he was really driving the scene. But what really works is having your protagonist putting it together and driving the scene. And the line I love for John is, “I should have just gotten in the car.”
Not that it’s “The Sixth Sense,” but can you go back and see his angle the whole time?
Yeah and we toyed with it as we were doing it. There’s the scene in the bar where I buy him the beer. And he’s like, “Do you think you have what it takes?” He’s kind of assuming that I know who he is.
Do you have anything in mind for your directorial debut?
I have one project at Warner Bros. that they bought a year and a half ago [“Father Daughter Time“] that I talked about doing and I would like to do. And our company is getting a lot more submissions now that Ben has become the hottest director in town. So there should be some good stuff to develop.
Did his directing inspire you at all?
No, I mean we had both talked about it. He was forced into it, really, because he was in actor jail and couldn’t get a job that he wanted. So that really limited his options five years ago so that’s why he started with “Gone Baby Gone.” Once he had done that movie and it was received really well, he still wasn’t getting acting jobs. So he rewrote “The Town” and was like, “Well, I’ll direct it and be in it!” With “Argo” it was another great role, so it was another great two-punch for him. I think now what he wants to do is, he’ll obviously direct again, but he wants to get some jobs from really good directors that he admires and just be an actor for hire.
And you guys are working on something together right?
The Whitey Bulger thing? Yeah we’re developing it. Terence Winter is writing it, who’s great. Hopefully something will come of it. Development is always tough but that story is tough too because it’s tough to find a way in. There aren’t really people to root for in Whitey Bulger’s inner circle – they’re murderous thugs who subsequently got fucking book deals and turned on each other. They’re the worst people ever!
You just got done with ‘Elysium’ reshoots right?
Yeah I had two days of reshoots. They literally had a bald cap made and they go, “Well, it’ll take about three extra hours in the chair every morning but we can totally get away with it.” And I was like, “No, I’d rather just shave my head.” I didn’t have a job this fall anyway.
So it was just minor tweaks?
Yeah just two days. It was just enough time to go, “Do I really want to shave my head?” But I realized I didn’t have any job happening so there really wasn’t any choice.
Is it going to be as cool as we all hope it is?
I think so. I think it’s going to be pretty great. But people have such high hopes for Neill… He showed me some of the effects. It’s pretty sick.
Are you planning to work with Paul Greengrass again?
Yeah. Whenever I can. Whenever I can. Apparently his movie he just did is brilliant, the one he just did with Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips.” In fact, I had dinner with Paul a month ago in London and he said, “It’s everything I wanted it to be.” Which is insane that he said that. I have pretty high hopes for it.
And you just did the last Steven Soderbergh movie – how was that?
It was sad. It went incredibly well, I’m really proud of it. It’s a wonderful movie.
When he comes back…
He’d better come back.
… You’ll be there?
He knows I’m waiting. He knows I’ll be there.
Is “Liberace” still on tap for Cannes?
Yes. We’d go to Cannes in May and then it’d premiere in Cannes also in May.
Have you seen it?
Yeah. I love it. I’m really happy with it. I’m dying to know what people think. I think it’s pretty special. Michael is phenomenal.
“The Promised Land” is in wide release as of today, Friday, January 4th, 2013.