NEW YORK — Focus Features is rallying the discussion around its late-season arrival “Promised Land” with a press day on Monday and an intimate luncheon this afternoon at Aquavit on 59th. Stars/screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski were on hand, as well as director Gus Van Sant.
By way of a brief synopsis, the film tells the story of a fracking company — Global — that comes to a small town in the form of Damon’s character and his associate, played by Frances McDormand. Their task is to offer money to the citizens for their land in order to drill for natural gas, and the justification is in poor economic times, their offer is a godsend. But what does it mean, beyond environmental ramifications, for a way of life to be shoved aside? That’s the question the film attempts to answer in some way.
Van Sant, it turns out, was also a late addition. After working on the script in 2011 with Krasinski, much of the work done while filming Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo,” Damon had the project all prepped to be his directorial debut. But when the production schedule for Neil Blomkamp’s “Elysium” began to get too unruly for that to be a reality, he had to bow out, begrudgingly.
“That was the first time as a producer I yelled at Matt,” Krasinski said jokingly. “I was like, ‘You couldn’t tell me this a month ago?’ It was right before Christmas and my whole world just fell apart. I was like, ‘Well, that’s that.'”
But Damon had an ace up his sleeve, so before boarding a plane, he quickly threw a text to Van Sant, with whom he had collaborated on films like “Good Will Hunting” and “Gerry” in the past, and asked the director if he would read the script. Van Sant was happy to tackle it. He saw it as an opportunity to make his Capra movie, and indeed, the famed director of such films as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was uttered by all three today.
“The Capra movies all have some rousing moment in the end when the character stands up for something,” Van Sant said. “That’s what I wanted.” But that’s not what was there originally, it should be noted. Without giving too much away, the script’s initial ending featured just one more crooked maneuver in a line of them, albeit a noble one. But Van Sant opted for something else, something broader, in the spirit of Mr. Capra — and yes, with a speech.
Krasinski first met Damon through his wife, actress Emily Blunt, who had worked with Damon on “The Adjustment Bureau.” Damon said that he was immediately impressed by the star of TV’s “The Office,” and that he reminded him of George Clooney. “For the longest time, everyone just knew Clooney from ‘ER,'” he said. “And then everyone said, ‘Why is Steven Soderbergh forming a company with the guy from ‘ER?’ And I think John is similar. He’s very talented.”
They knew that a film dealing with the issue of fracking was sure to be politicized, but their goal was to steer as far away from that as possible. The rhetoric leading up to release has been all about fracking being more of a backdrop for a story about shifting American values, and it’s not nonsense. That’s what “Promised Land” is, a tale of American identity and what of that identity people are willing to hold fast to, as well as what they are willing to relinquish.
“Matt’s been through the ringer with things being politicized,” Krasinski said. “He told me early on, ‘You know this is going to become a political thing.’ And that’s the last we said about it. A lot of it is just fact-based with no conservative or liberal agenda.”
Krasinski was passionate about writing the script largely because of his father, who grew up just 10 minutes away from the Pennsylvania filming location outside of Pittsburgh. He was a guy who grew up with no money, and yet that was okay. “He would say, ‘No, it was awesome,'” Krasinski recalled. And in an era when the American dream has become less about providing by efficient and humble means than about amassing the most wealth and status possible, that rings a certain note.
“I wrote this with him in mind,” Krasinski said. “He’d be on set and say, ‘We used to pick apples here.’ And it would blow my mind! I’m like, ‘Hang on, guys, I’m having this existential moment with my father.'”
Damon, meanwhile, said it was moreover a movie about democracy. “Corporations may be bigger than ever but the power still lies with the people,” he said. “So I think it’s a pro-community movie.”
Filming was completed in late May of this year and post-production moved along swimmingly. Van Sant said they finished it on October 1, in fact, “because Focus Features seemed to indicate that they needed it by then.” Assumably that’s because the studio felt they needed a little insurance in the awards season, as films like “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Anna Karenina” began to appear like tougher sells on the circuit. But at least the former has gotten indie traction.
Nevertheless, “Promised Land” is a film free of overly accented authorship from Van Sant, who has moved between that and intense stylization with ease throughout his career. It could find its stride in the onslaught of latter-year titles or it could be drowned out. But for this trio, it’s been a pleasure to tap into the spirit of a filmmaker who reflected the pulse of the American way for so many years.
“Promised Land” opens in limited release on December 28.