John Krasinski is the first to admit that he’s finding it “scary” to have a career where he doesn’t have “The Office” to fall back on as security. After all, “The Office” literally catapulted Krasinski to stardom, since he was an unknown actor before he got the role of Jim Halpert in the long-running sitcom. “The Office” is ending its eight-year run in May 2013. And even though Krasinski says his future as an actor is somewhat uncertain right now, he’s up for the challenge of what may come. Krasinski has already had several roles in films, and he has already directed his first movie (the 2009 independent dramedy “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” for which he was a producer, writer and star) but the drama “Promised Land” is his first movie in which he co-wrote an original screenplay, which is based on a story idea from Dave Eggers.
Krasinski co-wrote the “Promised Land” screenplay with the movie’s co-star Matt Damon, who was originally going to direct the film but bowed out when he realized that he wouldn’t have enough time to prepare. Gus Van Sant — who directed Damon in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” (which garnered Damon and co-star Ben Affleck an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and 2002’s “Gerry” — stepped in to direct “Promised Land.” Krasinski and Damon are two of the producers of “Promised Land.” Much of the “Promised Land” story is about the conflict between a corporate energy executive named Steve Butler (played by Damon) and an environmental activist (played by Krasinski) and their battle to influence townspeople in a rural area on whether or not to do sell their land to Steve’s company for “fracking” purposes. But there are larger issues about democracy and responsibility to future generations that are also part of the story. I recently sat down with Krasinski at the “Promised Land” junket in New York City. In the interview, he shared behind-the-scenes stories about the movie and candidly opened up about how he feels about life after “The Office.”
Can you talk about writing “The Promised Land” screenplay with Matt Damon? Did you literally work side by side, or did you work on the screenplay by email?
We definitely sat across the table from one another. He was shooting “We Bought a Zoo” at the time, so he was living out of a house in Malibu. And so I just drove to him every single weekend. So Saturday and Sunday, from breakfast to dinner, the whole day we were writing.
He wins by default because he has four little girls. So I had to go to his house and somehow between all the throwing on “The Little Mermaid” 14 times and getting lunch ready and bath time, we got some work done, which was pretty impressive. I think that’s one of the benefits of writing with another actor: You get to read it out loud and very roughly put it on its feet.
I remember Matt saying something that was really funny. By the time we actually started shooting, we each had only one part. It was somewhat of a disappointment because for a while there, we each had 15 parts. We just kept reading the lines out loud.
Who stood in for the Frances McDormand character (Sue Thomason, Steve Butler’s co-worker who goes into the rural town with him)?
I usually played Fran because [Matt Damon] was doing his [Steve Butler] part. Fran, that was an interesting story. About two months of writing, about six to eight weeks, we had a draft that was definitely an untamed beast, but we knew generally that is what we wanted to say. And we were writing for Fran, so Matt took the opportunity to say, “Why don’t we just send it to her. If it’s a no, we know to sort of change direction.”
And she signed on immediately. And that was about a year before we even came close to shooting. So that was a huge boost of confidence. And at the end of the day, it’s so interesting to write for three people that you know you’re writing for. It helps the writing process a lot.
Since you had such an intense writing process for “Promised Land” did you and Matt have any favorite food or drinks as fuel for your energy?
With four little kids around, you have the best food ever! And you have to roll your eyes like, “Oh, this isn’t good for me, but I guess I’ll have more mac and cheese. More pizza or whatever they were having.” I was just doing anything that had caffeine in it.
I remember there was one day that he was having a barbecue and we were tempted to have a beer. And I was like, “That’s just going to slow out brains down.” I felt like I was doing a D.A.R.E. [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] commercial. So instead, we just ate more brownies and coffee and pizza and whatever the kids were eating.
What was the hardest part of writing the screenplay for “Promised Land”?
One of the hardest parts was when we came to the final scene, it’s hard to write yourself a part where you know a transition in the movie is going to happen based on you character. So I remember stepping on set that day, and the crew and the cast were like, “You ready?” It wasn’t like every other day. It was like, “Are you ready to have the balance of the movie in you hands?” So that was really terrifying.
I think writing for yourself and then realizing that you are going to do a team leader. I’ll never forget the first time I rehearsed with Matt. I know it sounds stupid, but there was that moment when I was like, “Oh, right, you’re Matt Damon, a major movie star.” And there that moment where I was like, “What are you going to do with the part?” And he was like, “What are you going to do with the part?” So even though we had written it, we had never talked about how each person was going to do the part, which was really bizarre.
There’s a surprise twist in the movie. Without giving away any spoilers, can you say at what point in the writing process did that idea came to you and Matt?
That was one of the first things. We structured out the whole idea, and that was the big idea. We had that built-in from the beginning, which was always our intention. It was to show that any decision that’s made for you is not a good feeling or necessarily a decision that is right for you.
We had the entire structure before we started writing. So the structure of the story and the characters were pretty much there and ready to go after a week or two of writing. And then we jumped into the dialogue.
As a producer, how did your process change when Gus Van Sant became the director of “Promised Land” instead of Matt Damon?
Matt says that the best thing he ever did as a producer was firing himself as a director. The process changed dramatically. Believe it or not, it was 18 hours from the time he bailed and the time we got Gus. So for 18 hours, I thought it was the end of the movie, because not only was Matt bailing on us as a director but we had the whole movie funded because he was directing.
So Warner Bros., which generously offered to finance the movie, this isn’t necessarily a Warner Bros. movie, as far as this budget-wise, but they were doing it for Matt. So when he bailed as a director, we lost the financing [from Warner Bros.] too. That was one hell of a way to go into go into a Christmas break.
But then the next day to have Gus come on … Gus was that name that when people said, “Who would you want to work with?,” it was always Gus. That was the top name on my list. For me, obviously being from Boston, “Good Will Hunting” was one of the best movies I’ve seen. It’s the flag we fly.
But for me, “Elephant” changed my life. I think the idea of someone who is willing to take on something so difficult to internalize but then do it in such a beautiful and real way, you were affected in ways that movies don’t affect you often. His power in setting up a world and casting and finding people in a world who are very genuine to a situation is one of the things he’s a poet at.
Even Matt says the same thing that I would, which is that everything changed once we got Gus. People ask, “Are you going to direct?” It’s something I might do again at some point, but truly, when you see someone like Gus direct, you realize that you should take your time … It’s a huge responsibility but also a vey, very specific, wonderful learned ability and not something that anybody can do. I learned that very quickly from watching him.
Can you talk about the big argument scene between Steve Butler and Dustin Noble?
That was the first scene we shot. What we did was we kind of did this thing where — I feel this way — there’s a male high-school thing that never leaves you. I think that no matter where you get to in any career, or what you achieve as a person, or whether you grow as an adult, there’s always that small part of you that will go right back to being on the schoolyard at recess: that thing of you just want to win; you just want to beat this guy. And so for us, that scene was so funny because it became very personal.
And Matt’s character not only wanted to beat the environmentalist, he wanted to beat this guy specifically. He hated him. And so that was so much fun to play because we saw his anger taking over and how he was very not cool. Fran [McDormand] in the scene before showed that with a little bit of calm and a clear head, anybody could’ve deployed better tactics.
And so for us, it being the first scene was terrifying. That was the day that it was like, “What are you going to do?” It was weird. So part of it felt like it was jumping. I didn’t even know the words that I was saying, because it was such that “big moment” for me.
He had already been working for a couple of days, but then there was that thing of, “What kind of chemistry do we have on camera?” The first take, I broke [into laughter]. I was like, “Oh great. I’m the kid who, the first time I’m working with Gus, is the guy who screws up the take.” It was right at that moment, I laughed so hard because the way [Matt] said it was so heartfelt, I actually thought he was going to punch me in the face.
Have you thought about writing a screenplay that would star your wife, Emily Blunt? And would you want to co-star with her in that project?
Oh wow. First of all, it would be a tremendous honor to work with her at all. To write for her would be terrifying because I wouldn’t want to screw anything up. I would work with her in a heartbeat, and we talk about what we would want to do.
It would have to be the right project. It would have to be something really special. Obviously, the thing would be, “Is the story of us working together bigger than the story in the movie?” And that’s one thing we don’t want to do. We want it to be special.
But secondly, she’s my favorite actress, so I would be totally intimidated to work with her. I’ve seen the behind the scenes. I know how she prepares. She’s the real deal. It would be tough to be in a scene and want to whisper to her, “I love you! You’re so good!” Stay professional!
Is there anyone you have in mind for future screenplays that you’ll write?
Yeah. I’m writing two scripts now. I had written in college, but I never thought I’d want to do it professionally. Now, I’m spoiled. I feel like, “What’s so hard about writing a movie? Just get Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon to do it. How hard can it be?”
But it’s really exciting because it gives me a totally different perspective on everything. Whether or not things happen with what I write, it’s such a great learning tool to have as an actor too. It gives you a sense of what your job is. You’re delivering a situation and a story that someone else has crafted. It teaches you tone and long-lead arcs.
As an actor, sometimes you come in for a couple of weeks and you’re like, “I don’t know what you guys have been doing, but this is what I’m doing. Goodbye.” And you don’t really see how it fits into the greater [picture].
So being a screenwriter has also helped you as an actor when you read scripts?
Oh, 100 percent. It’s been really cool. Matt talked about this with me too that after “Good Will Hunting,” the thing that helped him most in his career was not his acting in “Good Will Hunting” but that he wrote it. There’s a sense that people will have confidence that you will be part of the team.
That’s an awesome honor to be asked to be part of the team, but I think what it does it allows a shorthand with directors and writers that if you’ve all sort of done it, if people say, “I need to change a scene,” you’re not like, “What? I need two weeks to rehearse these lines.”
There’s the idea that you know what it’s like and what we’re really trying to get to. To me, that would really be phenomenal: to not only write more stuff but to be a part of things with great directors and great collaborators.
As an actor, what kinds of projects do you want to do after “The Office”? Are you interested in being part of a movie franchise, like Matt was with the “Bourne” and “Ocean’s” series?
I’d love to do a genre movie, for sure. I’m really excited to see what’s possible after [“The Office”]. The show is one of those very terrifying precipices to be upon. I usually jump down and do a movie and get to jump right back to doing the show, but this is the first time that I’ll be jumping into the dark. I think a lot of actors are saying, “Welcome to the club.”
What about doing another TV series?
I would never rule that out. And you just see every year, there’s TV that’s better than most of the movies that come out. I think “Homeland” is one of the best things that I’ve seen in TV or movies in years. It’s the attention to detail, the work that people put into it.
And sometimes the studio movies are so rushed that they blow right through the real care that it takes to get a script an get the right people together and its more sort of about what date [the movie] comes out. So TV has that thing with the “slow burn” and getting you to fall in love with the characters. Two of my favorite shows of all time are “Homeland” and “The Wire.”
So how do you really feel about starting this new chapter in your career after “The Office” ends?
I wish I could be cool about it, but it’s very scary. It’s a really big deal. And I’m so proud of the show. The show ending for me is going to be incredibly emotional on every level. I was a waiter before the show. So it gave me every opportunity, career-wise. I wouldn’t have been in L.A. to meet my wife. There’s a lot behind the show, so it coming to an end is something that I just need to deal with as if it’s its own project.
What to do next? It’s very scary. Luckily, [“Promised Land”] has been an incredible transition piece. I had no idea that they would be coming out so close to one another. But to do this and get that confidence to write and get that boost from working with such great people, in one way it’s very exciting, and in another way you feel spoiled and you hope it gets to happen again. If I’m honest with you, I’m nervous to see what happens next, but I’m going to do what I can to work on the best material and definitely play characters with a little more conflict and a little more texture to them than some of the other stuff.
Can you talk about creating the Alice character, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, in “Promised Land”? Did you have Rosemarie in mind when you wrote the character?
I did a movie called “Nobody Walks” with her. It was after working with her that I recommended that she play the part. She was always on the list. I personally think she’s one of the best actresses working. Her incredible range is astounding.
There’s a bit of rivalry between Steve Butler and Dustin Noble over who’s going to end up dating Alice. How much of Dustin’s interest in her is motivated by him genuinely having romantic feelings to her and how much of it was motivated by just wanting get Steve angry?
I think we always had that idea that the only reason why he went after her was to get back at Matt’s character and to play that out. Yes, I could steal a girl from People’s Sexiest Man Alive! I could do it!
For more info: “Promised Land” website
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