Most people would say that Matt Damon made it big in Hollywood when he and Ben Affleck won an Academy Award for co-writing the original screenplay to 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” a drama about a gifted but troubled college student. “Good Will Hunting” was directed by Gus Van Sant and co-starred Damon and Affleck. Since then, Damon has become an A-list actor who been in several major hit movies. But for the first time since “Good Will Hunting,” Damon has co-written a movie screenplay. This time, the movie is the drama “Promised Land,” which co-stars Damon and John Krasinski, his writing partner for “Promised Land.” Damon and Krasinski are also two of the producers of “Promised Land.”
Damon was originally going to direct the movie, but he decided not to after he realized that he wouldn’t have time to prepare, so Van Sant stepped in to direct the movie instead. “Promised Land” tells the story of how a business executive named Steve Butler (played by Damon), who works for a corporate energy firm that practices fracking, goes into an economically depressed rural town where many farmers live to convince the residents to sell their land to his company. Steve faces opposition from environmental activist Dustin Noble (played by Krasinski), who is against fracking and tries to convince the townspeople not to do business with Steve’s company. I sat down with Damon at the “Promised Land” junket in New York City to talk about movie, and he also shared his thoughts on two films he has coming out in 2013: “Elysium” and “Liberace.”
What was it like writing “Promised Land” with John Krasinski? Was there anything that you taught him?
I didn’t have anything to teach John. He’s a terrific writer. And it just reminded me so much of writing with Ben [Affleck], because we laughed a lot. The process went faster [than “Good Will Hunting”]. [Writing the screenplay to] “Good Will Hunting” was just as fast, but we just kept having to wait for selling the screenplay and to get the green light. So there were more road blocks.
But now that I’m successful, it’s easier to raise the funds. So all those steps happened a lot faster, but the actual process of writing was exactly the same. It was really fun. I had forgotten how much fun it was.
For the last 15 years, because of “Good Will Hunting,” I’ve kind of been invited into the “creative, problem-solving” group in every movie. “Hey, we have a problem with this scene.” So I was part of that decision-making committee. And so I fooled myself into thinking that that writer’s side of me was getting enough expression. And this really showed me that this is different, to go completely back to [screenwriting], and sit around and stare at a blank page.
And you originally wanted to direct “Promised Land.”
That was the original idea, was to direct it. And luckily, I fired myself, because we got Gus [Van Sant].
Did you talk to Gus about how you wanted “Promised Land” to be directed?
No. In fact, what was really helpful for me was that because I had prepared to direct it, I didn’t say anything to him, but I got to watch all the choices that he made — a lot of it I was going to do, which made me really happy.
But then there are things, like in the second day of filming, one of my favorite shots in the movie is when I [as Steve Butler] go to pitch the lease to Tim Guiney early on. And he’s got the daughter with the golden, curly hair. We go into his living room to pitch him the lease, and Gus made the shot with the girl in the foreground. He handed her a coloring book, so she’s big in the frame in the foreground.
And in the background, you see the doorway in the other room, you see Tim, full-bodied, sitting on the couch, and then you just see my hands with the clipboard: this guy coming to sell him something. And he just a really slow push toward this girl, who’s totally oblivious. That’s the great thing about little kids. You give them an activity, and they totally forget the camera is there.
So she’s just sitting there, totally oblivious, coloring in her coloring book, while this deal is going on that is going to have a huge impact on her future. And the grown-ups are in the other room, making the deal behind her back. It took my breath away.
I thought, “This is such a great idea. And it’s just a perfect visual expression of what’s going on.” And having written it, John and I looked and each other and said, “We didn’t think of that.” But that’s just a great director.
There’s a scene in “Promised Land” where Steve Butler threatens to punch Dustin Noble in the face. John Krasinski said that when you two filmed that scene, he really thought that you were really going to punch him in the face. Where did you go inside yourself to channel that kind of anger?
The thing about writing it, you’re up on your feet and acting it out with each other while you’re writing it and improvising it, so I kind of knew how that scene was going to go the whole time. But I don’t know. I guess I worked myself up enough into a tizzy that he believed me, which is good. It didn’t read on him because he’s so calm. And he is unbelievably frustrating [as Dustin Noble] in that scene … The most annoying guy in the world. [He laughs.]
The Sue Thomason character (Steve Butler’s co-worker who goes into the rural town with him) played by Frances McDormand seems tailor-made for her. How much of the character was written with her in mind?
We started talking early on about actors. And that was the first name that I said to John. And he said, “Oh, wow!” So then we wrote the part with her in mind, and then gave her a really early draft …
She didn’t like emailed scripts, so I went to her apartment and dropped it off a year before we started shooting. She read it, and she signed up for it and said, “I’m in.” So we knew the whole time, which was a big help to us, because we had John’s character and my character and her character. And we knew the actors who were playing them, so we it became a lot easier to write.
You said earlier that writing “Promised Land” was easier for you to write than it was for you to write “Good Will Hunting.” Is it because you have more experience in the film industry now? Can you elaborate why it was easier?
Yeah. I’ve just made a lot of movies so it’s all becoming easier. I read something that Anthony Hopkins said once about acting: He said that his process is more economic. I find that that’s true. You streamline as you get older.
There was a lot of stuff that I did, really wasted energy, as a younger actor, because it’s more of a process of throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. The older and the more experience you get, you can do the exact same job. You just don’t do any of the extra stuff that doesn’t help. And writing is the same way.
“Good Will Hunting,” we wrote because we didn’t ever take a screenwriting class. We knew how screenplays were written, but we never got that technical side of it where it’s like, “Act One goes to this page. Act Two goes to this page.” So we just wrote a lot of scenes that we wanted to see and then crunched them together.
Some fell out and then we rewrote and reworked it. But we really did it the wrong way around. We didn’t start with the entire thing and then work through it. We started with moments.
There’s a book about editing, and what they say is that the way you do you decision making is you go “movie-scene moment.” So you lose any moment that you love if it makes a scene better. You lose any scene that you love if it makes the movie better, whereas actors do the exact opposite way. We go, “I love that moment! I love that scene.”
So in writing, it was the same thing. Ben and I were writing all these moments that we wanted to see on screen. “How do you like them apples?” And things like that. But we did a lot of extra work. If Ben and I sat down and wrote “Good Will Hunting” today, we’d write it in probably half the time.
Your sci-fi movie “Elysium” is out in 2013. Would you consider writing a sci-fi movie? Your “Elysium” co-star Sharlto Copley said that you had some great ideas on the set.
I have idea, yeah. Sharl is a phenomenal actor, first of all. He’s someone who comes up with the greatest ideas. He’s a really good writer. He had this whole idea about his [“Elysium”] character in that movie. He plays this South African mercenary, but imagine a South African mercenary that has been alive and fighting for 150 years. He’s such a badass!
But his whole idea of human beings, the way the guy looked at human beings, he just killed so many people, that he was more like a zoologist. He’s so interesting. He does stuff like breaks into Alice Braga’s house. And she’s sitting there and holding her terrified daughter, and he reaches for the daughter, and she smacks his hand away, despite the fact that he’s heavily armed and terrifying. And he says to the other mercenaries, “Look, it has a protective instinct!”
[Someone says,] “There was a gentleman just here. Can you tell me where he’s gone?” And she says, “I don’t know where he went.” And he goes, “Look, I don’t believe in committing violence in front of children. Close your eyes, sweetie!”
[“Elysium”] was harder to film than “Promised Land,” but it was a lot of fun and [“Elysium” director] Neill Blomkamp is great. And it was unlike anything I had ever had a chance to do. So it was fun to go to work every day.
How difficult is it for you to switch back and forth between being an actor, a producer and a screenwriter?
The older I get, the easier that stuff gets. Oftentimes, you’re promoting a movie while shooting another. It’s just involves a lot of multitasking. John was great because he flew up to Vancouver when I was there, and he would wait for me after work. And we’d write.
John’s just got an unbelievable work ethic too, so we were able to get a lot done. When my family wasn’t in Vancouver for a two-week stretch, I was like, “Just come up and we’ll write every night.” So we got all that done.
What’s the message that you wanted to bring across in “Promised Land”?
It’s always about what you have to say, ultimately. We just thought this was a really great, life-affirming, pro-community, pro-America, pro-democracy type of message. Ultimately, the stand that the guy takes at the end is because that process is being hijacked … It’s about engaged citizenry.
It’s also about hope … and the idea of stewardship, that we’re not the last generation, that we’re not the last ones, that whatever decision we make, we have to apply to long-term thinking. That’s one of the things that scary about the country today: Politicians don’t seem to have much incentive to think about the long-term.
And yet we’re finally butting up against the reality that it’s the long-term decisions now that are going to determine everything for us. If we’re just thinking about quarterly profits, if we’re just thinking about the next election, if we’re just thinking about our own selves in the short-term, then we’re going to be in real dire straits.
Since you didn’t direct “Promised Land,” what kind of film would you want to be the first movie that you direct? And would you also want to be the writer of that movie?
It would be something of this size [as “Promised Land”]. This was the exact size. And what I liked about it was it was about acting and all these characters, a movie about real people. And that’s what I really want to do the first time [I direct a movie], not do something like “Elysium.” That’s just too much the first time out.
But something that’s contained and performance-based. Steven Spielberg said to me a long time ago that the first time you do it [direct a movie], you have to just get something simple and make sure you can tell the story this way.
Where did you come up with the idea of Absolute Madness, the drinking game that’s in “Promised Land”?
That came out of a story years ago. Brad Pitt and George Clooney were at [movie producer] Jerry Weintraub’s house. And Jerry was talking about hanging out with Frank Sinatra and how those guys could drink and that the new generation were a bunch of wussies. And George and Brad started egging him on. “We can drink just as well as Frank Sinatra can.”
And they started to do shots with Jerry, but they were just pouring water into their shots. So Brad and George drank a bottle of water, and Jerry drank a bottle of vodka. They put him to bed. It was based in some reality.
How would you describe the “Liberace” movie that you did with Michael Douglas?
I’m so proud of it. It’s really great. It’s absurd and tragic and beautiful and sad. I’m really proud of it. The script was so well-written. [“Liberace” screenwriter] Richard LaGravenese really captured this dynamic between these two guys [Liberace and Scott Thorson] and everything about that intimate [relationship], almost like a married couple.
It’s one of those movies that it’s so intimate, you feel like you shouldn’t be watching some of the time. But it’s the kind of movie that usually see with a man and a woman [in the love story], so to see it with a man and a man, it’s not like anything I’ve seen. I’m incredibly proud of it.
Did you ever see your movie “Margaret,” the Kenneth Lonergan film that was released in 2011 after a four-year delay?
Yeah. I’m a big fan of that movie too. It needed fans.
For more info: “Promised Land” website
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