When John Krasinski sits down at a table full of people who all want his attention, he manages to speak to all them-- sometimes simultaneously, which is a real feat. He answers questions that seem inane with answers that sound profound. He tells personal stories, about trying to break into the business or about meeting the Coen Brothers, like he's your brother home from college. He's nicer to the wait staff than anyone else at the table. He is, in other words, a movie star. Though the world might not know that yet.
Though both Matt Damon and Krasinski say they never would have gotten the roles they have in Promised Land if they hadn't written the script themselves, it seems to be more true for Krasinski, who has so perfected the role of wry Jim Halpert on The Office that it's sometimes hard to see him as anyone else. In Promised Land Krasinski starts off a little like Jim, an affable and disarming guy who arrives in the same small town where Damon's character, representing the gas company, is trying to convince local people to sign their farmland over to natural gas drilling. Krasinski, with his wide smile and plain facts about the dangers of gas drilling, a.k.a. "fracking," becomes an immediate antagonist for Damon's character, even when both men are convinced they have the best interest of this rural town at heart. Can the town save itself economically by signing these lucrative gas drilling deals? Or will they doom themselves with the environmental catastrophes fracking can bring?
Promised Land very deliberately doesn't take a side on that debate, and as directed by Gus van Sant, it's more interested in the tiny details of small-town life than taking any stand on an issue that's only now gaining traction in the public conversation. As for Krasinski and Damon, they're careful to talk about how much research they've done into the areas where fracking is happening, how many conversations they had with locals, and how much they each fall in the middle between a potential financial windfall for strapped communities and the environmental damage it could cause.
After meeting Krasinski at that lunch, I spoke to him on the phone over a week later, and you can see that conversation below. Later that day, while I was waiting to talk to Matt Damon, Krasinski walked by me in the hallway; he had no real reason to remember me, but he cocked his head and said hello anyway, making small talk even as he was making what must have been a long-awaited escape from a day of interviews. It was the classy mark of a real movie star. Which Krasinski is a now whole lot closer to becoming.
You started out writing this script with Dave Eggers. How did you come to him with the idea, and how did you wind up bringing it to Matt Damon?
I had the idea about two years ago to do a movie about American identity. Probably subconsciously based on my dad. He grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh. His dad had 3 jobs, and they didn't have a lot. I remember being a little kid and talking about my dad's childhood, and he said "It was great, and we always had faith that tomorrow would be a better day." I have always wanted to write a movie about people like that. With the geopolitical landscape heading where it was heading it was an interesting time to tell that story. Natural gas was an amazing backdoor for that, it's kind of like high stakes poker. I brought the idea to Dave-- I knew him from working on Away We Go, and I'd known him for a while from 826 events [826 is the literacy and education group that Eggers co-founded]. These issues are very close to his heart as well. At the time I didn't think I had the guts to write it, so I went to him and we started hammering out basic ideas. That's when I brought it to Matt, these ideas.
Why didn't you think you had the guts to write it?
There was something daunting about it being an original script. Weirdly, I jump in headfirst on most things in my life. On this one I was terrified. I'd heard all about the blank white page. Sure enough, when you get there it is really terrifying. I thought maybe I wasn't going to be up to the challenge. When I started writing with Matt, we did just jump in. I learned pretty quickly that it was doable.
You first met Matt socially, because he was working with your wife [Emily Blunt] on The Adjustment Bureau. How did that morph into a friendship and partnership?
We hit it off right at the beginning. He and Emily got along so well, so he had a head start as far as being liked in my book. As far as me to him, I think we laughed a lot, we went out on a lot of double dates. It really did feel like a friendship, even though he and Emily were working together. I think the Boston connection is real. I think there's something about being from a place together, there's a lot of nuance there.
How easy was it once you started writing together?
The first version of the script came pretty quickly, it was like 6-8 weeks. It was still an untamed beast, but we were figuring it out. That's actually the draft we sent to Frances McDormand. We figured we should keep writing until we figured out if she would do it, because we were writing for her. We were working pretty much every weekend. We went to his house because he had 4 girls. I was basically the one writing it on the computer, the typing of it all. From then on, it was revision after revision after revision. It was one of those things where you figure out an idea and you retrofit it to the script.
Since neither of you is from a small town, how did you get into the spirit of places like that, and how fracking is impacting those towns?
We did a ton of research. Once you start reading about fracking-- it wasn't nearly as big an issue two years ago as it is today. We hadn't seen Gasland or anything like that. We started reading all these firsthand accounts, and this series in the New York Times called Drilling Down. We kept reading everything we could and researching these individual specific stories. Then we went to upstate New York and and visited these small towns. [The convenience store] Guitars, Gas, Guns and Groceries is based on a real store in upstate New York. It's pretty easy to tell the story of the unheard voice in the landscape like the one we have now. It was really sort of about the universal people that weren't being heard rather than getting into cliches and stereotypes.
And you've been really careful to avoid taking sides on the fracking debate. How did you pull that off?
When we started the script and knew it would be about fracking, Matt said to me once, "For some people this become the anti-fracking movie. People will try to claim it's this one thing, because oft he subject material. We knew that until people saw it, they could say whatever they wanted about it. We knew once we got the script down it would be self-evident what we were doing.
We wanted it to be genuine. We wanted every single character to be very specific. It was really important to us to make the townspeople smart and legitimate adversaries for Matt and the other people. The cliched version of "The town is stupid and they didn't realize what was happening" is not at all what was going on. These people have a vested interest, and they're very responsible. You bring on someone like Gus, and his whole m.o. is intimacy, genuine genuine. He would not allow these people to be represented as some kind of whole that could be written off as a group. He was a phenomenal
You and Matt both say that these are roles you wouldn't have gotten if you hadn't written them for yourselves. Why is that?
Once Matt and Gus were a part of it, it's a pretty high-profile movie. Had I not written it, it would have been an incredibly competitive landscape for an actor, because it was a really fun part. The constant feeling that you're trying to figure out who this guy is for the whole movie, that' something really fun to play. To not play a one-sided character is obviously exciting. When you get to the end, something like that, it's just an honor to play something like that, but it's something I've always wanted to sink my teeth into. This whole process is surreal. To be a guy who's going through a huge transition in his career, coming off a television show. It's probably one of my proudest moments. At the same time, The Office is never something that I'm looking to get off of or ever was.
Yeah, when did you realize that you were going to be releasing this major movie while also transitioning out of this career you've had on The Office?
I didn't realize, I don't think, until very recently, that it would be an actual transition. I guess in my head The Office has been such a huge part of my life that there would be the end of that and then taking time to figure out what I did next. The fact that this is all happening at once is one of those things that is so surreal, but probably helpful to keep my mind off it. Starting in the new year, that'll hit home. We're so proud to be doing these big steps with introducing the documentary crew. After new year, when we start getting into those final episodes, it's going to be really intense.