"Not to be a horrible name dropper, but Steven Spielberg told me…"
That sentence could be an immediate deal-breaker with many people, especially if you're talking to a very famous, very successful movie star whose presence in the same room as you seems, frankly, impossible. But coming from Matt Damon, who is exactly as friendly and casual in person as you'd hope, it's somehow perfectly fine. In fact you want him to drop more names, given how many big ones he's worked with over the years. What did Steven Soderbergh tell you? How about Francis Ford Coppola? Tina Fey?
Surely Damon has been thinking a lot about the advice he's gotten over the years from pretty much everybody, as he prepares to debut Promised Land, the first film he's written since Good Will Hunting. Like that film he co-wrote this one with a fellow actor, except this time it's John Krasinski, who Damon met while working with Krasinski's wife, Emily Blunt, on The Adjustment Bureau. Damon credits the fact that they're both from Boston with their fast friendship, and before too long Krasinski came to Damon with a script he'd begun developing with the writer Dave Eggers, and asked for his help finishing it.
Damon says Krasinski as a writing partner was similar to Ben Affleck, standing up and acting out the scenes, just like an actor would. Krasinski was also the keeper of more than 30 drafts of the script the two worked on, and Damon modestly says he was astonished by Krasinski's "facile brain" in putting the story together. For the two years they worked on the script Damon was planning to make Promised Land his directorial debut, until last December came around, and he realized that between wrapping work on Neill Blomkamp's Elysium and starting pre-production on Promised Land, he'd barely be seeing his kids. He and Krasinski both describe the terrible phone call in which Krasinski was forced to chew out his writing partner for putting their project in the lurch: "It's two days before Christmas. We can't even get an agent on the phone, much less a new director," Damon recalls.
A text message is what saved them. Damon jokes that he was "pulling an Alec Baldwin," texting just before his plane took off, and sent the script to his old friend Gus van Sant. When he landed, van Sant had read the script and was on board to direct. In the spring the three began production on Promised Land, in which Damon plays the representative of a gas company who travels to rural farming communities and offers financially strapped farmers an irresistible deal: let us drill for natural gas on your land, and you will be able to make enough money to keep the family farm. What Damon's character Steve Butler dances around, of course, is that drilling for gas in this way-- called "fracking"-- can poison water sources and cause health problems for local residents. Krasinski's character Dustin, representing an environmentalist group, arrives in town to point out just that, leading to a clash between the two men in the middle of a town with much more on the line than either of them.
Both in researching the script and shooting the film in a small Pennsylvania town south of Pittsburgh, Damon says they were careful to really listen to the stories of the people who lived there-- and that it wasn't actually that hard to get them to talk. Damon admits to a "circus comes to town" element to a Hollywood film moving into a small town, but also says that by being recognizable, he and Krasinski found many people eager to talk and share their own very true stories about fracking. "I wasn't going to be the one to leave," Damon remembers one woman saying about her family farm, which had become financially unmanageable until drilling for gas emerged as the only option.
Damon and Krasinski are very, very careful to avoid expressing their personal opinions about fracking, emphasizing how important it is financially for rural communities, and stepping away from the heated rhetoric that movies like Gasland (which hadn't yet come out when they started writing the script) have brought up in recent years. All the same, Damon warned Krasinski when they started writing that "For some people , this will become the anti-fracking movie…. people will try to claim it's this one thing because of the subject material." As Krasinski continues, "We knew once we got the script down, it would be self-evident what we were doing."
Though his hair is still cut short after going in for Elysium reshoots, Damon says work on that sci-fi film is definitely done, and he'll be moving on to work with George Clooney on Monuments Men, while his latest collaboration with Steven Soderbergh Behind The Candelabra-- a Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas-- debuts on HBO next year. As for the more distant future, Damon says he still plans to direct a film, and cites Soderbergh as a major inspiration in watching how the director switches fluidly from one genre to another.
As for that advice Spielberg gave him? "Start with a small story for your first film." Damon used one small story already for Promised Land, but for an actor and writer and eventual director as curious as he was, it surely won't be too long before another equally great one grabs him.
Promised Land is in theaters December 28.