From his first Oscar-winning collaboration with Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon has set himself apart from the rest. As a writer, performer and activist, Damon brings a rare honesty to his work. For the past few years, the Bourne actor has been working with his friend and writing partner, The Office's John Krasinski, on Promised Land, an environmental drama based on a story by Dave Eggers. Promised Land pits rural schoolteacher (Krasinski) against traveling salesman (Damon), and delves into the controversy over hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", and the economic issues plaguing middle America.
Also starring Frances McDermont and Hal Holbrook, Promised Land reunites Damon with Good WIll Hunting director Gus Van Sant. Just before the nation-wide release of his film, Matt Damon met with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons to discuss his frequent collaborations, Hal Holbrook's raw talent, and family inspiration...
Q: From what we’ve heard, it sounds like John Krasinski wouldn’t take no for an answer and eventually forced you to write this thing.
Matt Damon: He did. You know, people have said, “Why haven't you written for so long?” And it's because it required... Because he was doing the show full-time and I was making other movies, so it was every minute of our free time we were writing, and it really takes somebody who's as tenacious as John. Because my time gets absorbed, as most parents do by their kids. And John was literally willing to sit at the kitchen table with me while the kids were running around. We'd take little breaks and play with them, and John was a really good sport about it. He's obviously going to be a great dad. But that's what it required for us to get this done.
Q: You compared this process to when you write with Ben Affleck. What are the similarities?
MD: I think because we're all actors, I think the way we write is to get up. We're walking around, we're improvising, we're playing all the different characters, and then pretty soon the characters start to talk back at you because you start to realize how'd they answer certain things, and that's when it gets really exhilarating. And that was the same writing with both guys. Somebody asked me that last night at the premiere. We realized that for some reason I write with guys are taller than me, funnier than me. I don't know what that is but I guess I subconsciously seek out certain qualities in a writing partner.
Q: Did you see clear divisions of labor?
MD: No. Like writing with Ben, I can't look at the screenplay and know I wrote that line or he wrote that line. It just becomes a fusion where you're both writing and revising together. I saw a documentary last year about U2, and Bono was talking about writing music, and he talked about — because the band writes together, you know? And he said it was like a song comes into the room. It was just really cool, I'd never heard anybody say it that way. He said our allegiance is to the music not to the musicians. He said, to us musicians are very low on the thing, but the song, that's everything. And we respect it and we know it when it comes into the room. We can feel it when it comes into the room. It's like it's already a living thing. And I thought that was a pretty neat way to put it.
And it feels like that when you're making progress on a screenplay or a scene works. It comes out of the process. I couldn't have written this without him and he couldn't have written it without me, and that's what's great about having a writing partner. Something really wonderful comes out of the collaboration.
Q: One of the other key aspects of your collaboration was choosing a director. What made Gus Van Sant the perfect director for this piece?
MD: Besides being Gus? He's such a humanist, and this story needed that. I mean, the performances in Gus' movies, from his little movies to his bigger movies, always have that feeling of being captured. He just has a way of getting real human behavior out of the actors. I mean, with the Hal Holbrooks you don't have to do much to get human behavior from an actor of that stature and level of experience. But the local folks that we used in the movie who fill out the whole cast, Gus just has a way of putting everybody at ease and filming the real world. And that's what we really wanted for this, was to feel like a moment in time in the country. Where we are now, where we are today. And Hal's character speaks to where we've come from, but it's about where we are now and where we're headed. And so Gus was really perfect for that, because the characters needed to all feel like people we know in our real life.
Q: This film has a story that feels very real, but at the same time you kept the tone uplifting. How did you keep that balance?
MD: Well, we just talked about wanting it to be a pro-community movie, a pro-democracy movie. Because the issue itself is polarizing, right? People feel very strongly on both sides, but we didn't want it to be a big downer at the end. That's not the way John and I are in life. We wanted people to leave with some sense of hope, that if we're thinking about where we've been and where we are, we wanted to end with the idea that where we're going we can all go together and it can be a better place.
Q: Has being a parent made you more environmentally conscious?
MD: Probably, yeah. I thought a lot about before I had kids what kind of world we're leaving them. I think it gave me pause when I think of the world is fraught with so many challenges and perils that I did think a lot about what kind of... because kids don't ask to be here, you know? We bring them here and then it's like, “Hey, this is the fix you're in. Sorry.” So I did think about that. But ultimately, you know, problems get fixed when people engage with them, so I figured why not raise some kids who are smart and conscientious and good citizens and want to pitch in, and maybe they'll clean up some of these problems.
Q: What are you learning from them?
MD: Well, first and foremost just the... somebody asked me what it was like becoming a father, years ago, and I said it was like that story, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, when his heart grows seven sizes. You know, it just inexplicably grows. And that was the first lesson, was the capacity for love that I didn't even know that I had. And so that just changes everything right there. The way you engage with the world completely changes just because you're full. And in terms of making movies, it changed. I used to beat myself up and be like, "I've got to get into this scene," or whatever. And it's like, you don't have to spin your wheels that hard when that feeling is available to you. And a lot of that just comes from kids.
Q: We hear that the karaoke scene stems from real-life experience. Did that stem out of any double dates?
MD: Double dates and more. We were on a double date and bumped into Jeremy Renner and just dragged him with us. And Renner can sing. He's really, really good, which was a bonus. We didn't care if he could sing, we just wanted to hang out with him. But yeah, we've gone a few times and have a fun time. Completely sober, of course.
Q: What's your go-to song?
MD: I don't have one, actually. I'm not even that good to have a go-to song in karaoke. They'll basically just give me anything. It's good comedy.
Q: Your character Steve has an interesting dynamic with Frank and with Sue. How did you go about developing your relationships and chemistry with Hal Halbrook and with Frances McDormand?
MD: Early on we decided to write that part for Fran. I worked with her in 1994, so 18 years ago. She played my mom in a TNT movie that Tommy Lee Jones directed. So I'd kept in touch with her over the years and seen her sporadically and just loved her, loved her work. At the time I was going to direct the movie, and we had an early draft of the script and I'd shown it to Ben Affleck and the Cameron Crowe, and John had shown it to Aaron Sorkin. And we'd gotten really positive feedback from those guys and said OK, we're not crazy. This is really shaping up to be something good. So let's give it to Fran and let's see what she says. So I emailed her and told her, "Look I'm going to direct my first thing and we got the script into some kind of shape and I'd like to show it to you. Can I email it to you?" And she wrote back, "Don't email it to me. I'm old-school, I need a hard copy." She lives near me in New York so I printed out a copy and I walked over and left it at her apartment building, and she wrote back the next day and said, "I'm in, I love it."
So that was huge for us. That was a huge milestone in the whole process. Not only did we get validation from a great actress and know that our script was in pretty good shape, but we also knew that we really were writing for her, and so we had her and John and me, the kind of main three characters, we could write and be more specific as we wrote. And Hal, we just needed a... that character has got to speak to the old America and where we've come from, and very simply and with great authority. So we just looked at a list of all the actors who were over 70 who we felt could do that, and there are a handful of them, obviously, great actors. When you get to that stage, you've seen a lot, you've done a lot.
But Hal's 88 now, and he's just the guy who... You know, he has his Mark Twain show, his one-man show, and he's not missed a year for 58 years. He's done that show. And we had to plan his dates around his touring of that one-man show. He's just a great... He's the guy who can deliver that dialogue so simply and beautifully and with such elegance and force that you just stop and listen. And I believe that the land man, my character, would be arrested by that man saying something so kind of simple to him.
Q: Were you a little starstruck, listening to Hal and watching his performance?
MD: Yeah. I mean it was a big deal to be able to be that close to him when he delivered that speech at the end. And Gus and John were right behind the camera and he'd do it in one take. Hal's so simple. He'd do a take and we'd look at each other like, oh my God. And Gus would say, "Would you like to do another one?" And Hal says, "Sure." He would do anything. I mean, the first town hall scene, we originally overwrote because we didn't know how much of the pro- and anti-fracking arguments we were going to use. So we just literally wrote all of them, and it was a 15-page scene, which was... when I was going to be the director I was like, this is a bear. How do we tackle it? But then we decided why don't we just shoot all of it, and then in the edit we'll cut it down. And so that's what we did.
But Hal, he showed up and in the first take, in the master, he just goes all the way through the dialogue. He's just such a pro, it was just cool to see that. Because we had planned to break the scene up and shoot it in pieces. And look, he's 88. He might get tired. The guy is just a horse of a man. He's the guy who still goes up on stage by himself and holds an audience in the palm of his hand for two and half hours. It's just brilliant.
Q: How difficult is it to play a character who lies so convincingly?
MD: Well, he also believes he's giving them the medicine they need. And that first scene sets up that idea of a guy who's seen industry leave. You know, when I was in Decatur, Ill., doing The Informant, the Firestone plant there had left, and you talk to people in that town and it's like it hits heavy when those factories leave. In the town, you didn't see as many young people. You could feel that the town was... you know. And that's a phenomenon. So that's what I thought of in terms of what animated the guy. In that F*** you money speech, he's got this rage, and it's also this streak of self-loathing that you get in those great Kazan protagonists. But he's not wrong, either, you know what I mean? That's what we wanted.
We wanted it to feel really complex and that they're aren't any one-dimensional characters or easy answers. These are all just people. You know why Fran is doing what she's doing. She says it's just a job, and she's doing it for her kid and she wants to get back to him. We all know the guy who gets five grand and goes and buys a Corvette. In fact, Lucas Black thought we based it on a guy from his town. He was like, "Y'all base this on...?" I don't know what you're talking about! There was a guy in Lucas' town who not only bought a Corvette that he couldn't afford, he got the entire logo of Corvette tattooed across his chest. This is a true story. He subsequently lost the car and now is the laughing stock of the town because he's got a giant Corvette logo and no Corvette.
Q: Obviously you’re pleased with the film, but is any small part of you disappointed that you didn't direct this?
MD: I would've liked to have done it, of course, but I love working with Gus and I learned a ton. And I learned more this time because I had prepared it as a director, and so I saw all the things that he did that I was going to do, and then there were things that he did that I wasn't going to do that I hadn't thought of that were just... . You know, John and I joke that my best contribution as a producer was firing myself.
Q: Did his vision turn out a lot different from yours?
MD: No, no. I mean, it is the full expression of this screenplay that we wrote. It is exactly what we wanted. When I was going to direct it, I would write my shots on my script and I would hold onto my shot list, but there was no need to put it in the script. And then when Gus was going to direct it, he'll think of things that just elevate the material.
Q: The scenes where Frances is Skyping with her kid were really heartfelt. Are you that dad, are you a Skype dad? Or does your family come with you?
MD: No, my family comes with me. Almost all the time. The reason I didn't direct this is because I finished a movie where the last six weeks of it were in Mexico and my kids had started school, and so I was commuting back and forth from Mexico City every two weeks or so, and I just had been away from them longer than they or I was comfortable with, and I realized that I was going to have to go into preproduction two weeks after I got home, and I just said, I can't. It's just too much. And so that was really why I bowed out. No, I'm definitely the dad who just drags everybody with me.
Q: Where are you as far as directing a different project?
MD: You got a project? [laughs] Yeah, I'm where I was. This was exactly the size and scale of what I wanted to do. This was about the exact budget of Good Will Hunting, adjusted for inflation. And that's about the size of what I want to do the first time out, like just a little movie about people. Like Ben did it with Gone Baby Gone. That size of a story, because you don't want to just take on too much the first time you do it. It's an all-consuming job. Somebody like Gus or Soderbergh makes it look easy because they've been doing it for so long, but it's really all-consuming.
Q: Do you and Ben have a project that you'd like to get around to together at some point?
MD: We're developing a few. There's one Whitey Bulger project that we were looking at, but it's all going to be script-dependent because we're trying to figure out how to tell that story.
'Promised Land' is currently in limited release, and opens in theaters nationwide Friday, January 4th, 2013.