BEVERLY HILLS — John Krasinski used to sit at Matt Damon's kitchen table from breakfast to dinnertime every Saturday and Sunday, working on the script for “Promised Land” while kids romped all around them.
“He was actually shooting ‘We Bought a Zoo' in California at the time, and I was shooting my show,” Krasinski said of TV's long-running comedy “The Office.”
“So we were kind of moonlighting during the weekends,” he said. “(Damon) has four beautiful girls. That's why we always went to his house — he wins that by default. And between throwing in ‘The Little Mermaid' 17 times, and maybe lunch, I don't know how we got any work done, but we did. We worked really well together, we worked really fast. We have similar sensibilities and similar senses of humor, but at the end of the day I think we're both eternal optimists, so we wanted the same thing.”
What they wanted was a story about former country boy turned corporate salesman Steve Butler (Damon), who's sent by his big-energy employers to procure drilling rights from the residents of a small town that's suffering the effects of hard economic times.
But what seems like an easy sell for Butler and his sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) becomes complicated when respected schoolteacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) urges the townspeople to weigh the attractive prospects of financial relief against the distinct possibility of future environmental consequences.
The town soon becomes divided over whether or not to allow one of the largest energy corporations in the country to extract gas from shale formations underneath its community through the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing known as “fracking.” There's the argument that the chemicals used in the process can contaminate groundwater and in turn be detrimental to life above ground.
In the film, Krasinski plays slick environmental activist Dustin Noble, who arrives in town to rally opposition to the leasing of drilling rights to a $9 billion company known as Global Crosspower Solutions.
But Damon and Krasinski insist the thrust of their story isn't intended to be pro- or anti-anything.
“We just talked about wanting it to be a pro-community movie, a pro-democracy movie, because the issue itself is polarizing, right?” Damon said during a press day hosted by Focus Features last month at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Despite the swanky surroundings, Damon was wearing much the same kind of plaid shirt and jeans he wore in the film, when his character was trying to dress like the locals. The wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose had not been part of that on-screen costume.
“ ... And people feel very strongly on both sides,” Damon continued. “But we didn't want it to be a big downer. That's just not the way John and I are. 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.”
The emphasis of the story, he said, is supposed to be on “the power of community in America.”
Krasinski brought the original concept to novelist/screenwriter Dave Eggers, who molded the ideas into a screen story.
Meanwhile, Damon and Krasinski had met through the latter's wife, actress Emily Blunt, when she was filming “The Adjustment Bureau” with Damon. Everyone, including Damon's wife, Luciana, became fast friends and started “double dating.”
“And so that was really awesome to meet him,” Krasinski said, “and one day we were on a double date and he said, ‘I'm actually thinking of directing. Is there anything that you have in the works that you'd be willing to share with me?' And I said, ‘Yeah,'” Krasinski recalled. “I brought him this idea, and he jumped onto it right away and we were writing within a week or two. And it worked really, really well.
“We wanted this to be an uplifting kind of Frank Capra/Kazan movie, and so where we were headed was always the same, so getting there was a lot quicker,” Krasinski added.
Another writing partner
Working with Krasinski reminded Damon of the fun he'd had working with fellow Massachusetts actor-writer-friend Ben Affleck on “Good Will Hunting,” which won Damon and Affleck an Oscar back in 1998 for best original screenplay.
“Writing with Ben, I can't look at the screenplay and know, ‘Oh, I wrote that line or he wrote that line,'” Damon said. “It 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. He talked about, because the band writes together, you know, it was like a song comes into the room, is how he described it, which is really cool. I've never heard anybody describe it that way. ‘Our allegiance is to the music, not to the musicians. To us the musicians are very low, and the song, that's everything. And we understand it. We respect 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 really neat way to put it. And it feels that way when you're making progress on a screenplay or a scene works or a moment happens. And it just comes out of the process. I couldn't have written this without (Krasinski) and he couldn't have written this without me, and that's what's great about having a writing partner like that. Something really wonderful comes out of the collaboration.”
Damon's only regret on this project is that he wasn't able to direct, as he had planned, because his schedule demands wouldn't allow it. But there are no regrets about the choice of Gus Van Sant as his replacement at the helm.
“He's such a humanist,” Damon said. “Gus just has a way of putting everybody at ease and just filming the real world. And that's what we really want, for this to feel like a moment in time in the country, where we are now, where we are today, and Hal's (Holbrook's) character speaks to where we've come from. And it's about where we are now and where we're headed. And so Gus was really perfect for that because the characters all needed to feel like people we know in real life.
“I've thought a lot about — before I had kids — what kind of world we're leaving. It gave me pause, 'cause kids don't ask to be here. We bring 'em here and then say, ‘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, and so I figured why not raise some kids who are smart and conscientious and good citizens and wanna pitch in. And maybe they'll clean up some of these problems.”
Travel and accommodations provided by Focus Features.
We worked really well together, we worked really fast. We have similar sensibilities and similar senses of humor, but at the end of the day I think we're both eternal optimists, so we wanted the same thing.”
On writing the screenplay for “Promised Land” with Matt Damon