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Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Gus Van Sant and Rosemarie DeWitt On Crafting ‘Promised Land’

Written by on December 28, 2012 

Around the start of December, we were invited to participate in a few roundtables featuring the main talent of Promised Land — a murderer’s row of Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Gus Van Sant, and Rosemarie DeWitt. With this quartet — all told, the two writers, the director, and three central stars — in tow, your creative bases are, essentially, covered as much as one could really ask for in this instance. Whether or not you’re interested in the film (though I think you very much should be), it almost goes without saying that several interesting bits stemmed from the process.

In particular, being able to speak with both Damon and Krasinski gave worthwhile insight into how this unconventional drama took real shape before cameras ever rolled. When finally sitting down to pen, they’d regularly converge in the former’s home — as he was shooting We Bought a Zoo and has kids to look after, there was a “default” win on his part — and, simply, work from day-to-night. (When they weren’t meeting there, Damon would get visits on the set of Elysium.) Krasinski even joked that, considering all which was required outside of actually writing — e.g., “putting on The Little Mermaid 14 times” for his daughters — some time-based concessions were necessary.

Nevertheless, things were said to have moved along rather briskly. While Damon already has the experience of writing scripts under his own belt — two, and both of which (Good Will Hunting and Gerry) were, coincidentally, also written with co-stars for a Gus Van Sant film — he “didn’t have anything to teach John,” himself a gifted scribe. This sounds to have made for an easier experience than, as a younger man, being partnered with Ben Affleck, with whom he ended up writing “a lot of scenes that we wanted to see.” They were starting with moments, basically, and that’s “the wrong way around” in screenwriting.

Here, the entire structure, twist included, was built-in from the beginning, allowing thematics to flow more naturally from idea to execution. Krasinski sounds especially energized from this process, both in the prospect of writing more films and, on a straighter level, just digging into a script. In his experience, crafting both a film and one of its central characters not only lends “a totally different perspective on everything,” but also “gives you a sense of what your job is”; this is a duty which teaches things like “tone and long-lead arcs.” On top of that, you need less time in figuring out ways to actually approach a character.

As their primary career focus is acting, it was of great benefit to both write and read for these characters — so much so that only having one actual part each was, in its own way, odd. When it came to performing their assigned roles, the pair ended up struggling when working out some of the final, crucial-to-plot-and-theme scenes. One particularly important moment involves a confrontation between the two, and only as shooting was about to begin did it dawn on them that they hadn’t exactly told one another about preparation; only during the shoot did they realize each other’s chemistry.

There was some of that in their first scene filmed together — which, chronologically, occurs about halfway through the film — and that unease contributed to what became one of Promised Land’s more memorable exchanges. (E.g., Krasinski actually miffed a shot in the first take after laughing at a humorous line from Damon.)

But additional, far more serious struggles had to be faced. Only around a year ago had Damon been expected to direct Promised Land — also being the co-writer and central star, he was really hands-on here. That, of course, did not happen, and, as Krasinski relayed, Damon feels the best thing he ever did as a producer was fire himself as a director. This wasn’t due to some lack of desire about the job itself, but, as these things go in Hollywood, on account of heavy scheduling.

While it was something of a relief to have that one duty off his hands, the 18-hour period between his leave and Van Sant’s hire — when WB’s funding disappeared with Damon’s directing credit — felt like “the end of the world” for them. As the two scribes felt that Promised Land’s lens on fracking, in Van Sant’s words, “would be no longer applicable” in two years‘ time, getting it off the ground soon was critical. There to save the day was an old collaborator.

Although the writers-stars shared some quite-understandable dollops of stress, joining was rather easy for Van Sant. First off — and, maybe, most importantly — he always wants to direct for Damon. At some point in the pre-production, he’d even caught word that the actor would be directing Ben Affleck, leading him to hope there would be a call — one of his thoughts being “oh, maybe they’ll run into problems and they’ll need a director to come in.” (With a light smile, he said, “I always imagine the two of them, like, trying to do something and they need me. Just because of my own vanity.”)

 Upon realizing a new offer was for the project Damon had wanted to helm — regardless of any actors who may or may not have been involved — he almost said yes before even reading the script. On Christmas Eve 2011, when the two finally made direct contact, he gladly accepted the role of helmer.

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