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

Written by on December 28, 2012 

I felt it necessary to ask if the (seemingly) brisk period between signing and composing was too little, but Van Sant pointed out one thing I’d never thought of: the changing nature of pre-production. He sounds like one who really embraces technology in preparing a production, as what would, normally, have been a 12-week process some 20 years ago now only requires about eight weeks. In the former, you’d have to take a picture, develop it, and put that on a wall; current resources — such as smartphones and various forms of internet communication — allow for huge multi-tasking on everyone’s part.

There was also time to get proper vision in the aesthetic field. He jumped toward cinematographer Linus Sandgren while sticking to Daniel B. Clancy — with whom there had been a collaboration on the TV series, Boss — since, from Elephant onward, Van Sant’s had a predilection for eschewing palettes. To him, its purpose is only aesthetic, with the goal being an environment that will “look like interior decorating”; natural tones simply looks better. Nevertheless, the two collaborators were told that, if creating a central look really was so important, they should do so without him actually hearing about it. So, when you see Promised Land, a visual aesthetic becomes fairly clear within the opening moments — whether Van Sant intended it or not.

Damon also seems to have had much of the film in mind, directing-wise, but it “was very helpful” not to say anything to Van Sant; the best option was only to “watch the choices he made.” While there turned out to have been many behind-the-camera choices that were on Damon’s own mind from the start, some decisions really took him aback; one that received special notice is the decision to make a minor character’s daughter the point of visual focus as his own character is making a deal that will greatly affect her future. Despite having written it, both he and Krasinski were ready to admit that neither had, even once, ever thought of that.

With the script under their belt, Damon and Krasinski had an upper-hand in casting choices. (Frances McDormand being in mind from the outset.) For Van Sant, there’s always a commitment to making sure everyone, no matter the level of exposure, looks fit for their part; Promised Land happens to require “Pennsylvania, farmer locals from a small town,” and he feared that people hoping to be extras would attempt to sneak in regardless of appearance. But it might have worked out, for he sounded pretty happy about the outcome of his own choices there. (A scene with Hal Holbrook surrounded by over a dozen locals is his point of citation.)

From all this, it’s fairly evident that Promised Land’s stars had a good eye on them. DeWitt sums up Van Sant’s contribution as “effortless,” adding that, as an actor, “it’s almost like you forget he’s there or that you have a director.” Although there are great camera moves and the like to be found, there’s never the request to hit a mark; being of such immense talent, he can compose a beautiful, sometimes complex shot without placing extra obligation on an actor. Van Sant doesn’t really say much to the performers, a choice that was “nerve-wracking” at first, but which DeWitt found adaptable with, for instance, a thumbs-up system of recognition on the director’s part. By putting “the sole responsibility in your hands” on a low-key film, things end up working out fine.

(One gets the impression that some real interferences occurred here and there. Describing Van Sant as “a mischievous kid on set sometimes [who] likes when the camera breaks,” if only for the sake of shaking things up, she revealed that an impromptu kiss from Krasinski stemmed from advice to the actor — all of which was to “get a rise out of Matt,” who has this deep trust of his helmer.)

Being the only interviewee who starred in but, still, didn’t write Promised Land, DeWitt was, like most actors, only working with what someone else had handed her. Not that this is a problem; she felt that all the important material was to be found in the writing itself, one of the most notable what she considers the character’s “sass.” There weren’t even a lot of notes about how to play the part or handle certain scenes — it was just there.

While you might think this is a different experience than, for instance, the low-budget Your Sister’s Sister — helmed by Lynn Shelton, a past player in the improvisational realm — and, though “it feels like it should be different,” things aren’t that out-of-left-field. Whether the film’s opening for Oscar consideration or premiering at Sundance, DeWitt couldn’t separate the two all that much; her only note was a higher quality of food.

 Thankfully, the actual film isn’t a wash.

Promised Land opens in limited release today and an expansion will occur on January 4th.

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