Promised Land is not the first nor even second collaboration between filmmaker Gus Van Sant and actor Matt Damon. Van Sant helped usher in the age of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with their Oscar-winner Good Will Hunting back in 1997 and Damon and Ben's younger brother, Casey Affleck worked with Van Sant in Gerry. Fast forward nearly a decade and a script Damon had been collaborating on with John Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers set in a small town needed a director. Damon, who had originally planned to direct the feature, realized he could not because of his packed schedule, so he reached out to his old friend Gus Van Sant and the result, which will head to theaters later this month, has caught the wind of Oscar chatterers.
Van Sant discussed his latest pic and why he "always wants to work with Matt" during a NYC screening of Promised Land.
"The genealogy of this is that John Krasinski was observing a mining operation in Alaska and spoke to Eggers later about writing a screenplay about installing wind power," Van Sant said at the post-Promised Land screening. "Matt Damon was going to direct [Promised Land] himself but then decided he didn't have time. They thought the project might go away, but then he contacted me - and a year ago, I said yes…"
Van Sant said Damon packed schedule had once kept him from playing in one of the director's most celebrated recent films. He had originally been slated to play Dan White in the 2008 Oscar-winner Milk, but again the actor's long queue of roles interfered.
But, Promised Land posed the next opportunity and the planets aligned. "When you work together you become friends and you wonder what else you can do together again and Matt and I became friends," said Van Sant. "I felt like we've had successful collaborations so the idea of doing something again was really interesting… Working with Matt on this film - I always wanted to work with him on every film."
Set in a fictitious Pennsylvania town that could represent much of small town America that has taken economic blows due to de-industrialization, agribusiness consolidation and the fallout from globalization generally, the story revolves around Steve Butler (Damon) a former farm boy turned big city business guy who teams up with Sue (Frances McDormand) to sell financial prosperity to the struggling town. The sales execs offer up easy cash in return for drilling rights on their property. Though economically hard pressed, the town, along with many others across Rust Belt states, sit atop a rich resource of natural gas once thought unreachable. But through the controversial advent of fracking (fracture drilling) the resource is recoverable though at what ecological cost is not fully known.
Steve and Sue think their stay in the town will be short, but a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) complicates what they think will be an easy sell when he questions the environmental risk. Steve meets a local school teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) as they bunker down to sway in the town and things get really sticky when an environmentalist (John Krasinski) shows up and raises the stakes.
"When we arrived in Pittsburgh during [pre-production] the hydraulic manufacturing companies were moving in and just happened to be having a convention at the hotel we were staying at," Van Sant said. "So right away we had some sources we could go down and talk to. Also the people in contract talks were also the people we wanted to [scout] for locations."
The tracking process at the center of Promised Land's plot has been hailed by some economic prognosticators as a short cut to energy independence while even cutting carbon emissions. But it has been criticized by others for polluting underground water-tables and even causing earthquakes in areas where they're almost nearly unknown. Documentaries such as GasLand (2010) and others have depicted frightening scenarios of ecological degradation in the race for plentiful energy, which is not lost on Van Sant though he also sees the film as describing an even larger topic about corporations.
"By default its playing into discussions that are political having fracking as a topic," he said. "But I think the emotions of the story are about corporate maneuvering and inner corporate personnel maneuvering and it could relate to any corporation's maneuvering including mine or Focus Features. [The film] will obviously play into politics…"
[Promised Land opens December 28 via Focus Features, trailer below.]